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  • Writer's pictureCrone

It's complicated

My reading recently has been about well-being. There are various different philosophical theories, all of which seek to determine a rule, an all-encompassing definition. All of the theories are either mutually exclusive or at least significantly contradictory.


For example, one suggests that all that contributes to well-being is the experience of pleasure. So, the fact that you have, say, good friends and have just found a cure for cancer does not contribute to your well-being unless you feel pleasure about it. Another is all about desire-fulfilment. So unless you desired a massage, the pleasure of the massage per se would not contribute to your well-being. Then there is the objective list type - and here the list could be friendship, knowledge and pleasure. Now, only those things, wther you wanted them or not, would contribute. There are more but I hope you can see that this is, frankly, a bit odd.


For one thing, and not the most obvious thing, in many of these theories there is no distinction between what you feel know and what you feel as a whole and all things considered. Right now, I might be unhappy that I am at work. All things considered, though, I am glad that I have work.


The other problem is that these theories all seem to struggle with the balance between objective and subjective goods. And the way in which they influence each other. And, what's more, the way in which things can be good for you but that you recognise at one level but not at another.


A few examples...


I don't like running but I feel that going for a run is good for me. The running may indeed add a few extra months or even years to my unencumbered and mobile life. In addition, I do at times experience a burst of endorphins. It may add to my self-respect (in that I know at some level that I have the determination to maintain a habit I find challenging) and to my self-esteem (in that I look fitter). Now, all these reasons why running is good make the running an instrumental good (rather than a non instrumental good). What is non instrumental are the things it causes (pleasure through endorphins, objective list self respect and self esteem perhaps, desire fulfilment too through wanting to look fitter). There's also the claim that increased health (in that it means less pain), whether I cared about it or not, would surely have beneficial effects on well-being.


I am not being suitably rigorous in my discussion of this, but I wanted to sketch out, even in a very rough and rather unready way, the complexity of well-being.


I have read a paper by Shelly Kagan who acknowledges the failure of philosophers to consider the relevance of both the subject and the subject's life as a whole when theorising about well-being. I'm not sure how much further this debate has gone. Though perhaps when I have finished Anna Alexandrovna's book A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being I will have a better idea. Alexandrovna writes:


Philosophers of well-being spend more resources than appropriate chiselling out theories of well-being immune to counterexamples and at too abstract of a level. That is an exercise that science can safely ignore. Instead progress will come from a different kind of work—contextual theorising about what well-being amounts to in different circumstances that individuals and communities face.


That seems to me to be correct and timely.


I don't think that a person can be claimed to have a high-level of well-being if the experience of whatever they have that is deemed to entail that well-being does not matter to them or if they do not experience well-being. However, I also think that there is more to well-being that subjective affective responses.


There is a famous thought experiment on this topic posed by Robert Nozick:


Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? [...] Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think that it's all actually happening [...] Would you plug in?


The assumption is that this would not be a life well lived. You had not really written that novel and did not really have those friends. Another variant is that you live this life but after you are dead it turns out that all your so-called friends hated you and that the novel was a big con - it wasn't really published. Should an onlooker regard your life as less worthy because it was all a wicked joke? These examples suggest that there is more to well-being than what we feel - that the objective worth of achievements and benefits do matter.


However, I don't know that there is a straightforward solution. It might be better to have an experience-machine life than a life of misery in the real world. It might be better to have lived that hoax life than to have experienced the hatred of your friends and failure of your novel. The knowing about it being a hoax would certainly lessen the pleasure, but surely the pretense of friendship is less bad than real hatred?


In addition, though, surely it matters what the subject actually prioritises. If all I want is to write a great novel, then whatever other goods I have will be meaningless. If I simply enjoy pleasure, then I may as well spend my life eating chocolates and watching musicals.


And then comes a kind of moral imperative: should I not live a live that is of service or of benefit? And to whom? If I am only interested in my well-being then, unless my well-being is improved by being of service (which is could be if I were constituted to be especially giving or perhaps if I had a strongly relational sense of self and thus felt that the suffering of others mattered intrinsically), service would make my subjective experience miserable and thus decrease (albeit only by one person's experience) the world-wide sum of happiness. In which case, would I then have an ethical duty to alter my disposition - so that not only did I increase the happiness of others but also felt happiness for that reason?


It seems to me that all the different aspects of well-being are relevant to varying extents to various people in different circumstances. We are dealing here with something like a complex system rather than a digital algorithm. In the same way that physical health is affected by genes and environment, by things outside and inside control, so is psychological well-being. Further, just as what may be a physical problem for someone may not actually be deemed a negative by another, so some aspects of well-being might be irrelevant to some subjects. For example, losing teeth for a voice over artist is more problematic than it might be for a potter.


Look at the puddle in the picture - the pattern determined by so many factors, internal and external. And the image itself altered by where I stand to take the photograph - which changes what is reflected on the surface of the water. There is no single reality, no definition, although there is certainly a real puddle with real reflections. It's just you can't determine it through abstraction.


Maybe by the end of the module I'll have a few more answers.

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