Most contemporary work on well-being assumes that individuals have several different kinds of well-being:
- Momentary well-being—i.e., well-being at a particular point in time.
- Periodic well-being—i.e., well-being during some extended period longer than a moment but shorter than a whole life (say, a day, a week, a year, or a chapter of a life).
- Lifetime well-being—i.e., the well-being of one’s life considered as a whole.
Many philosophers of well-being, not to mention welfare economists, use a particular sort of graph to depict a person’s life (Figure 1).
Here, time or the person’s age is represented on the x-axis and momentary well-being is represented on the y-axis.
Let us group momentary and periodic well-being together and call them temporal well-being.
Two central topics in the philosophy of well-being are: (1) the nature of temporal well-being (i.e., what determines well-being at a moment and during a period), and (2) the relationship of temporal well-being to lifetime well-being (additivists, for example, hold that lifetime well-being is equivalent to the sum of momentary well-being throughout one’s life—i.e., the area under the curve in the above sort of graph).
In The Passing of Temporal Well-Being, I argue that all this literature is premised on a giant mistake, for there is no such thing as temporal well-being. The only genuine kind of well-being is lifetime well-being. I give two arguments for this claim. Here, I will mention only the first, The Normative Significance Argument. It goes like this:
- Genuine well-being is intrinsically normatively significant (i.e., can make an intrinsic difference to the value of outcomes, and provide us with, or be the ultimate source of, reasons for action (self-interested or agent-neutral)).
- Only lifetime well-being (among putative kinds of well-being) is intrinsically normative significant.
- Only lifetime well-being is genuine well-being.
Why is there no temporal well-being? It is because if temporal well-being were to exist, it could not have the sort of normative significance it would need to have in order to count as a genuine kind of well-being. Temporal well-being, then, is an oxymoron. It is the idea of something that, since it is well-being, has intrinsic normative significance, but since it not lifetime well-being, cannot have this sort of significance. What I am advancing is, in effect, an ‘error theory’ about temporal well-being.
(2) is the more controversial premise, so I will focus here on it. What is my argument for (2)? In the book, I give seven arguments for it (and respond to six objections to it). I will mention just one of these arguments here.
It is common to debate the fortunateness of particular individuals in history. Was Gandhi a fortunate person? How fortunate, on balance, was Marilyn Monroe? What about John Lennon? And so on. Who were the most fortunate individuals in history? Who were the least? In carrying on these debates, we do not form evaluations of these people’s lives considered as wholes, and then add to these estimations of the value of various times or periods within these people’s lives, in order to arrive at assessments of their “overall” levels of fortunateness. Rather, we are interested here ultimately just in the value for these people of their lives considered as wholes.
To be sure, we are, on such occasions, interested in what happens at or during particular times or periods in these people’s lives. We might even speak of their faring well or poorly at or during certain times or periods. But here we seem interested in these things just for their implications for these people’s ultimate levels of lifetime well-being.
A person’s fortunateness, in other words, does not seem equivalent to her lifetime well-being plus her childhood well-being plus her adolescent well-being, and so on. Overall fortunateness, at least as we are interested in it in thinking about the lives of historical figures, seems equivalent just to lifetime well-being. To be interested in how fortunate John Lennon was is to be interested just in the well-being of his life considered as a whole (including, perhaps, all of the various respects in which, considered as a whole, it went well or poorly for him).
Suppose this is right, and there is no such thing as temporal well-being. What, then, are we doing when we say things like “Things are going well for me right now”, “I had a good day today”, “How is Bill doing these days?”, “Ellen had a blessed childhood”, and so on? How can we account for such talk if there is no such thing as temporal well-being? Am I suggesting that at all these times we are talking nonsense?
Such talk, I believe, should not be interpreted literally, but calls for a subtler analysis. One thing, for example, we are often doing when we say things like “Ellen had a blessed childhood” is commenting on the intrinsic contributions of the events and experiences of the relevant period to a person’s lifetime well-being. So, for example, if I say that I had a great time during college, or that my college years were the best of my life, I might be saying that there were certain events or experiences then (for example, romantic encounters, discoveries of great music, travels or adventures with friends, intellectual stimulation, and so on) that will, at the end of the day, have been among the greatest intrinsic contributors to my lifetime well-being.
Suppose I’m right that there is no such thing as temporal well-being. What follows? One thing that follows is that philosophers are wasting a great deal of time theorizing about its nature. Their efforts are doomed to failure, since there is nothing here to give a theory of. Moreover, many are wasting their time trying to work out how lifetime well-being is constructed out of temporal well-being. Lifetime well-being cannot be constructed out of temporal well-being, since there is no such thing as temporal well-being. To take just one example, an Uphill Life cannot be better for one, other things equal, than a Downhill Life. The question of whether it is, is simply ill-conceived. Lives don’t have shapes or directions, at least not shapes or directions of something like momentary well-being. Similarly, debates about temporal neutrality—i.e., about whether temporal benefits later in life add more to lifetime well-being than temporal benefits earlier in life do—are empty. Philosophers are also wasting their time trying to solve the timing problem for the badness of death. It is a pseudo-problem. There is no problem of how death can harm us without making us worse off at some time, since there is no such thing as well-being at a time. Nothing can make us worse off at a time. We do not have well-being at times for death to potentially reduce. Likewise, the sort of graph mentioned above should be done away with. We cannot map well-being in this way. For this reason, my thesis has major implications for public policy, which often refers explicitly to the effects of different policies on momentary well-being.
Am I proposing we stop talking and asking about how people are faring at times and during periods such as childhood? No. There is no harm in continuing to talk this way, provided we do not allow ourselves to be misled by the surface grammar of such talk into thinking that we are here attributing to people a state that they can be in at times that has normative significance independently of its implications for lifetime well-being.
Ben Bramble is a professor of philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. He works mainly in moral and political philosophy. He has published on a diverse range of topics, including pleasure and pain, well-being, meaning in life, value theory, William James, desire and motivation, animal ethics, and medical ethics. To learn more about his forethcoming book, Passing of Temporal Well-Being, vist (http://www.benbramble.com/passing-of-temporal-well-being.html)