Some theories of well-being in philosophy and in psychology define people’s well-being in psychological terms. According to these theories, living well is getting what you want, feeling satisfied, experiencing pleasure, or the like. Other theories take well-being to be something that is not defined by our psychology; for example, they define well-being in terms of objective values or the perfection of our human nature. These two approaches present us with a trade-off: The more we define well-being in terms of people’s psychology, the less ideal it seems and the less it looks like something of real value that could be an important aim of human life. On the other hand, the more we define well-being in terms of objective features of the world that do not have to do with people’s psychological states, the less it looks like something that each of us has a reason to promote. In this paper I argue that we can take a middle path between these two approaches if we hold that well-being is an ideal but an ideal that is rooted in our psychology. The middle path that I propose is one that puts what people value at the center of the theory of well-being. In the second half of the paper I consider how the value-based theory I describe should be applied to real life situations.
- The beneficiary’s values are truly harmful
- The beneficiary could change
- There is an appropriate relationship between the helper and the beneficiary, defined in terms of: intimacy, trust, skills of communication, and the extent to which lives are intertwined
- The helper is in a good epistemic position with respect to the above.
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1. At least by my definition of well-being. There is some controversy about how this and related concepts should be used, but these controversies need not concern us here. The good for a person is what I mean to be talking about and the particular word used to refer to it is not of great importance.
2. Actual desire theory does allow some room for criticizing defective desires, for instance, on the grounds that satisfying one will cause one to have less overall desire satisfaction in the long term. See Heathwood (2005).
3. I defend a close relative of this view in more detail in Tiberius 2008.
4. This is an important topic in its own right and more needs to be said about how the value fulfillment theory makes sense of the possibility of error. I will say a little more about this shortly, but my main focus in this paper is on how the theory can be used for guidance.
5. For a more thorough discussion of this view of values and the research on what people value see Tiberius 2008.
6. For a similar approach to the relationship between values and well-being see Raibley 2010.
7. Raibley (2012) uses the notion of a “paradigm” where I prefer to talk about a model. I think it is just as useful and perhaps a bit more precise to think about a set of best lives for a person that is a model of well-being.
8. Of course, this is true for desire satisfaction theories too, but it is not often noticed as a challenge for the application of theory.
9. “Core values” are values that are more important, more central and/or more likely to be at least in part valued intrinsically. I think these features of values are a matter of degree; so, a particular value can be more or less core. Core values are often very general and need to be instantiated or specified in some particular way to be pursued
10. I was prompted to think about the difficulties involved in this kind of case by an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Living the Good Lie” (Swartz 2011).
Journal of Practical Ethics