Philosophy 157 - 8.4.4 Well-Being and Objective Goods

Another approach to well-being is to create lists of objective goods that contribute to a flourishing life. Unlike desire-based concepts of well-being, objective goods can argue against personal preferences. Distinguishing between desire and objective goods can be useful in situations where personal desire conflicts with what is good for the person. As an example, consider a good that clearly contributes to well-being, like health. One could argue that a balanced diet and frequent physical activity are objective goods. Even if an individual desires to eat unhealthy food or live a sedentary lifestyle, their individual preferences do not change what is objectively good. Philosophers who propose that there are objective goods frequently focus on knowledge, virtue, and friendship as ways to evaluate and understand well-being.


Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the idea that the desire to know is a universal human quality. Part of being human is to seek knowledge. People are curious. They have a sense of wonder. They value discovery. By contrast, having a lack of knowledge about the world can lead to poor decisions, confusion, anxieties, delusions, and other states of minds and activities that detract from well-being. For these reasons, knowledge can be considered an important part of well-being and flourishing in life.


Virtue is also considered an objective good. The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle considered virtue to be essential to a good life. In ancient Greek, the word for virtue was arête, which can also be translated as “excellence.” To determine the arête, or excellence, of something, you have to know what its purpose or function is. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut things, so its arête is sharpness. A good knife is a sharp knife. It is easier to determine the arête of a practical object like a knife than the arête of a person. For this reason, Socrates argues that people need to “discuss virtue everyday” and continually examine their lives (Plato [399–360 BCE] 2002, 41). Virtue is not simply a characteristic or personality trait for the ancient Greeks. It is a way of living.

Four porcelain teacups with saucers lined up on a table.
Figure 8.6 Determining the arête, or excellence, of objects is often a straightforward undertaking. These teacups, for example, should fulfill their function of holding tea very well. Determining the function of human existence, however, is more difficulty, making determining arête in this context much trickier. (credit: “Teacups” by Heather/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics describes virtue as promoting human well-being. To determine what actions are virtuous, Aristotle proposes that virtue is the mean between a deficiency and excess. Vices, the opposite of virtues, are deficiencies or excesses. Aristotle uses bravery as an example (Book II, Chapter 7, §2). Bravery is virtue that involves having the right amount of fear and confidence. It is the mean between excessive fear and deficient confidence on one hand (cowardice) and deficient fear and excessive confidence (rashness) on the other hand. In this way, the virtuous action will be the golden mean, neither too much nor too little. Virtue thus describes being able to do the right thing in the right way, a quality that contributes to one’s well-being.


Friendship is also considered an objective good. A person’s social relations and close ties to others also allow them to flourish. For Aristotle, friendship is “necessary for our life” (1155a5). In Book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three different types of friendships: (1) friendships of pleasure, (2) friendships of utility, and (3) friendships of character. The first two types of friendship are instrumental in the sense that these friends are not appreciated for themselves but instead are a means to another end (pleasure or usefulness). Aristotle thinks that these friendships dissolve easily. For Aristotle, friendships based on an appreciation of someone’s character are stronger and do not dissolve when circumstances change. These types of friends recognize what is good in each other as people and want what is good for each other. In these ways, friendships contribute to our well-being.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax