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A Fresh Start for the Objective-List Theory of Well-Being

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 June 2013

University of


So-called ‘objective-list’ theories of well-being (prudential value, welfare) are under-represented in discussions of well-being. I do four things in this article to redress this. First, I develop a new taxonomy of theories of well-being, one that divides theories in a more subtle and illuminating way. Second, I use this taxonomy to undermine some misconceptions that have made people reluctant to hold objective-list theories. Third, I provide a new objective-list theory and show that it captures a powerful motivation for the main competitor theory of well-being (the desire-fulfilment theory). Fourth, I try to defuse the worry that objective-list theories are problematically arbitrary and show how the theory can and should be developed.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), p. 493Google Scholar. For recent dissent see Dorsey, D., ‘The Hedonist's Dilemma’, Journal of Moral Philosophy 8 (2011), pp. 173–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar; C. Woodard, ‘Classifying Theories of Welfare’, Philosophical Studies (forthcoming).

2 Crisp, R., Reasons and the Good (Oxford, 2006), p. 102CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I borrow the spirit of Crisp's distinction but differ from him over some small details.

3 Sobel, D., ‘Subjectivism and Idealization’, Ethics 119 (2009), pp. 336–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 337.

4 Alternatively, someone might accept that one formulation of the view is explanatory but claim that a related view, one which claims that the things that are good for you are complexes of <desires-plus-their-object>, is enumerative. Of course that is a possible view. But that theory – call it the ‘complex desire theory’ – is not the theory that goes by the name ‘desire-fulfilment theory’ in the literature and is discussed by Brandt, R. B., A Theory of the Good and the Right (New York, 1979), p. 329Google Scholar; Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 494; Sidgwick, H., The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (Indianapolis, 1981), pp. 111–13Google Scholar, amongst others. On this see also Dorsey ‘Hedonist's Dilemma’, p. 176.

5 This is not to deny that such an enumerative theory can play other explanatory roles. One such role is the following: someone's having a lot of pleasure explains their having a high level of well-being. But this is different from the task of explaining why something is good for someone.

6 For example, Mark Schroeder writes: ‘Different versions of the Humean Theory of Reasons are distinguished by their distinctive theories about how Ronnie's reason is explained by his psychology’ (Schroeder, M., Slaves of the Passions (Oxford, 2007), p. 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

7 For further discussion of the structural similarity see, for example, Brink, D. O., ‘The Significance of Desire’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 3 (Oxford, 2008), pp. 546Google Scholar.

8 There is of course debate about whether the enumerative part is monistic (the ‘dominant end’ conception) or pluralistic (the ‘inclusive end’ conception).

9 One particularly mistaken objection that the distinction undermines is the idea that objective-list theories are committed to some explanatory theory like human nature perfectionism.

10 On the experience requirement see for example Griffin, J., Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance (Oxford, 1986), p. 13Google Scholar.

11 It obviously does not follow from the fact that it would be good for you to get F that others would be permitted to foist F upon you regardless of your attitudes.

12 One might worry that subsequent guilt will outweigh the effect of the pleasure. If so, remember that the relevant claim is a pro tanto one.

13 This leaves out some details of the theory such as the nature of the desire and its timing. Though necessary for examining the plausibility of the view, they are irrelevant here. For discussion see: Crisp, Reasons and the Good, pp. 103–11; Heathwood, C., ‘The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire’, Philosophical Studies 133 (2007), pp. 2344CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 493; Sobel, D., ‘Pain for Objectivists: The Case of Matters of Mere Taste’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (2005), pp. 437–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 There will be many different ways in which a theory can make well-being attitude (in)dependent. Exploring these different dimensions of attitude (in)dependence of well-being is a very important task but one that would take me too far afield here. I thank Chris Heathwood and Alex Sarch for discussion of this.

15 Henceforth I will stop distinguishing hedonism and objective-list theories and simply refer to enumerative theories (except where it is necessary to isolate hedonism in particular).

16 One could look for both an enumerative theory and an explanatory theory that underpins it.

17 For discussion of analogous issues for ‘multi-component’ theories see A. Sarch, ‘Multi-Component Theories of Well-Being and their Structure’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (forthcoming).

18 For discussion see Fletcher, G., ‘Rejecting Well-Being Invariabilism’, Philosophical Papers 38 (2009), pp. 2134CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Kagan, S., ‘Well-Being as Enjoying the Good’, Philosophical Perspectives: Ethics 23 (2009), pp. 253–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 271, raises this issue for his positive enumerative theory. I discuss the negative side of well-being in G. Fletcher, ‘The Worst Things in Life’ (manuscript).

20 For critical discussion of the ‘resonance constraint’ see A. Sarch, ‘Internalism about a Person's Good: Don't Believe It’, Philosophical Studies (forthcoming).

21 For discussion of this see Hooker, B., ‘Theories of Welfare, Theories of Good Reasons for Action, and Ontological Naturalism’, Philosophical Papers 20 (1991), pp. 2536CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Railton, P., ‘Facts and Values’, in Facts, Values and Norms (Cambridge, 2003), p. 47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Socrates seemingly endorses such a view of well-being for the producers in The Republic.

24 Whilst this is clear in the case of all of the other goods it is worth briefly explaining why this is the case for achievement. It is plausible to claim that achievement has an attitudinal component because in achieving something one succeeds in one's aim and so one has an attitude of aiming towards some goal. This attitude is plausibly a desire, or desire-like at least. For discussion see Keller, S., ‘Welfare and the Achievement of Goals’, Philosophical Studies 121 (2004), pp. 2741CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Sobel, ‘Subjectivism and Idealization’, p. 337.

26 For discussion of the Scope Problem see, for example, Darwall, S., Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton, 2004), pp. 2931Google Scholar; Griffin, Well-Being, p. 17; Hooker, B., ‘Mark Overvold's Contribution to Philosophy’, Journal of Philosophical Research 16 (1990–1), pp. 333–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Overvold, M., ‘Self-Interest and the Concepts of Self-Sacrifice’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 10 (1980), pp. 105–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 494; Portmore, D., ‘Desire-fulfilment and Posthumous Harm’, American Philosophical Quarterly 44 (2007), pp. 2738Google Scholar; and Sobel, D., ‘Well-being as the Object of Moral Consideration’, Economics and Philosophy 14 (1998), pp. 249–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 268.

27 The idea for this kind of view came in part from reflecting upon David Sobel's suggestion that ‘the most sensible path for the objectivist about well-being is to embrace a pluralist account of what makes a person's life go better or worse in which the agent's attitudes are sometimes relevant to her good but sometimes are not’ (Sobel, D., ‘On the Subjectivity of Welfare’, Ethics 107 (1997), pp. 501–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 503).

28 It is also true that all philosophical theories are vulnerable to the worry that their base claims lack further justification.

29 Notice that the extra explanatory depth of the desire-fulfilment theory comes at the cost of its giving plausible answers (because it produces the scope problem).

30 An alternative route would be to investigate the nature of prudential value, or something's being good for someone, as certain answers to this might tell us, or constrain, which things are first-order contributors to well-being. For discussion, see Fletcher, G., ‘The Locative Analysis of Good for Formulated and Defended’, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy (JESP) 6 (2012)Google Scholar.

31 Crisp, Reasons and the Good, p. 122.

32 An instance of this kind of strategy is found in Crisp, Reasons and the Good, p. 122.

33 This article has been in progress for a long time (under different titles), and so a number of people and audiences have offered useful comments or suggestions. I would like especially to thank: Steve Campbell, Brad Cokelet, William Crouch, Dale Dorsey, Alex Gregory, Chris Heathwood, Andrew Moore, Debbie Roberts, Alex Sarch, Jonathan Way and Chris Woodard, along with anonymous referees for this and other journals.