Towards a flourishing-based ethics

February 13, 2023

Isaiah Berlin famously pointed out that our goals and ideals do not form a single harmonious whole. Ideals like liberty and equality often conflict, and we are frequently called upon to make difficult tradeoffs between our professional, avocational, relationship, and spiritual aspirations. People with differing needs and abilities weigh the importance of conflicting ideals and aspirations differently. The genius of modern liberal pluralism is that it allows people to pursue their aspirations as they see fit so long as that pursuit doesn’t intolerably injure others. How much injury to others is tolerable is a psychological rather than philosophical question, and what’s tolerable and what’s not shifts from culture to culture and era to era.

The very idea of liberal pluralism is currently under attack from conservative religious and white ethnonationalist forces seeking to constrain the kinds of ideals and goals people are permitted to aspire to. By ‘conservative religious,’ I mean those religious traditions that 1) retain a pre-modern understanding of their faith, 2) reject modern religious textual scholarship, and 3) reject the idea of being just one denomination among many religious and secular humanist traditions that coexist and compete within a larger secular sphere.

Liberal democracies are having a hard time of it these days. America has gone from being a predominantly European-descent Protestant country to becoming a mélange of diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and secular humanisms. At the same time traditional norms governing gender, gender role, and sexual orientation and activity are undergoing rapid evolution. These trends have led to increasing affective polarization between people wanting to preserve things the way they’ve ‘always been,’ and those embracing, or at least tolerating, change. At the same time, society is undergoing dramatic transformations in the ways wealth is produced and distributed, information is transmitted and consumed, and status is conferred. Additionally, the limits our fragile ecosystem imposes on how and what we ought to produce and consume are becoming frighteningly evident, but we are failing to take the necessary steps to avert catastrophe. New technologies (gene editing, life support, birth control, artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, social media, automatic weapons) create novel dilemmas that challenge previously settled wisdom. Negotiating the ethical challenges emerging from rapid demographic, spiritual, sexual, ecological, and technological change is proving—not unsurprisingly--to be very difficult.

There are numerous indicators that we are not negotiating these changes well: witness, for example, our rising wealth inequality, rates of adolescent depression and anxiety, middle-aged deaths of despair, affective polarization between political factions, and levels of misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. In addition, mass and social media both emphasize values (attractiveness, wealth, fame, competitiveness, popularity) that undercut the transmission of other values (e.g., benevolence, truthfulness, fairness) that would lead to higher levels of individual and collective flourishing.

Solving these problems will require us to develop a new social consensus on what constitutes the good life, and the virtues and wisdom that foster it. We will never reach unanimity on the nature of the good life—the orthodox religious, for example, will never agree with secular humanists in terms of ultimate aims, nor will venture capitalists and social justice advocates. But if democracy is to survive, we need a majority consensus on the most significant issues that confront us. Sometimes an overlapping consensus—one in which differing parties agree on solutions for different reasons—is sufficient. We don’t need everyone to agree—just enough so that we can muddle through.

Any newly evolving social consensus cannot be based exclusively on Judeo-Christian tenets. We are a country of not only Christians and Jews, but also of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, the ‘spiritual but not religious,’ agnostics, atheists, and secular humanists. We need to arrive at an ethics most of us can agree on--one that focuses on our commonalities and not our differences.

In trying to find a possible basis for a new consensus, I have turned to the virtue ethics systems of the ancient classical world: Aristotelian, Buddhist, and Confucian. While these ethical systems vary in emphasis, content, and metaphysics, it is remarkable how much they do agree on, and how much their areas of agreement overlap with significant aspects of the Judeo-Christian, Hindu, secular humanist, Indigenous American, and African Ubuntu heritages.

For example, Aristotle, the Buddha, and Confucius agree that virtue and wisdom are what make good lives possible, and that their development is a lifelong task of cultivation through study and practice. They agree that there are exceptional levels of well-being that are attainable (the Aristotelian phronimos, the Buddhist arhat and bodhisattva, and the Confucian junzi and shèngrén). While they don’t always agree on what constitutes virtue, seven virtues—benevolence, truthfulness, fairness, temperance, equanimity, courage, and conscientiousness— are candidates for virtues that are universal to every tradition. Finally, they agree virtue needs to be mediated by ‘practical wisdom.’

It's best not to think of practical wisdom as a single faculty or entity. It’s better to think about it  as a set of intellectual skills that includes: 1) social and emotional intelligence, 2) thinking multi-factorially and abstractly, 3) imagining and understanding other’s points of view, 4) mindfulness, 5) openness to the wisdom of the body, 6) being a responsible epistemological agent, and 7) understanding  ‘truth’ as the provisional outcome of a process of collective ongoing open inquiry.

We can use these understandings of virtue and wisdom to imagine a modern flourishing-based ethics. According to this conception, virtues are virtues because they increase the likelihood of and/or partially constitute important aspects of human flourishing. They are also virtues because, like the two-headed Roman god Janus, they simultaneously attend to the well-being of self and others.

What then is flourishing? Flourishing lives are lives that are meaningful, emotionally fulfilling, psychologically rich, and sensitive to the ethical issues and aesthetic potentials present within each moment. Our lives flourish when 1) we attain fulfillment in relationships, accomplishments, and/or aesthetic appreciation and creation, 2) are forward-facing, attentive to the present moment, and live whole-heartedly, 3) are accepting of unavoidable pain and loss, and 4) attain a high level of personal integration so that our central values inform every aspect of our lives.  Flourishing also depends on our mutual recognition that we are not just or only individuals, but that we are members of families, communities, societies, and ecosystems. We must care about the well-being of the social and ecological entities we are an integral part of as much as we care about our individuality.

With this model in mind, we can ask what are the educational and child-rearing practices that lead to greater personal and social flourishing? What social policies maximize the possibility of collective flourishing? What kinds of social processes facilitate attaining consensus? How do we evaluate whether a norm, custom, law, or practice enhances or detracts from flourishing?

The flourishing-based ethics I am advocating is steeped in the American pragmatic philosophical tradition of Peirce, James, Dewey, Putnam, and Rorty. It insists that while there are no final answers to questions, whatever tentative answers we settle on for now must be empirically based—that is, we justify their value in part by referring to the evidence of actual outcomes—and not based on the authority of past beliefs, fashionable new theories, or sacred texts. It also believes that a commitment to the ideal of democracy—that is, the wish to promote everyone’s flourishing to the highest degree consistent with our living together—is the best way to arrive at tentative, workable solutions to our problems. Arriving at these ‘good-enough-for-now’ compromise solutions is difficult, slow, contentious, noisy, messy, and never thoroughly satisfying, but in the long run, it beats any other method.

There is no such thing as an ideal society, of fixing things once and for all—there is no utopia in our future—every solution introduces new problems—but it is always possible for us to do better. Change, when it occurs, is always piecemeal. The evidence of the past two centuries—the abolition of slavery, the granting of women’s suffrage, the creation of the United Nations—show that progress is possible. But progress is never guaranteed, and the claim that there is an arc of history that bends toward justice is just so much wishful thinking. It is just as easy to imagine dystopian futures in which our precious gains are lost.

Seth will be presenting his perspective on a flourishing-based ethics in a lecture sponsored by the New York Insight Meditation Center (NYIMC) on March 2 and a four-week NYIMC course starting July 11. His new book, The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom, and Pluralism, is coming out in September 2023. The book explores the implication of this perspective for domestic policy, foreign policy, and education, while addressing the issues of social media, cancel culture, and communication across the cultural divide.



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7 Replies to “Towards a flourishing-based ethics”


Elegant and eloquent, pragmatic and realistic, an inspiring piece showing how to carry on moving the world forward collaboratively and positively. Thank you.

Hi Seth,
Perhaps these questions will be answered in your book, but it seems to me that anyone putting forward virtue ethics as a general model needs to be able to resolve them without fudging:
1. How do we actually make ethical decisions between possible courses of action? It’s one thing to recognize that there is no absolute decision making system (which I do), but another to give up on the use of action ethics altogether as a source of guidance.
2. How are competing virtues that are likely to lead to opposite results to be unified? E.g. courage v patience.
3. Given that virtues are embedded in competing cultural contexts, how is the likelihood of conflict between those virtues to be addressed?

To me it seems that the best way of resolving these is not to privilege virtue ethics over its rival forms of ethics (consequentialism and deontology) – which is just to take sides in old metaphysical arguments – but instead to focus on the judgement-making process as the place where the justification occurs. Sometimes we will need to prioritize virtue, sometimes consequences, and sometimes principles, but the basis of justification will depend on how well we stretch from our previous assumptions to consider new possibilities, not the theoretical form in which we can express the options. It’s not enough just to provide a synthesised account of virtue (which I can see is what you’re doing) if the synthesis doesn’t happen in our ethical judgement itself.

Hi, Robert.

I have never understood philosophers who turn virtue ethics and consequentialism into mutually exclusive accounts of ethical decision-making. Aristotle, the virtue ethicist par excellence, certainly didn’t think that way. His phronimos was someone who could “hit the mark,” using phronesis to weigh how much of each virtue might be called for in specific situations. The phronimos certainly took his or her prior beliefs about the likely consequences of his or her actions into account, and was probably also skilled in terms of establishing reasonable prior likelihoods of consequences. The problem is that Aristotle never really explained what phronesis entailed in any detail. In my book, I take a chapter to discuss phronesis, not as a unitary faculty, but as a panoply of skills that can be developed over time. So we are in agreement that the “judgement-making process” is, in fact, where the rubber meets the road.

When I consider a virtue (let’s pick “truthfulness”), I recognize truthfulness is not always called for in every situation. A good general will deceive his enemies about strategy and tactics as much as possible. What I do mean is that placing a high value on truthfulness is an important precursor to and constitutent of flourishing. The good general, if he is also a good person, will hopefully be truthful to himself about his own abilities, and truthful as much as possible in his relationships with family and friends. A flourishing person values being honest with oneself and others and beleives it is an important aspect of how he or she wants to be in the world–important enough to always take it into consideration when making decisions about how to act. But in taking it into consideration, truthfulness will not trump every other virtue and consideration–it will only be one important consideration among others. As I mention in the opening sentence of my essay, there is no unity of the virtues. But a list of virtues offers some guidance as to the things one wants to consult before acting, knowing that any action almost inevitably involves some trade-offs. The synthesizing function is again, Aristotle’s mysterious phronesis.

I don’t know how far this goes in addressesing your concerns–if I have “missed the mark,” please let me know.

Well, this sounds all well and good – until we hit a conflict and actually have to judge between two opposing criteria. If phronesis is the result of practice, what is that practice trying to achieve, even in the short or medium term, that will enable us to judge anything? If it helps us to ‘flourish’ (an very vague concept), why should we regard flourishing as good? If the virtues provide a list of resources, on what basis do we select from these resources? I’m not suggesting that there are final answers to any of these questions, but there are at least intermediate answers: reasons why we, as individuals in particular circumstances, might lean one way or the other, and justify our position from a wide range of experience. The reflection that one’s approach should be virtuous doesn’t seem to do any of that work to me. We need a method of integration to overcome conflicts, not merely an analysis or an exhortation. If virtue ethics ever came close to providing such a thing, I think it’s in Alasdair McIntyre, rather than in the thinkers you mention – he shows how in practice the social expectations in a ‘practice’ can help us shape our values, and how narratives can also help resolve conflicts in some of them. But he fell at the last hurdle by just leaving us with competing traditions with different virtues.

Robert, my book lays out at great length what a short essay can’t. In the book I explain why I believe all the virtues I ennumerate are both universal and have either a probabilistic or constituent relationship to personal and social flourishing. I also take a chapter to explicitly define flourishing, or at least what flourishing is for us in modern societies today.

Moral dilemmas are dilemmas because they have no single right answer, although they may have many clearly inferior answers. My claim is that we do better when we value the virtues and consult them as we make the ethical choices. If we do so, there is no guarantee we will make the “right” choice, but we will have better odds of avoiding the clearly wrong ones. In this judging process, some virtues will be more salient for us than others because of their direct relevance and centrality to our ongoing personal projects which in turn are tied to how we intuit/imagine our future flourishing. It sounds like you don’t believe the idea of “virtue” does very much explanatory work, but in my experience virtues like courage, truthfulness, and benevolence are central to many people’s ideas of how they wish to be and act in the world. These are values they care deeply about, try to enact in their daily lives, and try to pass on to their children. What can be more important than the way we imagine and wish ourselves and our children to be?

Hi Seth,
My neck is a little sore from all the nodding I was doing while reading your inspiring essay. You had me when you opened with Isaiah Berlin’s (tragic) pluralism, and your highlighting of pragmatic principles (and mention of my favorite philosopher, Richard Rorty) delighted me. I’m interweaving diverse traditions into my philosophy of life as well: Pragmatism (esp. Dewey & Rorty), Judeo-Christian principles, Buddhism, Daoism, Thermodynamics, Quantum Physics, etc.

One concept has emerged for me as a first among equals: hope. Hope has myriad, sometimes conflicting, aspects, and can go by several names (eg aspiration). I noticed that your description of flourishing, while mentioning “fulfillment” and being “forward-facing” did not highlight the creation and pursuit of inspiring hopes. Hope is so central and so pervasive in our lives that it often seems like the water in David Foster Wallace’s parable, which ends with one young fish asking another, “What the hell is water?”

I feel like you and I are aiming towards common goals, but perhaps from different directions. I recently wrote a two-part essay on the Pragmatist’s concepts of hope: . Here is the conclusion of part two, discussing Rorty’s vision of boundless hope. I think you’ll feel how it resonates with your vision:

Redefining the Letting Loose of Hope
Rorty’s vision redefines the meaning of the letting loose of hope. For James’ vision of meliorism, it means filling our hearts over time with an almost boundless degree of inspiration sparked by a single, unified Hope, aimed in a single direction over the eons: eternal salvation. For Rorty, it means a boundless number of novel hopes sent off in a boundless number of directions over the eons.

To perpetually sustain hope, we must free it to be sent in ever new directions. The conversation of humanity then follows where such novel hopes lead. Such a conversation is like Wright’s cosmical weather—there are good stretches and bad stretches, but the point is not to arrive at any final end, but merely to keep things going.

It is important to keep in mind that the pragmatic vision of perpetually sending hope in new directions is a melancholic meliorism, or perhaps a mono no aware meliorism.

Every birth is the birth of a hope. Every death is the death of a hope.

The myriad retail hopes are born to die, so that new hopes may be born. One of Rorty’s other favorite metaphors, which he first used in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), is one he borrowed from Dewey: “breaking the crust of convention.” What both Dewey and Rorty realize is that to free hope to head in new directions, some of the most tethering conventions that need to be broken are the conventional hopes of the day.

Though variations on the metaphor of “the arc of the universe bends towards” are deeply stirring, we should leave them behind. The universe has no such wholesale Arc, and is bending in no wholesale Direction. There are only finite (human) projects (with their retail hopes and retail arcs) whose collective long-term direction is a boundless journey.

The only pragmatic wholesale Hope is that the births and deaths, the formings and breakings of myriad retail hopes, should continue boundlessly forever.

And this wholesale Hope takes us all the way back to Wright’s cosmical weather. Wright’s Hope is that cosmical weather would perpetually bring both good weather and bad. But there is also a freedom in the Hope of perpetually sending hopes in boundless new directions. It means that no hope to which humanity aspires ever becomes a suffocating anchor tethering us to a fixed direction; no hope becomes an incarcerating fence, circumscribing our ability to create hopes we can’t even imagine today.


I look forward to reading your book.

Thanks, Nick, for calling my attention to your work, and also to Erraticus (which I was unfamiliar with). I went over there to read your full article and found it interesting, well-written and researched, and informative. I appreciate your Rortian distinction between retail hopes and ultimate Hope. As an aside, while I always enjoy reading Rorty—he is an unusually clear and provocative thinker with many important insights—your article reminds me why Dewey remains my first love. I think Rorty’s move away from a Deweyan emphasis on experiencing to a Davidsonian emphasis on language was a bit of a wrong turn—whereas I always experience Dewey as a kindred soul.

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