Friday, May 22, 2015

"Objective Menu" Theories of Wellbeing

"Objective list" theories of wellbeing are easily misunderstood.  It's often assumed that such theories are committed to the implausible ideas that (i) the same things are good for everyone, regardless of their personal tastes and inclinations, and (ii) a good life must tick off every item on the list, and insofar as it misses one, the life thereby suffers from a significant lack.

These misunderstandings might be easily avoided with a little re-framing.  I take the core idea of objective theories of wellbeing to be that some personal projects are (inherently) more worth pursuing than others. (Becoming a happy vegetable, permanently hooked up to a passive "pleasure machine", does not make for an especially good life, even if that's what the individual in question most wants and enjoys.)  There's nothing in this core idea that requires everyone to have the same projects.  But the "list" metaphor can easily evoke this impression of a totalizing, one-size-fits-all approach.  A better metaphor, I think, would be that of a menu.


A menu lets you pick and choose, within constraints.  Not everything is on the menu.  If all you want to do is count blades of grass, or become a happy vegetable, then you may be out of luck. (Of course, objective theories can still account for why such an unfortunate person might yet be better off satisfying their perverse desires rather than having them frustrated: Frustration is bad in itself, and pleasure is certainly a good, even if not sufficient for a fully good life.  The important claim is just that they would do better yet to acquire a taste for the genuine goods that life has to offer.)  And not everyone has to pick the same things.  If you don't have room left for dessert, that isn't the end of the world.  One could say that there is a distinctive kind of value that you're missing out on, sure, but this isn't necessarily cause for any sort of regret. (If you relished the main course sufficiently, you might even find on reflection that adding dessert at the end -- good in itself though it is -- would not have added to the overall quality of your meal anyhow.)

I don't want to push the metaphor too far; it is merely a metaphor, and certainly has its limitations.  But I do think that talk of "objective menu" theories of wellbeing would tend to evoke a more accurate understanding of the view than talk of "objective lists" does, so will probably try it next time I teach on the topic...

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