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Monday, May 15, 2023

The Folk Concept of the Good Life: Neither Happiness nor Well-Being

Kneer, M., & Haybron, D. M. (2023).


The concept of a good life is usually assumed by philosophers to be equivalent to that of well-being, or perhaps of a morally good life, and hence has received little attention as a potentially distinct subject matter.  In a series of experiments participants were presented with vignettes involving socially sanctioned wrongdoing toward outgroup members.  Findings indicated that, for a large majority, judgments of bad character strongly reduce ascriptions of the good life, while having no impact at all on ascriptions of happiness or well-being. Taken together with earlier findings these results suggest that the lay concept of a good life is clearly distinct from those of happiness, well-being, or morality, likely encompassing both morality and well-being, and perhaps other values as well: whatever matters in a person’s life. Importantly, morality appears not to play a fundamental role in either happiness or well-being among the folk. 

General Discussion

Our studies yielded two main results of note. First, a person’s moral qualities appear to have no direct bearing on ordinary assessments of happiness and well-being among the great majority of individuals.  This finding is consistent with an earlier study involving similar vignettes focusing just on happiness
ascriptions (Kneer and Haybron 2023). These studies suggest that among the folk, these studies suggest that the ancient and much-debated idea that happiness or well-being requires moral virtue seems to hold little currency: a bad person can perfectly well be happy and do just fine.

This of course does not settle the philosophical debate, as the folk may be wrong, or further studies may reveal that these results do not generalize, or apply only among American English-speaking populations. But it does suggest that philosophers following Plato in claiming that serious immorality precludes flourishing are defending a less-than-intuitive position, despite the widespread use of intuition pumps in this literature.

Why might many philosophers’ intuitions, and earlier research on the influence of morality on happiness ascriptions, have pointed to a different verdict? As the current paper focuses primarily on a different question, the concept of a good life, we refer the reader to (Kneer and Haybron 2023) for more extensive discussion of the differences between our findings and those of Phillips et al.

But one possibility is that the claims in question rest on the intuitions of a small but significant minority—roughly a quarter—whose judgments of happiness and well-being showed some impact of morality. But even among this group our studies here and in previous work found a modest impact of morality compared to the very strong philosophical claims at issue: not just that morality exacts some toll on the wrongdoer, but that such a person cannot do well at all. Indeed, establishing the latter claim is essentially the point of
Plato’s Republic.