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Keywords:

  • Descartes' ethics;
  • happiness;
  • well-being;
  • virtue

Abstract

My main thesis in this article is that Descartes' ethics should be understood as involving a distinction between happiness and well-being. The distinction I have in mind is never clearly stated or articulated by Descartes himself, but I argue that we nevertheless have good reason to embrace it as an important component in a charitable reconstruction of his ethical thought. In section I, I present Descartes' account of happiness and of how he thinks happiness can (and cannot) be acquired. Then, in section II, I introduce and develop the distinction between happiness and well-being. I do this via a discussion of a difficult passage in one of Descartes' letters to Elisabeth, where he may seem first to grant and then immediately to reject the view that people's happiness can vary in degree depending on the possession of goods or perfections that are outside their power to control. I believe my proposed distinction can help us make good sense of this passage. In the last two sections (III and IV), I then offer some further grounds or reasons for why the proposed distinction should be ascribed to Descartes.