Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The distinction between volitional and critical well-being

In his "Sovreign Virtue" Ronald Dworking distinguishes two fundamental species or senses of well-being

Volitional well-being:

“Someone's volitional well-being is improved, and just for that reason, when he
has or achieves what in fact he wants.” (242)

“Sailing well and freedom from dentistry are part of my own volitional
well-being: I want them both, and my life therefore goes better, in the
volitional sense, when I have them.” (242)

AND Critical well-being:
“[someone's] critical well-being is improved by his having or achieving what it
makes his life a better life to have or achieve.” (242)


“having a close relationship with my children, for example, securing some
success in my work, and [...] some minimal grasp of the state of advanced
science of my era. These I regard as critical interests because I believe
that my life would be a less successful one if I failed to have, or wholly
failed to achieve, these goals.” (242)

Dworkin argues that we must suppress the reductionist impulse of these philosophers who think that “the success of different lives can be measured and compared in respect of a single elemental carrier of ethical value” (242). There is complexity and structure in the idea of well-being. In fact, Dworkin argues, we must distinguish volitional well-being from critical well-being as two irreducible categories. Dworkin denies that the categories of volitional and critical well-being ought to be considered as “components of a larger, more inclusive category that we might call well-being all things considered” (244). Dworkin argues that this idea makes no sense: “there can be no standards for judging whether the right mix or trade-off has been achieved between volitional and critical well-being except the standards of one of the two modes of well-being themselves.” (244)

Now there are several problems with what Dworking says. I agree with him that there are different senses in which a life can be said to be good for a person, or plain good. But I deny that being good “in the volitional sense” is a way for a life to go well or to be good at all. I doubt, that is to say, that there is any meaningful sense of good life or well-being that corresponds to getting what one most wants, no matter how crazy one's wishes and desires are.

What elements does Dworkin use to justify the existence of volitional well-being? He writes that

“Though I do want to sail well, and am disappointed because I do not, I cannot
think that my life would be a worse one if I had never conceived that desire. It
is important for me to sail well because I want to sail well, not vice-versa”

Well-being in the volitional sense is the sort of well-being which follows from the mere fact that one gets what one most wants. But this statement can be understood in different ways. It could be understood as the claim that certain activities or conditions, e,g, sailing well, can be turned into goods, or valuable activities and conditions, by the mere fact that I want them. But this argument seems to presuppose the sort of humean picture of the relation between desires and reasons, or desires and value that has attracted so much criticism in the last two decades and that is growing (I believe) increasingly controversial. Fewer philosopher than in the past would now endorse the claim that the mere fact of wanting X turns X into something valuable, or valuable for a person. (See this post)

But why then does the last quote by Dworking sounds so natural in our ears? This claim is made up of two claims. The first claim, that my life would not be a worse one if I had never conceived that desire, is right, but what follows from it? It clearly follows that “desiring to sail” does not make a life better, even if sailing improves the quality of my life only if I desire to. Of course, my life could have been as good without sailing as it is with it, meaning that I could have develop a fondness for, or developed the ability to appreciate, another activity. Or in other words it is both conceptually possible and quite likely that, counterfactually, if had I made different choices, now I would enjoy different things.

But this does not show that my enjoying my life makes my life better in a sense that can only be accounted by postulating the existence of volitional well-being. Imagine a person who is unable, for constitutive reasons, to enjoy good wines, good foods, with a severe physical handicap and no talent for intellectual hobbies like reading or chess, or any other activity except sailing and who has a definite predisposition to find sailing enjoyable. Suppose ignorance about the existence of the sea and of every activity connected to it prevents this person both to form the desire to sail and to satisfy it. For a person with such an improbable psychology, the failure to form a desire to sail, and to practice it, would entail a severe and important loss of well-being, in so far as it would deprive this person with the only form of enjoyment in life that, for some reason, was accessible to her.

The second claim “It is important for me to sail well because I want to sail well, not vice-versa” is also plain common sense, but what does it show? It is important to sail well, of course, only if one has a previous reason to sail. And clearly, most people do not have a reason to sail, and a fortiori, one to sail well. But this is only because a person who can find many different things enjoyable does not have a reason, in general, to try out any possible form of enjoyment. But this, as well, is only because as Scanlon reminds us, there are many valuable activities that we can undertake at any moment in time, but since our lives are finite, some goals must be selected. A person who has elected, as it were, playing chess as the main hobby in her life and is quite successful player may not have a reason to take up the hobby of sailing, especially since this is an expensive one. This person may think that she has most reasons to spend the money devoted to leisure to finance her participation to chess competitions and travel costs. So this person does not have any reason to sail well.

But for the man in our previous example, who can only enjoy sailing, it is important to sail well, at least under the assumption that he can enjoy sailing only if he does it well. If we drop this assumption, we can still say at least that it is important for him to "enjoy himself well", or to look for the "right" amount of enjoyment, and since sailing is the only way in which he can enjoy himself, it is important for him to sail "well" in that sense. (That is to say: it is important for him to devote sufficient attention to his boat and sailing friendships, to exercise those virtues which allow him to put up nice sailing trips, e.g. cooperation, etc, and to be able to refrain from sailing when he has something more important to do.)

Since, I am assuming, some people have sometimes a reason to sail and to sail well, and since everybody has a reason to enjoy himself and to enjoy himself "well" (in the sense explained above) it makes perfect sense to say, of a person who has a reason to sail and enjoy himself well, that the life of this person is made a better life by sailing and enjoying himself "well", in the sense I have explained. So it seems a little arbitrary to draw a neat boundary between activities that we do for the sake of enjoyment, such as sailing, and those goods, like children or some minimal grasp of the state of advanced science of our era, which according to Dworkin contribute to our critical well-being.

What intuitions support the idea that volitional well-being represents a distinct category of well-being evaluations or evaluations of the goodness of a life? Dworkin also writes

“a life in which someone wanted only what he thought was in his critical interest to want would be a sad mess”.
But why should this be the case? It may be the case if enjoying oneself were considered, by definition, outside the possible critical interests of a person. But why should this be assumed? The first definition of a person’s critical well-being is “[someone's] critical well-being is improved by his having or achieving what it makes his life a better life to have or achieve”. It is of course plausible that nobody's life is made a better life by practicing any other activity that other people find enjoyable, but this is compatible with thinking that no one's life can be a good one if one does not find at least one activity within it enjoyable.

In conclusion, it seems very odd to me to consider volitional and critical well-being as two species of well-being. But then why did Dworkin thought that there are these two types of well-being? I shall try to answer to this question in the next post.

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