Friday, March 23, 2007

Why Dworkin thinks there must be volitional well-being?

As we have seen in my previous post, Dworkin distinguishes critical and volitional well-being. But volitional well-being does not seem to be well-being at all. Volitional well-being is the satisfaction of desires, but the fact that something affects our well-being always gives us reasons, other things equal, to take it into account, while the fact that we have a desire for something does not (the desire might be irrational), unless that affects our ability to enjoy life or gives us pain.

Why did Dworkin felt compelled to introduce and admit the existence of volitional well-being? The idea of identifying well-being with simply getting what one wants is a historically important concept. After the rejection of mentalistic definitions of utility, “volitional” or “preference based” definitions took their place in standard neo-classical economics. (For a brief history and explanation of this process, and of the emergence of an opposite tendency I recommend the following paper by Erik Angner <>.)

A second reason - which is much less apparent, is - I believe - Dworkin's difficulty in accounting for objective values. There must be something like a person's critical well-being, according to Dworkin, because the value of exercizing certain activities and engaging in certain relations does not derive from the fact that someone wants or desires them. Rather one ought to want or desire certain things in so far as they are valuable (or valuable for a person, as Dworkin would put it). This offers a general account of the relation between desire and value: desired because valuable. Philosophers like Scanlon endorse this model of the relation between desire and value in general, and apply it to . But Dworkin does not do that. Why?

Dworkin is impressed by the fact that while certain activities are considered to be valuable for most humans, or for humans in general, other activities seem to be valuable only for particular people, e.g. who have an interest in them. (See the previous post). For example fishing is valuable, but only if you are interested in it What Dworkin did not see, was the possibility of explaining the subject-relativity of these cases without abandoning the "valuable, therefore desired" model of explanation. However, this is pretty simple. You can say that fishing is valuable, but only for some people, because fishing is valuable only in so far as it is enjoyable. But "enjoyment" is valuable in general: and we can say that enjoyment is valuable, and therefore people have reasons to desire it. In terms of its relation to desire, the good which we call "enjoyment" belongs to "critical" well-being, just like parenthood or a minimal grasp of contemporary science (the examples of critical well-being Dworkin often cites). It also follows that going out fishing is part of our critical well-being when it is a realization of enjoyment, even if some people do not have a reason to desire to go fishing, because they cannot enjoy it. Enjoying something is not the same as desiring it: one can desire to do something that one does not enjoy (e.g. going to a medical check), e.g. to get rid of the stress and tension following from some doubts about one's health.

If it seems too strange to you that a person's enjoyment might be part of his critical interests, imagine a person who has a certain "blindness" towards every aspect of enjoyment. (I developed this example in the previous post.) This person goes on through life without really enjoying anything. We might think that this person should rationally revise his life-plan to find some room for this aspect of human experience, whether he desires it or not. (It does not follow that we think that this person should be forced to enjoy his life. Any such attempt would be self-defeating.)

There might be another reason why Dworkin felt he had to distinguish these two species of well-being. For the idea of critical well-being captures those ideas about the human good that are of traditional concerns in perfectionist moral theories. According to a perfectionist theory of the good, there are certain traits, capacities or activities that people should develop. Typically, the fact that someone develops such traits, capacities and activities is regarded by perfectionist as both good in itself and as good for the person whose capacities they are. A perfectionist theory might hold, for example, that humans can have a fulfilled life only if they develop their rational part, for example by participating in some way to the most advanced forms of knowledge of their time. One of the traditional characteristic of perfectionist conceptions is that they tend to find a subordinate or at most dependent place for pleasure. (E.g. in Aristotle pleasure completes an activity which is good, and is not valuable when experienced apart from them.)

The notion of the good (and of well-being, or the good life) that perfectionist philosophers adopt is radically different from the notion of well-being or utility developed in the utilitarian tradition. It seems that Dworkin saw something valuable in both traditions and wanted to account in his theory for the intuitions that support each of them. Clearly, if Dworkin's account of critical well-being was also meant to capture what Dworkin thought it was valuable in the perfectionist tradition of the good life, Dworkin had to define an alternative category of well-being in order to preserve the intuitive distinction between perfectionist theories of the good life and the notion of well-being which corresponds to the intuitions of utilitarian writers. But because of his liberalism, he did not want to conceptualize the "perfectionist" aspect of the good life by appealing to the controversial notion of "human nature". This led him to identify the "perfectionist" aspect of good life in terms of what Griffin calls the "perception model" of value: the theory according to which value precedes desire. Having done this, he had to identify the other aspect of well-being - the one which corresponds to the intuitions of utilitarian philosophers - with the opposite of that model, namely what Griffin calls "the taste model" of value: "desire precedes value". And this explains why he postulated such an odd beast as "volitional well-being."

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