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Often we question what set of codes or standards we should use to determine whether or not a person is living a good life. In this essay I intend to define well-being and examine what it consists of, as well as exploring the possibilities of altering the key component of well-being. I will explain the hedonist’s view on well-being, and how its main flaw leads us to the desire-satisfaction account of well-being. I will then discuss the basic desire-satisfaction view, and how the objections to this view have led to a more refined theory that grounds its idea of well-being in the completion of specific desires, as opposed to all desires. I will conclude by examining the subjectivity of the desire-fulfilment theory, and its major downfalls, in order to establish whether or not it is a plausible account of well-being. We refer to how well a person’s life is going for that person as “well-being”. It’s a subjective concept that can either be positive or negative, and is based on whatever value we ascribe to determine well-being. That is, for example, some might argue that how well a person’s life is going is measured by the amount of pleasure they experience in their lives, others might argue that it is measured by how morally they live their lives, etc. Well being is a prudential value as opposed to an aesthetic value or a moral one. What that means is that well being has a “good for” quality. For example, donating money to a charitable cause might be morally good (thus having a moral value) but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is prudentially good (thus having a prudential value) or that its good for me, the giver. Having established what well-being means, now we may move on to question what it consists of. Hedonism believes that well-being consists in the greatest balance of pleasure over pain (Bentham). That is to say, what makes pleasure good for us is that it fulfils our nature, and more pleasure than pain means a better life (with more well-being). This intuitively appears to make sense, what is good for the agent could naturally be linked to what is good to him. After all, pleasure does seem to be good, and how can anything else be beneficial if it not enjoyed by the agent (and thus provides pleasure)? Unfortunately, Hedonism finds itself faced with a problem put forward by Nozick.
Nozick suggested that we imagine that there exists a machine which the agent could plug into for the rest of his life giving him whatever experiences he wanted and enjoyed. The agent would not know he was in the machine after consenting to be connected to it, so he would be experiencing things as if they were really happening: should the agent choose to plug in to the machine? From the point of view of his wellbeing, would it be wise to do so? According to Hedonism, the agent should indeed plug in- but this seems intuitively wrong, in so much that we should not naturally choose to forfeit reality for hallucinations. As Nozick stated, “we want to do certain things.. we want to be a certain way.. plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man made reality.”1 The problem of the Experience Machine brought about the idea of the DesireFulfilment theory. The Desire fulfilment theory argues that pleasure and pain are in people’s heads and therefore difficult to measure, even more so when we need to weigh different people’s experiences against each other. It is simply easier to see well-being as consisting in the satisfaction of each agent’s desires. This theory escapes the problem of the experience machine that Hedonism failed. Whilst connected to the machine, many of the agent’s desires are likely to remain unfulfilled. For example, the Agent could desire to paint a work of art in his lifetime. In the machine he may believe that’s exactly what he’s doing, but in reality it is a hallucination. There is a great difference between wanting to paint a work of art and having the experience of painting a work of art. The machine would only provide the latter- and so he would not actually have painted the work of art that he desired. That is to say, the agent would choose not to plug in the machine out of the desire to not be deluded and the desire to be able to complete his other desires (i.e., painting a work of art).
There are several modifications to the theory, in an effort to tackle the objections raised against it. The general premise that the theory begins with is that someone is made better off to the extent that their current desires are fulfilled. But if we consider an example of an angry teenager who is told by his mother that he cannot go out with his
friends, and so he decides to hold a gun to his head, wanting to pull the trigger to retaliate against his mother: then according to the theory the boy should indeed kill himself, as he so desires it. It doesn’t seem sensible to allow a rash desire such as retaliatory suicide to contribute positively to the teenager’s well-being. That is, how can his momentary desire to kill himself be justified as good for him? This makes the theory seem to be one of well-being-at-a-particular-time. Intuitively we know that the boy would be better off not killing himself, so it appears that the theory doesn’t take into account mistaken or bad desires. With this objection in mind the theory is refined to state that well-being is measured by the overall desire-satisfaction in the agent’s life as a whole. That is, the more desire-satisfaction in his life, the better. But Parfit raises a counter argument with the example of the addict. If the agent starts taking an addictive drug then he will have a strong desire for more of the drug every morning. Taking the drug will provide no pleasure for him, though not taking it will cause him extreme suffering. Why should the agent take the drug? The drug would cause the most intense desire satisfaction that the agent could possibly feel. His craving for the drug every day, and the satisfaction he experiences from receiving his daily dose would be constant desire-fulfilment of the most intense kind, meaning the best well-being. If this is so, then everyone should therefore desire to be addicts in order to have the best well-being! But this is clearly not in the best interest of the individual, so we must refine the theory again, to a global version of desire-fulfilment where desires about the shape and content of ones life as a whole are given priority over other desires. They become distinguished as first order (global) and second order desires. Now, with this in mind, if the agent has the desire to take the drug, it becomes cancelled out by his global desire to not be an addict. Having segregated desires into ones that affect our lives and other less important desires, let us consider the problem of the monk. If we imagine there was a monk who lived a very sheltered life and was then offered the chance to remain a monk, become a cook or a become a gardener, but because he had no concept of the alternatives he chose to remain a monk: isn’t it possible that he could have had a better life if he had chosen otherwise? In which case, isn’t his primary global desire to be a monk (which has just been satisfied), not bringing about the highest amount of well-being possible? Again, the theory must be revised to
consider only well informed desires. That is, the best life is the one which the agent would desire if he were fully informed about all the (non-evaluative) facts. That is to say, the monk does not condemn him self to a “worser” life because he was not well informed at the point of making the choice. But what if we consider someone who is informed? Rawls’ puts forward the argument of a brilliant mathematician who, fully informed of her options and mentally sound, develops an over riding desire to count blades of grass. How can that be what’s best for her? How can that possibly provide the best life, and most well-being? The desire fulfilment view would argue that if she is indeed fully sound, then counting blades of grass is the best thing for her to do, as it will maximise her wellbeing by allowing her to fulfil that desire. It seems we don’t know what desires constitute a good life; and in making the subject (in this case the mathematician) the sovereign of their well-being instead of viewing it objectively we run into counter-intuitive ideas of well-being. For instance, if a person desires to become a lawyer and aims their education in that direction until the desire is fulfilled at the detriment of other possibilities: what would happen if that person then realized that it was the wrong desire? Does the satisfaction then become negated because the subject changed their mind at the point of desire fulfilment? Or do we measure the fulfilment objectively as the completion of a goal, regardless of the agent’s subjective viewpoint on the goal? It is quite possible for someone to desire something and then realize after attaining it that it was the wrong desire: is there an objective standard? That is to say, we desire things because they are good, but they aren’t necessarily good because we desire them. It seems better to refine the theory once again so that well-being desires must contribute universally to everyone’s well being. The fulfilment of a desire isn’t a source of prudential value, instead we form desires because of the nature of what we desire will fulfil that prudential value. That is, all desires have an intrinsic value that makes us desire them in the first place. But if we agree with this idea of objectivity then the link between the subject’s mental states and their desires becomes severed.
If we recall again the difference between hedonist and desire-fulfilment theories of well being, we remember that the hedonist states the components of well being (such as pleasure). The desire theorist and the hedonist might agree that what makes life good
for the individual is pleasurable experiences, but formally they will hold opposing views. The hedonist will consider pleasantness as the good-maker, whereas the desire theorist will hold that it is desire-satisfaction. The idea that desire satisfaction is a “good-making” property seems somewhat strange. As Aristotle points out: “desire is consequent on opinion rather than opinion on desire”2, or in other words, we desire things because we think that they are independently good: we do not think they are good because they will satisfy our desire for them. So whilst desire-fulfilment theory imposes a subjective account of well being that grounds what is good for us in what we deem to be our desires and satisfactions, it seems that there are too many problems with granting the individual the right to be sovereign in deciding those desires. We run into a myriad of counter intuitive situations where the desire fulfilment theory would condemn the individual to a sequence of events that, from on objective point of view, would not provide the maximum amount of well-being.
Aristotle (1984 [C4 BCE]) The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. J. Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Works Cited and Bibliography
Nozick, R. (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). Aristotle (1984 [C4 BCE]) The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. J. Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Parfit, D. (1984) Reasons and Persons (Oxford: OUP, 1984) Appendix 1. Moore, Andrew. Objective Human Goods, in Roger Crisp and Brad Hooker (eds), WellBeing and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 2000)