The purpose of this thesis is to find the most plausible
answers to the following three central questions of prudential value (or
well-being): (I) What does a person's well-being consist in: what has final
value for a person? (II) How do we determine just how valuable a certain
situation (or fact) is for a certain person? And (III) how do we determine
how well off a person is on the whole (at a certain time)?
In order to achieve this purpose, I conduct a critical examination of three common types of answers which have been given to these questions, viz. hedonistic theories, desire theories, and “objective list theories”. For each of these theories of prudential value, I first try to offer a formulation of the theory which is as precise as possible (and which makes the theory as plausible as possible). I then try to find out whether the theory in question is a plausible theory, by looking at a number of arguments that can be given for and against the theory.
My conclusions can be formulated as follows: On the negative side, all three theories examined suffer from certain defects; especially the pure forms of these theories. On the positive side, I think it is possible to construct a theory that can avoid the objections which hit the other theories. This theory is a type of mixed theory: It can (roughly) be regarded as a mixture between modified hedonism and a certain type of modified actual desire theory, a mixture which also contains certain “objectivist” elements.
Well-being, welfare, good life, quality of life, human
good, prudential value, value-for, theory of value, subjectivism, objectivism,
value and time, hedonism, desire theories, preferentialism, objective list
theory, pleasure, preference, rational desire
The main purpose of this thesis is to find the most plausible
answers to the following three substantive questions of prudential value
(or well-being): (I) What does a person’s well-being consist in: what has
final value for a person? (II) How do we determine just how valuable a
certain situation (or fact) is for a certain person? And (III) how do we
determine how well off a person is on the whole (at a certain time)? In
section 1.1, I formulate these questions as clearly and precisely as I
The way in which I try to achieve the purpose of the thesis is by conducting a critical examination of three common types of answers which have been given to the central questions, viz. hedonistic theories, desire theories, and “objective list theories”. (A survey of these traditional answers is offered in section 1.2). For each of these “theories of prudential value” (or “conceptions of well-being”), I first give a formulation of the theory which is as precise as possible (and which makes the theory as plausible as possible). I then try to find out whether the theory in question is a plausible theory, by looking at a number of arguments that can be given for and against the theory. This critical discussion of a number of traditional theories constitutes the major part of the book, and in the course of this discussion, my own theory will slowly take shape.
The first theory I look at is the hedonistic theory. The
pure version of this theory can be characterized as follows: (H1) The Experience
Requirement: The only facts that can have nonderivative value for a person
at a certain time are facts about his or her own experience at that time.
(H2) More specifically, the only thing that is nonderivatively good for
a person is to have pleasant experiences, and the only thing that is nonderivatively
bad for a person is to have unpleasant experiences. (H3) The Thesis of
Unrestrictedness: All pleasant experiences are nonderivatively good for
the experiencing subject, and all unpleasant experiences are nonderivatively
bad, regardless of what other properties these experiences have. (H4) Every
good experience is good in virtue of its pleasantness only, and every bad
experience is bad in virtue of its unpleasantness only. (H5) The “intensity-orientation”
and the idea of proportionality: The value of an experience for the person
who has it is a function of one thing only, viz. how pleasant or unpleasant
it is, and this value is (moreover) proportional to how pleasant or unpleasant
the experience is. (H6) The final value that a certain life (at a certain
time) has for the person who is living it is a function of how much pleasure
and how much suffering this life contains. The more pleasure it contains,
the better, and the more suffering it contains, the worse.
In chapter 2, I try to formulate these claims in a more precise way. In particular, I discuss how the terms “pleasantness” and “unpleasantness” should be interpreted in this context. What conceptions of the pleasant and the unpleasant do different hedonists have in mind, and (above all) what conception of pleasantness and unpleasantness makes (if combined with the hedonistic theory) the theory most plausible?
In connection with this, I argue that preference-hedonism is more plausible than the quality hedonisms, or alternatively, that the pure version of the hedonistic theory is most plausible if it incorporates the relational theory of pleasantness. On this view, the pleasantness and unpleasantness of a person’s experiences are somehow constituted by certain kinds of desires and aversions (likes and dislikes) that the person has. Or more specifically, an experience is pleasant if and only if (and because) the following conditions are met: (i) The experiencing subject has some kind of pro-attitude towards the experience: he desires it, likes it, approves of it, or the like. (ii) The experience is desired (etc.) by the experiencing subject when it occurs. (iii) The experience is desired in a certain way, viz. “in and for itself”, i.e. intrinsically, or “as a goal”, i.e. “finally”. An alternative to (iii) is
(iv) the reason why the experiencing subject desires to have the experience is (at least in part) that it has certain felt qualities.
The main purpose of chapter 3 is to find out, first,
whether any version of the hedonistic theory is a plausible theory of prudential
value, and second, which version of the theory is most well-founded, pure
hedonism or some kind of modified hedonism. After having examined a number
of arguments that have (or can) be given for and against different versions
of the theory, I reach the following conclusions:
There are a number of strong arguments against pure hedonism, and this theory should therefore be rejected. First, pleasure is not all that matters; there are other things besides pleasure (and experience) which matter to us. How well off a person is (on the whole) is not just dependent on how pleasant his total mental state is, but also on other things, e.g., how much desire-fulfilment there is in his life. Moreover, it seems that certain situations have nonderivative value for a person even though they do not have any pleasant experiential content at all. And second, there are certain pleasures which are not good for us to have, e.g., pleasant emotions the intentional objects of which are “objectively unpleasant”.
On the positive side, there is (obviously) some truth in the hedonistic theory. It is not just that it is almost always nonderivatively good for us to feel pleasure; pleasure is also an important good. Moreover, it seems plausible to assume that a person’s well-being can not be directly affected (at least not for the better) by things he doesn’t know anything about.
I also suggest that the most plausible version of the hedonistic theory is a modified version of the theory, a theory which includes (among other things) the following elements: (R2) If the object of a pleasant emotion is an “objectively unpleasant” situation (e.g., being humiliated), it is not nonderivatively good for the subject to have the emotion. (RW2) It is ceteris paribus better to have pleasant emotions that are based on true beliefs than to have pleasant emotions that are based on false beliefs. The strongest arguments against pure hedonism do not hit this type of modified hedonism, and we should therefore be reluctant to reject it.
I then turn my attention to the satisfaction interpretation
of the actual desire theory. The unrestricted version of this theory can
be characterized as follows: (D1) Nothing but (actual) desire-fulfilment
can be nonderivatively good for a person, and nothing but aversion-fulfilment
can be nonderivatively bad for a person. (UD2) The thesis of Unrestrictedness:
There are no intrinsic desires that it is not nonderivatively good for
a person to have fulfilled, and there are no intrinsic aversions that it
is not nonderivatively bad to have fulfilled. (UD3) The positive (or negative)
value that a certain desire-fulfilment (or aversion-fulfilment) has for
a certain desiring subject is proportional to how strong the desire (or
aversion) is. (UD4) The value that a certain life has for the person who
is living it is a function of how much desire-fulfilment and how much aversion-fulfilment
this life “contains”. The more desire-fulfilment and the less aversion-fulfilment
a life contains, the better this life is for the person who lives it.
In chapter 4, I try to give more precise formulations of these claims, viz. by discussing the following four topics:
(1) What is it for someone to desire something? How should the key terms “desire” and “aversion” be understood in this context? What possible conception of desire makes (if combined with the desire theory) the theory most plausible? In answer to this question, I propose that we accept the following rudimentary conception of desire: (i) Desires and aversions are propositional attitudes: the objects of desire are situations (or situations-under-descriptions), and to desire something is to desire that some situation obtains, i.e. that something is the case, or that some proposition is true. (ii) Desires are pro-attitudes, while aversions are con-attitudes, no matter how the contents (objects) of these attitudes are specified. (iii) Moreover, we should understand the term “desire” in a very broad sense. On the relevant use of “desire”, the class of desire includes things as different as volitions and intentions, appetites and longings, projects and purposes, requirements and demands, wishes and regrets, i.e. the class of desire is, in many respects, a very heterogeneous class. (iv) It is also desirable that a conception of desire does not deviate too much from the ordinary uses of the term “desire”, especially not from its “explanatory” or “theoretical” use.
(2) What is it for a desire to be stronger than another desire? What notion of strength makes an “intensity-oriented” desire theory most plausible. Here, I suggest that we should understand the term “strength” as rank in a preference ordering (where preference is not understood in terms of felt intensity or motivational force). On this view, a person’s desire that X is stronger than his desire that Y if and only if he prefers X to Y.
(3) What it is to have a desire fulfilled (or satisfied)? The terms “fulfilled” and “fulfilment” are normally understood in the following way: A person’s desire that a situation X obtains is fulfilled if and only if he desires that X and X holds, and a person’s aversion to a situation Y is fulfilled if and only if he has an aversion to Y and Y obtains. But does this “traditional” notion of fulfilment really make the desire theory plausible? Is it really plausible to allow for the possibility that a person’s well-being can be directly affected by things he does not know anything about, or that it can be nonderivatively good for us to have our prospective (and retrospective) desires fulfilled? I think not. On my view, we should replace the broad (traditional) notion of fulfilment with the idea that P’s desire that X is fulfilled (in the relevant sense) if and only if P desires that X, X holds, and the desire and its object are simultaneous (the time of the desire coincides with the time of the occurrence of X). Furthermore, I suggest (in chapter 5) that on the notion of fulfilment which has most “moral and rational significance”, a desire is not fulfilled unless the subject is aware of the occurrence of the object.
(4) What is it for a desire to be intrinsic? What notion of intrinsicality makes (if adopted) the “intrinsicality condition” most plausible? Here, I suggest that we should reject both (i) the idea that a situation is desired intrinsically if and only it is desired for its intrinsic properties, or in isolation, rather than for its relational properties, and (ii) the idea that a desire is intrinsic if and only it is underived rather than derived. Instead, we should accept (iii) the idea that a situation is desired intrinsically if and only it is desired “finally”, i.e. as an end, rather than instrumentally, i.e. as a means.
The central questions in chapter 5 are questions
of plausibility. By looking at a number of arguments that can be given
for and against different versions of the actual desire theory, I try to
find out first, what possible version of the theory that is the most plausible
theory of prudential value, and second, whether this (most plausible) version
of the theory a plausible theory of prudential value, i.e. whether any
version of the theory is plausible.
This is my answer to the first question: First, the most plausible version of the desire theory is a restricted theory: it claims that only some kinds of intrinsic now-for-now desires should be regarded as relevant. More specifically, if a person P has an intrinsic now-for-now desire that X, the theory claims that it is nonderivatively good for P to have the desire fulfilled (in the traditional sense) if and only if the following conditions are satisfied: (i) X is a part of P’s life. (ii) If the desire is derived: It is derivable from the whole truth about its object (and more fundamental intrinsic desires). (iii) If the desire is underived: It is not causally dependent on (maintained by) certain kinds of false beliefs or “ignorances”, viz. on beliefs (etc.) whose propositional contents stand in a close enough conceptual relation to the propositional content of the desire. (iv) X is not a situation that is “worth avoiding” (in the prudential sense). (v) P is aware of the fact that X is (in fact) desired by him. (vi) P is aware of the fact that X obtains. (But with the following proviso: It may sometimes be bad for a person to have an aversion fulfilled, even if he is unaware of the occurrence of its object, viz. if the object has negative prudential desirability-value). Next, the theory also makes certain claims about how we should determine which of two relevant desires that is better for the desiring subject to have fulfilled. The fundamental idea is of course that relevance is a function of strength, but there is one possible exception to this rule, viz. (vii) that desires for situations that are worth desiring (in the prudential sense) are more relevant than desires whose objects are not (in this sense) worth desiring. (It is worth noting that this most plausible version of the desire theory contains certain “objectivist elements”, viz. (iv) and (vii)).
So, is this theory a plausible theory of prudential value? Well, its positive claims seem correct: if a person has a desire that is (on the theory) relevant, then it is also good for this person to have the desire fulfilled (in the relevant sense). However, desire-fulfilment is not the only thing that is good for us; it is also good for us to feel pleasure.
The third type of traditional theory is “non-internalist
pluralism” (or “the objective list theory”. Theories of this type make
the following central claims: (1) There are several (universal) prudential
values: the facts that have nonderivative value for us are of several types.
(2) It is not the case that all the facts that have nonderivative value
for a person are internal to this person. (This implies that at least some
of the facts that have nonderivative value for a person P are not of the
type “P feels pleasure”). (3) At least some of the “non-internal” facts
that have nonderivative value for P are not of the type “P has a desire
None of these claims are substantive evaluative claims, however. Non-internalist pluralism is not a substantive evaluative theory, but a type of substantive theory, and the different versions of the “theory” need not (”substantively speaking”) have anything in common. This means that no “objective list theory” can really be assessed as such: it is concrete versions of the theory (specific substantive claims about what has prudential value), and nothing else, that can be assessed. So, in order to find out whether the most plausible theory of prudential value is of this type (whether there are any prudential values that fit the description in (1)-(3) above), we need to look at what types of relational or external facts non-internalist pluralists have actually regarded as valuable. We can then ask, for each suggested type of fact, whether it is really plausible to attribute prudential value to facts of this type.
In chapter 6, we look at some of the substantive evaluative claims which have been made by various pluralists. The purpose of the chapter is merely to generate a list of possible non-internal facts which have nonderivative value for all human beings. The positive items that seems (to me) most important are classified into seven groups, viz. (1) activities and other “agent-goods”, (2) social and relational goods, (3) experiences and other mental states, (4) to be (qua experiencing and thinking subject) in contact with reality, (5) to be a certain kind of person and/or to live one’s life in a certain way (to function in a certain way), (6) personal development, and (7) freedom.
In chapter 7, we ask whether any of the claims
made by non-internalist pluralists are plausible. A central question here
is of course what kinds of arguments that can be given for such claims.
Can any universal substantive claims of the form “All non-intrinsic facts
of type X are nonderivatively good for all human beings” be justified,
and if so, how? In particular, what would an acceptable subject-oriented
justification of such a claim look like: what is it about us (about our
nature, or “constitution”) that makes it nonderivatively good for all of
us to have friends, or to be engaged in creative activity?
My conclusion is that we have little or no reason to accept any of the relevant non-internalist claims: In particular, it seems highly unlikely that there is any human nature account that can provide an objectivist subject-oriented justification of the relevant non-internalist claims. And since the other attempts to justify the relevant claims are no good either, and since the counter-arguments against the non-internalist pluralist theories are (on my view) strong enough to place the burden of proof on the pluralists, we should reject all such theories.
Or more specifically, we should reject the idea that there are objective prudential values such that it is good for all of us to “possess” these things, regardless of whether we regard these “objective goods” favourably or unfavourably. That is, we should reject the “tough-minded” (literal, or strong) interpretation of the idea that there are objective and universal prudential values; and we should reject the corresponding strong (pure) version of “the objective list theory”. However, there are “objective prudential values” such that their presence make certain wholes more prudentially valuable than they would otherwise have been. There are “objective prudential values” such that it is ceteris paribus nonderivatively better for a person to take pleasure in these things than to take pleasure in other things, and such that it is ceteris paribus nonderivatively better for a person to have his desires for these things fulfilled than to have his desires for other things fulfilled.
In chapter 8, I present my own mixed theory, a
theory which is constructed in such a way so as to be able to stand up
to all the objections which have been directed against the other theories.
This theory gives the following answers to the central questions (I)-(III):
(I) There are two kinds of situations that are nonderivatively good for a person, viz. (a) to have certain kinds of pleasant experiences, and (b) to have his relevant intrinsic now-for-now desires fulfilled, but only on the assumption that he is aware of the objects of these desires. This answer to (I) is in part hedonistic and in part desire theoretical. “The objective list theory” enters the picture as follows: First, it is not good for a person to take pleasure in something that is on the negative objective list, and second, it is not good for a person to have a desire fulfilled if its object is on the same negative list.
(II) How do we determine just how (nonderivatively) valuable a certain (good) situation is for a certain person? (a) In the case of valuable pleasures, the value that it has for a person to have such an experience is normally a function of how pleasant the experience is. But sometimes, the prudential value of a pleasant experience is also dependent on other things, e.g., on whether it is based on true or false beliefs, or on whether its object is on the positive objective list. (b) In the case of valuable desire-fulfilments, the value that it has for a person to have a relevant desire fulfilled is normally a function of how strong the desire is. But sometimes, the value that it has for a person to have a relevant desire fulfilled does not just depend on how strong it is, but also on other things, viz. on whether or not the object of the desire is worth desiring (in the prudential sense). This part of the answer to (II) is in part hedonistic, in part desire theoretical, in part a combination between hedonism and “the objective list theory”, and in part a combination between the desire theory and “the objective list theory”. However, there are also a number of ways in which the hedonistic theory and the desire theory can be combined.
(III) This is how our mixed theory suggest that we determine how well off a certain person is (on the whole, and at a certain time): A person’s well-being is (roughly) a function of how much valuable pleasure and how much valuable desire-fulfilment there is in his life. If we formulate the idea in terms of happiness, we get: A person’s level of well-being is (roughly) a function of how happy (satisfied) he is with his existence, but only on the assumption that the affective component is based on true beliefs on what his existence is like. But we should also include the idea that there are certain “objective prudential values”, viz. in the following way: The happiness (satisfaction) which determines how well off a person is on the whole must (so to speak) “include” how satisfied he is in a number of “objectively pre-determined” areas, and a person’s level of satisfaction in the relevant areas must (roughly speaking) be “in line with” the different objective values. In short, to be well off is to be happy for the right reason.
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