Saturday, January 09, 2021

Philosopher Spotlight: Eden Lin

I'm delighted that Eden Lin agreed to contribute the following post to my "philosopher spotlight" series.  Enjoy!

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Most of my work has focused on the normative ethics of well-being or welfare, which investigates (i) what counts as a life that is going well or badly for the individual whose life it is, (ii) what determines how well or badly someone’s life is going, and (iii) what things are good or bad for individuals in the most basic way.

Theories of well-being typically purport to identify the basic goods and bads—the kinds of things that it is ultimately in or against an individual’s interests to possess and whose presence in a life makes it go well or badly. Pluralistic theories of well-being, on which there are either a plurality of basic goods or a plurality of basic bads, have been a recurring theme in my work. I argue that the correct theory of well-being is a pluralistic theory in “Pluralism about Well-Being” (Philosophical Perspectives, 2014), and I propose a particular way of understanding the distinction between pluralistic and monistic theories in “Monism and Pluralism” (The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being, 2016). In “The Subjective List Theory of Well-Being” (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2016), I argue that subjectivists about welfare, who claim that how well things are going for someone is entirely a matter of how satisfied their favorable attitudes are, have good reasons to abandon the monistic theories that they have traditionally defended and to endorse a pluralistic theory instead.

There are three other papers in which I consider how subjectivist theories of well-being should best be developed. In “Asymmetrism about Desire Satisfactionism and Time” (Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 7, 2017), I propose a new answer to the timing question: at what times does the satisfaction of one of your favorable attitudes benefit you if the times at which you have the attitude do not overlap with the times at which its object obtains? In “Why Subjectivists about Welfare Needn’t Idealize” (Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 2019), I argue that subjectivists needn’t say that the favorable attitudes whose satisfaction benefits you are the ones that you would have if you were fully informed, fully rational, or otherwise idealized. In “Attraction, Description and the Desire-Satisfaction Theory of Welfare” (Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2016), I argue against the view that if the satisfaction of someone’s desire benefits them, this is true in virtue of the fact that they could describe what appeals to them about the object of that desire.

The aforementioned work notwithstanding, I do not accept subjectivism. In “Against Welfare Subjectivism” (Noûs, 2017), I argue against nearly all existing subjectivist theories on the grounds that they have implausible implications about the well-being of newborn infants. Because I accept pluralism but reject subjectivism, I am inclined to believe that the correct theory of welfare is an objective list theory—a pluralistic theory on which at least one of the basic goods is not essentially tied to the subject’s favorable attitudes. But this does not mean that my work on how best to develop subjectivist theories has no implications for the kind of theory that I accept. Even if well-being is not entirely a matter of the satisfaction of favorable attitudes, it is plausible that at least one of the basic goods identified by the correct objective list theory will be something like desire satisfaction or goal achievement—a good that is essentially connected to favorable attitudes. The aforementioned work of mine gives us guidance on how best to understand these goods.

In some of my papers, I use thought experiments involving the experience machine—a device that gives its user a perfectly convincing simulation of reality. Although such thought experiments were long thought to refute hedonism (the view that a life goes well in proportion to how pleasant it is on balance), a number of philosophers have recently argued that it gives us no reason at all to reject that view. In “How to Use the Experience Machine” (Utilitas, 2016), I rebut their arguments, and I argue that the experience machine gives us reason to reject hedonism because it casts doubt on a thesis to which that theory is committed: that differences in subjects’ levels of well-being require differences in the phenomenology of their experiences. This thesis, which is known as experientialism or the experience requirement, is also my focus in “The Experience Requirement on Well-Being” (Philosophical Studies, forthcoming). There, I argue that the existing arguments for that thesis are not successful, and that a newer, more promising argument for it—one premised on the apparent fact that only sentient beings are capable of well-being—also fails. Because there do not appear to be good reasons to accept experientialism, and because the experience machine gives us reason to deny it, I conclude that we should reject experientialism and hedonism.

I have also written about the functions and scope of theories of well-being. Some theorists have recently suggested that hedonism and objective list theories are merely enumerative theories, while the desire theory is a merely explanatory theory. In “Enumeration and Explanation in Theories of Welfare” (Analysis, 2017), I argue that all of those theories are both enumerative and explanatory. Another question is whether the same theory of welfare is true of all welfare subjects or whether different theories are true of different subjects. In “Welfare Invariabilism” (Ethics, 2018), I defend the former view, and I explain how it allows us to rule out many of the going theories of welfare.

Because it is so plausible that pleasure is among the basic goods, my interest in well-being gives me an interest in the nature of pleasure. Theories of pleasure are traditionally divided into two camps. On phenomenological theories, pleasures are pleasures in virtue of the way they feel. On attitudinal theories, pleasures are pleasures in virtue of how they are related to the pro-attitudes of the subjects who feel them. In “Attitudinal and Phenomenological Theories of Pleasure” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2020), I answer a common objection to phenomenological theories, and I propose a hybrid view on which the main claims of both types of theory are true.

A secondary focus of my research thus far has been normative reasons for action—the sorts of reasons that justify or count in favor of the performance of particular actions. Many theories of reasons invoke the idea of promotion. For example, subjectivist (i.e., desire-based) theories claim that there is reason for you to promote the satisfaction of your desires, while value-based theories claim that there is reason for you to promote valuable states of affairs. But the nature of promotion is a matter of controversy. In “Simple Probabilistic Promotion” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2018), I explore the prospects of an account that has been neglected in the literature: to promote a state of affairs is to cause an increase in the probability that it will obtain.

I discuss the relationship between well-being and reasons for action in “Prudence, Morality, and the Humean Theory of Reasons” (The Philosophical Quarterly, 2015). I argue that a subjectivist theory of reasons cannot claim that there is always a reason for every agent to act prudently—even if welfare, and thus prudence, is understood in terms of the satisfaction of one’s desires. I also argue that a subjectivist theory cannot claim that there is always a reason for every agent to act morally.

Extant discussions of subjectivism about reasons for action have focused on presentist versions of the theory, on which reasons for present actions are grounded in present desires. In “Future Desires, the Agony Argument, and Subjectivism about Reasons” (The Philosophical Review, 2020), I motivate and investigate the prospects of futurist subjectivism, on which reasons for present actions are grounded in present or future desires. This theory has significant advantages over its presentist counterpart, but it faces a problem: because which desires I will have in the future can depend on what I do now, it must tell us which of my possible future desires give me reasons to promote their satisfaction now. I propose a solution to this problem, and I extend it to an analogous problem that arises for an important class of idealizing subjectivist views (i.e., views that ground your reasons in the desires that you would have if you were suitably idealized).

- Eden Lin


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