By In Happiness, Ideas Comments (17)

Eden Lin: Subjective List Theories

How well a person’s life is going (i.e., how high it is in welfare or well-being) is determined by how good or bad for that person the things that are happening in her life are. Theories of well-being purport to tell us what it takes for a person’s life to go well by identifying the basic goods and bads: the kinds that are good or bad for a person in the most fundamental way. In the philosophical literature on well-being, there is a standard menu of theories: hedonism, desire satisfactionism, perfectionism, the happiness theory, hybrid theories, and objective list theories. In “The Subjective List Theory of Well-Being” (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2016), I argue that this menu should be expanded to include a neglected type of theory: subjective list theories. I also introduce a particular theory of this type, and I argue that it is superior to some existing theories. In this post, I will give an abbreviated version of the argument from that paper.

There are two dimensions along which theories of well-being are often classified. We can classify them in accordance with whether they accept monism or pluralism: do they maintain that there is only one basic good and one basic bad (as the hedonist does when she claims that pleasure is the only basic good and pain the only basic bad), or do they maintain that there are a plurality of basic goods or a plurality of basic bads (as an objective list theorist would if she were to claim that knowledge, friendship, and pleasure are all basic goods)? We can also classify them in accordance with whether they accept subjectivism or objectivism: do they claim that every basic good is one that is appropriately connected to our favorable attitudes (as the desire satisfactionist does when she claims that the only basic good is the satisfaction of your desires), or do they deny this (as an objective list theorist would if she were to claim that knowledge is a basic good)? The literature on welfare contains discussions of monistic subjectivist theories (e.g., desire satisfactionism) and monistic objectivist theories (e.g., perfectionism). It also contains discussions of pluralistic objectivist theories—i.e., objective list theories. But little attention has been paid to pluralistic subjectivist theories—or, as I call them, subjective list theories. Philosophers should explore the prospects of this type of theory.

Let me try to persuade you that subjective list theories are worth investigating by introducing a particular theory of this kind that many should find attractive. Desire satisfactionism is a monistic subjectivist theory on which the sole basic good is desire satisfaction (i.e., getting what you want) and the sole basic bad is desire frustration (i.e., not getting what you want). There is a related but importantly different theory that is also monistic and subjectivist: according to Chris Heathwood’s subjective desire satisfactionism, the sole basic good is subjective desire satisfaction (i.e., believing that you are getting what you want) and the sole basic bad is subjective desire frustration (i.e., believing that you are not getting what you want). Whereas the former view says that what matters to your well-being is whether you really are getting what you want, the latter view says that what matters is whether it seems to you that you are getting what you want (whether or not you are really getting it). If we put the two views together, we get a subjective list theory on which there are two basic goods (viz., desire satisfaction and subjective desire satisfaction) and two basic bads (viz., desire frustration and subjective desire frustration). Call this view disjunctive desire satisfactionism.

Disjunctive desire satisfactionism avoids a serious problem that subjective desire satisfactionism is confronted with. Imagine two people who are duplicates with respect to their subjective desire satisfactions and frustrations: whenever one of them is getting some subjective desire satisfaction (frustration) from the apparent satisfaction (frustration) of one of their desires, the other one is getting the same amount of subjective desire satisfaction (frustration) from a corresponding desire of theirs. Subjective desire satisfactionism implies that the two people are equal in welfare, since they are equal with respect the amounts of basic goodness and badness that they accrue. But surely, one of these people could be better off than the other on account of the fact that their desires really are satisfied (as they believe them to be) while the other’s desires merely seem to them to be satisfied. Disjunctive desire satisfactionism can accommodate this fact, since it says that how well off someone is depends not only on the amounts of subjective desire satisfaction and frustration that they are getting, but also on the amounts of desire satisfaction and frustration that they are getting. On this view, it matters whether you believe yourself to be getting what you want, but it also matters whether you really are getting what you want.

Disjunctive desire satisfactionism also avoids a serious problem faced by desire satisfactionism. Whenever you take pleasure in some thought (e.g., the thought that you will soon be on vacation, or the thought that your candidate won the election), you accrue some basic goodness during that time, with the result that (other things being equal) you are higher in welfare during the pleasure than you were before it. In other words, attitudinal pleasures—pleasures taken in the thought that p—coincide temporally with increases in basic goodness. Desire satisfactionism can’t accommodate this fact, since attitudinal pleasures needn’t coincide temporally with desire satisfactions. Although you cannot take pleasure in the thought that p without desiring p at that time, you can take pleasure in the thought that p without having any satisfied desires at that time: after all, your desire for p could be frustrated (because p is false, unbeknownst to you), and you needn’t have any other desires that are satisfied at that time. Thus, desire satisfactionism can’t accommodate one of the ways in which pleasures are connected to well-being. But disjunctive desire satisfactionism can accommodate the relevant connection. You cannot take pleasure in the thought that p unless you desire that p, and you also cannot take pleasure in the thought that p unless you believe that p. Thus, having a subjective desire satisfaction whose object is p is a necessary condition of taking pleasure in the thought that p. Since disjunctive desire satisfactionism says that your subjective desire satisfactions are basically good for you, it implies that whenever you take pleasure in the thought that p, you accrue some quantity of basic goodness and you are (other things being equal) better off than you were before the pleasure.

Of course, precisely because it is a pluralistic rather than monistic, disjunctive desire satisfactionism is more complex than either desire satisfactionism or subjective desire satisfactionism. But in my view, this disadvantage is outweighed by the fact that disjunctive desire satisfactionism avoids the aforementioned problems for the other two views. If I am right, then there is a subjective list theory that is better, on the whole, than two prominent existing theories.

Disjunctive desire satisfactionism is not the only possible subjective list theory. A different theory of this type might say that the two basic goods are value realization (i.e., getting what you value) and subjective value realization (i.e., believing that you are getting what you value), while the two basic bads are value frustration (i.e., not getting what you value) and subjective value frustration (i.e., believing that you are not getting what you value). We could also combine this view with disjunctive desire satisfactionism to get a subjective list theory on which there are four basic goods and four basic bads. It is unfortunate that philosophers of well-being have paid relatively little attention to subjective list theories. I encourage them to develop and explore more theories of this kind.


Eden Lin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ohio State University. He specializes in Ethics and has published in several journals such as Ethics, Noûs, and Utilitas.

17 Responses to Eden Lin: Subjective List Theories

  1. Thanks Eden! Perhaps because I have objectivist leanings I wonder if we can really say that subjective desire satisfaction (merely believing that we get what we want) is good for us or our lives. I often find that things that seem good at one point end up being terrible in the end. Imagine getting your dream job and then finding out that it makes you miserable or having a child who ends being a mass murderer. Things that seem bad can also turn out to be really good. I wouldn’t deny that being happy at a thought has some value for you and for your life but even the most intense happiness we can get from subjective desire satisfaction seems to pale in comparison to many other thing e.g. actually getting what we want, actually getting what is good, actually doing good. Perhaps this is not a problem for your view since there is some contribution of the happiness subjective desire satisfaction usually brings to our welfare and life quality, but we can also be surprisingly disappointed by having our subjective desires satisfied (or made sad). And I wonder if the view 1) captures what is most important for welfare and life quality and 2) whether at least those cases in which subjective desire satisfaction makes someone sad pose a challenge to your view? Perhaps I should reread the article!

  2. Anthony Kelley says:

    Hey Eden, thanks for the post. Your post got me thinking about the different kinds of subjective list theories that there are and how we might combine them. Once I did that I was struck by the thought that some families of subjective list theories are much less plausible than other families of subjective list theories. I’m curious to know if you share my reaction.

    Here are some of the examples of the subjective list theories you give:

    1. disjunctive desire satisfactionism (the “combination” of subjective desire satisfactionism and desire satisfactionism)
    2. disjunctive value realization theory (the “combination” of value realization theory and subjective value realization theory)

    (‘Combination’ is in scare quotes because strictly speaking, I suppose, you couldn’t just put an ampersand between a statement of subjective desire satisfactionism and a statement of desire satisfactionism and get a coherent view because the former theory says that subjective desire satisfaction is the only basic welfare good whereas the latter view says that desire satisfaction is the only basic welfare good)

    I started to think about other possible combinations. What about this one:

    3. the “combination” of desire satisfactionism with subjective value realization

    I can see why someone would endorse subjective list theories like 1 and 2, but I can’t really see why someone would endorse a subjective list theory like 3. I wonder if you share that intuition and if you can help me put my finger on why 3 isn’t really a plausible subjective list theory.

    Possible explanation: the theorist who adopts 3 must have some reason for thinking that value realizations don’t benefit us. But it would seem that whatever reason they have in mind would also imply that desire satisfactions don’t benefit us. But 3 implies that desire satisfactions do benefit us, so the proponent of 3 is not being consistent.

    We can generalize from here. Just as 3 is weird for this reason, the following subjective list theory would be weird for an analogous reason:

    4. the “combination” of value realization theory and subjective desire satsifactionism

    The idea, then, is that subjective list theories fall into two categories: those like 1 and 2 and those like 3 and 4. Subjective list theories like 3 and 4 are just on their face implausible or at least have an explanatory burden that they must discharge that subjective list theories like 1 and 2 do not have.

    So, do you share my reaction that there’s something weird about subjective list theories like 3 and 4? And do you think the explanation for this weirdness that I have provided is plausible?

  3. Eden Lin says:

    Hi, Nicole! Thanks for your comment.

    In thinking about the sort of case that you describe, I find it helpful to distinguish (1) whether a particular event would be basically good for you if it were to occur from (2) whether you would be better off in the long run if that event were to occur than you would be if it were not to occur. It could be that a particular event would be basically good for you if it were to occur, even though you would not be better off in the long run if it were to occur than you would be if it were not to occur. For example, perhaps it would be basically good for you to feel a particular pleasure, even though you would be worse off in the long run if you were to feel it because it would cause you to feel very sad in the future. So, although there are cases in which you would not be better off in the long run if you were to get a particular subjective desire satisfaction (e.g., cases in which you would eventually feel very sad if you were to get that subjective desire satisfaction), that does not suggest to me that there is anything problematic with the view that every subjective desire satisfaction of yours is basically good for you.

    At one point, you seem to suggest that the prudential value of subjective desire satisfaction pales in comparison to the prudential value of desire satisfaction (i.e., actually getting what we want). Perhaps your thought is that, for any desire of a given strength, it is better for us to actually get the object of that desire than it is for us to believe that we are getting the object of that desire. I think that’s plausible enough, and I’ve formulated disjunctive desire satisfactionism in a way that is compatible with that thought. It could be that subjective desire satisfactions are worth less than the desire satisfactions that correspond to them.

    Does disjunctive desire satisfactionism capture what is most important to our welfare? I suspect not. I certainly don’t think that it captures everything that is important to our welfare. Like you, I have objectivist leanings. So, I don’t mean to be endorsing disjunctive desire satisfactionism in this post (or in the paper). I merely mean to be arguing that it is superior to a couple of monistic subjectivist views that are already in the literature, and that it should be an attractive option for subjectivists. More generally, I am trying to encourage people to consider and develop subjective list theories — even though, at the end of the day, I don’t think I would want to accept any theory of this kind.


  4. Thanks Eden – that all sounds good to me but I still wonder whether the account can deal with a case where I think my desire is satisfied and yet I feel bad about it once I realize it. Suppose I want to hurt someone but when I learn that I do (or think I do), I feel terrible about it. My desire is satisfied but that doesn’t seem to be basically good for me. Maybe an advocate would say that I have desire x at t1 but it is not satisfied at t2 because as soon as I learn that x occurs I ceases to desire x (at t2)? A different worry might be this: A major objection to list theories is that they lose unity if nothing unifies the list. Would this be a point against many subjective list theories as well (e.g. 3 and 4 from Anthony’s example)? Does subjectivism lose one of its advantages if it goes this way? So would you suggest that if the best subjectivist theory is a list theory, then perhaps there is more reason for us to be objective list theorists?

    Cheers, -Nicole

  5. Eden Lin says:

    Hi, Anthony. Thanks for your comment.

    I share your sense that 3 and 4 are not as plausible as 1 and 2, but I have doubts about your explanation of why this is true. You suggest that the proponent of 3 is being inconsistent because whatever explains the fact (as they see it) that value realization is not basically good would also entail that desire satisfaction is not basically good. But I’m not sure that’s right. Even if desire satisfaction is necessary for value realization, the proponent of 3 might deny that value realization is basically good (while affirming that desire satisfaction is basically good) because they think that there is no prudential value to a value realization over and above the prudential value of the desire satisfaction that is necessary for it.

    I can’t immediately come up with a satisfying explanation of why 3 and 4 are not as plausible as 1 and 2. (And, alas, I don’t have time to think about this now: I have to get ready for an international trip!) But it seems to me that we could probably come up with a pretty good explanation if we were to spend some more time thinking about it.


  6. Ben Bramble says:

    It seems very odd to call subjective desire satisfactionism a form of subjectivism. It is true that on such a theory, one’s desires feature in some way in the basic good (“believing that one is getting what one wants”). But do they feature in the right way? Such a theory cannot enjoy the usual motivations for subjectivism. It is a fundamentally different kind of theory. If this is right, then it seems quite wrong to call *disjunctive* desire satisfactionism a form of subjectivism, and so quite wrong to call it a ‘subjective list’ theory. (In this case, there will perhaps not be so many ‘subjective list’ theories at all. Do subjective list theories, then, really count as an interesting new group of theories?)

  7. Avi Appel says:

    Thanks for the post!

    I’m confused about your counter-example to desire satisfactionism. You claim that when a person takes pleasure in the thought that they will soon be on vacation, the desire satisfactionist cannot account for the fact that the agent has clearly benefitted. But it seems to me that the desire satisfactionist can account for this fact, and can do so in two ways. First, by pointing out that pleasure, at least according to the most plausible theories thereof, is itself a sub-category of desire-satisfaction (albeit one that, in normal circumstances, subtracts the degree to which the desired outcome was expected). Second, by pointing out that, by and large, we all want pleasure; thus whenever we are pleased we are therefore getting something that we want. In this particular example, the agent wants pleasure, they get some pleasure by merely thinking about their upcoming vacation, and so they get something that they wanted.

  8. Eden Lin says:

    Hi, Nicole. Thanks for your reply.

    There are a few ways the view could respond to the case that you describe.

    As you suggest, it could accept a temporal concurrence requirement on subjective desire satisfactions: it could say that a desire of yours counts as subjectively satisfied only if you believe its object to obtain at a time at which you have the desire. If there is no temporal overlap between the belief and the desire, then you get no subjective desire satisfaction. So, if the case is one in which you have no desire to hurt the person at any time at which you believe yourself to be doing this, then the view does not imply that you get any basic goodness. (This is Heathwood’s view about subjective desire satisfactions.)

    Another option would be to bite the bullet and explain why it isn’t such a big bullet. Perhaps you do get some basic goodness from the subjective satisfaction of your desire, but we are tempted to think otherwise because you also get some basic badness from the subjective frustration of a different desire. For example, it could be that when you believe yourself to be hurting the person, you acquire a desire not to be hurting him — a desire that is subjectively frustrated, since you believe it to be frustrated.

    Yet another option would appeal to the idea that your desire was conditional on a condition that you don’t believe to have been met: perhaps you wanted to hurt the person only on the condition that you wouldn’t feel bad about it. Perhaps the view could extend some arguments from McDaniel and Bradley’s “Desires” to make the case that, when you believe the object of your desire to obtain but you also believe the condition of the desire not to be obtain, your desire does not count as subjectively satisfied. (I would need to think more about this idea and how best to develop it.)

    I like the suggestion at the end of your comment. If, as I’m inclined to believe, subjectivists should be pluralists, then it is not as big a problem for objective list theorists that they are pluralists.

    Eden Lin

  9. Jack Woods says:

    I’ve got kind of a dumb (pair) of questions (I’m a complete naif about this area). First, what’s the evidence for “Although you cannot take pleasure in the thought that p without desiring p at that time”? I’d have thought I could take perverse pleasure in the thought that something happened without any desire that it happens. Second, why can’t there just be a basic desire for pleasure that is satisfied when I take pleasure in the thought that p, regardless of whether p? Maybe that’s not strictly a necessary aspect of human psychology (of course, it’s hard to imagine not desiring pleasure in some sense either), but maybe the presumed datum that pleasure coincides with increases of goodness is just a regularity.

  10. Jack Woods says:

    *happens => happen

  11. Anthony Kelley says:

    Thanks for your reply, Eden. My very vague and incomplete explanation as to why 3 is problematic did not rely on this idea that value realization somehow involves desire satisfaction. Instead, I was thinking that if you reject a value realization theory and instead go in for a subjective value realization then that must be because you think something like the experience requirement is true: “How could a value realization benefit me when I am not aware of it?” they might say. But if you think that something like the experience requirement is true, then you shouldn’t accept desire satisfactionism. That’s what I meant by saying that it would seem that the reason one has for rejecting value realization theory while adopting subjective value realization theory would also tell against desire satisfactionism (i.e., because one believes that there is an experience requirement on welfare goods). But of course there could be other reasons to reject value realization theory and to adopt subjective value realization theory that do not tell against desire satisfactionism, but I don’t really know what those reasons could be.

  12. Eden Lin says:

    Hi, Ben. Thanks for your comment.

    Can you say more about what you take the usual motivations for subjectivism to be and why you don’t think subjectivism desire satisfactionism is a subjectivist theory? In any case, even if you’re right about this, I take it that the value realization theory is a subjectivist theory. If that’s right, then a view on which the two basic goods are desire satisfaction and value realization will be a subjective list theory. It seems to me that this view has some advantages over desire satisfactionism and the value realization theory. So, I could have made my case for the importance of subjective list theories by talking about this theory instead.


  13. Eden Lin says:

    Hi, Avi. Thanks for your comment.

    You say that on the most plausible theories of pleasure, pleasure is a sub-category of desire satisfaction. Can you state what you take the most plausible theory of pleasure to be and explain how this theory connects attitudinal pleasure (i.e., pleasure taken in the thought that p) with desire satisfaction? As I wrote in my post, I grant that there is a necessary connection between attitudinal pleasure and desire: you cannot take pleasure in the thought that p unless you desire that p. But obviously, this does not imply that there is a necessary connection between attitudinal pleasure and desire *satisfaction*, since you could take pleasure in the thought that p even though p is false.

    It is true that most people desire pleasure. But I think that attitudinal pleasures coincide with increases in basic goodness even for unusual (perhaps merely possible) subjects who don’t desire pleasure. Desire satisfactionism cannot use a desire for pleasure to explain this.


  14. Eden Lin says:

    Hi, Jack. Thanks for your comment.

    It seems to me that if I’m taking pleasure in the thought that p, then I must be in favor of p (i.e., have a pro-attitude toward p). And it seems to me that the kind of pro-attitude isn’t anything like a belief that p is good, but a sort of attraction toward p. It is natural to call this attitude a desire. I’d be inclined to say that the case that you describe is one in which I simultaneously want the thing to happen and also want it not to happen. Could I really be pleased that it’s happening without (to some extent) wanting it to happen?

    As for your second point (which is related to one of Avi’s points): I don’t think the connection between attitudinal pleasures and increases in basic goodness is merely a regularity. When I reflect on what attitudinal pleasures are like, it seems impossible to me that a subject could feel an attitudinal pleasure without accruing some quantity of basic goodness. But I expect that you won’t be very moved by this.


  15. Eden Lin says:

    Hi Anthony,

    Ah, I see. That makes sense. I agree that if someone thought that value realization can’t be a basic good because it violates the experience requirement, it would be inconsistent of them to think that desire satisfaction is a basic good.


  16. Jack Woods says:

    That’s helpful, Eden. I guess I think our psychologies are less orderly that that, though I think it’s crucial here to be clear about what we mean by a desire.


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