• Sam Clark

The Philosophy of Welfare

Here are some practical dilemmas: should you have children? What should you do for your children if you do have them? What should our national education policy be? What do you value in your own life, and what would you give up to keep it? How should you distribute a medicine when there isn’t enough for everyone? How should you live if you’re to be able honestly to say, as last words, ‘tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s last words, and on the face of it a very odd thing for the unhappy, restless, dissatisfied Wittgenstein to say)?


We humans are frequently confronted with these dilemmas and others like them. One common-sense way of thinking about how to solve them is to consider what different choices would do to the people affected by them: would having children be good for you? What is in your children’s best interests? What would be best for those we educate? Who would get the most benefit from this medicine? What is in your self-interest?


This way of thinking requires an answer to a characteristically philosophical question: what is the good life for a human being? What is in her interests, or beneficial to her, or best for her? What is it to make a success of my life, or your life? What is intrinsically or ultimately good for someone, as opposed to what’s just a useful tool or tactic?


The target of these questions has many names: well-being, welfare, prudential value, quality of life, what makes someone’s life go best, what is good for a human being, personal good, human flourishing, or the good life. I’ll use welfare, to mean that important thing, whatever exactly it turns out to be, which is someone’s life going well for her.


There are many philosophical accounts of welfare, each offering a different way to finish ‘your life goes well for you if...’. For example, hedonistic accounts say that your life goes well for you if you are happy (inviting the next question: what is happiness? A feeling, a judgement of self-satisfaction, a mood, the absence of disturbance?). For another example, desire accounts say that your life goes well for you if what you want to be the case is the case. This is not the same as hedonism, because you can get what you wanted and not be made happy by it (as children often discover at Christmas); and you can be happy because you mistakenly believe that something you want to be the case is the case when it isn’t.


My account is that welfare is self-realization: your life goes well for you if your particular true self flourishes rather than being undeveloped or crushed or distorted. Equivalently, when, and in the ways that, your latent capacities—both those you have in common with other humans and those which are individual to you—are fully developed and expressed. Equivalently, when your life is a process of successful growth out of your individual potential into actuality. Your life goes badly for you when, and in the ways that, your common and individual capacities are crushed, distorted, or left fallow.


Where hedonism says that welfare is happiness, and desire accounts say that it’s getting what you want, I say that it’s becoming fully yourself. In my recent book Good Lives I argue for this account by reading some classic autobiographies—by John Stuart Mill, Edmund Gosse, Siegfried Sassoon, Doris Lessing, Bernard Moitessier, and others—as reasoning about welfare.



Dr Sam Clark

Senior Lecturer in the PPR Department at Lancaster University



Want to explore this area further? Try:


Clark, Samuel. Good Lives: Autobiography, Self-Knowledge, Narrative, and Self-Realization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)


Fletcher, Guy ed., The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)


Griffin, James, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)


Haybron, Daniel M., The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)


Nussbaum, Martha C., Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2011)


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