Human Flourishing as a Criterion of Morality: A Critique of Perry’s Naturalism

Tulane Law Review 63:6 (June, 1989). Reprinted in Tom Campbell (ed.), International Library of Essays in Law and Legal Theory (Dartmouth Publishing Co. and NYU Press, 1991).

In Morality, Politics, and Law, Michael Perry adumbrates a “naturalist” account of moral knowledge. According to Perry, such knowledge is “primarily about what sort of person a particular human being ought to be — what projects she ought to pursue, what commitments she ought to make, what traits of character she ought to cultivate — if she is to live the most deeply satisfying life of which she is capable.” “[O]nly secondarily . . . [is it about] what choices a particular human being ought to make in particular situations of choice, given the person she is, which means, in part, given the person she is committed to becoming.”

Perry claims that all moral imperatives, though not all moral judgments, are hypothetical. They indicate what a person should do if he wishes to flourish. Why should a person make a commitment to flourishing? Perry’s reply to this question is worth quoting at length:

[T]here is no noncircular way to justify the claim ‘One ought to try to flourish.’ Any putative justification would presuppose the authority of that which is at issue: flourishing. . . . We cannot justify flourishing. Nonetheless, most human beings are committed to (their own) flourishing; they dovalue it. . . . Just as the commitment to, the value of, rationality is not at issue for most of us, the commitment to, the value of, flourishing is not at issue either.