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Original text: Well-Being

Summarized: 4 minute read

Well-being is a concept used in philosophy to describe what is non-instrumentally or ultimately good for a person. It is also an important concept in moral philosophy, especially in the case of utilitarianism.

1. The Concept

Philosophical use of the term ‘well-being’ is broader than health, and amounts to the notion of how well a person’s life is going for that person. It also encompasses the ‘negative’ aspects of how a person’s life is going for that person, such as being in the most terrible agony.

Positive psychology is about well-being, and is measured by means such as self-reports or daily questionnaires. Some positive psychologists explicitly reject hedonistic theories in preference to Aristotelian or ‘eudaimonist’ accounts of well-being, which are a version of the ‘objective list’ theory of well-being discussed below.

When discussing what makes life good for the individual living that life, it is preferable to use the term ‘well-being’ instead of ‘happiness’. This is because the Greek word ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) seems to have been restricted to conscious beings, but not to non-human animals.

Certain ancient ethical theories, such as Aristotle’s, are sometimes claimed to collapse the very notion of well-being. However, this claim should be taken either as a metaphorical expression of the dependence claim, or as an identity claim which does not threaten the notion of well-being.

Well-being is a kind of value, sometimes called ‘prudential value’, that is distinct from aesthetic value or moral value. It may be good for us to contemplate a painting’s serenity, but it may not be good for the painting itself.

2. Moore’s Challenge

The notion of ‘good for’ is mysterious. If we consider a world that contains only a single item, such as a Vermeer painting, it is intuitively plausible to claim that the value of this world is constituted solely by the aesthetic value of the painting.

Moore’s argument rests on the assumption that only the notion of ‘good’ is necessary to make all the evaluative judgements we might wish to make. This assumption leaves out the special feature of the value of well-being: that it is good for individuals.

3. Scanlon’s Challenge

Moore’s book was published in Cambridge, England, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Scanlon’s book was published in Cambridge, Mass., at the end of the same century, and both books posed some serious challenges to the notion of well-being.

Scanlon claims that well-being is the root of all values and that we often make claims about what is good in our lives without referring to the notion of well-being.

Scanlon claims that the notion of well-being ought to provide a ‘sphere of compensation’, in which it makes sense to say that I am giving up present comfort for the sake of gain over my life as a whole.

Scanlon denies that we need an account of well-being to understand benevolence, but from the philosophical perspective, it may be quite useful to use the heading of ‘benevolence’ in order to group such duties.

4. Theories of Well-being

4.1 Hedonism

Human beings always act in pursuit of what they think will give them the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. A hedonist believes that the greatest balance of pleasure over pain is the key to well-being.

Hedonism is a philosophical view that claims that well-being is naturally linked to what seems good to me. The simplest form of hedonism is Bentham’s, which claims that the more pleasantness I can pack into my life, the better it will be.

Hedonism could survive this objection if it was thought to incorporate whatever view of pleasure was thought to be plausible. A more serious objection is to the evaluative stance of hedonism itself.

J.S. Mill claimed that some pleasures are more valuable than others, and that people who are competent judges will make their choices on this basis.

A long-standing objection to Mill’s move here has been that his position can no longer be described as hedonism proper. Mill, however, speaks of properties such as ‘nobility’ as adding to the value of a pleasure.

Some non-hedonists have denied that nothing can benefit me if I don’t enjoy it, while accepting the so-called ‘experience requirement’ on well-being. But there is a more weighty objection to hedonism and to the view that well-being consists only in conscious states: the experience machine.

One can make the machine sound more palatable by allowing genuine choices to be made on it, by allowing access to a common virtual world shared by other machine-users, and so on. But this will not be enough for many anti-hedonists.

Hedonists should accept the experience machine objection, but should insist that it rests on common sense intuitions, and that pleasure is most effectively pursued indirectly. This raises questions concerning the epistemology of ethics, which we are further from answering than many would like to think.

4.2 Desire Theories

The experience machine is one motivation for the adoption of a desire theory. Welfare economics made it possible to measure people’s well-being by weighing their preferences against one another.

We should move to a comprehensive desire theory, in which the more desire-fulfillment in a life the better, but this theory runs into Derek Parfit’s case of addiction.

A brilliant Harvard mathematician develops an overriding desire to count the blades of grass on the lawns of Harvard. Some will believe that the life of grass-counting will be the best for her, if she really is informed and not suffering from some neurosis.

All these problem cases for desire theories appear to be symptoms of a more general difficulty: the idea that desire-satisfaction is a ‘good-making property’ is somewhat odd.

4.3 Objective List Theories

The threefold distinction between different theories of well-being has become standard in contemporary ethics. However, there are problems with this distinction, since it can blind one to other ways of characterizing views.

Aristotle said that self-sufficient good is that which makes life worthy of choice and lacking in nothing. According to objective list theorists, the good-maker is whatever makes things constituents of well-being in their own way.

The best way to decide what goes on the list is to use reflective judgement, but this does not mean that objective list theorists are less satisfactory than the other two theories, for those too can be based only on reflective judgement.

A theory of well-being need not involve any kind of objectionable authoritarianism or perfectionism, and can be held alongside a strict liberal view that forbade paternalistic interference of any kind with a person’s own life.

5. Well-being and Morality

5.1 Welfarism

Well-being obviously plays a central role in any moral theory. Act-utilitarians may try to use the intuitive plausibility of welfarism to support their position, but those defending equality and rights may argue that we do see a link with concern for well-being.

5.2 Well-being and Virtue

Ancient ethics was more concerned with well-being than modern ethics, and egoism was largely assumed to be correct. This posed a problem for ancient moral philosophers.

The three greatest ancient philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all claimed that a person’s well-being is in some sense constituted by their virtue, or the exercise of virtue. Aristotle, however, believed that the virtuous choice is always in the interest of the individual.

Aristotle’s primary argument is the notorious and perfectionist ‘function argument’, which claims that the good for some being is to be identified through attention to its ‘function’ or characteristic activity. This argument conflates the two ideas of what is good for a person and what is morally good.

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