Thursday, January 11, 2007

The axioms of "well-being" usage.

The axioms of "well-being" usage:

Griffin's point, Mill's clause and Scanlon's definition of the distinction between well-being and choiceworthiness are based upon the same - very un-Aristotelian - insight: the idea that acting morality can require a sacrifice of the well-being of the agent, even if acting morally is, and is recognized by the agent as being, the most rational thing to do all-things-considered.

My first aim, is therefore, to characterize a set of actioms that are true, by definition, of the concept of well-being as it appears in the discussions of a class of philosophers. I believe that a couple of actioms regards the independence between moral evaluations, and evaluations of rationality all-things-considered, and well-being evaluations, namely the principles M and (more controversially) M1, whoe importance I defend here and here.

Another feature is the idea that well-being evaluations differ from perfectionist evaluations. This thought is the cornerstone of Sumner's analysis of the concept. This is an idea that I have tried to criticize here, here and here. Instead of criticizing it directly, I will assume that it is correct, for the sake of the argument, and explain the difficulties that follow from attempting to respect it. A brief statement of the distinction, based upon quotes by Sumner, appears here.

Those philosophers that talk about “well-being” without assuming that M and M1 must be true, or that identify well-being with an ideal of perfection, are not the target of my criticism.

Once we have defined well-being evaluations as something different from evaluations of perfection, moral evaluations, narrower notions of well-being (pleasantness, good feeling, good material conditions, etc...), and any wider notion of a life’s value that excludes moral worth as an intrinsic component of well-being – in the sense that is spelled out by M and M1, we can ask: does the notion of well-being make sense, meaning, of course, does this notion - the notion of which the previous statements are assumed to be true?

I want to show that there is no way to grasp intellectually the sort of value that philosophers identify with well-being. This is the aim, roughly.

Let us look at the details:

T. Scanlon (What we owe to each other, ch. 3)

Scanlon assumes that the concept of well-being and the concept of choiceworthiness are not the same concept.

Scanlon has many reasons to distinguish the two concepts. Some of these reasons are peculiar to his views about the relation about value and reasons. For example, choiceworthiness can be understood as the life "one has most reasons -all things considered - to choose". Scanlon argues in a different place (ch. 2) that some of our reasons are not teleological (i.e. not reasons to produce some thing or some more thing of value). If one assumes that well-being is a teological value - i.e. its being valuable gives the agent a reason to bring about some of it - it follows trivially from the hypothesis that some of our reasons are non-teleological, that the concept of the most choiceworthy life cannot be identified with the concept of well-being, at least lacking an argument that all the reasons that apply to our choosing to live a certain life rather than another must be teleological.

But I believe that there is one reason, why Scanlon resists the identification between well-being and choiceworthiness, that is available also to those philosophers who reject Scanlon's view about the existence of non-teleological reasons. The reason why it is incorrect to identify choiceworthiness and well-being is that the connection between "picking up the most choiceworthy life" and "having a moral reason to act" is different from the connection between "aiming at maximizing personal well-being" and "having a moral reason to act".

This fact can be expressed roughly as follows: the fact that a certain life is made better, from the moral point of view, by containing act A, can make it more worthy to be chosen or desired; the same fact does not make it necessarily reacher in terms of well-being, even when in fact it does make it more choiceworthy or desirable - all things considered. This is, I think, the fundamental idea grounding the distinction.

For a more formal rendering of this principle, look here, and here.


In many of the previous posts, I analyzed the formulas used by Griffin in order to describe the object of his enquiry, which is, as the title of his book announces, "well-being". I found that well-being (or utility) is understood by Griffin as an aspect that make lives valuable. But lives can be valuable in different senses, as Griffin acknowledges.

Griffin does not identify the dichotomy "good life" vs. "well-being" with the "objective" vs. "subjective" dichotomy: we can be wrong about whether or not we have well-being, moreover well-being is constituted by states which are not a matter of perception, in the sense in which whether or not we are 1 m tall is not a matter of perception. (See this post.) Among such objective states there are accomplishments and authentic personal relationships, at least. The value of our life in terms of well-being is also determined by the fact that we have accomplished something or an authentic human relationship with someone else, taken as realities not as perceptions, i.e. as facts which we may not recognize or perceive distortedly. (This agrees with the view I try to argue for here and here)

If you look at the textual evidence I reported (here, here, and here), it seems that Griffin, like Scanlon, is able to distinguish the concept of well-being from other concepts of "the value of a life" by introducing in his conceptual framework the idea that we have reasons to behave morally, but even when we have such reasons, the fact that we do have such reasons does not make it necessarily in our interest to act morally, i.e. it does not necessarily increase our well-being. Stated with a Nozickian terminology, ethical pull "
(“the pull exerted on our action arising from the moral demands of others" (Griffin, Well-Being, 133) and ethical push “the push to our own action arising from our living a prudentially successful life" (ibid) do not necessarily coincide (see here).


Notice that the idea that well-being evaluations - evaluations of the good in human lives understood as an aim of action - must be independent from moral evaluations is a cornerstone of utilitarian thought. (Clearly, since utilitarians need an account of "good" as something prior to "right" since they want to define "right" in terms of "good".) For example Mill wrote, in Utilitarianism, that:

Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

Notice the "irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation" clause.

No comments: