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The Limits of Well-Being

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Shelly Kagan
Philosophy, University of Illinois at Chicago


What are the limits of well-being? This question nicely captures one of the central debates concerning the nature of the individual human good. For rival theories differ as to what sort of facts directly constitute a person's being well-off. On some views, well-being is limited to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But other views push the boundaries of well-being beyond this, so that it encompasses a variety of mental states, not merely pleasure alone. Some theories then draw the line here, limiting well-being to the presence of the appropriately broadened set of mental states. But still others extend the limits of well-being even further, so that it is constituted in part by facts that are not themselves mental states at all; on such views, well-being is partly constituted by states of affairs that are “external” to the individual's experiences.

In this essay, I want to explore some of this debate by focusing on a particular stretch of the dialectic. That is, I want to think hard about a particular connected series of arguments and counterarguments. These arguments – or, at least, the concerns they seek to express – emerge naturally in the give and take of philosophical discussion. Together they make up a rather simple story, whose plot, in very rough terms, is this: first there is an attempt to push the limits of well-being outward, moving from a narrow to a broader conception; then comes the claim that the resulting notion is too broad, and so we must retreat to a narrower conception after all.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1992

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1 Hereafter I will focus only on the goods of a given theory of well-being (e.g., pleasure); for simplicity, I will not discuss the bads (e.g., pain).

2 Examples are to be found in Griffin, James, Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, chapter 1, and in Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)Google Scholar, appendix I. Although I will not be concerned with the specifics of either of these discussions, I have obviously learned – and taken – a great deal from both of them.

3 The example is Parfit's, from Reasons and Persons, appendix I.

4 I am here influenced by unpublished work by Leonard Katz. See his forthcoming book, Hedonism: A View of Mind and Value.

5 Are there any such desires? Their logical possibility suffices to make my point, but I am intrigued by the empirical question as well. Perhaps certain meditative experiences are too “empty” to allow for the desire at the same time; other experiences might be too “full” or consuming to allow for the concurrent desire, crowding it out.

6 The suggestion was made by Tim Snow, with whom I have discussed this argument with benefit; he has in mind theories like that put forward by Parfit in Part III of Reasons and Persons.

7 In contrast, it is not nearly as plausible to assert that a person's life is comprised solely of facts about that person's body and mind. This raises the intriguing – and generally over-looked – possibility that it might be one thing for a person to be well-off and quite another for that person's life to go well. Unfortunately, I cannot explore this fascinating question here; in this essay, I am considering only the nature of the individual person's well-being.

8 Compare Korsgaard, Christine, “Two Distinctions in Goodness,” Philosophical Review, vol. 92 (1983), pp. 169–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Alvin Goldman has helpfully characterized my argument as being: “Yes, yes, I've heard that example before.”

10 Having a life that goes well may plausibly turn out to be one of these goods (or a function of them) –if the quality of my life is indeed distinct from my level of well-being (see note 7).