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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 … 


Happy only before you’re happy?

8 Sep

A great paradox concerning happiness, expressed by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his novel Julie or The New Heloise: once we feel we’ve achieved happiness, we stop being happy. 

“As long as we desire, we can do without happiness: we expect to achieve it. If happiness fails to come, hope persists, and the charm of illusion lasts as long as the passion isabelle-huppertthat causes it. So this condition is sufficient in itself, and the anxiety it inflicts is a sort of enjoyment that compensates for reality …Woe to him who has nothing left to desire… We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.”  (Part 6, Letter VII)

Tant qu’on désire on peut se passer d’être heureux; on s’attend à le devenir: si le bonheur ne vient point, l’espoir se prolonge, et le charme de l’illusion dure autant que la passion qui le cause. Ainsi cet état se suffit à lui-même, et l’inquiétude qu’il la-nouvelle-heloisedonne est une sorte de jouissance qui supplée à la réalité …Malheur à qui n’a plus rien à désirer!  On jouit moins de ce qu’on obtient que de ce qu’on espère et l’on n’est heureux qu’avant d’être heureux. 

Nathalie, played by Isabelle Huppert, reads out this passage to her students in the film L’Avenir, by Mia Hansen-Løve, which opened last week in London. A philosophy teacher in her fifties, Nathalie sees her life slipping away from her. Her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she crosses a picket line because her former communism apparently means nothing to her, her publisher decides not to reissue her books, she hates the idea of retiring, her mum dies, her former student and protégé Fabien tells her she’s bourgeois, and she eventually gives away the cat which she reluctantly inherited  and seemed to be growing to love. 

Though the film is very good, it’s also fairly bleak. But perhaps we can take something positive away from it. Hansen-Løve may be suggesting that there’s a new beginning for Nathalie in all of this. Is the Rousseau quote making the point that in losing the whole world Nathalie can regain her soul? – or in Rousseau’s terms, she can regain her desire, her hope, her anxiety, and her happiness?  In other words,  can Nathalie only be happy if she stops being happy? 

Pleasure? Desire? Objective List? 

7 Jul

Which one provides the key to the Paradise Garden?


So far in this blog I’ve been looking at ideas about happiness more or less as I chanced across them, in plays, novels, happiness surveys, or articles about behavioural science. Random, but quite fruitful. Chekhov in particular has convinced me that personal happiness is an objective we might want to think twice about before dedicating time and effort to pursuing it.  Chekhov sees happiness as what nowadays we might call a bourgeois project, bound up with middle-class materialism and complacency. Chillingly, for him it can only ever succeed if we shut our eyes to what is happening around us. So, like an ancient philosopher, I’ve  been asking myself if the pursuit of happiness can ever be compatible with leading a good life.

To probe this question a bit more more deeply I’ve  been trying to examine happiness in a more systematic – that is to say, more theoretical – fashion. I turned first to a resource which I use quite a lot – ‘Plato’, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( According to its entry on ‘happiness’, there are two broad philosophical approaches to the topic. One approach uses happiness as a value term, equating it with well-being or flourishing. The other uses it as a term to describe a psychological condition – the use that features in happiness surveys. This in itself was a revelation to me, as up to now I’ve been using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ more or less interchangeably.

I turned next to the entry on ‘well-being’.  This, ‘Plato’ informs me, relates to how well a person’s life is going for that person in particular. It has what some people refer to as a ‘prudential’ value – it is good for the person, animal or thing that possesses it. This distinguishes it from aesthetic value or moral value, both of which exist in their own right irrespective of who or what possesses them. For example, it may be morally good to give away all your money to the poor, but if you end up living on the street and die of hypothermia, then it won’t turn out to have been very good for you. Conversely, sunshine, water and good soil  may all have prudential value for a plant, but if it happens to be Japanese knotweed, then you may think it has zero aesthetic value and want to banish it from your garden. These examples, I should  add, are my own and not ‘Plato’s’. 

So we’re talking here about what is good for us as individuals. There are three different ideas about what constitutes the essence of personal well-being. The first can be labelled ‘hedonism’. This argues that well-being consists of the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.  Pleasure seems like a good thing to most people – but do we really want to devote all our lives to pursuing it?

The second idea about well-being comes under the heading of ‘desire theories’. According to this, well-being is achieved through the satisfaction of our desires. This may not be the same thing as experiencing pleasure, since what we desire could easily involve us in quite a lot of pain. A simple example would be the wish for better teeth, which sometimes necessitates a fair amount of drilling. Our desires can be subdivided into present desires – what we want now; or comprehensive ones – the things we’d like to acquire over our lifetimes. 

The third idea is referred to as ‘objective list’ – the items which in general are seen as contributing to our well-being. For instance, if people have good teeth they probably don’t ever entertain the idea that their gnashers can give them pleasure, nor could they be said to want them. Even so, good teeth are one aspect of their well-being – something they’ll find out if and when one of their teeth suffers decay. In other words, our well-being may demand things that aren’t pleasurable, and which we don’t know that we want. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at each of these three theories in turn, courtesy of ‘Plato’.