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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 …