Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well-Being - Part 4 - Heathwood's Subjective Desire Satisfaction Theory of Well-Being

Chris Heathwood seeks to defend a theory of well-being that he calls "Subjective a Desire Satisfactionism" ("Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism" (Philosophical Studies, 2006, 128:539-563). It's main elements are:

(i) Every instance of subjective desire satisfaction is intrinsically good for its subject.
(ii) Every instance of subjective desire frustration is intrinsically bad for its subject.
(iii) The intrinsic value for its subject of an instance of subjective desire satisfaction = the intensity of the desire subjectively satisfied.
(iv) The intrinsic value for its subject of an instance of subjective desire frustration = minus (the intensity of the desire subjectively frustrated).
(v) The intrinsic value of a life for the one who lives it = the sum of the values of all the instances of subjective desire subjectively satisfaction and frustration contained therein.
I will admit that well-being has not been a core interest of mine. However, a part of my reason for dismissing it has been on the grounds that well-being is only a portion of what matters. What matters, for a person with a desire that P, is the realization of a state of affairs where P is true. There are many "states of affairs where P is true" that do not translate into improved well-being even for the person with the desire that P.

Take the case of Alph. He has only one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora B exist. He has before him a button. Pressing the button will bring Pandra B into existence, but slay the person who pushed it. Alph, in this example, has no reason to continue living.

I am using Bernard Williams' account of what it means to "have a reason".
A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.
Alph, in this example, has no reason to continue living - it does not serve his one and only desire. However, he has a reason to push the button, which will realize a state of affairs in which P, "Pandora B exists" is true. He presses the button - bringing Pandora B into existence, and ending his life.

Alph got what he wanted, but got nothing in the way of well-being.

With this in mind, I divided desires up into self-regarding desires and other-regarding desires.

Self-regarding desires take the subject (the agent with the desire) as the object of the desire. "I desire that I am not in pain" is a self-regarding desire.

Other-regarding desires take other persons and other things as a desire. Alph's desire that the planet Pandora B exist is an other-thing-regarding desire.

Well-being is the objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires.

Because well-being is only one of several things that can matter to a person, I did not give it much more thought than this. I have been concerned with people getting what they want - and arguing that morality is grounded on this - and not with various subsets of those wants.

However, now that I have been drawn into the discussion, I think I can say a few things about it.

I agree with Heathwood on the matter of defective desires. Namely, a desire is not defective unless it is instrumentally bad and, if this is the case, the reduction of well-being is attributed to the desires instrumentally thwarted by the fulfillment of the intrinsic desire.

I like the way that Heathwood handles now-for-then desires. Specifically, he argued that what matters for well-being is the subjective satisfaction of a desire when the agent has it. For me, this would translate into the fulfillment of a self-regarding desire when the agent has it.

I also like the way that Heathwood handles harm-to-self desires, which are self-regarding desires that diminish overall well-being when satisfied. Namely, the satisfaction of the specific desire contributes to well-being but implies the thwarting of a number of other desires that result in an overall reduction in well-being.

However, I have problems linking well-being to the subjective satisfaction of a desire as opposed to the objective satisfaction of a self-regarding desire.

The difference between the two has to do with truth value. A "desire that P" is subjectively satisfied if the agent believes that P. A "desire that P" is objectively fulfilled if P is true.

I would argue that, when a desire is subjectively satisfied, this often leads to the objective fulfillment of other self-regarding desires. Specifically, it generally results in an experience of pleasure, and thus objectively fulfills the self-regarding desire that "I feel pleasure". Similarly, the subjective frustration of a desire (e.g., the false belief that one's child has been killed in an accident) would objectively thwart the self-regarding aversion to pain.

(NOTE: Later in this article, Heathwood equates the subjective satisfaction of a desire with pleasure. That is a further complication that I cannot fit into this post - so I will be ignoring it for now.)

Anyway, what I can say is that the subjective satisfaction or subjective frustration of a desire does contribute something to well-being. They bring about either objectively fulfill a self-regarding desire to experience pleasure objectively thwart a self-regarding desires to avoid pain. However, that does not make them the be-all and end-all of well-being.

The objection that I have to Heathwood's account goes back to Nozick's experience machine.

If Heathwood is right, then no life goes better than the life of a person who is hoooked up to a Nozickian experience machine. The experience machine will feed the agent signals that will generate beliefs that her desires (self-regarding and other-regarding) are fulfilled. If she desires to be a beloved President of the United States, the experience machine will give her that experience. But, in fact, she will live and die as a body laying in a pool of goo, doing nothing.

I find it odd to say that the best possible life that a person can hope for is a life that many people (including me) would run away from.

On the other hand, the "objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires" answers the experience machine example accurately.

It says that if a person's self-regarding desires consist solely of, "that I experience pleasure" and "that I not be in pain", then the experience machine is a good option.

However, a person who has self-regarding desires that cannot be fulfilled within the machine - e.g., "that I contribute to well-being of others" or "that I become President of the United States," the experience machine fails to provide a tempting offer.

Let me repeat, I have not given a lot of thought to theories of well-being. Specifically, I have not spent much time searching for objections to the "objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires" theory. It does seem to have one advantage of Heathwood's subjective desire satisfaction theory. However, the world is a large and complex place filled with landmines that can still blow this alternative to pieces.

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