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.3