Human Rights and Human Well-Being

By William J. Talbott | Go to book overview

FOUR
What Is Well-Being? What Is Equity?

In this chapter, I do my best to more precisely specify the content of the main principle, with particular attention to the concept of wellbeing, understood in terms of life prospects, and the concept of equity, even though I have no definitions for them. Along the way, I consider some of the reasons that consequentialist accounts of morality and justice are often thought to have been decisively refuted. Responding to these objections will help me to provide a fuller explanation of the important terms in the main principle and of how the main principle avoids the objections that have seemed decisive against other consequentialist views. For simplicity, I limit my discussion to the substantive evaluation of the social practices that I discuss and I set aside questions about implementation.


What Is Well-Being?

Many nonphilosophers think of well-being as a state of feeling really good (e.g., Gilbert 2006). They have a hedonistic theory of well-being. This hedonistic theory probably explains some people’s actions—that is, some individuals probably do act to maximize the net hedonic value of their lives (i.e., the net sum of pleasure over pain over the course of their lives).

However, most people are not hedonists. Most people have goals other than maximizing the net hedonic value of their lives. When Mill, who espoused a hedonistic theory of well-being, was confronted with examples that indicated that people do not always seek to maximize net hedonic value, he modified the theory to be compatible with this result. Presented with the evidence that he and most educated people would choose the life of a dissatisfied Socrates over the life of a satisfied pig, he introduced a distinction between higher and lower pleasures (i.e., he made net hedonic value a function of both the quality and quantity of one’s pleasures and pains) to enable him to claim that the life of a dissatisfied Socrates could have higher net hedonic value than the life of a satisfied pig. If we preferred the life of a dissatisfied Socrates over the life of a satisfied pig, that showed only that even a small amount of the higher pleasures of the life of a dissatisfied Socrates would outweigh a large amount of the lower pleasures in the life of a satisfied pig.

I think that if Mill hadn’t been so keen to save his theory from these potential counterexamples, he would have realized that he should have been suspicious

-71-

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