Archive | October, 2016

Objective lists

20 Oct

listAccording to ‘objective list’  theorists, if we itemise the things which contribute to our well-being, we will often find that not all the entries on the list relate to pleasurable experiences or desire-satisfaction.  So neither hedonism nor desire theories work all that well as an account of  the ingredients of individual well-being.

There are problems with lists, of course – particularly with the stipulation ‘objective’. In the words of the contributor to Stanford’s ‘Plato’ entry, how do we decide what should  go on the list?  “It is important that every good should be included.” (  This often seems to come down to a question of who decides what goes on the list.

Most of us can probably come up with some reasonable suggestions. A year ago I heard  Professor Andrew Oswald present a convincing check-list of factors which we need to be aware of in any quest for well-being. These include items such as employment, exercise, and friendship (see this blog, 4 October 2015). Exercise may provide a good example of what objective list theorists are talking about. Some people hate it – they neither enjoy it nor want it. But somebody is telling them that they need it if they’re going to achieve well-being.

Hedonists may protest at this point that objective list theories are elitist. The theories are claiming that certain things are good for people even when those people don’t want them, and don’t derive pleasure from them. We might get round this by arguing that deep down people do enjoy what’s good for them. I don’t really like spinach, for example, but I do enjoy the sensation that I’m eating something that will make me healthy.  So I sort of enjoy eating spinach. In my head I enjoy it.

Another response to the elitist objection is to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory can be both elitist and true.

Even so, objective list theories aren’t necessarily authoritarian. Somebody could have a highly elitist view of what constitutes well-being, while maintaining the liberal view that it’s up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage with it. No nanny state here then, just a set of ideas about what’s good for us, take it or leave it. Nobody’s forcing me to eat spinach, are they? This may be seen as the position adopted by John Stuart Mill.

While desire theories tell us that what we want is what is good for us, objective list theories tell us that what is good for us is what we want. According to Stanford’s ‘Plato’, “what is most at stake (in objective list theories) is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being”. In other words, how do we know what is good for us?  Do we trust others to tell us?


Desire and the grass-counter

12 Oct

Pleasure and pain exist in the minds of the people who experience them, and are hard to measure. So economists interested in social welfare – who in the last ten years or so have been among the most prominent happiness theorists – have begun to link well-being with the satisfaction of desires, rather than sensations of pleasure. And since present desires are often transitory, and may evaporate quite quickly, comprehensive desires are the ones that theorists tend to concentrate on. What’s important for a person’s well-being, they argue, is the overall level of desire-satisfaction achieved in his or her life as a whole.

In thinking about desire and well-being, it’s necessary to circumvent the hypothetical situation where a drug addict can get hold of the substance he or she craves, very easily and at no expense, for a whole lifetime. Drug addicts generally aren’t happy, even when their desires are satisfied. So we probably shouldn’t measure well-being through straightforward desire-satisfaction. Rather, it’s suggested, we need to give desires a ranking, so that the more long-term desires – ones that encompass the shape and content of one’s life as a whole – are given priority.

So what about the people whose desires are very limited, because they have very little knowledge of what’s on offer in the world at large?  Like John Stuart Mill’s pig, they may be satisfied with very little. This prompts an informed desire version of the comprehensive desire theory: the best life is the one which we would desire if we were fully inforgrassmed about all the possibilities.

The American philosopher John Rawls has come up with an objection to this, which we can term the grass-counter example. Imagine that a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about all the options available to her, develops an overwhelming desire to count the blades of grass on the well-trimmed lawns of Harvard. Is a life of grass-counting really the best thing for her, even though it’s what she wants? (Theory of Justice, p. 432).

Rawls himself is inclined to conclude that such lives can be good for the people who are living them. But we can see what the problem is. Hence we come to objective list theories. These lists may include stuff that people neither want nor enjoy, but which even so may contribute to their well-being … 

Hedonism part 3: John Stuart Mill. The Opera House wins

6 Oct


Like his teacher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) believed that happiness is the highest good. Like Bentham, he defines it as the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differs from Bentham’s, however, when it comes to the issue of quality. According to Mill, happiness must be distinguished from contentment, and is of higher value:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II)

Mill argued that pleasures can vary in quality – intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). The pleasures of listening to opera or of acting virtuously, for example, are superior to the pleasures we get from food or sex. So for Mill the happiness of the thinking human being is definitely preferable to the contentment of the satisfied pig. People who have had the chance  to experience both types of pleasure know this – so we mustn’t allow the population at large to be fobbed off with a diet consisting entirely of inferior pleasures, is the implication. The opera house definitely wins out over sport.

Mill’s  philosophy of pleasure is sometimes referred to as qualitative hedonism, to distinguish it from the quantitative variety propounded by Bentham. ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’  might well sum up Bentham’s approach to pleasure, but it would never have been adopted as a motto by Mill.