When we talk about what is good for a person, our talk may invoke different notions of a person’s good. No one of these notions has normative priority over the others; rather, each does important normative work. Arguably, some disputes among welfare theorists may be due to a failure to distinguish these notions. For purposes of illustration, I will focus on two of them here, though as will I explain, there are no doubt others.
Sometimes our talk about what is good for a person concerns the good for an individual considered as a member of a distinct biological kind. Just as we might talk about what is good for blue jays or Labrador retrievers, we might talk about what is good for human beings, H. So when we describe some welfare object, O, as good for a person, P, we treat as P’s good whatever is good for H. For example, the good for human beings might include proper nutrition, the exercise and development of their capacities, pleasure or enjoyment, and both autonomy and interconnection.
The notion of the good for a person as the good for a human being figures critically in our efforts to set social, economic, and humanitarian policy. We employ it, for example, in setting up and regulating our educational systems and our systems of justice, and in deciding which social problems to address with our limited economic resources. We employ it, too, when we undertake to raise our children—at least as a general guide—on the assumption that what is good for human beings will generally determine what is good for our children.
But sometimes what is good for a human being differs from what is good for a particular human individual. For example, strong interpersonal relationships may be good for human beings, but problematic for, or at least unimportant to, some individual human beings. Sexual intimacy may be good for human beings, but some individual human beings have no interest in, and so would derive no pleasure (and possibly distress) from sexual activity. Some individuals value intellectual pursuits far in excess of emotional or physical intimacy—or vice versa.
Although we might make a mistake in denying that the person for whom certain human goods are inaccessible or unimportant misses out on something valuable, we can make a different, but equally serious, mistake in insisting that those goods are nevertheless good for her. In lacking the athletic skill needed to compete in the Olympics (or in most athletic events, come to think of it), I surely miss out on something valuable. But it would neither follow that trying to develop the requisite athletic skill is good for me nor that my life is irrevocably diminished by my lack of ability. Of course, lives sometimes can be irrevocably diminished by the inaccessibility to an individual (whether by her nature or her circumstances) of certain human goods. My point is simply that an individual might value and benefit from something, O, that is out of the ordinary, and so something that is good for a human only in being an instance of a highly general good (e.g. a source of pleasure). In such cases, we might meaningfully say that O is good for her, even if not good for human beings as such.
The notion of the good for a person as the good for a particular individual, like the notion of the good for a human being, can figure in our policy-making, as when we seek to address the special needs of some of our fellows. It also figures critically in our child rearing. Effective parents attend not only to what would benefit their children given that they are human beings, but also to what might benefit them as the particular persons that they are. As some desire theorists have argued, the good for a particular person might include things that have no particular value, or even some things that are rather unsavory; Richard Kraut’s icicle-collector and John Rawls’ grass-counter, they would insist, do not present counter-examples, just examples of how individuals’ good can vary.
When objectivists about welfare insist that no such things could be good for an individual and subjectivists insist that they might well be good for her, both speak truthfully, if incompletely. For each deploys, a different notion of the good for an individual, neither of which should be ignored and each of which comes to the fore when we confront varying normative questions. To devise social policy by attending just to the good of a particular individual would not enable us effectively to set social and economic policy. Yet attending just to the good of human beings may lead us to neglect or overlook how a particular individual might be benefited, how her life might go better for her.
This is not simply because individuals may be idiosyncratic in ways such as those already described, but also because our accounts of what is good for human beings will, necessarily, be pitched at a fairly high level of generality (perhaps with some lower-level specifications) and so will not readily address our more fine-grained questions about what is good for a particular individual. Even if we were certain that the good for human beings includes, say, fulfilling vocations and avocations, just which ones benefit a particular individual will depend not only on the features in virtue of which she is a human being, but also on the features that make her the particular individual that she is.
I mentioned at the beginning that there are other notions of the good for a person. For example, sometimes when we talk about what is good for a person, we consider whether a particular O is good for her, whereas sometimes we consider whether that O would figure in a good life for her. After all, the sundry things that might be good for us as individuals may not all be practically compatible, not only because pursuing them would make conflicting demands on our time and attention, but because those goods may themselves have shapes that will shape our lives in turn, excluding some goods from consideration. These, I take it, were the sorts of considerations that led Rawls to talk about “plans of life” and use of the “counting principles.”
Sometimes, too, when we talk about what is good for a person, we invoke a kind of ideal or exemplar of human flourishing, against which we might assess particular lives. This may guide our own decision-making as we lead our lives, or help to direct the lives of those under our care. It may also figure in exploring possibilities for certain kinds of human enhancement.
We can recognize that we deploy distinct notions of what is good for a person without concluding that that there is no fact of the matter about what is good for a person—there may well be, but what fact that is will depend on what sort of question we are asking about a person’s good. And we can do so without concluding that our metaphysics of good-for must be hopelessly complex. The relational property of being good for may be singular even if we must be careful about just how, where, when, and why it is instantiated. Anyway, these are my preliminary thoughts about matters that I think welfare theorists would do well to explore further.
Connie S. Rosati is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, her focuses include: Ethics, Philosophy of Law, and Social and Political Philosophy