A rich man and poor man standing next to each other in a city to represent material well-being.

What’s material well-being? How do different philosophies define it? In what sense do you have it?

Yale professors Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz contend that one component of a good life philosophy is that it promotes material well-being. In their book Life Worth Living, they explain that different thinkers have different standards of material well-being.

Keep reading to learn about these intriguing perspectives.

Material Well-Being

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, material well-being means having access to the resources that enable you to behave morally (you might resort to stealing if you can’t afford to eat, for example) and live comfortably (for example, beauty products might help you enjoy life more). In contrast, Buddhists define material well-being as meeting your minimum survival needs (like food and shelter) and relational needs (like proximity to spiritual teachers). If you have more than that, you might form attachments that hinder enlightenment.

(Shortform note: Aristotle and Buddhists both measure material well-being teleologically—that is, in relation to its support of your ultimate goals in life. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that material well-being supports the telos (ultimate goal) of a happy life. Likewise, Buddhists believe a minimal standard of material well-being is necessary to achieve the telos of enlightenment. You can tailor your own standard of material well-being with regard to your personal telos. For example, in The Pathless Path, career coach Paul Millerd argues that if you value freedom, independence, and time to explore over financial stability, you should become a freelancer and embrace material standards like sustainability, frugality, generosity, and insecurity.)

Volf, Croasmun, and McAnnally-Linz also say that your life philosophy should help you understand whose material well-being you’re concerned with. They explain that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche prioritized the flourishing of brilliant people above all else because their work improves the quality of life on Earth. For brilliant people to flourish, they need superior living conditions, which a deprived underclass must work hard (and suffer more) to provide them with. However, many other philosophies advocate different visions of global material well-being. For example, Christians believe God’s love can heal the entire world and bring about universal flourishing.

(Shortform note: The authors explain that Nietzsche believed that a deprived underclass must suffer for the good of a privileged few brilliant people—but other experts note that Nietzsche believed that a life of toil and deprivation (“slavery”) was good for the underprivileged masses. That’s because he evaluated human lives on the basis of their contributions to society—in his view, most people couldn’t contribute brilliant inventions, but they could contribute their labor in ways that supported the people who came up with such inventions. The authors say Christians differ from Nietzsche because they advocate global material well-being, but this isn’t universally true—studies show some Christians justify material inequality using Biblical ideas like sin.)

Material Well-Being: Views of Aristotle, Buddhists, & Nietzsche

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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