Justin Tiwald (PI) (Philosophy, San Francisco State University)

Two questions that have long occupied thinkers and researchers are about the very nature of well-being and the hypothesis that being virtuous is generally good for the virtuous person. In order to give adequate answers to these questions, we need to know how wellbeing “factors in” to a virtuous person’s considerations. My proposed book, Well-Being as an Object of Moral Concern, aims to show how a certain understanding of ethical virtue, based in Confucian thought, helps to answer this question. We all recognize that some virtues, such as charity and benevolence, are directly concerned with improving the welfare of others. But many virtues do not have any obvious direct and overriding concern with well-being. These include courage, trustworthiness and religious reverence. My Confucian-inspired account suggests that virtues are necessarily oriented around what I call relationships of mutual fulfillment, where each party derives certain kinds of benefit when the others benefit. Some virtues are the very traits and aptitudes through which we partake in mutual fulfillment, such as benevolence. Others contribute indirectly, often by providing the special kinds of trust, deference, and respect that make up these relationships, creating spaces, so to speak, in which people’s interests become intertwined.

With this understanding of the virtues in hand, my book proceeds to develop more promising answers to several longstanding questions about virtue and well-being. It offers a theory of welfare that is better suited to an ethics of mutually fulfilling relationships, characterized by desires for goods that are easily grasped through empathy and that play the primary role in motivating and justifying human relationships. These are goods associated with life, growth, and reproduction, construed broadly to include things like developing new skills and teaching others. This theory, which I call the “life fulfillment” account, allows that both subjective and objective considerations determine which particular things are good for us, and it sidesteps many of the problems that have plagued numerous subjectivist and objectivist accounts.

This Confucian-inspired approach also enables us to challenge a popular way of testing for linkages between being virtuous and being well off, which looks for strong correlations between well-being and acting from disinterested or altruistic motives. I contend that we would be better served by a theory of virtue that emphasizes one’s own mutual identity with larger networks of people. This conception of virtuous motivation is neither purely disinterested nor purely self-interested, much as the desire that one’s own team win a competition is neither disinterested or self-interested. Here I build on a modest but growing body of research that proposes that ethical behavior often is better motivated by a sense of merging or “oneness” with larger wholes, rather than by altruistic perspective-taking or empathy.

The combined effect of these arguments is to take ideas embedded in a philosophical and religious tradition that has shaped more than a quarter of the world’s population, one that builds on even more widely-shared views about the central place of relationships in ethics, and create from them a systematic account of the good life that is powerful and appealing on its own merits.