Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

The Human Good and the Ambitions of Consequentialism

James Griffina1

a1 Philosophy, University of Oxford

I want to look at one aspect of the human good: how it serves as the basis for judgments about the moral right. One important view is that the right is always derived from the good. I want to suggest that the more one understands the nature of the human good, the more reservations one has about that view.

I. One Route to Consequentialism

Many of us think that different things make a life good, with no one deep value underlying them all. My own list includes: enjoyment, accomplishing something with one's life, deep personal relations, certain sorts of understanding, and the elements of a characteristically human existence (autonomy, liberty).

Most of us also think that moral right and wrong are based, in some way or other, in how well individual lives go, and that the moral point of view is, in some sense or other, impartial between lives. Utilitarianism is a prominent, but not the only, way of spelling out this intuition. There is no reason why an account of the human good needs to be confined, in the classical utilitarian way, to happiness or to fulfillment of desire (on the usual understanding of that notion). Nor is there any reason why impartiality has to be confined to maximizing the good, counting everybody for one and nobody for more than one. We may generalize.

Let us broaden the notion of the good. We might say, for instance, that though happiness is a good, so are the other items on my list. But though broadened, this notion of the good stays within the confines of individual goods; it still has to do with human well-being, with what promotes the quality of one person's life.