Thursday, January 11, 2007

A strategy for denying the existence of the concept of well-being

How can we argue that the concept of well-being most philosophers talk about does not exist?
First of all: does such a project make sense? Consider Quine's argument in "two dogmas". He tried to show that the alleged distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments is untenable. How does he do it? he shows that every attempt to explicate what the supposed distinction means turns out to be meaningless or viciously circular.

Maybe something similar can be said about the concept of well-being, when it is identified with one of the two (or more) terms of a conceptual distinction, and that this distinction turns out to be empty in the same sense as the analytic-synthetic distinction is, according to Quine.

Clearly, it is impossible to say that the word well-being does not have a meaning. What I want to show is that it is impossible, or very difficult, to identify philosophically what well-being is, once the concept of well-being is identified with the concept satisfying certain criteria. And these criteria correspond to the existence of certain distinction.

One of these criteria is that by talking about well-being we are talking about a sense in which a life is good which is different from what Scanlon's call choiceworthiness, and to other concepts analogous to the concept of choiceworthiness in a certain respect? That is to say, I do not want to argue about the concept of well-being understood as choiceworthiness or in "similar ways".

What is this "certain respect"? What makes certain ways of talking about well-being "similar" and not the ones I am interested in criticizing? A certain relation between well-being and morality.

I made explicit reference to “the mongrel of intuitions that philosophers are trying to characterize by using the word “well-being”. But how can there be such intuitions, if the concept of well-being does not belong to our conceptual repertory? What we have is really a mongrel of ideas that do not cohere into a concept. But we can still characterize “what philosophers are trying to characterize by using the word ‘well-being’” by describing the peculiar goals such philosophers have in mind, the goals that motivate them to introduce the term, and the criteria they use to distinguish well-being from other concepts that may allegedly be confused with it.

If we can identify such goals and distinction, and these thoughts without a commitment to their truth and meaningfulness.

Therefore, first of all one needs to identify some salient feature about the concept of well-being that is the target of my criticism. In order to show that my statements about this concept of well-being have some importance, I shall also show that some influential accounts of well-being involve a commitment to ascribing such features to the concept of well-being.

I am clearly considering well-being as a technical word, a word that does not have necessarily anything to do with what the man or the woman in the street (or in the wellness centre) calls well-being. This assumption of mine is justified by scepticism about the idea that we could ground a theory of well-being upon the linguistic intuitions that surround the usage of that very term. (A suspicion shared by Griffin. See this post, quote 4.)

I do not want to claim that the concept of well-being does not make sense. I want to claim that if we understand the concept in a certain way, it becomes very difficult, almost impossible to relate our intuitions to it. This "certain way" is defined - see the next post - in terms of the supposed relations between the concept of well-being, the perfectionist concept of goodness, and the concept of morality.

My criticism does not regard those philosophical views according to which making the most reasonable choice means doing what is one’s interest, even in all those possible circumstances in which the most reasonable choice is also the morally good choice. My target is a certain philosophically widespread usage of well-being to mean something which can be sacrificed for the sake of morality, or for the sake of choosing the best life “all-things-considered”. That this usage is widespread can be shown by analyzing the way the concept is introduced by some famous philosophers.

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