By In Featured Philosophers, Normative Ethics, Uncategorized, Value Theory Comments (40)

Sophisticated Theories of Welfare (by Featured Philosopher Eden Lin)

In this post, I want to raise a problem for a kind of theory of welfare that has recently been on the rise. I will argue that because theories of this kind are false of newborn infants, we should think that they are also false of us.

Theories of welfare differ with respect to the amount of cognitive or psychological sophistication that they require on the part of the subjects to which they are meant to apply. If hedonism is the correct theory of your welfare, then a particular thing is basically good for you—good for you in the most fundamental, non-derivative way—if and only if and because it is a pleasure experienced by you. Thus, if hedonism is true of you, then the capacity for pleasure is the only capacity that you must possess to be positive in welfare. If desire satisfactionism is the correct theory of your welfare, then a particular thing is basically good for you if and only if and because it is the obtaining object of one of your desires. Thus, if this theory is true of you, then the capacity to have desires is the only capacity that you must possess to be positive in welfare. Since these two capacities are relatively simple, we can adopt the convenient (but potentially misleading) convention of calling these theories simple theories.

By contrast, if the correct theory of your welfare is a sophisticated theory, then a particular thing is basically good for you only if you are related to it in a way that involves a fair amount of cognitive or psychological sophistication. Consider a view on which a particular is basically good for you if and only if and because it is the obtaining object of one of your valuing attitudes, and on which valuing something requires (among other things) believing that it is good. If this view is true of you, then in order to be positive in welfare, you need to have a fairly sophisticated capacity: the capacity to value things, which partly consists in the capacity to have evaluative beliefs. As I read them, a number of philosophers have proposed sophisticated theories—including Donald Bruckner, Dale Dorsey, Connie Rosati, Valerie Tiberius, Wayne Sumner, and Benjamin Yelle.

Notice that whether a theory is simple or sophisticated in my sense depends on whether it requires sophisticated cognitive or psychological capacities on the part of the subjects to which it is meant to apply. The value-centered view that I just sketched is sophisticated in my sense even though it has an uncomplicated monistic structure. Likewise, an objective list theory on which pleasure or desire satisfaction is one of the entries on the list would be simple in my sense regardless of how many basic goods it enumerates.

A moment’s reflection reveals that no sophisticated theory can be true of all welfare subjects. Many subjects (e.g., many dogs and babies) are positive in welfare even though they lack the sophisticated capacities that those theories invoke. The claim that some such theory is true of those subjects falsely implies that none of them is positive in welfare. Thus, anyone who defends a sophisticated theory is best interpreted as merely claiming that the theory is true of the subjects that possess the capacities that it invokes. For any minimally plausible sophisticated theory, cognitively typical human adults will be among those subjects.

I will now argue that because sophisticated theories are false of certain psychologically simple welfare subjects, we should also think that they are false of us. (In Against Welfare Subjectivism, a paper that has been published online in Noûs, I apply this argument to sophisticated subjectivist theories. The argument generalizes, however.)

Let me grant for the sake of the argument that a theory of welfare can be true of some subjects but false of others. If this is the case, then from the mere fact that there are some subjects of which no sophisticated theory is true, it does not follow that no such theory is true of us. Notice, however, that some of the subjects of whom sophisticated theories are false are newborn infants who gradually mature into cognitively typical human adults. This fact suggests the following argument for the view that no sophisticated theory is true even of us.

Consider a newborn infant, Baby, who will gradually mature into a cognitively typical human adult. The correct theory of his welfare is not sophisticated, since he is capable of being positive in welfare even though he lacks sophisticated capacities. Instead, the correct theory of his welfare is one that is simple in my sense (e.g., hedonism). If some sophisticated theory T is nonetheless true of cognitively typical human adults, then this theory must become true of Baby at some stage in his development—presumably, the time at which he acquires the sophisticated capacities invoked by T. Now, suppose that Baby is currently high in welfare in virtue of possessing large quantities of some kind that the correct theory of his welfare deems to be a basic good, and only negligible quantities of any kind that this theory deems to be a basic bad. Imagine, for example, that hedonism is the correct theory of his welfare and that he is currently high in welfare in virtue of possessing large quantities of pleasure and only negligible quantities of pain. Imagine, further, that his life remains hedonically unchanged as he matures, well beyond the time at which he acquires the sophisticated capacities that T considers necessary for well-being. If T is true of cognitively typical human adults, then from that time onward, the correct theory of Baby’s welfare is no longer hedonism, but T. To determine how well off Baby is in the period of time immediately after he acquires those capacities, we must evaluate that period using T. Thus, Baby’s level of welfare during that period could differ greatly from what it was previously, even though his life has remained hedonically unchanged.

Here is the problem. Suppose that for some period of time after Baby acquires the capacities that T deems necessary for well-being, he fails to exercise those capacities. For example, if the relevant capacity is the capacity to value things, imagine that Baby does not value anything for some period of time after he becomes capable of doing so. If T is true of Baby during this period, then no particulars are basically good for him then, and his level of welfare during this period must therefore be, at best, zero. But it is implausible that Baby’s welfare could go from being very high to being neutral or negative simply because he has acquired certain capacities. Prior to acquiring them, his life was going very well thanks to the very favorable balance of pleasure over pain that it contained. This hedonic balance has remained unchanged: his life still contains the same amounts of pleasure and pain. Why, then, would he now be neutral or negative in welfare? The fact that he has acquired some capacities cannot plausibly explain this dramatic decrease in his level of welfare.

To summarize, here is the problem that I have raised for sophisticated theories. No such theory is true of newborn human infants. If some such theory is nonetheless true of cognitively typical human adults, then a subject’s level of welfare can go from being very high to being negative or neutral simply because the subject has acquired a capacity. It is not plausible that this can occur. Thus, we should believe that no sophisticated theory is true of us. Instead, we should think that the correct theory of our welfare is a simple theory—one that requires only simple psychological capacities on the part of the subjects to which it applies.

Eden Lin

40 Responses to Sophisticated Theories of Welfare (by Featured Philosopher Eden Lin)

  1. David Sobel says:

    Eden,

    I completely agree that a theory of welfare that applies plausibly to all welfare recipients, including dogs and infants, has a serious advantage over a theory that only applies plausibly to a limited number of more sophisticated creatures. I myself would be tempted to say that the views you label as problematically sophisticated might well be able to be amended or supplemented so as to avoid much of the problem you envisage. Suppose, for example, one held that quite generally getting what a creature values benefits her. One could then add that more simple creatures value things in a more simple way than more sophisticated creatures do. Frankfurt had a view according to which one’s highest order desires which are not repudiated at a higher level determine what that agent cares about. Without signing on to the particulars of that story, I think it offers a plausibly flexible account of what it is for different sorts of creatures to value something. Admittedly, this is but a gesture in a direction, not a proposal. Still, I think it a gesture in a plausible direction.

  2. David Sobel says:

    One more thought. As I see it, hedonism can either go in a “flavor of sensation” direction or a “desired consciousness” direction. If it goes in the latter direction, then the view still owes an account of the relevant sort of desire that dogs and adults have. Perhaps this is not as severe a problem for such views as the problem you point out for sophisticated views since perhaps more sophisticated attitudes towards consciousness are not relevant. I am not sure. I wonder if you think that sort of hedonism retains some of the sort of probs you discuss? The other sort of hedonism would not have the worries you discuss, but I myself think its probs are much worse.

  3. Ben Bramble says:

    Hi Eden,

    This is a nice worry. As you know, I’m no subjectivist about well-being, but the following response seems pretty good to me: (i) the well-being determining desires/values are not one’s actual ones, but just those one would have if one were better informed and psychologically beefed up in various ways, and (ii) non-human animals, babies, etc., while they might not have any desires/values of the relevant kind, would have some if they were psychologically beefed up. You might object that such beings could not survive such a process of cognitive enhancement (that the beefed up beings wouldn’t be them in the relevant sense, and so that their desires would have no authority). But it seems plausible to me to think that these beefed up beings would be even *more* them. (Not only can human babies survive such a process, most of them do.)

    Ben.

  4. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Regarding your first comment: I think that a view of the sort you describe would avoid the problem that I raise precisely because it would not be a sophisticated theory in my sense. If valuing something just amounts to having a desire for it that is not contested at a higher order, then any creature that is capable of desire will be capable of valuing. (Indeed, any creature who is capable of first-order desire but incapable of higher-order desires will count as valuing everything that it desires.) So, on this conception of valuing, the view that the realization of your values is the only basic good is simple enough to be true even of newborn babies. Thus, we won’t need to say that this view becomes true of human beings at a certain stage in their development, and cases of the sort I presented won’t arise. For these reasons, I agree with you that those who defend sophisticated theories should consider endorsing a theory like this one instead. I suspect, though, that many of them would resist this move (perhaps because they find the Frankfurtian picture of valuing too permissive).

    Regarding your second comment: I’m inclined to think that if a desire-based theory of pleasure is true, then the relevant sort of desire — the sort that grants some experiences the status of pleasures — will be one that is cognitively simple enough for newborn babies to have. If this turned out to be false, and if a desire-based theory of pleasure turned out to be true, then hedonism would be a sophisticated theory, and it would be vulnerable to the objection I’ve given.

  5. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, that would be one way to try to get around this problem. A view of this sort would not be sophisticated in my sense, since it would require sophisticated capacities on the part of the subject whose welfare we are evaluating — even though it would require sophisticated capacities on the part of that subject’s idealized counterpart. (If I recall correctly, Dale Dorsey goes in for idealization here. So, it may be have been misleading for me to categorize him as a sophisticated theorist. Sorry, Dale!)

    I would not be inclined to object that the newborn baby’s idealized counterpart is numerically distinct from the baby. But I have other worries about idealizing when the welfare subject is a newborn baby. No fully informed and experienced subject has a personality that is anything like that of a newborn baby. So, on the sort of view you are describing, whether something is basically good for a newborn depends on whether it is desired or valued by an entity whose personality is vastly different from that of the newborn. This strikes me as both implausible and inconsistent with the spirit of subjectivism. (I say more about this in the paper that I mentioned in my post.) There are also a number of other worries about idealizing (raised by philosophers like Rosati, Velleman, and Sobel) that make me think that it’s not an especially promising move.

  6. Nick Smyth says:

    Is it possible that the force of this objection depends on the use of such words as “dramatic” in describing the change? On any plausible theory of actual human development, the kinds of capacities we’re talking about will take years to fully develop. Having spent some time around both 4 year-olds and 14 year-olds, I do not find it at all counter-intuitive to suggest that the former are much better off than the latter, simply because a 14 year old has just finished acquiring a kind of capacity which makes welfare more demanding. But this is not a “dramatic” change, it’s a gradual one.

    Importantly, though, I think the defender of this view has to say that the question of welfare in the intervening periods has no clear answer. But that’s OK, since it’s probably what we have to say about similar concepts (autonomy, for example).

  7. Matty Silverstein says:

    “But it is implausible that Baby’s welfare could go from being very high to being neutral or negative simply because he has acquired certain capacities. Prior to acquiring them, his life was going very well thanks to the very favorable balance of pleasure over pain that it contained. This hedonic balance has remained unchanged: his life still contains the same amounts of pleasure and pain. Why, then, would he now be neutral or negative in welfare? The fact that he has acquired some capacities cannot plausibly explain this dramatic decrease in his level of welfare.”

    Eden, could you say more about why this is implausible? Acquiring new capacities often involves becoming a new sort of thing, and it does not seem implausible that one sort of thing can have different standards of well-being than another.

  8. Hi Eden,

    On the sort of naturalistic approach that I favor, it is true that all welfare-subjects must have something in common with one another. However, this does not require that the same theory of welfare apply to all particular welfare-subjects. This is because—on my view, at any rate—theories of welfare specify concrete conditions that are potential direct difference-makers when it comes to well-being, and these features may differ for different sorts of organisms. Indeed, they may differ for the same sort of organism at different points on its developmental trajectory.

    (By analogy, although knowing subjects all have something in common as knowers, the reliable belief-forming mechanisms—and forms of awareness—used by birds and lizards and cats and chimpanzees and human infants may differ significantly from one another and from the belief-forming mechanisms and forms of awareness used by adult human beings. Therefore, which concrete conditions constitute reliably-generated awareness of the world differ from organism to organism.)

    It is indeed counter-intuitive that a human being’s welfare-level would spike or plummet as various capacities come online (including the capacity to value in the reflective way described by Frankfurt, and refined for the welfare context by theorists like Tiberius, Dorsey, and myself). And so it is a constraint on our theorizing that we identify building blocks of well-being for humans at different points in their ontogeny in such a way that we avoid this conclusion. I agree that there are a lot of details to fill in, here.

    But it seems to me sufficiently clear that sophisticated theories are true of adult human beings. That is: some of the things that are directly good for adult human beings involve the applications of their sophisticated capacities. This does not rule out some form of pluralism that includes these basic bearers of welfare-value among others (e.g., pleasure, desire-satisfaction, health specified using Boorse’s or Hausman’s theory, etc.). But pluralism is not the only sort of story that can be told, here, and in my view, it is not the most plausible one. At any rate, the challenge for welfare theorists is to accommodate this data-point (viz., that it is good for adults to realize their values) *and* the data-point that you have identified (viz., that maturation does not involve sudden spikes or valleys in well-being).

    As you know, I develop many of these ideas in the book manuscript on which I am currently working.

  9. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Nick,

    While I did use the word “dramatic” to describe the change in welfare that I find implausible, I don’t think I described that change as sudden (or anything like that). Arguably, a change can be both dramatic and gradual. If that’s right, then I didn’t exclude the possibility that the relevant change is gradual. This quibble notwithstanding, I take your larger point to be the following. When considering the case as I have described it, it is natural to imagine that the relevant sophisticated capacity is suddenly acquired, and hence that Baby’s welfare suddenly goes from being very high to being neutral or negative. But this is psychologically unrealistic. In a more realistic version of the case, the relevant capacity is acquired gradually, and the decrease in welfare is correspondingly gradual. And it’s not so implausible to suppose that Baby’s welfare might gradually go from being very high to being neutral or negative simply because he has gradually acquired a new capacity.

    Perhaps the force of the objection is slightly diminished when we focus on the gradual case, but I don’t think this makes that big a difference. The only thing that changes throughout the entire period that we are considering is that Baby gradually acquires a sophisticated capacity. Everything else in his life, including his very favorable balance of pleasure over pain, remains entirely unchanged. Even if we suppose that his welfare diminishes gradually, it remains true that at every time by which Baby has fully acquired the capacity, his welfare is neutral or negative — even though the conditions in virtue of which he was formerly high in welfare (viz., the favorable balance of pleasure over pain) still obtain. This is still implausible, I think.

    Besides, when we’re thinking about the implications of a view, we need not limit ourselves to cases that are realistic. Imagine a case in which Baby does suddenly acquire the relevant sophisticated capacity (perhaps because a wizard magically accelerates his development). In that case, his welfare does undergo a large and sudden drop — assuming that a sophisticated theory becomes true of him when he acquires that capacity. If it’s implausible that his welfare might undergo such a large and sudden drop (as I think it is), then it’s implausible that a sophisticated theory becomes true of him when he acquires the capacity.

  10. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Eden – thanks for the interesting post!

    As I see it, there are two distinctions at play. Simple and sophisticated theories of welfare (W1 and W2, respectively), and simple and sophisticated mental lives (M1 and M2, respectively). The worry, if I understand you right, is that W2 must apply to creatures with M2 and cannot apply to creatures with M1, so W2 can’t be true of creatures with only M1, including infants. W2 in particular might require “valuing things, which partly consists in the capacity to have evaluative beliefs.” I take it that evaluative beliefs, as you understand them, are part of M2 and not M1 (which is why some version of Frankfurt won’t help, since desires are present in M1).

    But it’s not clear to me that you can’t think W2 can be applied to creatures with only M1. The question, put in your terms, is whether infants have evaluative beliefs, and in my own terms, the question is whether infants have evaluative representations (where beliefs are a subset of mental representations).

    Might infants be capable of evaluative representations? I think so, given that i) infants have emotions, and ii) emotions have evaluative content. You might wonder how infants could have emotions with evaluative content, and part of the answer is that the content need not be conceptual, and in fact, need not be propositional. (That there are mental states with nonconceptual content is a fairly common view in the philosophy of mind, and the view that there is also nonpropositional content is, as far as I can see, a view of growing popularity). In short, it looks like infants (and other non-linguistic creatures), though only possessed of M1, can nonetheless have evaluative representations (e.g. in the form of emotions). Further, since they can have evaluative representations, W2 might apply to them after all (probably depending on the particular version of W2).

    What of evaluative beliefs? Again, that will depend on what beliefs require. On a fairly standard view in phil mind, infants and non-human animals are capable of beliefs (in part because those beliefs lack conceptual content).

    In short, the worry here is that you’re supposing that W2 requires M2 but it may not; depending on the particulars of W2, it may only require M1, which applies to infants. Of course, as an infants capacity for evaluative representations grows (e.g. they acquire concepts and thus emotions and beliefs with conceptual content), so too will their capacity to value and so will what contributes to their welfare.

  11. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Matty,

    My judgment that the drop in welfare that I have described is implausible is not based on a rejection of the idea that different theories of welfare are true of subjects with different natures and capacities. (Elsewhere, I have argued against this idea, but I don’t rely on any of this material in my post.) In the present context, I am happy to grant that as a creature acquires more and more capacities, the list of kinds that are basic goods for that creature may expand. For example, perhaps values realization was not a basic good for Baby before he acquired the capacity to value things, but it is a basic good for him after he acquires that capacity. If this counts as a case in which “one sort of thing has different standards of well-being than another,” then I am (at least in the present context) not opposed to the idea that the standards of well-being for an entity can depend on the kind of thing it is. (Notice that the view that Baby’s list of basic goods expands in this way does not have the implication that I found implausible.)

    I find it implausible that Baby’s welfare drops so much in response to the acquisition of a capacity because I have an intuition that this can’t happen. I also have the closely-related intuition that something that is basically good for a subject can’t lose its basic goodness for that subject simply because the subject has acquired a new capacity. (By contrast, I don’t have the intuition that something that isn’t basically good for a subject can acquire basic goodness for that subject simply because the subject has acquired a new capacity.) In other words, I have the intuition that a subject’s acquiring a capacity cannot put in place a new necessary condition on basic goodness for that subject (though it could perhaps put in place a new sufficient condition).

    I concede that this is not the most satisfying answer. Do you not have any of these intuitions, even when you keep firmly in mind the fact that they are compatible with the more general view that different theories of welfare can be true of subjects of different kinds?

  12. Eden Lin says:

    Sorry: in my response to Matty, that should say: “(By contrast, I don’t have the intuition that something that isn’t basically good for a subject CAN’T acquire basic goodness for that subject simply because the subject has acquired a new capacity.)”

  13. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Jason,

    I think it’s fairly plausible that “some of the things that are directly good for adult human beings involve the applications of their sophisticated capacities.” (I’m not sure I’d say that this is a datum, but I do find it plausible.) Even if this is true, however, it would not follow that some sophisticated theory is true of human adults. That’s because, as I define them, sophisticated theories are ones on which *no* particular is basically good for a subject of the relevant kind unless the subject is related to it in a way that involves a fair amount of cognitive or psychological sophistication. A pluralistic theory of the sort you describe, on which some goods require sophistication but others do not, is a simple theory according to my admittedly idiosyncratic use of these terms.

    Near the beginning of your comment, you resist the view that the same theory of welfare applies to all welfare subjects. As you know, and as I alluded to in my reply to Matty, I accept this view. But I want to emphasize that the argument in my post does not presuppose this view. (See my reply to Matty for some further details.)

    From what I remember, your theory of welfare has strong affinities with the views that I’ve criticized here, but it differs from those views in ways that enable it to evade my objection. I’m looking forward to reading the book when you have a draft of it!

  14. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Reid,

    That’s interesting. I did assume that a newborn baby can’t believe anything to be good. I guess I assumed this because I thought it followed from the further assumption that a newborn baby can’t have the concept of goodness. (I’m talking here about actual newborn babies, not ones who have been enhanced by science or magic. Presumably, the latter could believe that some things are good.) As I see it, my reasons for thinking that a newborn baby can’t believe anything to be good are similar to my reasons for thinking that a newborn baby can’t believe anything to be (say) undemocratic: it is too primitive to possess a concept that it would need to possess in order to have such a belief.

    I’m not sure I followed everything you wrote. You claimed that infants are capable of evaluative representations. You also claimed that infants are capable of beliefs. Assuming that these two claims are true, does it follow that infants are capable of evaluative beliefs?

    In any case, I take your larger point: if I have overestimated how much sophistication is really required by sophisticated theories, then I may have underestimated the number of subjects of which such theories can be true. I should mention, though, that no sophisticated theorist who is familiar with my argument has responded by claiming that their view is true of newborn infants.

  15. Reid Blackman says:

    Just a quick clarification. By W1 and W2, I meant W1 to include theories of welfare like hedonism and desire satisfaction, and by W2 I meant theories of welfare that require, in some way, some evaluative mental states on the part of the creature whose welfare is under discussion. By M1 I intended mental states like desires, sensations, and nonconceptual propositional attitudes (and maybe nonconceptual nonpropositional attitudes and conceptual nonpropositional attitudes). I take it that such states i) are had by infants and ii) can have evaluative content. By M2 I meant conceptual propositional attitudes. The basic objection was to thinking that endorsers of W2 must presuppose that the evaluative attitudes they posit as essential to welfare can only be found in mental states of the sort found in M2.

  16. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Eden,

    I’m not sufficiently familiar with the literature on welfare to say, so perhaps you’re right that all extant versions of the view you have in mind do take it that the evaluative representations their theories make essential use of are beliefs, where (they take it) beliefs have conceptual content. My point, though, is that they need not do that. Put differently, the question is whether those extant versions of the theor can change their view from ‘evaluative beliefs’ to ‘evaluative representations with conceptual OR nonconceptual content’. If they can do so without changing anything else about their views (why couldn’t they?), then your objection won’t work (as far as I can see…for now!).

    I don’t think infants have the concept ‘good’. In fact, I don’t think they have any concepts. But I do think they’re capable of nonconceptual evaluative representations. For instance, their fear represents something as threatening or dangerous (without using the concept ‘threat’ or ‘danger’), disgust represents something as foul (without the concept ‘foul’), and so on for the “basic” emotions (those emotions shared by human infants and non-human animals). As their conceptual capacities develop (in the case of infants), so too does their emotional repertoire (e.g. they eventually acquire the concepts of ‘money’ and ‘stock market’ and so on and become capable of having fear of a crashing stock market).

  17. Jack Woods says:

    I’m with Matty. There’s loads of sensible literature pointing out that increased capacities makes our position worse, not better…

  18. Jack Woods says:

    Literature literature, that is!

  19. Hi Eden,

    Thanks for your response.

    (1) Perhaps I was misreading your conclusion. You write: “the correct theory of our welfare is a simple theory—one that requires *only* simple psychological capacities on the part of the subjects to which it applies” (emphasis mine).

    I initially took this to mean that, on the true theory, the building blocks of well-being will none of them involve sophisticated capacities. And if you were saying this, I thought invariabilism (the view that the same theory is true of all subjects) might be a suppressed premise. But perhaps your point was merely that the possession of certain simple capacities must be sufficient for an entity to count as a welfare-subject on the true theory of welfare. If that is all you meant, I do not disagree.

    (2) You remember correctly: the theory that I defend does not qualify as a sophisticated theory in your special sense (i.e., it does not say that all basic goods must be related to one in a way that involves a fair amount of cognitive or psychological sophistication). My theory allows that there are *some* conditions and activities that are directly beneficial / harmful for adult human persons that do not involve cognitively sophisticated capacities.

    (3) That said, I think my view is still at odds with some of the claims you make, here. When certain sophisticated capacities come online and become part of one’s motivational / evaluational repertoire, I think this introduces new complications. Roughly speaking, once one is exercising one’s sophisticated capacities, it becomes necessary that one’s pleasures and lower-level drives are in harmony with one’s consciously values and judgments. In particular, it is no longer intrinsically beneficial to satisfy mere desires if their satisfaction is at odds with the realization of one’s values. More broadly, for normal adults, functioning as a valuing agent sets a condition on which lower-level forms of conation are beneficial. So the mere *acquisition* of a capacity does not introduce a new necessary condition on benefit, but the normal use of that capacity does introduce something like this.

    To defend these ideas requires situating a theory of adult human welfare within a broader account that also says something about the welfare of infants, the welfare of human beings as they transition from infant to person, and the welfare of various sorts of plants and animals. Working all this out, I think, will require defense of the idea that “one sort of thing can have different standards of well-being than another,” as Matty puts it. So while your argument here does not require denying that different theories might be true of different subjects, I think the best alternative picture involves affirming, developing, and defending that view.

  20. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Jack,

    I agree that acquiring a capacity can make you worse off. This could happen if the acquisition of the capacity leads to a less favorable balance of pleasure over pain in your life, or a less favorable balance of desire satisfaction over frustration, etc. It is fairly plausible that adults’ lives are hedonically worse than children’s in part because their sophisticated capacities increase their worries and interfere with their ability to enjoy the simple things in life. But in the case that I described, everything else about the life remains unchanged: the only difference is that a sophisticated capacity has been acquired (though not yet exercised). What I find implausible is that the acquisition of such a capacity could make you worse off by making it true that none of the things that were previously basically good for you have that status anymore, even though your life still contains as many of those things as it did previously (and no more of the things that were previously bad for you). Do any works of literature suggest that this is plausible?

  21. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Jason,

    Regarding (1): yes, when I said that a simple theory “requires only simple psychological capacities on the part of the subjects to which it applies,” I intended to say that according to such a theory, the relevant subjects need only have simple capacities in order to be positive in welfare. This leaves it open that some of the basic goods are such that those subjects need sophisticated capacities in order to access them.

    Regarding (3): why do you think that “once one is exercising one’s sophisticated capacities, … it is no longer intrinsically beneficial to satisfy mere desires if their satisfaction is at odds with the realization of one’s values”? Why aren’t you satisfied with the view that although it is still intrinsically beneficial to satisfy such desires, one would be better off overall if one refrained from satisfying them, since their satisfaction prevents one from realizing one’s values (and values are more important to welfare than mere desires)?

  22. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Reid,

    I don’t know whether those who defend sophisticated theories would be happy to modify their views in the way that you suggest. Some of them, I suspect, would resist the idea that the simple analogues of their sophisticated goods are themselves good. Hopefully, we will hear from some of these theorists in this discussion.

  23. Dale Dorsey says:

    Hi Eden,

    We part company here: “But it is implausible that Baby’s welfare could go from being very high to being neutral or negative simply because he has acquired certain capacities.”

    I find this utterly plausible, because generally I think that you haven’t adequately described what’s going on when you acquire the relevant capacities. In my view (and I suspect in something like Valerie’s view) the change from something like hedonism to something more sophisticated (I like that my view is sophisticated—I know that’s not what you mean but just give me this one will you?!?) is the change involved from becoming a “non-valuer” (i.e., an agent that lacks the capacity to maintain any valuing attitudes) to a “valuer” (i.e., an agent that has that capacity). Now, what does it mean to not exercise one’s capacity to value if one has that capacity? Does it mean that one is a “non-valuer”? Well, no. Because they have that capacity. Rather, at best what one is not exercising is the capacity to take a valuing or disvaluing attitude toward particular things. But in valuing subjects (i.e., those that possess the capacity) failing to take pro- or con-attitudes toward particular things just is maintaining a particular evaluative valence: indifference. And so the point you describe is one at which you are a non-valuer (where your attitudes are not compatible with any evaluative valence) to one at which you are in fact indifferent to the things you obtain. But if you’re indifferent to the things you obtain, then it seems to me there’s very little positive welfare to be had.

    Think of it this way. Some lines have no slope. Other lines have zero slope. When you’re a non-valuer, your valuing attitudes are of the “no slope” variety; it’s just an error to say that you have any evaluative valence and hence a view like mine won’t apply to you. But when you obtain the capacity to value, your evaluative attitudes go from the “no slope” variety to the “zero slope” variety. And if you’re a valuer, and you have valuing attitudes that yield a zero evaluative valence for all things, sounds to me like you have a very low level of welfare, indeed. (That is, zero.)

  24. Jack Woods says:

    Ah, sorry. I was responding to this “I also have the closely-related intuition that something that is basically good for a subject can’t lose its basic goodness for that subject simply because the subject has acquired a new capacity”

    and thinking something like:

    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians)

    (As well as tons of stories of lost innocence) suggest that the acquisition of new capacities can dull the goodness of old things.

    I’ll think more about it.

  25. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Dale,

    I agree that if a valuer does not value anything, then her valuing attitudes are indifferent toward everything. But I don’t agree that the valuer herself is therefore indifferent toward everything. She might be getting lots of pleasure or satisfying a lot of her desires. If her life is chock full of things that she strongly wants, then she is not altogether indifferent to those things (even if there is a particular sophisticated pro-attitude, valuing, that she fails to have toward them). So, even if we accept the subjectivist thought that nothing can be basically good for you if you’re indifferent toward it, it won’t follow that nothing is basically good for this person.

    Presumably, your next move will be to say that when it comes to valuers, pro- and con-attitudes that are not valuing attitudes don’t matter (even though such attitudes matter when it comes to subjects who are too primitive to be valuers). But I don’t see why we should think this. Perhaps valuing attitudes matter more in valuers than non-valuing pro-attitudes do, but why deny that the latter matter at all?

    Think about it this way. Before Baby acquired the capacity to value things, he was an experiencing, desiring creature. When he acquired that capacity, he also became a valuing creature, but he didn’t thereby cease to be an experiencing, desiring creature. So if (as you seem to be assuming) what’s good for a creature depends on the kind of creature it is, we should think that what’s happened is that the list of basic goods for Baby has expanded: valuing is now on the list, even though it wasn’t before. We shouldn’t think that the list of basic goods for Baby has been altogether replaced by a new list. (This connects up with some points I made in response to Matty.)

    For these reasons, it seems to me that the fact that Baby has become a valuer (and indeed, a valuer whose valuing attitudes are indifferent toward everything) can’t plausibly explain the kind of decrease in welfare that he has undergone.

  26. Why can’t we define welfare in terms of both hedonic and reflective criteria? It would be a (possibly weighted) sum of these. If a person does not have the capacity to develop reflective criteria, then there wouldn’t be any. Likewise if a person has the capacity but doesn’t use it. As these reflective criteria get created, they become more important. Note that it makes sense to think that these kinds of criteria can be traded off: people forego sex to maintain a reflective goal of loyalty or chastity; they forego food for the sake of their future health or an acquired ideal of beauty; and so on, up to some limit of willingness to sacrifice in each case.

    I think that this sort of view is held by Peter Singer, with the reflective criteria being those included in “personhood”. It is certainly my own view.

  27. Hi Eden,
    In brief reply to your question: I think that a “values-conditioned” or “agency-conditioned” pluralism—where the subject’s values or functioning as a valuer is taken to provide the context within which other forms of positive affect, conation, and health are beneficial—delivers more plausible judgments about cases that clearly distinguish this view from a straight, additive pluralism featuring identical “sources” of well-being. The former view also seems better suited to capture individual “authority” over one’s own welfare. Finally, it is more theoretically unified, as valuing activity of a certain sort (or, if it is helpful to think of it this way, a Humean-Nietzschean sort of agency) is its organizing principle. However, at this point, score-keeping between these two very similar theories becomes a little bit tricky, and the cases used to distinguish between them feel a little artificial.

  28. Dale Dorsey says:

    Hi Eden,

    I’m not sure I understand this: “I agree that if a valuer does not value anything, then her valuing attitudes are indifferent toward everything. But I don’t agree that the valuer herself is therefore indifferent toward everything.” It seems to me that a true theory of valuing is conceptually bound to account for all cases in which the “valuer herself” is genuinely indifferent. Now, you might want to argue that a sophisticated theory of VALUING is false, but I took it you wanted to grant me that a sophisticated theory of valuing is true. But that’s fine. In which case, one thing the defender of a sophisticated view might say is that valuing may be very different in non-sophisticated agents (I realize this is a different move than the one I suggested earlier). But if we’re holding fixed the nature of valuing (i.e., sophisticated) I simply don’t see the pull for taking seriously pro-attitudes that are non-valuing.

    You say: “Before Baby acquired the capacity to value things, he was an experiencing, desiring creature. When he acquired that capacity, he also became a valuing creature, but he didn’t thereby cease to be an experiencing, desiring creature. So if (as you seem to be assuming) what’s good for a creature depends on the kind of creature it is, we should think that what’s happened is that the list of basic goods for Baby has expanded: valuing is now on the list, even though it wasn’t before.” First, I don’t know why you’re reading my as assuming that goodness depends on creature-kinds, except perhaps in just a trivial way (i.e., the fact that someone is a valuer can affect the account of intrinsic value for her). Second, I deny the inference. Becoming a valuer is a tremendous alteration in one’s evaluative outlook on the world; it’s like gaining language or literacy or numeracy. The mere fact that you have the old capacities seems to me irrelevant IF one is a valuer and IF those old capacities don’t constitute valuing.

    I suspect you won’t agree.

  29. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    We could. If I’m understanding you correctly, you are describing a view on which there are at least two basic goods: something cognitively simple (e.g., pleasure) and something cognitively sophisticated (e.g., values realization). A view like this is simple in my sense because it doesn’t say that everything that is basically good for you must be related to you in a way that involves sophisticated capacities. So, it is a member of the general class of views that I am arguing for in my post.

  30. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Dale,

    I have been taking for granted an assumption that seems to be universally shared among those who think about valuing: someone can desire or like something without valuing it. When you combine this assumption with the claim that anyone who desires or likes something is not altogether indifferent toward it, you get the result that failing to value something isn’t sufficient for being altogether indifferent toward it: you can be non-indifferent toward something even though you don’t value it. I’m puzzled by your suggestion that “a true theory of valuing is conceptually bound to account for all cases in which the “valuer herself” is genuinely indifferent.” Given that anyone who desires or likes something is not indifferent toward it, that suggestion would seem to imply that desiring or liking something is sufficient for valuing it. But this is implausible, as everyone in the literature seems to agree. A drug addict could desire to take a drug without valuing his taking it.

    So, I am happy to grant that a sophisticated theory of valuing is true. But for the reasons I just gave, I reject your suggestion that “a true theory of valuing is conceptually bound to account for all cases in which the “valuer herself” is genuinely indifferent.” So, it seems to me that my point still stands: since Baby is non-indifferent toward lots of things even though he doesn’t value or disvalue anything, we have no good reason to think that nothing is basically good for him — even if we accept the subjectivist thought that nothing is basically good for you if you’re indifferent toward it.

    Why did I read you as assuming that goodness depends on creature-kinds? Because you were emphasizing the significance of the transformation that Baby undergoes when he goes from being a non-valuer to being a valuer. I took you to be suggesting that the difference between non-valuers and valuers explains why there are necessary conditions on basic goodness for the latter that are not in place for the former. This looks like a picture on which what’s good for a creature depends on the kind of creature it is.

  31. David Sobel says:

    The obvious cases of desiring without valuing are cases where other parts of the agent’s motivational makeup is against that which the agent desires. I don’t think there is the same consensus about what to say as to whether desiring is sufficient for valuing when that is not the case. To some extent the term valuing here is vague and when we come to cases like this I suspect we have to say more about what we have in mind when we use the word and cannot just rely on commonsense understandings.

  32. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Dave,

    Maybe there is no consensus about that. But to me, it feels like a stretch to say that if there are no conflicts in a subject’s motivational makeup (perhaps because the subject is a simple-minded animal who can’t have higher-order attitudes), then everything that the subject desires is valued by that subject. I suspect that many of the theorists I have in mind would agree.

    I didn’t mention this in response to your first comment because I don’t think it bears on the plausibility of the view you described. It just bears on whether that view is properly described in terms of valuing.

  33. Benjamin Yelle says:

    Hi Eden,

    I think that your article – and this post – makes a really important critique that requires “sophisticated” subjectivists – like myself – to be more careful in what they are claiming and how they conceive of the nature of welfare. My own “sophisticated” subjectivism begins with the idea that a subject can have multiple levels or dimensions of welfare which correspond to the different kinds to which she belongs, e.g. “human being”, “person”, “experiencing subject”, etc. Only some of these kinds, however, are relevant to the prudential judgments and evaluations we are interested in making during various points of our existence. Ultimately, I believe that we can capture more of our central theoretical desirata (e.g. capturing “the subjective intuition” or “the heart of subjectivism” as Dale would put it) – and make the most intuitively compelling assessments of our welfare by focusing on the standard set by our nature qua person – a class/kind whose members are characterized by their evaluative makeup, i.e. what they value. This, as you mention, is the sort of sophisticated approach of the sort you criticize.
    Alright, to your two critiques: that sophisticated theories of welfare ought to be rejected both because they have significant counterintuitive implications about neonatal welfare and because they imply an implausible divergence between the welfare of adults and that of newborns. First, sophisticated theorists should concede that for that part of our existence in which we do not possesses the capacities constitutive of personhood (e.g. autonomy, the ability to value, or whatever) our welfare ought to be considered qua human (according to which perhaps Hedonism, Kraut’s Developmentalism, or something else is true). So, I recognize and concede that babies do in fact have a level of welfare and that it isn’t based on a “sophisticated” capacities – but that’s right– during this part of our existence our welfare can/should be considered qua human (or something like that).
    Doesn’t this imply an implausible divergence between the welfare of babies and that of persons (i.e. cognitively sophisticated being)? Isn’t this what your “Baby” case demonstrates? No, not necessarily. When someone acquires a “sophisticated” capacity she becomes an importantly different kind of creature: a person – a being capable of having a conception of her own good or values things. Accordingly, there is new dimension of her welfare that corresponds to the new kind to which she belongs. As such, her nature has changed drastically and this explains why sophisticated subjectivism can now be true of her: whereas during infancy her welfare could only be considered qua human, once she acquires the “sophisticated” capacities constitutive of, say, personhood, e.g. a capacity for autonomy or the capacity to value, her welfare can now be considered qua person – and there is good pragmatic and theoretical reason to do so. This is the difference between babies and “persons” which explains how sophisticated subjectivism could be true of the latter but not the former.
    Finally, I would object and argue that you don’t properly diagnose the Baby case. What we have in this scenario is an individual who can have her welfare considered from multiple perspectives. More specifically, while she might have a high level of welfare qua human, she might not have any values or welfare beliefs so that she has no, or a low, level of welfare qua person. The more general point, however, is that an individual’s acquiring the capacities constitutive of personhood makes it such that one can consider her welfare qua person and there are ample pragmatic and theoretical reasons to make judgments about her welfare according to this standard.

  34. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Benjamin,

    As I think I told you once before, I agree that on the picture you propose, my objection against your sophisticated theory loses much of its force. But if you are distinguishing between a person’s level of welfare qua human and her level of welfare qua person, and you are merely offering your sophisticated theory as a theory of welfare qua person, can you claim that your theory is the correct theory of our welfare? Don’t you have to retreat to the weaker claim that it is one correct theory of our welfare, and that there are other correct theories corresponding to the other relevant kinds to which we belong?

    More generally, I am curious about what motivates the picture on which a single subject can have different levels of welfare qua member of different kinds. What draws you to this view?

  35. Sam Clark says:

    Hi – This is really interesting. Here’s a counter-argument (or perhaps just an attempt to limit the scope of your argument).

    Consider the self-realization theory of well-being: someone’s life goes well for her when it’s a life in which she wakes, develops, and expresses her human and individual capacities. These capacities include both simple and sophisticated capacities, so I take it that this view is sophisticated in your terms.

    On this theory, Baby’s life goes better because of her development of sophisticated capacities, including capacities for valuing. In the part of her life when she has only simple capacities, whether her life is going well or not is a matter of developmental trajectory: whether she is in an environment and has the resources to develop or not, for example.

    Your argument doesn’t apply here. And the point maybe generalises: your argument against sophisticated theories only applies to non-compositional views of well-being, i.e. views that take momentary well-being to be prior and total life well-being to be a derivative function of all the moments in a life.

  36. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Sam,

    I’m not sure I completely understand the view. But to the extent that I understand it, it does not strike me as a sophisticated theory in my sense. You wrote: “These capacities include both simple and sophisticated capacities, so I take it that this view is sophisticated in your terms.” But unless the view says that nothing is basically good for you unless you are related to it in a way that requires cognitive or psychological sophistication, it’s not sophisticated. I take it that, on the view you describe, a subject can be positive in welfare in virtue of developing or exercising simple capacities. If so, then the view is simple in my sense, not sophisticated.

    I also didn’t understand the relevance of the point about the relation between momentary well-being and lifetime well-being. My argument doesn’t rely on any claims about lifetime well-being. It just relies on an intuition about well-being over an interval of time shorter than a life.

  37. Sam Clark says:

    Hi Eden, thanks for the reply. You’re right, I’ve mangled your simple/sophisticated distinction. Let me have another try. One could imagine a theory of well-being with these features: 1) well-being is a property of a whole life, and facts about well-being at a time or over a shorter interval of time are derivative from the facts about that whole-life well-being. This is compositionality, or the Aristotelian ‘call no one happy unless she is dead’. 2) Whole-life well-being is developmental, i.e. having a good life is having a life over which I develop and express some capacities or potentials. 3) The capacities relevant to well-being are all cognitively or psychologically sophisticated. So, someone’s life goes well for her only when she develops and expresses those sophisticated capacities over it. Your Baby then needn’t be thought of as having a simple theory of well-being true of her now, and a sophisticated theory later, with the implausible ‘gap in well-being’ consequence you press. Rather, the sophisticated developmental theory could true of her whole life, and her state of well-being while she remains a baby is derivative from whether she will eventually develop the sophisticated capacities it requires. Does that make more sense?

  38. Benjamin Yelle says:

    Hi Eden,
    You are right, I do believe that my theory, a “values-based” sophisticated subjectivism, is one correct theory of our welfare and that there are other theories corresponding to the other relevant kinds to which we belong.

    I’ll say though, there are several reasons why this doesn’t bother me. I think that when you look at some of the main intuitions which drive us toward particular theories of welfare, e.g. “the subjective intuition” or our intuitions about individuals’ flourishing or deprivation, they are driving us toward different theories which focus on different particular kinds to which we belong. So, for example, if you want to capture the subjective intuition – (roughly) the idea that what is good for an individual depends upon what she is like (her idiosyncratic makeup) – you might be inclined to consider her welfare qua desiring subject. Conversely, if you want to capture our intuitions about what it means for us to “flourish” or be deprived of some putatively essential human good you may want to consider our welfare qua human, relying upon a substantive account of “human flourishing”.

    As you might imagine, it’s going to be quite difficult to completely capture both of these intuitions at the same time: the subjective intuition speaks to particular individuals’ idiosyncratic makeups while accounts of human flourishing concern what a particular class’ welfare consists in. It’s considerations like these which incline me toward thinking that there are simply different standards against which we make judgments about our welfare: sometimes we are concerned with individuals qua individual (e.g. are they satisfying their desires, realizing their values, etc.), other times we are questioning whether they are developing and exercising their distinctively human capacities. This being the case, why shouldn’t we recognize that a single subject can have different levels of welfare which correspond to the different kinds to which she belongs? Our intuitions might be driving us toward this very thought.

    Further, I think that recognizing this fact allows us to explain why we have conflicting intuitions in some case. So, for example, why are people torn about diagnosing Rawls’ Grass Counter’s welfare? Because some people consider him qua desirer (according to which he might be having a pretty great life) while others consider him qua human (according to which his life is rather impoverished because it lacks so many goods which are essential to human flourishing, e.g. close friends and relationships). Recognizing that a single subject can have different levels of welfare which correspond to the different kinds to which she belongs can explain why theorists are torn in this case (as well as in other cases in the literature on welfare).

  39. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Sam,

    Thanks for your reply. I think I understand the view better now. Whether this view has the implausible implication that I attributed to sophisticated theories — namely, that Baby goes from being high in welfare to being neutral or negative in welfare simply in virtue of acquiring a new capacity — depends on how the view calculates the welfare of a sub-interval of a life. How does it go from a lifetime welfare score to a welfare score for a particular interval in that life? If it just divides the life into n intervals and assigns the same welfare score to each of those intervals (namely, the lifetime score divided by n), then it won’t have the implication that I mentioned. But I think this way of calculating welfare at times or intervals would be implausible for other reasons.

    Another worry about the view is this: what about babies who die before they acquire any sophisticated capacities? It seems that, on this view, the baby’s lifetime welfare score is zero, since it never develops or exercises any of the capacities that it deems necessary for welfare. I think this is implausible.

  40. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Benjamin,

    That’s interesting. I take it that you think your view differs importantly from a pluralistic view on which values-realization is one of the basic goods and the exercise of distinctively human capacities is another basic good. But why is that, exactly? My best guess: such a pluralistic view does not accommodate the intuitions that you mentioned. But does your view accommodate them? If the subjective intuition is an intuition about the conditions that something must meet to enhance our welfare at all (rather than about the conditions that something must meet to enhance our welfare qua persons), then it seems that your view doesn’t respect it either.