Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Scanlon: why well-being evaluations do not matter /1

In this and the following posts, I will reconstruct Scanlon's argument (in "What We Owe To Each Other, Harvard University Press, 1998) about why well-being evaluations do not matter. Scanlon addresses this issue in Ch.3 of the aforementioned book. I believe his reflections in this book are extremely profound, as they call into questions the main presuppositions of those philosophers that work within the boundaries of the utilitarian tradition. If you are interested in understanding the nature of well-being, from the philosophical point of view, then you just cannot afford to ignore his arguments.

Scanlon's arguments are such that, if you accept them, you will probably stop asking yourself questions as
  • "can the quality of my life be affected by an even which I cannot experience ?"
  • "is there such a things a posthumous harm?"
  • "Shall I count an altruist act as something which increases my well-being?"

Reading ch.3 of Scanlon's book is therefore strongly recommended to anybody who has been hounted by such questions. He calls into question the idea that such questions are even meaningful!

For me, the fist step of Scanlon's argument, consists in some apparently innocent claims: the conceptual distinctions about different conceptions of the "quality of life" that he asks his readers to accepts. I have dealt with the meaning of Scanlon's "conceptual topology" in this post, (also this, and this). If you accept his distinctions, you are assuming that well-being can be characterized as:
"an idea of the quality of a life for the person who lives it that is broader than material and social conditions, at least potentially broader than experiential quality, different from worthiness or value, and narrower than choiceworthiness all things considered". (112-113)
No philosophical distinction is trivial or evaluatively neutral. I have argued in the preceding posts that the cases in which it is less question-begging to say that picking up the most choiceworthy life entails “a sacrifice of well-being”” are those in which moral worth and moral reasons are called into question.

Let us now turn to a point in which there is more flesh.


His goal is to deny that well-being, conceived as a teleological value, is a “master” value, the ultimate moral value to which all other values can be reduced. In order to prove his point, Scanlon has to show that well-being is not a value, or that, if it is a value, it is either a non-teleological value or not a master value.

(We shall later see what Scanlon means by the concept of "teleological value".)

[See p. 108, op cit.]

Scanlon does not want to deny that that it is, in some sense, a valuable things that people have well-being. This is also because, in Scanlon's perspective, we can say that the well-being of an individual results from his or her achieving goals that he or she values. So he wants to leave room to our intuitions that the fact that people are well-off is valuable.

What Scanlon wants to do, is trying to show that, even if well-being is a value, in some sense, a conception of personal well-being does not appear as a source of reasons for the agent. In order to achieve this result, Scanlon offers an account of the concept of well-being as that of a transparent and inclusive good.

In the next post, I will explain Scanlon's idea that well-being is a transparent inclusive good.


kris said...

Hello Michele. Thank you very much for your posts and treatment of Scanlon. I am myself an upper undergraduate level Philosophy student currently doing a 'free choice' essay in value theory and have found scanlon's position an intriguing one. He is not so easy to understand completely and your posts have increased my awareness of some of the philosophically important surrounding issues, so i was wondering if I could ask you a few questions??
Is it a necessary or contingent fact for Scanlon that
actions that give rise to increased levels of well-being are not importantly related to well-being in itself?-in that these increased levels of well-being are not the reason why I took up the action in the first place??
Also I am planning to give a scanlonian defence of well-being and was wondering if you knew anything on a couple of objections that have been levelled against him by my teacher they are

(i)Scanlon's use of an 'immanent perspective' rather than a trancendental (detached spectator) one
(ii)Scanlon's Atomism

If you have any thoughts on these queries (especially (i)!), that would be very much appreciated!!

thanks for you great blog once again!


Michele said...

Hi Kris! Sorry for waiting so long for responding but I've been (and currently are) very busy applying for post-docs. Let me also tell you that, as I did not make my study in any prestigious Anglophone Universities I am honored for the implicit recognition of my ability to say something relevant for people outside my national borders, that your question implies. And I am sorry if I will not be clear in my reply.

Let me start from the second point raised by your teacher, the one concerning Scanlon's "atomism." I guess that it refers to the fact that Scanlon's "theory" of well-being is only a list of elements that make a person's life go well for her, without any ambition of completeness. It is a "theory" under scare quotes and it is not what Crisp and Sumner would call a "constitutive" theory, an account of the "welfare-making" property.

Why does Scanlon give such an account? The answer is connected to his treatment of the boundaries of well-being. But the connection is not very clear, at least to my eyes. As far as I can see, there are two completely different interpretation of the reason why, according to SCanlon, vagueness in our intuitions concerning the boundaries of well-being should lead to an "open list" theory.

A) first interpretation.
I) Our intuitions about the boundaries of well-being are blurred
II) a descriptively/phenomenologically adequate theory of well-being must be faithful to our intuitions (def. of descriptively/phenomenologically adequate theory)
III) a descriptively adequate theory of well-being cannot define the boundaries of well-being (from I and II)
IV) a complete account of the sources of well-being (and a constitutive account) would define in a clear way the boundary between things that can make a person's life go better for her ultimately and things that cannot
V) no complete account of the sources of well-being (and no constitutive account) would be descriptively adequate

I suspect A is what Scanlon has in mind. But one could give a second interpretation. (I am endorsing this as the conclusion one should draw, whether Scanlon draws it or not, in an article that I am trying to get publish at the moment)

Interpretation B

I) our intuitions concerning the boundaries of well-being are blurred

II) there is a family F of theories of well-being whose implications differ only to the extent that they are implications concerning the boundaries of well-being

III) in the absence of assumptions about the moral value of well-being, it is possible to justify the adoption of any specific theory among the theories included in F only by comparing the phenomenological adequacy of the account of the boundaries of well-being they imply.

IV) our pre-theoretical intuitions concerning the boundaries f well-being are blurred

V) one cannot justify any complete/constitutive theory of well-being irrespective of assumptions about the moral importance of well-being.

NOtice that if interpretation (B) is correct, one should be skeptical even of the justification for Scanlon's account of well-being (meaning the list including desirable experiences, the fulfillment of rational goals, and the realization of goods like friendship and personal perfection, when it is desired)

Let us now consider point (i). One thing that "immanent perspective" could mean is what I would call a "first-person" perspective.

To me, it seems implicit in the tradition of theories of well-being involving Derek Parfit, James Griffin, Wayne Sumner, Roger Crisp, etc. that theories of well-being are systematic accounts of our pre-theoretical intuitions concerning well-being, viz. of our disposition to say that a particular event E would in a particular circumstance C make my own life a better one for me (or benefit me).

One way to "go -third-personal", related to this, would be to think of the concept of well-being as the concept of a postulated entity playing a specific role in the explanation of behavior. For example, one might build a "third-personal" theory of the survival of the species in which one can show that individual human organisms tend to inherit or learn strategies to cope with the environment that lead them to maximize their well-being, until the point in life in which it is statistically more probable that a human being would transmit his genes. Well-being, understood in this way, would amount to something like "whatever is needed to preserve survival functions."

Clearly, one might decide to conceive well-being in this way. The relevance of the "third-personal" point of view cannot be excluded by pointing out that philosophy deals with reflecting about our lives, since nothing forbids thinking and reflecting "in the first-person" about the significance of an explanatory "third-personal" concept. However, notice that any definition of well-being as an explanatory physiological, behavioral or ethological concept will not coincide with defining well-being as "what would ultimately make a person's life a good one for the person whose life it is". For example, one can always think that "what is ultimately good for him" includes more than just survival understood in physiological, ethological or behavioral terms. This sort of identification, as you might know, raises the sorts of problem that people discuss when they discuss the "open-question argument" and the "naturalistic fallacy".

I also think that it is extremely interesting to ask what is the relation between the two perspectives. A particularly interesting phenomenon is that perhaps human beings have to be able to act in non-self-interested ways (even non-indirectly-self-interested ways) in order to achieve a higher level of collective well-being. But these are topic concerning which I know almost nothing.

Other questions:
"is it a necessary or contingent fact that actions that give rise to increased levels of well-being are not importantly related to well-being itself?"

To clarify, I shall simply assume that what you mean by "actions not importantly related to well-being itself" is "actions that do not have well-being itself *as the main goal one intends to achieve by them"

Excellent question. One way to understand it is the following: most people believe that our lives go better when they include goods like friendships and filial love, goods the pursuit of which involves actions not directly related to well-being. Is it contingent or necessary that such goods have a huge importance in our lives as we plan them? To this question, I think the answer must be "contingent".

But your question I think digs in a much deeper problem. The question you mean to aks reduces to, perhaps, the following, namely:

"do goods such as friendship or filial love (goods pursuing which involves actions not directly related to well-being) make our lives better lives for us ultimately or only derivatively?(e.g. by means of causing states of pleasure)"

Your question reduces to this one because, if one could show that goods like friendship and filial love make our lives good ones for us only by causing other states that are good for us - e.g. pleasure - it then would be only contingent that actions that give rise to increased levels of well-being in virtue of being actions that make us good friends and loving parents are not importantly related to well-being in itself.

For clearly, it can only be a contingent fact about human psychology that being good friends and loving parents produce more pleasure than other goals. So even if it is "normatively" true, as I think it is for Scanlon and for us, that being good friends and loving parents requires doing actions that do not have well-being as their main goal, it would still be contingent that by doing such actions one can gain some well-being as a by-product.

This is a really important question that Scanlon does not answer. Or more precisely: he rejects hedonism and also argues that friendships and other goods make a person's life a good one for themselves, when rationally desired and in ways that are broader than by merely fulfilling a rational desire. But this claim belongs to the weakest part of his theory and is not explicitly connected to his argument dealing with the rational psychology of first-personal well-being. If his "rational-psychology argument" is found to rely on the assumption that certain goods are intrinsic, it is then weaker than it might seem.

One could also think that the "normative truth" that friendship and filial love involve doing actions that are not mainly intentioned to bringing about states of first-personal well-being is a conceptual truth about friendship or filial love.

So your question could be

"is the (alleged) normative truth that being a loving parent and an authentic friend requires being disposed to act not mainly for the intention of bringing about states of first-personal well-being a necessary or contingent truth?"

To this question, I really have no answer, nor am I able to infer what Scanlon's answer would be. I even doubt that I am able to make sense of the question concerning the modal status of normative truth. I used to understand Plato as someone who would think that some ethical norms (norms concerning how one should live) are implicit in concepts. On the other hand all such normative questions have an "open feel" that seems to suggest that the answer to them cannot simply derive from grasping the meaning of the concept exactly. So if this is your question, I really have nothing to say about it.

I thank you again for your questions, in that they made me think more carefully about such issues, especially the first one (the one I dealt with the last)and I hope that I can be useful to you. Let me also know what you exactly meant to ask by your first question.