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Authentic Happiness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2010

Center for Bioethics, New York


This article discusses L. W. Sumner's theory of well-being as authentic happiness. I distinguish between extreme and moderate versions of subjectivism and argue that Sumner's characterization of the conditions of authenticity leads him to an extreme subjective theory. More generally, I also criticize Sumner's argument for the subjectivity of welfare. I conclude by addressing some of the implications of my arguments for theories of well-being in philosophy and welfare measurement in the social sciences.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 Sumner, L. Wayne, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford, 1996), p. 38Google Scholar. (Otherwise unattributed page references are always to this book in this article.) The book contains material from a number of papers Sumner had written on well-being before, thus I will treat it as the conclusive statement of his theory. For a more recent summary of his view, see Sumner, L. W., ‘Something in Between’, Well-Being and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin, ed. Crisp, R. and Hooker, B. (Oxford, 2000), pp. 119Google Scholar.

2 For a similar point, see Sobel, David, ‘On the Subjectivity of Welfare’, Ethics 107 (1997), pp. 501–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 As opposed to a rival variant of hedonism which accepts the ‘attitude model’ of pleasure and pain, on which they are identified by the subject's reactions to some sensation.

4 To the best I could ascertain, there has been very little general discussion of Sumner's theory, as opposed to some of his particular arguments, in the literature. For the latter, see, for instance, Sobel, David, ‘Sumner on Welfare’, Dialogue 37 (1998), pp. 571–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arneson, Richard J., ‘Human Flourishing versus Desire Satisfaction’, Social Philosophy & Policy 16 (1999), pp. 113–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Bykvist, Krister, ‘Sumner on Desires and Well-Being’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2002), pp. 475–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Sumner distinguishes four kinds or ‘dimensions’ of value – prudential, aesthetic, perfectionist, and ethical – which constitute different ways in which a life can go well. Welfare, however, only concerns the first dimension – the value of a life to the person whose life it is. When we evaluate a person's well-being, we are interested only in this narrower aspect of the value of a life. See pp. 20–5.

6 A classical work of this research direction is Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip E., and Rogers, Willard L., The Quality of American Life: Perceptions, Evaluations, and Satisfactions (New York, 1976)Google Scholar. For a modern treatment, see Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, ed. Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz (New York, 1999).

7 For a thorough survey, see Norbert Schwarz and Fritz Strack, ‘Reports of Subjective Well-Being: Judgmental Processes and their Methodological Implications’, in Kahneman et al. (eds.), Well-Being, pp. 61–84. For some of the philosophical issues that welfare measurement through people's own evaluations raise, see my ‘The Concept of Quality of Life’, Social Theory and Practice 31 (2005), pp. 561–80.

8 See n. 5 for Sumner's distinction between different kinds of value.

9 The argument I discuss is to be found on pp. 42–4. An earlier version appears in Sumner, L. Wayne, ‘The Subjectivity of Welfare’, Ethics 105 (1995), pp. 764–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 For an argument showing that even Plato's objective theory of goodness can satisfy subject-relativity, see Gentzler, Jyl, ‘The Attractions and Delights of Goodness’, The Philosophical Quarterly 54 (2004), pp. 353–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 I examine this distinction in more detail in ‘Welfare Judgments and Risk’, The Ethics of Technological Risk, ed. L. Asveld and S. Roeser (Earthscan, 2009), pp. 144–60.