Thursday, April 28, 2016

Well-Being and the Resonance Constraint

I have been doing some homework recently . . . some advanced reading.

Tomorrow (Friday, April 29) I intend to go to the University of Colorado and attend a lecture by Chris Heathwood on "The Resonance Constraint". I'm using this as an excuse to scout out the philosophy department where I hope to be studying as of August of next year.

In preparation for the lecture, I have been doing some reading.

"The Resonance Constraint" is one of three main arguments against the idea that well-being involves meeting some set of objective criteria. It is used to argue that well-being is subjective in some sense - depending on the likes and dislikes of the individual.

We will start with a basic fact that some lives go better than others. Each of our lives could have gone better than it did. For my part, simply being handed $50,000 would be the difference between possibly going to graduate school and definitely going - with a clear impact on my well-being.

But what is well-being exactly?

A hedonist account of well-being says that the quality of a life is determined by the amount of pleasure one experiences and the pain one avoids. We can evaluate lives by making a simple hedonistic calculation.

Here, right at the start, I often make a mistake, and I want to warn readers to watch out for it. I slip into the assumption that all value can be reduced to well-being - as if well-being is the only thing that matters. I am not the only one who makes this mistake. Sam Harris bases all of morality on "the well-being of conscious creatures" as if nothing else could matter, or at least have moral significance.

When I step back and think of it, that is not true.

Because I make this mistake, when I read about a hedonistic theory of well-being my first instinct is to reject it. After all, I reject a hedonistic (and any brain-state) theory of value. If all value reduces to claims about well-being, and I reject a brain-state theory of value, I would have to reject a brain-state theory of well-being, right?

Then I remind myself that it is a mistake to reduce all value to well-being. If it were true that well-being is the only thing that matters, then a person would never be able to sacrifice their well-being for some other good. A scientist could never sacrifice her health to acquire new scientific knowledge. A parent could not make himself worse off in order to benefit his children, and a soldier could never sacrifice his well-being for the benefit of his fellow soldiers.

One could say that all value involves well-being for somebody. After all, when a person sacrifices their own well-being, they do so for the well-being of others.

There's two arguments against this response.

The first is that it is not the case that all sacrifice is for well-being. Consider the case of the scientist who sacrifices her well-being to acquire knowledge. The knowledge need not be useful - though still valued for its own sake.

The second is that, when a person sacrifices their well-being for another, in many cases the sacrifice is greater than the benefit of the other, and yet still done willingly. Many parents would not hesitate to make a sacrifice for their child even where the benefit to the child is less than that which is sacrificed.

The concept of well-being represents a subset of that which is important. So, I remind myself, why can it not represent the amount of pleasure experienced and pain avoided in a person's life? This is clearly something the scientist, the parent, and the soldier can give up for the sake of others when they sacrifice their well-being.

The Resonance Constraint is said to provide an argument against this thesis.

What is intrinsically valuable for a person must have a connection with what he would find in some degree compelling or attractive, at least if he were rational and aware. It would be an intolerably alienated conception of someone's good to image that it might fail in any such way to engage him. (Railton, P. (2003). ‘Facts and values’, in facts, values, and norms: Essays toward a morality of consequence (pp. 43–84). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

In this light, we are invited to ask whether we can sensibly talk about the well-being of a person who has no interest in pleasure - but who does have interests in other things (e.g., in raising his children or building water purification plants in poor parts of the world).

Chris Heathwood - the person who will be speaking at the lecture tomorrow - argues that a hedonist can handle the Resonance Constraint by adopting an attitude-based theory of pleasure. The attitude-theory (or propositional-attitude theory) identifies pleasure with a propositional attitude rather than a sensation. Thus, according to Healthwood, "the life of the desirer of peace and quiet over sensory pleasure very well may be filled with pleasure, though none of it sensory." In other words, there is a type of pleasure inherent in the fulfillment of all desire - or, at least, in the desires that are relevant to well-being, whichever they may be.

How about this. Instead of equating well-being with pleasure (and the absence of pain), we equate it with the fulfillment of self-regarding desires. A person can still sacrifice well-being for others (the fulfillment of other-regarding desires). A person who cares noting about pleasure can still have a good life. It is still true that some people are better off than others, even though what makes one person better off may not make somebody else better off.

Please excuse me for a while - I have some reading to do.

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