DF: A person is well-off to the extent that their desires are fulfilled.
Is this, or something similar, an adequate account of human flourishing? In this post I want to explore some objections to this view.
1) It might instead be proposed that there are certain objective conditions (perhaps arising from a universal human nature) that influence wellbeing regardless of one's desires. Perhaps love and friendship are examples of such intrinsic goods. We can imagine someone, call him 'Uber-Hermit', who has no desire whatsoever for human contact or company (perhaps through mental illness, or a mad scientist rewiring his brain). But don't we feel UH's life is missing something, without which he cannot truly flourish as a human being, no matter how many of his desires are fulfilled?
But perhaps we are biased here. Just because we place a huge importance on these things, doesn't necessarily mean everyone else ought to. Interpersonal relationships might well be central to our usual understanding of human flourishing, and we may then use this conceptual prototype as the basis for a normative framework; but it's not clear to me that the typical view is exhaustive of wellbeing in general. I think someone could live well despite their life seeming bizarre from a 'normal' person's perspective. So I'm not sure that we should be so quick to dismiss UH and the quality of his life.
2) In an old comment, Dan raised a very challenging objection:
Consider the businessman who wanted to become rich and successful. Yet the more successful and prosperous he became, the less satisfied he was. At the height of his success, he realized what he really wanted out of life, renounced his worldly goods, became a hermit, and was finally satisfied.
You could [...] say that the businessman did not really want material success. Rather, he wanted something else, and mistakenly believed in material success as a means to that end. This approach, however, comes perilously close to the question-begging claim that the businessman really desired his well-being.
This is definitely tricky. But perhaps we can make sense of it if we recall that people have a great many desires, only a small fraction of which they're explicitly aware of at any given time. Now, I think we should take the story at face value and concede that Businessman Bob genuinely desired material success (though he later changed his mind). However, there's no way that was his only desire. So perhaps we could say that in satisfying his materialistic desires, he became more aware of other desires he had that he'd previously neglected. (Because the success rang hollow, he finally noticed what he'd missed before.) Consequently, those latter desires became more important to him, and he began concentrating on fulfilling them instead.
This explanation would seem to fit the story in a way that's consistent with DF - though I'm not entirely sure that it avoids begging the question as warned. But it's the best I can think of right now. I guess another way out would be to claim that Bob didn't really learn anything about his wellbeing, he just changed his mind about what he wanted from life. His anti-materialistic desires were entirely new, not old 'hidden' ones. We've all changed our minds before, there's nothing particularly mysterious about that. (I dislike this response, however. I don't really want to deny that Bob learned something, and that he had previously been mistaken about his best interests.)
3) Another problem with DF is that it implies we can improve our lives by forcing ourselves to desire arbitrary true propositions, but this seems silly. ("Gee, I wish that grass was green. Oh goodie, it is! Ain't life grand!") Perhaps this can be explained away by suggesting that such whimsical desires, if genuine at all, would surely be very weak.
We clearly need to clarify our understand of DF so that the value of a fulfilled desire is proportional to the 'strength' of that desire (i.e. its importance to us). But is that enough to make the previous problem go away? What if we managed to induce in ourselves strong pre-fulfilled desires? Would this make us any better off? I'm not sure. On the one hand, it seems too arbitrary. But on the other, it seems plausible that if the world is just how you (really, really) want it, then that's a good thing for you. So I don't think this objection is decisive, though it is at least somewhat troubling.
4) Building on the previous point, one might argue that DF is too passive a view of welfare; we should replace it with a more 'active' view which recognises the importance of an agent's strivings. PEA Soup discusses a relevant paper by Simon Keller:
In the paper, Keller argues for the "Unrestricted View: An individual’s achieving her goals in itself contributes to her welfare regardless of what those goals are" (28). "The greater the quantity of productive effort that an individual successfully devotes to the achievement of a particular goal, the more that achievement contributes to her welfare" (36). And Keller clarifies the notions of "goal" and "achievement" as follows. "Taking something as a goal involves intending to put some effort into its achievement. Having a mere desire does not" (32). "[T]he Unrestricted View is concerned with the achieving, not the mere attaining, of goals... To achieve a goal is to have its attainment be due in part to your own efforts" (33).
Put like that, it does seem to me that goals are more important to our welfare than desires. Though we could bridge this gap. A goal is just a desire we intend to 'achieve' (by the above definition). So we could simply posit a second-order desire that our other desires are achieved and not merely attained. If this new desire was just the right strength, we could get identical results to Keller's theory, without needing to posit anything of intrinsic value beyond simple desire-fulfillment. This strategy may seem a bit ad hoc and unprincipled at first, but I don't think it's so terrible. After all, it does seem plausible that we really do desire that our actions in life are effective, that our wellbeing is in large part due to our own efforts, and so forth.
5) More from the same PEA Soup post:
The Unrestricted view explains why "not every desire is such that its [fulfillment] contributes to its holder’s welfare" (32). Take Parfit’s famous example. "You meet a stranger who tells you that he has a disease, and you form a desire that the stranger recover. You never see or hear of him again, but he does recover. Your desire, then, is [fulfilled], but that – surely – doesn’t make things better for you" (32).
I actually don't share that intuition. If the stranger's health is something you care strongly about, then his recovery makes the world the way you want it to be, and that's a good thing for you. I suspect the source of the skeptical intuition is due to how very weak we normally imagine this desire as being. (Most of us don't really care about strangers all that much.) And whether a very weak desire of ours is fulfilled or not has a vanishingly small influence on the totality of our wellbeing. Hence the intuition that the fulfillment of this particular desire won't affect how well-off we are.
Alternatively, one could make a distinction between "self-regarding" and "other-regarding" desires, and insist that only the former are relevant to your self-interest. I don't so much like that response, but see here for yet another complication involving other-regarding desires.
6) Temporal complications. These aren't really 'objections' as such, and I won't address them in any detail here (this post is too long already!), but they do raise problems that need to be sorted out one way or another. For example: does the fulfillment of your (present) future-regarding desires affect your present welfare? How about past desires that you no longer hold? One might even question whether we should care about our future interests.
7) How to treat thwarted desires when assessing welfare. (Another complication rather than objection.) Are these positively bad, or merely the absence of good? Suppose you desire that P, but P is false. Would you be better off to not have this desire at all, or doesn't it make any difference? Put another way, would we be better off if we desired less? (I take it Buddhists would answer in the affirmative.)
I'm attracted to the theoretical simplicity of DF, but concerned that it may prove too simple to do justice to our wide range of intuitions about welfare and human flourishing. However, the general 'desire fulfillment' approach is very flexible, so I think most of the challenges can be successfully met by modifying or clarifying aspects of the theory, as I attempted to do in my responses above. (I'd be very curious to hear how convincing others found these objections and my responses.) But of course too many complications would negate the original appeal of the theory. Perhaps my desire for an elegantly simple theory of welfare is not one that can be fulfilled?
Update: Jonathan suggests: "Plausibly, I think, desires aim for well-being – my desire is appropriate when the fulfillment of that desire would make me better off." That does sound plausible. But I'm reluctant to accept it until we have some alternative account of what constitutes well-being. Any ideas?
Actually, we might be able to have it both ways here. We can evaluate a desire against how well it would help us fulfill all our other desires. So we can reconcile DF with the idea that desires aim for wellbeing - it's just that this 'aim' presupposes some set of (other) desires to evaluate our wellbeing against. Sound plausible?