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Welfare and Rational Care by Stephen Darwall

Jean Chambers explains how Stephen Darwall’s ideas about care connect to an ambitious theory of rationality and ethics.

In Welfare and Rational Care, Stephen Darwall lucidly argues that a person’s welfare is best understood as what someone who cares for her should rationally want for her. Integrating ‘care’ into our understanding of ‘welfare’ promises to be a distinct improvement over the standard view of welfare as pure self-interest as the person sees it. We all know people who do not know or do what is best for themselves. And the idea of rational care brings in a desirable impartiality. What is best for you is not simply what you happen to want for yourself, or what I, who care for you, want for you. It is what I and others should rationally want for you. Darwall’s new view is a sophisticated culmination of his work on rationality, sympathy and self-interest.

Within the traditional view of rationality as self-interest, understood as maximizing one’s own welfare, people have at various times insisted that one’s preferences must be consistent, or fully informed, or must survive a deliberative process. But the attractive simplicity of all such theories is purchased at the price of defining away genuinely altruistic preferences as irrational. Is rational self-sacrifice necessarily a conceptual impossibility? Morality involves altruism, and even self-sacrifice. Is morality irrational?

Moral philosophers have resisted arbitrarily ruling out a rational basis for morality. They have tried hard to show that being moral is in everyone’s rational self-interest, but they have always run into the so-called ‘free rider’ problem. Even if it is in one’s self-interest to be a member of a moral community which eschews theft, and to be viewed by others as complying with the rule against stealing, nevertheless, a situation might arise in which one could steal with impunity, and the self-interest theory of rationality is likely to counsel that it would be rational for one to steal in that case. By ‘free riding’ on others’ compliance, one could gain the benefits of others’ upholding the rule without paying the price of abstaining from violating it oneself. If everyone else abstains from walking on the grass, and I disobey the rule, I get both the benefit of having nice grass to look at and the pleasure of walking on it.

Fortunately, the fact that human beings naturally have altruistic preferences is becoming widely accepted. Some have argued that such preferences are useful and should be included in a broader account of human rationality. In his 1983 book, Impartial Reason, Stephen Darwall argues that rationality should be understood as exceeding mere preference-satisfaction. It is a process of wide-ranging self-reflective and self-critical deliberation, governed by norms of rationality and resulting in, among other things, all-things-considered judgments about what to do. Rather than taking our preferences for granted, we should question them, question the goals at which they aim, question the means to those goals and even question our own deliberative processes, in order to arrive at all-things-considered judgments about what to do in particular situations. There is much more to rationality than simply trying to satisfy the preferences one happens to have, even including one’s altruistic preferences. One must decide, not only what to do, but also who to be, what sort of life to live, what goals and ideals to have and so on.

In Welfare and Rational Care, Darwall redefines welfare in light of this broader conception of rationality. He believes that previous attempts to analyze the concept of welfare have missed its essential normativity. Instead, they have focused on substantive, descriptive accounts of what makes human lives good. Is pleasure the measure of the good life, as hedonists believe? Or is there an ‘objective list’ of the good things all people should want? All such descriptive accounts must answer the next logical question – why should anyone want to promote human welfare? Also, a person’s ‘welfare’ has been understood in terms of what seems good from the person’s own point of view, but of course people are not always the best experts about what is good for them. Darwall hopes to avoid these pitfalls by defining ‘welfare’ as “…the concept of what we would rationally desire for someone insofar as we care for her, or equivalently, what is rational to desire for her for her sake.” (p.12) Rational care is impartial, in the sense that any rational person who cared about one would want the best for one. Also, if one were rational and cared about oneself, one would want those same things for oneself. Darwall suggests that depressed people and people with low self-esteem do not care for themselves enough to truly want what is best for themselves. We have all experienced wanting the best for such people, for their sake, even when they do not want the best for themselves. Darwall is saying that the best we want for others for their own sakes just is their welfare.

In developing his general account of care as a kind of sympathetic concern, Darwall is explicitly building on the work of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Adam Smith. The point of view of Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ is like that of impartial benevolence which Darwall uses. In addition to his careful conceptual analysis and insightful interpretations of historical sources, Darwall canvasses contemporary psychological research on the development of sympathetic concern in infants and children, in order to show that ‘care’ is a natural-kind term which may be used in conceptual analysis. It is the natural human social perspective of caring for someone else which allows us to join in the community’s shared values and determine what any rational person would want for another person for that person’s own sake.

While Darwall acknowledges a debt to Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings and others who argue for a feminist ethic of care, his view of where ‘care’ fits into moral philosophy is quite different. For Noddings – whose terminology identifying the members of a caring relationship as the ‘one caring’ and the ‘one cared for’ Darwall occasionally uses – the ideally caring relationship is the normative ideal. Each of us, on Noddings’ view, has a moral obligation to meet other people as ‘one caring’. This very high standard has been criticized as too demanding, leading to caring burnout, and as potentially morally compromising, as when one must care for a racist or other immoral person.

Gilligan’s original view, and Noddings’ developed theory, characterize care as inherently partial to particular other individuals, and as naturally extending out from the self through social relations and networks. By contrast, the hypothetical ‘care’ which defines ‘welfare’ on Darwall’s account is rooted in impartial rationality. This difference suggests an interesting challenge to the concrete particularity alleged to be definitive of care as defined by Nel Noddings, Lawrence Blum and others. The feminist ethic of care as involving partiality to family and friends is more like the kin altruism which sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists claim is characteristic of our species. An impartial caring perspective might not be as natural as Darwall seems to suggest.

Darwall’s view might also lend itself to paternalistic approaches to public welfare policy. Some policy makers might conclude that, since members of the general population tend to indulge in patently self-destructive behaviors such as drinking, drugs, gambling, and smoking, they must not care very much for themselves. The policy makers might feel that they care more for people than people care about themselves, and that their judgment of what is good for people rationally constitutes the true welfare. Could Darwall’s theory of welfare, if adopted by policy makers, result in paternalistically overriding the autonomy of people whose ‘welfare’ was being legislated? Might we see paternalistic laws going far beyond seatbelts and motorcycle helmets – new laws which outlaw smoking, drinking, gambling, overeating and so on? Might legislators be tempted by this theory to override people’s autonomy for their own good?

Darwall counters this possible abuse of his theory by embracing the doctrine of impartial respect for human dignity and freedom:

“Think of a parent’s relation to his child at different stages of life. A toddler’s desires and will give normative reasons to a parent just insofar as they indicate or represent what is for the child’s good. If the child doesn’t want to eat his broccoli, then this fact may have no independent weight except insofar as it indicates that it will be frustrating, painful, and so on, to the child to do so. When, however, the child matures into a competent agent, then his will and desires do acquire independent weight. For a parent to be regulated only by his child’s good at this point is paternalism in the pejorative sense.” (p.15)

Respect for people’s will and desires should, on Darwall’s account, check any paternalistic interventions in the lives of adults. If so, incorporating his care-based definition of welfare into ethical and policy debates could help to counter the standard tendency to reduce all costs and benefits to dollars and cents. Hopefully we want more for others than simple economic well-being or even preference-satisfaction in general.

What should we rationally want for other people, for their own sakes? Darwall embraces a neo-Aristotelian view of the good life which holds that anyone’s welfare consists in “active engagement with and appreciation of values whose worth transcends their capacity to benefit… The benefit or contribution to welfare comes through the appreciative rapport with the values and the things that have them.” (p.76) His example of appreciating a work of musical art while playing it on the piano echoes Aristotle’s account of virtuous engagement in noble activities. Caring for specific other persons can include such appreciative rapport and so can directly enhance the welfare of the person who cares. Darwall argues further that his metaethical analysis of welfare in terms of rational care is consistent with his neo-Aristotelian normative account of the good for persons, since what anyone should want for anyone else is just this kind of appreciative rapport, and that together these two accounts form a unity, a philosophical ethics.

Welfare and Rational Care is more subtle than I have been able to show in a short review, but it is consistently readable and lively, including examples – ranging from Tarzan to Oliver Sacks – which demonstrate the intuitive plausibility of Darwall’s view. For those familiar with his earlier important coauthored article on methodology in ethics, Toward Fin de Siecle Ethics: Some Trends, this book serves as an example of naturalizing ethics without sacrificing analytical rigor or the independence of the normative stance.


Jean Chambers received her PhD from Brown University in 1996 and is now an Associate Professor in philosophy at SUNY Oswego, specializing in theoretical ethics, feminist philosophy and social and political philosophy.

Welfare and Rational Care by Stephen Darwall (Princeton Univ. Press 2002) $24.95/ £16.95 ISBN 0-691-09252-4.

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