Is welfare the only ethical value?/1.
Sumner's co-opting strategy
A clever and stenuous defensor of Welfarism, Sumner, argues against value pluralism in the following way:
"I will divide rival goods into two categories. The first consists of personal goods: valuable states of activities realized within the lives of individual persons. ... The second category consists, naturally enough, of impersonal goods, which belong to entities other than persons. ... For personal goods the co-option strategy [co-opting it as a welfarist good] is the most promising. For consider: any personal value which could plausibly be advanced as basic or foundational for ethics will also be a standard intrinsic source of well-being." (Welfare, Happiness and Ethics, 201-202)
What kind of strategies do we have to argue against the co-opting strategy? We may try to show, when two different goods are concerned, that no sense can be made of their being two "sources" of the same thing, namely well-being. We do this by pointing out their incommensurability, for example. Examples may involve the value of autonomy vs. well-being, or the value of accomplishments vs. well-being etc, when the two values in questions (well-being and the other value) conflict. Intuitively, we say that there is a conflict between well-being and another value in those cases in which it is natural to say that the agent is making a personal sacrifice for the sake of one of his values. For example, imagine that Molly the matematician could choose one of the two options in the example (for example, God offers to her the possibility to make this choice, and is able to make her forget about it.) We would say that Molly made a sacrifice for the sake of the value of accomplishment , if she chooses 1.
But notice that this is not how Sumner would describe this case. Sumner will say that in such cases the subject has to balance two different sorts of sources of well-being against each other, namely enjoyment and accomplishment, or enjoyment and autonomy.
According to Sumner, pointing out the incommensurability and the impossibility to solve conflicts between different values does not amount to an argument in favor of pluralism. In fact, nothing prevents a welfarist to rephrase this alleged conflict between well-being and another value as a conflict between different local welfare goods. Moreover, nothing prevents a welfarist to say, about different local goods, what pluralists are fond to say about different values, namely that they may conflict, and such conflicts can be irreconciliable. As he puts it:
"As agents we must face these conflicts continually, and they do not get any easier if we think of these goods as so many components of our well-being. Welfare is not some overridding or higher-order value to which we can appeal in order to resolve conflicts among more local goods; rather, it is the outcome when we have settled our priorities among such goods." (ibid. 206)
But this raises the questions about what motivates the welfarist philosopher to say that "well-being" is a value in the first place. When you call something a value you thereby imply that it plays a certain role in our thinking. The role can range from the most practical role in shaping our day-to-day deliberations, to the abstract role in making up an ethical theory. But these two roles, different as they are, still have something in common: the fact that the concept does some work. What is the work done by well-being according to Sumner?
The former quote shows us that Sumner agrees with Scanlon (a strong critic of welfarism) that the concept of well-being does not play an important role in first-person deliberation about a life's intrinsic ends. Well-being is neither "significant in everyday decisions about what to do" nor it plays "a role in larger-scle decisions about how one's life is to go", to use Scanlon's words ("What do we owe to each other", 126.) By Sumner's own admission, the concept of well-being is useless in those respect. In the first-person perspective, well-being is so to say "transparent": thinking about our well-being always consists in thinking about the goods or the values that we deem important. In this sense, thinking of different personal values as different intrinsic sources of well-being does not seem to play any role in so far as practical deliberation is concerned.
If conflicts among goods "do not get any easier if we think of these goods as so many components of our well-being" when viewed in the first person perspective, why should the same conclusion not apply to a benefactor? If it is useless for Andrea to think of different goods as component of his well-being, why should it make sense for Giulia, who wants to help Andrea, to consider good things as component of Andrea's well-being? We should think that Giulia has, if any, less chances than Andrea to "get it right" in assessing the relative contribution of different intrinsic goods to Andrea's well-being.
So what does the claim of welfarism amounts to, the claim that well-being is the only value, whose promotion exhaustively explains what ethics is about? If the promotion of well-being amounts in the first-person and in the benefactor's perspectives to the promotion of that or another good, isn't more reasonable to say that ethics is about the promotion of such different goods? What is the umbrella term "well-being" doing here? What does one gain in seeing this contribution to the good as a contribution to people's well-being?
The only option left to Sumner is therefore to claim that the role of well-being in an ethical theory is played at a different level. The concept of well-being provides us with a formal criterion to distinguish those things that can be part of a subject's own good to those things that cannot possibly be. But when we are talking about those things that cannot possibly be part of a subject's own good, we are talking about what Sumner called impersonal goods, to which the co-opting strategy is not pertinent. As far as the co-opting strategy is concerned, it seems to bring us nowhere.