Value, desire, and quality of life
The notion of the quality of life suffers from an embarrassing richness of possibilities. First, there are a number of related but distinct questions with which this notion might be associated. What kinds of circumstances provide good conditions under which to live? What makes a life a good one for the person who lives it? What makes a life a valuable one (a good thing, as Sidgwick put it, “from the point of view of the universe”)? Second, each of these questions admits of different interpretations and a number of possible answers. Finally, there are a number of different standpoints from which the question of what makes a person's life better, in any one of these senses, might be asked. It might be asked from the point of view of that person herself, who is trying to decide how to live. It might be asked from the point of view of a benevolent third party, a friend or parent, who wants to make the person's life better. It might be asked, in a more general sense, from the point of view of a conscientious administrator, whose duty it is to act in the interest of some group of people. It might be asked, again in this more general sense, by a conscientious voter who is trying to decide which policy to vote for and defend in public debate and wants to support the policy which will improve the quality of life in her society. Finally, the question of what makes a person's life better also arises in the course of moral argument about what our duties and obligations are, since these duties and obligations are surely determined, at least to some extent, by what is needed to make people's lives better or, at least, to prevent them from being made worse.
It is important to keep in mind not only the question we are asking but also the point of view from which it is being asked, since the plausibility of various answers can be strongly influenced by the point of view of the
I am grateful to Sissela Bok and James Griffin for their helpful comments on the version of this paper
presented at the Helsinki conference.