Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Theories of Well-Being

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Theories of Well-Being

Article excerpt

In the philosophical literature as well as in discussions of public policy, happiness is sometimes identified with well-being. More often, however, happiness is seen as a long-term psychological state of fulfillment, and well-being (also sometimes called "flourishing" or "eudaimonia") as the summum bonum that includes both happiness and the sense that one's happiness is worth having, or that one's life is worth living. As our highest personal or prudential good, our well-being gives each of us reason to cultivate certain traits and act in certain ways and not others.

Subjective vs. Objective Standards

According to some--maybe many--people, the standards by which we evaluate our lives as worthwhile or satisfactory need not themselves pass muster by some objective standard of worth, because there are no objective standards of worth for well-being. According to others, because well-being is the highest prudential good (HPG) for the individual as a human being, wellbeing must meet not only the individual's own standards, but also certain objective standards of worth. Alternatively, on this view, the individual's own standards must pass muster by an objective standard of worth.

I dub the proponents of the first view subjectivists, and those of the latter view objectivists. Subjectivists make a sharp distinction between a life's prudential value on the one hand, and its objective value on the other, between the idea of the highest prudential good for an individual and the idea of her objective worth as a person. Objectivists, by contrast, hold that the objective value of a life is partly constitutive of a life's prudential value, and that the idea of the highest prudential good for an individual entails the idea of an objectively worthwhile life.

In Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (2014), I defend the latter view. Building on an idea of Aristotle's, I argue that a satisfactory conception of well-being must meet the formal requirements of the highest prudential good (HPG) as the most complete, self-sufficient, and choice-worthy good for an individual. The central idea here is that the HPG for an individual is a life that is both supremely desirable and worthwhile, a life that is therefore eminently worth living. I argue that the HPG conceived thus is an ideal that many of us yearn for from an early age, however dimly and inarticulately, and that to meet its requirements, well-being must be defined as happiness in a worthwhile life. Our lives can be worthwhile without being happy, thanks to great misfortunes, and they can be (more or less) happy without being (very) worthwhile, thanks to bad values. On my view, what is required for a worthwhile life is an understanding of the important aspects of one's own life and human life in general, and the traits that are necessary for achieving such understanding and acting accordingly. These traits, I argue, are autonomy (the disposition to think for ourselves about important matters), and reality-orientation (the disposition to seek truth or understanding about important matters and live accordingly).

My defense of an objective conception of wellbeing is contrary to the general trend these days. In the philosophical literature, subjectivism about the prudential good has been on the ascendancy, gaining strength and respectability from its alliance with empirical studies of subjective well-being, while objectivism has been on the retreat. Subjectivism also seems to align well with the preference-based view of welfare economics. Subjectivists claim that objectivist theories of well-being are elitist, that they give short shrift to the individual's own point of view on her life, or that they ignore individual differences. Some also complain that objectivist theories confuse the prudential value of a life with other dimensions of value. Finally, subjectivists worry that an objective conception of well-being justifies paternalism, that is, the imposition of the objectivist's preferences or values on others against their will. …

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