Axiology and Well-being (Lent 2019)

Well-Being and Axiology I: Well-Being; Welfarism; Hedonism


  1. Conceptual questions


Ordinary: ‘well-being’ as feature of ‘lifestyle’ (spas?) but also health (inc mental). Used in social sciences (esp economics), policy-making, etc.


Philosophical: ‘what is non-instrumentally or ultimately good for (or bad for) a person’; ‘how well (or badly) someone’s life is going for them’ (opposed to ‘good, simpliciter’; distinguished from moral, aesthetic goodness. E.g. martyrdom of soldier, great painting: good, but not (obviously) good for soldier/painting.


– Synonyms: prudential good, prudential value, self-interest, welfare, happiness, flourishing.


– Questions about well-being conceptually distinct from questions about morality.


– On some moral theories, questions are deeply linked: e.g. ‘being morally good is also good for me’; or ‘what is morally right is what produces the most well-being’


  1. GE Moore’s argument


– Moore: ‘good for’ is obscure. The idea of ‘my own good’ or ‘the good for me’ just means that my getting something is good (note: not good for me, just good). Nothing is added to this statement by saying that it is not just good but my good or good for me.


– All well-being claims are really claims about impersonal good made in a misleading way.


– Anti-Moorean view: nothing (no state of affairs, no possible world etc) is good unless there is someone for whom it is good. Most statements about the impersonal good can be rephrased as claims about welfare. Nothing added to the claim that something is good for me by saying that my getting something is good.


  1. Welfarism


– ‘Welfarist constraint’: ‘the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derives ultimately from its contribution, actual or possible, to human life and its quality’ (Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom, p. 194).


Welfarism: Any moral reason has justificatory force insofar as it involves some contribution to the well-being of human beings (and other sentient organisms?).


Act-utilitarianism is committed to a form of welfarism: the one thing that is non-derivatively good is well-being; every other moral claim (about duty or justice or rights or whatever) true only inasmuch as it is reducible to a claim about well-being.


Consequences: No intrinsic value to non-welfarist values, e.g. equality. (E.g. ‘Levelling-down objection’)


  1. Arguments against welfarism


General strategy: Here’s some intuitively appealing value that can’t be accounted for in terms of welfare. E.g.


– Autonomy. If welfare is the only value, on what grounds if any can one oppose paternalistic state intervention?


– Knowledge. Recall the problem of adaptive preferences: could it be better to be a pig satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied?


Response: Either give a particular theory of well-being to accommodate these intuitions, or explain away (or debunk) the intuitions.


  1. Hedonism


Theories of well-being: Attempts to answer the question of what well-being consists in. Standardly, theorists distinguish between hedonist theories, desire theories, and objective list theories.


Our subject not psychological hedonism (i.e. human beings always pursue what they judge will give them the greatest pleasure, or the greatest balance of pleasure over pain; an explanatory thesis about human action), but evaluative or prudential hedonism.


Common formulations: Well-being consists in the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. Any other determinants of well-being are so only instrumental, i.e. insofar as they contribute to producing the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. More crudely, it is sometimes stated as the thesis that pleasure is the only or most basic good.


History: Discussed in Plato’s Protagoras; Hume; Bentham (‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do’); Mill; Sidgwick…


  1. The Experience Machine


Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in? (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974: pp. 44-45)


What, honestly, do we feel about this? If we’d be happy to plug in, all things considered, this seems to support hedonism – i.e. shows that we’re (implicitly) hedonists already. If we’re reluctant to ‘plug in’, why is this?


  1. Why not plug in?


Nozick’s suggestions:

– We want to do certain things and not just have the experience of having done them.

– We want to be certain people – to plug in is to commit a form of “suicide” (613).

– We are limited in the experience machine to a human-created reality.

– A valuable life involves possessing certain character traits, the exercise of certain capacities, having relationships to others and the world, none of which seems obviously reducible to psychological states alone.


Methodological point: Our responses to the prospect of plugging in to the experience machine help us discover that there are things which matter to us more than simply having certain experiences, e.g. veridical experiences, real agency, risk…


The argument seems to be something like this: If all that mattered to us was pleasure, then we would want to plug into the experience machine. However, we do not want plug-in. Hence, there must be things which matter to us besides pleasure. Therefore, we are not (and maybe could not be?) hedonists. Which is near enough to saying hedonism is false.


  1. Hedonist responses?


Question: What is the significance of the common reluctance to plug into the experience machine? Answer: Intuitive constraint on a theory of well-being. But what good are intuitions anyway? Specifically, what good are these intuitions?


Hedonism strategies: To explain away ‘experience-machine-type’ intuitions.


E.g. Maybe our having those intuitions is good for us precisely because they make a more hedonistic life possible?


Recall paradox of hedonism: pleasure is best pursued by pursuing something other than pleasure itself.


If we believe that pleasurable activities are valuable independently of the pleasure we gain from engaging in them, then we’ll probably gain more pleasure overall. So it is valuable for us not to believe in hedonism. But this is consistent with hedonism being true.


Or, maybe our intuitions are the product of status quo bias: what if you were told you were already living in an experience machine: would you unplug? If you are actually a banker living in Monaco? If you’re a multi-millionaire? What is the significance of the fact that a lot of people (50% and more) who have been asked this question wouldn’t want to unplug?


What does this putative datum suggest? Answer: Experience Machine (etc) not decisive.


Next week: Desire and object list theories


Well-Being and Axiology II. Desire satisfaction and objective-list theories of well-being


  1. Two Components of Theories of Well-being


Substantive: Which things will make me well-off?

Explanatory: What makes the things said to make me well-off good for me?


A full hedonist holds that:

(1) pleasurable experiences contribute to my welfare insofar as they are pleasurable;

(2) it is their being pleasurable that makes them good for me.


Big objection (to both (1) and (2) above): Intuitively (?), we shouldn’t step into Nozick’s ‘experience machine’; this is explained by the fact that there are genuine non-hedonic values: i.e. things other than pleasurable experiences being good for me; the goodness-for-me of those things not explained by their being pleasurable.


Responses: (1) Some people would step into the machine. (2) The reason some people wouldn’t is because they believe life in it would be less enjoyable (i.e. there’s a hedonistic explanation available). (3) People told that they are currently in the experience machine wouldn’t want to unplug: that suggests the initial intuition is better explained as a product of ‘status quo bias’, not by some deep commitment to non-hedonic values.


Alternative response: Endorse the substantive claim; reject explanatory addendum.

‘Welfare consists in pleasurable experiences but what makes these experiences valuable for a person is not their being pleasurable but something else, e.g. their fulfilling her desires.’


Vs: ‘Welfare consists in the fulfillment of desires but what makes the fulfillment of desires valuable is that this fulfillment is pleasurable for the person.’


The theories could in principle be extensionally equivalent, but would differ on what had explanatory priority.


Desire theories of well-being:

Rough structure: ‘Well-being consists in the fulfillment of desire, and what makes the presence of desired items in a life good for one is their fulfilling one’s desires.’


  1. ‘Desire’ here is a catch-all term that is supposed to cover similar pieces of terminology, such as ‘preferences’.


What’s at stake? Desire-based accounts presupposed in much welfare economics and policy; desire satisfaction (slightly) easier to measure than pleasure; supposedly less likely to generate paternalistic dystopias (‘Brave New World’). Important to know if the philosophy is robust.


  1. Mickey Mouse Theories


Present desire account: X’s well-being consists in the fulfillment of X;s present desires.


Obvious problems: (1) Otherwise rational human beings often irrational at particular times (e.g. anger, despair, drunknness, exhaustion) (2) Can’t explain well-being as a characteristic of a whole life, only of ‘time-slices’


  1. Comprehensive full-desire accounts of welfare


Well-being consists in the maximal fulfillment of a person’s desires over their life as a whole.


Interpretative questions: How to use account to evaluate amount of well-being in a life?


Summative view? The best life for me will be that in which the largest number of (intense etc) desires is fulfilled.


Counterexample: I guarantee you lifetime supply of addictive drug, i.e. large number of very intense future desires reliably fulfilled. Intuitively preferable not to get addicted. (Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 497)


  1. Global full-desire views of welfare


Maybe: ‘my greatest welfare consists in the fulfillment of my desire to live in the way I most prefer. I am better off the higher up my ordering of preferences my actual way of life is.’


Counter-example: I choose to be a monk rather than a cook, but only because I didn’t know being a miner was an option.


Need for epistemic component.


  1. Informed desire accounts


Maybe: ‘the life that would be best for me is the one I would desire if I were fully informed of the facts about the various options available to me’


Counterexample (structure): Even under conditions of full information, even one’s own judgements about one’s welfare may deviate from what one most desires. We often desire things we ourselves deny are good for us. (Add your own example)


Need for rationality component.


  1. Counterfactual/idealised desire accounts


Maybe: well-being consists in whatever would fulfill the global desires I would have if I were rational and fully informed.


Counterexample: I am fully rational, informed and capable of extensive achievement in other areas, but strongly desire a life dedicated to counting blades of grass. Intuitively, a life of grass-counting not the best life for me; intuitively, this is a neurosis (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 432)


Options: Ignore intuition and ‘bite bullet’; explain away intuition as ‘moralistic’



  1. The appeal of desire accounts


(1) Anti-paternalism / liberalism. Decisions about a person’s well-being should be left up to them; anything else sounds paternalistic and potentially authoritarian.


But, distinguish: Q1: What is good for someone? Q2: How should governments determine what is good for someone?


Liberals can endorse a desire-based answer to Q2 without endorsing it for Q1. The fact that my desires can be unreliable guides to what’s good for me doesn’t mean that governments (etc) have anything better they can use instead.


(2) Interpersonal comparisons of welfare. Economists and policy-makers need to make interpersonal comparisons of welfare; desire-based views offer a way of doing this.


But: just because desire-fulfillment is easier to measure doesn’t mean it’s what’s actually good for us. Why assume that the true account of welfare will also be the easiest to quantify? (Not that desires are actually easy to quantify)


Conflation of the substantive and explanatory. Satisfaction of people’s desires often makes them better off, because desire is often for what is good for one. But this gives us extensional adequacy at best; explanatory question still open.


  1. The concept of desire as not-necessarily-good-making?


‘I desire a saucer of mud.’ ‘No, that’s an irrational craving.’ ‘What’s the difference?’ ‘You can’t answer the question, “Why do you desire that saucer of mud?” Because objects are desired under the guise of the good/good for.


Conceptual claim: To desire something involved judging it to be good in some way independently of its satisfying the desire. (Cf. Plato’s Meno)


When we try to give an account of why we have the desires we do (the why of reason-giving, not of mere causal explanation), we advert to something beyond the satisfaction.


Why do you desire X?’ ‘I desire X because having X would satisfy my desire for X.’ ‘That’s not a reason for desiring X.’ ‘I desire it because it’s objectively good.’

‘Then you’re not a desire theorist.’


  1. 9. Characterising an objective list theory


Objective list theories not easy to characterise; used as a dustbin category.


Paradigmatic object-list theories endorse at least these two claims:


Attitude-independence: Things can be non-instrumentally good for some subject independently of whether that subject has some pro-attitude towards G.


Pluralism: There exists a plurality of (non-instrumental) prudential goods, i.e. contributors to my well-bieng.


  1. Some putative objective lists


Here are some list of basic prudential goods given by a few well-known objective list theorists.

Finnis. Life, Knowledge, Play, Aesthetic Experience, Sociability (friendship), Practical Reasonableness, ‘Religion’.

Murphy. Life, Knowledge, Aesthetic Experience, Excellence in Play and Work, Excellence in Agency, Inner Peace, Friendship and Community, Religion, Happiness.

Parfit. Moral goodness, rational activity, development of abilities, having children and being a good parent, knowledge, awareness of true beauty.


  1. Considerations in favour of objective list theories


Pre-philosophical judgments. The default position; best explanation for intuitive judgements.

Improvement on hedonism. Hedonism recognises too few goods.

Improvement on desire-based views. Desire-fulfillment views yield too many goods. (See above.)

Piecemeal arguments for individual goods. Argue for one good at a time; likely that neither hedonism nor desire theories will provide unity.


  1. Objections


Explanatory impotence. Pluralistic theories explanatorily unsatisfying: why these, and only these, items on list? What unifies them?

Reply. (1) Companions in guilt. All theories have to justify their source of unity (what’s so special about pleasure, etc). (2) Adequacy to phenomena. Messy realities need messy theories. (3) Buck-passing: Argument for objective list theory as good or bad for the arguments in favour of each item on list.


Elitist. Objective lists could be grounds for paternalistic coercion.

Reply. Not by itself. See above.


Insufficiently subject-sensitive and therefore alienating. ‘It would be an intolerably alienated conception of someone’s good to imagine that it might fail in any way to engage him’ (Railton, ‘Facts and Values’)

Reply. Maybe objective lists could be minimally subject-sensitive without collapsing into some alternative theories? Distinguish between ‘subject-sensitivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ or ‘voluntarism’. What’s good for me should be sensitive to facts about me, but it’s an open question which facts. (Cf. ‘internal’ vs ‘external’ reasons)


General reading on this topic: Guy Fletcher, The Philosophy of Well-Being: An Introduction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Guy Fletcher (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).


Next week: What is value? Recommended reading. TM Scanlon, ‘Values’, in What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 78–107.


Well-Being and Axiology III: What is value?


  1. Why care about value?


Goodness central to moral philosophy (Plato, Aquinas, GE Moore…); and especially to ‘teleological’ ethical theories (Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick). Previous lectures on ‘good for’, ‘prudential value’. This discussion is about the ‘good’, ‘value’ simpliciter.


Linguistic models: ‘good’ = ‘valuable’ = ‘value-able’ (cf. ‘desirable’, ‘objectionable’, ‘detestable’, ‘contemptible’, ‘plausible’ as opposed to ‘visible’, ‘audible’, ‘tangible’).


Analysis: ‘The good is what ought to be valued, what one has reason to value, what it is appropriate or fitting to value…’


– This is a Fitting Attitude (FA) account of value: when we say something is good/valuable, we are saying that a certain attitude – that of valuing – is fitting towards that thing.


Aim of lecture: Motivate FA accounts; contrast with rivals; discuss Scanlon’s version; consider two objections.


  1. Robust value realism vs FA accounts


Robust realism about value: Values are, or are like, primary qualities; exist independently of human responses to them. Evaluative attitudes (deeming desirable, appreciating, applauding…) to be understood as being sensitive to values that exist independently of those attitudes.


– Roughly: valuing answers to value, not the other way around.


By contrast, FA theorists generally hold:

(1) Normative reduction: Evaluative can be reduced to deontic. (Examples of deontic terms: reason, duty, obligation, ought, must…)

(2) Response-dependence: Value (partly?) constituted by human attitudes and responses.


  1. Buck-passing accounts of value


– Idea of ‘passing the buck’ about the good/value prominently defended in TM Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. ‘Buck-passing’ account one kind of FA account.


– Central quotation:


[B]eing good, or valuable, is not a property that itself provides a reason to respond to a thing in certain ways. Rather, to be good or valuable is to have other [natural?] properties that constitute such reasons. Since the claim that some property constitutes a reason is a normative claim, this account also takes goodness and value to be non-natural properties, namely the purely formal, higher-order properties of having some lower-order properties that provide reasons of the relevant kind. It differs from the first alternative simply in holding that it is not goodness or value itself that provides reasons but rather other properties that do so. For this reason I call it a buck-passing account. [What We Owe, 97]


Bottom-line: ‘goodness provides no reasons of its own’; proxy for other things which are valuable. To be valuable is for there to be reason to value them (i.e. normative reduction). Mistake to say ‘I value this because it is good’. ‘Understanding the value of something is not just a matter of knowing how valuable it is, but rather a matter of knowing how to value it—knowing what kinds of actions and attitudes are called for.’ [What We Owe, 99]


  1. The Wrong Kind of Reason?


Intuitive counter-example: malicious demon will punish us severely unless we (1) admire him, (2) desire a saucer of mud. Threat gives us reason for pro-attitudes; doesn’t make demon admirable, saucer of mud desirable. [Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen, ‘Buck-Passing and the Right Kind of Reasons’]


Worry: analysans has different extension from analysandum.


– If we analyse value in terms of (any kind of reasons), we have to count as valuable all sorts of things which intuitively aren’t valuable. Why? Because we have the wrong kind of reason to take pro-attitudes to something; that’s what explains our not wanting to accept that those things could be valuable.


  1. Circularity?


– Buck-passers need principled way of distinguishing right kind of reason from wrong.


– What about ‘we have the right kind of reason to take a pro-attitude to something when that thing is valuable’? Either (1) trivial or (2) viciously circular. In which case, not a reductive analysis.


– Maybe buck-passing could still reveal something interesting about the conceptual structure of value? (Cf Strawson on ‘connective analysis’)


  1. State-given reasons vs object-given reasons?


Alternative hypothesis: Right kind of reason is ‘object-given’, i.e. grounded in features of the object of the attitude (e.g. evil demon, saucer of mud). Wrong kind of reason is ‘state-given’ or ‘attitude-given’, grounded in features of the mental state or attitude. (Parfit, ‘Rationality and Reasons’)


Pro-attitude you have reason to take towards the saucer of mud or demon is one you have reason to take because of something about taking that attitude (e.g. it preventing pain or making you rich). But in cases of genuine value, the reason you have to take a pro-attitude to something is grounded in something about the object of the pro-attitude.


Worry: Seems like all claims about object-given reasons can be translated into claims about state-given reasons and vice versa: ‘… it is easily seen that properties of the attitudes may be recast as properties of the objects; if, e.g., the attitude of preferring the saucer of mud has the property of preventing our suffering severe pain, then the saucer of mud has the corresponding property of being such that preferring it would prevent our suffering severe pain.’ [Olson, ‘Buck-Passing and the Wrong Kind of Reason’]


Options: (1) General theory of property ascriptions or reasons statements that rules out such translations, (2) treat buck-passing as non-reductive ‘connective’ analysis.


Next week: What is intrinsic value? Recommended reading. Christine Korsgaard, ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’, The Philosophical Review, 92 (1983): 169-95.


Well-Being and Axiology IV: Intrinsic value


  1. Notes to be uploaded here:


  1. Intrinsic value: the ordinary concept


– Ordinary uses of ‘intrinsic value’: e.g. ‘what’s it good for?’ ‘Nothing – it’s good in itself, for its own sake, in its own right, etc’

– Grammatical point: ‘good’ tends to go with ‘in itself’, ‘valued’ with ‘for its own sake’


– Making the concept more precise: method of ‘iterated interrogation’ (i.e. repeatedly asking ‘why?’)


Why is X valuable? Because it brings about Y (or for the sake of the Y it produces). Why is Y valuable? Because it leads to Z. Why is Z valuable? It just is; it’s valuable for its own sake.


– Possible use of ‘intrinsic value’: whatever appears at the end of this explanatory/justificatory chain; everything else only extrinsically, instrumentally, derivatively good.


History: Plato on the ‘three classes of gods’ in Republic II; Aristotle’s argument for happiness as the final end (Nicomachean Ethics I.2); Kant on the good will.


But: Are they all making the same distinction(s)?


  1. Korsgaard’s Two Distinctions


– Christine Korsgaard (‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’: Confusion to contrast ‘intrinsic value’ with ‘instrumental value’. The notions are orthogonal, i.e. form part of different contrasts. Instead, we should make two distinctions:


(1) Intrinsic Value: An object x is intrinsically valuable iff it is valuable in a way that supervenes only on the intrinsic properties of x.
Extrinsic Value: An object x is extrinsically valuable iff it is valuable in a way that supervenes – at least to some extent – on the extrinsic properties of x.


(2) Final Value: An object x is finally valuable iff it is valuable as an end.
Instrumental Value: An object x is instrumentally valuable iff it is valuable as a means.


– Rae Langton (‘Objective and Unconditioned Value’), commenting on Korsgaard’s paper, provides a useful summary: ‘“intrinsic” comes from the distinction in ways things have value, whereas “instrumental” comes from the distinction ways in which we value things.’


  1. Moore vs. Kant


Two excesses to which one might be tempted:

(1) Subjectivism: To have intrinsic value is just to be valued as an end.

(2) Realism: One ought to treat as ends those things that have intrinsic value; intrinsic value is attitude-independent. (Roughly, GE Moore’s view.)


(1) is too subjective, (2) too objective. Sensible via media, viz. Kant: Kant has a view of the value of the rational will such that it can ‘confer’ value. This gets us to a kind of objectivity, but without Moorean attitude-independence.


Korsgaard: ‘[for Kant] the good end is the object of a rational choice. The things that we want, need, care for, are good so long as certain conditions of rational choice are met. Thus, the reasons that things are good bear a definite relation to the reasons we have for caring about them.’ [Cf Scanlon on buck-passing?]


Attraction of the view? Korsgaard: ‘it gives an account of the “objectivity” of goodness that does not involve assigning some sort of property to all good things. Good things are good […] because of attitudes taken up towards them or because of other physical or psychological conditions that make them important to us.’


Why does their mattering to us make such a big difference to their status? Korsgaard: there’s a special human power, a rational power, to confer value onto the world.


If human beings have an intrinsic value by virtue of the capacity for valuing things, then human beings bring goodness into the world. The distinction between a thing that is intrinsically good and a thing that is extrinsically good yet valuable as an end allows for the possibility that the things that are important to us have an objective value, yet have that value because they are important to us


  1. Euthyphro dilemma


Is this objectivity enough? Langton says: No. Euthyphro dilemma for Korsgaard:


(1) Valuable things are valuable because rational beings value them. Or,

(2) Rational beings value valuable things because they’re valuable.


Korsgaard seems to endorse (1). She has to explain why rational beings’ valuing things makes them valuable. Answer: Because rational beings, who possess rational wills, are intrinsiclaly valuable.


Langton: Painter of blue things doesn’t have to be blue; creator of babies doesn’t have to be a baby, etc. General point at sake (philosophically, as matter of Kant exegesis): ‘realist’ vs ‘constructivist’ interpretations of Kant; ‘realism’ and ‘constructivism’ in metaethics.


  1. Constructivism about intrinsic value: still intrinsic?


For constructivists, claims about intrinsic value turn out to be claims about the rationality of valuing things intrinsically. (Recall Korsgaard: ‘An object x is intrinsically valuable iff it is valuable in a way that supervenes only on the intrinsic [non-evaluative] properties of x.’)


When does it make sense to value things in this way? Korsgaard: when conditions of ‘rational choice’ are met. Langton: this is ersatz objectivity, second-rate intrinsic-ness. Korsgaard: Best offer – take it (constructivism) or leave it (nihilism).


  1. Mitigation strategies?


Possible constructivist strategies: ‘vindicatory genealogies’ of particular things such that we can simultaneously say (1) This is valuable because we value it; (2) We can only ‘get at’ its value if we value it intrinsically. E.g. Knowledge (Edward Craig, Knowledge and the State of Nature); Justice (Plato (?!) and Hume);  Truthfulness (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Truth and Lies, Twilight, etc; Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness)


Exercise: Does philosophy have intrinsic value? In what sense?