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The Dependence of Welfare Upon Virtue

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In this article, I articulate a modest form of welfare perfectionism, according to which (1) the virtuous person’s welfare is an aspect of her virtuous activity, and (2) the virtuous person will never be in position to choose to attain welfare at the expense of acting virtuously. I then defend these claims against a range of objections.

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  1. 1.

    I will later offer a fairly detailed account of welfare, but to a first approximation, a person’s welfare consists in her life going well for her.

  2. 2.

    Hursthouse (1999, ch. 8). Plato’s requirement is outlined at 167; at 168–169, she discusses how the virtues enable one to form the friendships and partnerships that are so important to human life (thus, part of being a good human), and how, because they are so important, the virtues that make them possible therefore also tend to make life go well for their possessor. The points about necessity and sufficiency are made at 171–173. Hursthouse, I should note, typically uses the term flourishing, rather than welfare.

  3. 3.

    I follow Daniel Haybron’s use of this term, except that my claims apply only to the virtuous (see Haybron 2007, 2).

  4. 4.

    I think Hursthouse would likely accept the first claim, as she holds that we tend to represent the virtuous life as characteristically “containing the benefit and advantage of enjoyment and satisfaction” (Hursthouse, 186, my emphasis; see also 199–200 on the idea that good functioning characteristically involves pleasure). As for the second, she does argue for a similar, but I think somewhat weaker, claim (see e.g. her discussion of aspect (3) of Plato’s requirement on the virtues at 247–256).

  5. 5.

    See Sumner’s point that an account of welfare should be “formal”—should focus on the nature of welfare rather than its sources—at Sumner, 16–17. In saying that welfare is virtuous activity, then, I do not mean to deny the importance of friends, wealth, health, many types of activity, etc. to a happy life. I mean only that such things are sources of welfare rather than welfare itself.

  6. 6.

    See e.g. Aristotle’s discussion of Priam at Ethics I. 9–10 (I say “something like this” because Aristotle did not, I think, have any concept identical to our “welfare”). See also Foot (2001, ch. 6); Hursthouse (1999, ch. 8).

  7. 7.

    For discussion of the complex issues involved, see Russell (2009, ch. 11); Hursthouse (1999, 153–157); Badhwar (1996). I do not claim that my understanding of the thesis is identical to any of theirs.

  8. 8.

    See Russell’s discussion of what he calls the “twin roles” of phronesis, e.g. at Russell (2009, 31).

  9. 9.

    They will often, of course, do more than “stand watch”—see Russell’s discussion (at 351–352) of how one virtue may “temper” the exercise of another, and more generally his elucidation of the “directions view” of the virtues in ch. 11, passim.

  10. 10.

    I borrow this helpful way of putting it from Baril, forthcoming.

  11. 11.

    Sumner (1996), 145 and 146, respectively. For the record, I am inclined not just to “work with” but to accept Sumner’s account as far as it goes, although I think it may need to be supplemented by a value requirement for reasons I discuss in Toner (2006). But, I believe the defense of my two claims does not essentially depend upon the correctness of Sumner’s account. Acceptance of a different account would simply require some changes in the details of the defense. Admittedly, the defense would fail on some accounts of welfare, such as a hedonistic one, but there are good reasons for rejecting such accounts (see e.g. Sumner 1996, ch. 4).

  12. 12.

    It is important for my argument that welfare is a satis concept, but I should note that I cannot vouch that Sumner himself would agree—writing in 1996, he of course did not have Russell’s work to hand.

  13. 13.

    This is a very “subjective-sounding” claim (and of course, Sumner is a subjectivist about welfare), but it is not a claim that an objectivist must deny. One’s reflective assessment of one’s life is itself a part of one’s life, part of the activity that comprises that life. If one, after careful consideration, judges that one’s life is going badly, then something is indeed seriously amiss, although conceivably the primary thing that is amiss is one’s (overly harsh, say) self-assessment!

  14. 14.

    I set out the case for the claims made in this paragraph in more detail in Toner (2006).

  15. 15.

    Might a virtuous person choose to forsake his virtuous character and become vicious in order to be able take satisfaction in the life the unvirtuous path led to? This might be possible, but I wonder why he might do it, apart from weakness caused by, say, fear. It would not be in order to attain welfare—so this possibility does not resurrect the possibility of choosing to attain welfare at the expense of acting virtuously—because from his present (virtuous) perspective, he would not see such a life as happy.

  16. 16.

    Still, it might be asked, might she not, after a period of remorse, forgive herself and come to find happiness in the retired life after all? Most likely she could (and should), but this fact would not avail her (or tempt her) at the point of initial decision. One cannot forgive oneself unless one has repented (without repentance, it would not be forgiving oneself). In her concrete circumstances, the only path leading to a happy retired life would run through sin (the unvirtuous choice) and then repentance and forgiveness, and though she might walk that path, she could not choose to do so at the time she decides between retirement and continued service. She could choose the sin, and later the repentance and forgiveness; she could not choose, at the time she must decide, both the sin and the repentance.

  17. 17.

    I borrow this case from Urmson (1995, 324). I have expanded (and made more gruesome) his description.

  18. 18.

    I would like to thank Anne Baril for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


  1. Badhwar N (1996) The limited unity of virtue. Nous 30:306–329

  2. Baril A (forthcoming) Eudaimonia in contemporary virtue ethics. In: van Hooft S and Saunders N (eds) Handbook of virtue ethics. Acumen, Durham

  3. Foot P (2001) Natural goodness. Clarendon, Oxford

  4. Haybron D (2007) Well-being and virtue. J Ethics Soc Philos 2:1–27

  5. Hursthouse R (1999) On virtue ethics. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  6. Kawall J (2009) Virtue theory, ideal observers, and the supererogatory. Philos Stud 146:179–196

  7. Russell D (2009) Practical intelligence and the virtues. Clarendon, Oxford

  8. Sumner LW (1996) Welfare, happiness, and ethics. Clarendon, Oxford

  9. Toner C (2006) Aristotelian well-being: a response to L. W. Sumner’s critique. Utilitas 18:218–231

  10. Urmson JO (1995) Saints and heroes. In: Cahn S, Haber J (eds) Twentieth Century ethical theory. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs

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Correspondence to Christopher Toner.

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Toner, C. The Dependence of Welfare Upon Virtue. Topoi 32, 161–169 (2013).

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  • Virtue
  • The virtuous person
  • Welfare