Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 16, Issue 5, pp 953–968

The Strong-Tie Requirement and Objective-List Theories of Well-Being

Authors

    • Department of Religious Studies and PhilosophyChestnut Hill College
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10677-012-9389-9

Cite this article as:
Lauinger, W.A. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2013) 16: 953. doi:10.1007/s10677-012-9389-9
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Abstract

Many philosophers with hedonistic sympathies (e.g., Mill, Sidgwick, Sumner, Feldman, Crisp, Heathwood, and Bradley) have claimed that well-being is necessarily experiential. Kagan once claimed something slightly different, saying that, although unexperienced bodily events can directly impact a person’s well-being, it is nonetheless true that any change in a person’s well-being must involve a change in her (i.e., either in her mind or in her body). Kagan elaborated by saying that a person’s well-being cannot float freely of her such that it is affected by events that do not affect her (Kagan 1992, 169–189). These two claims—that well-being is necessarily experiential and that changes in well-being must involve changes in the person—are two different ways of specifying the general intuition that a person’s well-being must be strongly tied to her. This general intuition imposes an adequacy constraint on welfare theorizing: To be adequate, a welfare theory cannot allow that someone can be directly benefited by events that are not strongly tied to her. Call this the strong-tie requirement. The strong-tie requirement is easily satisfied by welfare hedonism, but it poses problems for desire-fulfillment welfare theories and objective-list welfare theories. Though a great deal has been written about desire-fulfillment welfare theories in relation to the strong-tie requirement, not as much has been written about objective-list welfare theories in relation to the strong-tie requirement. This paper argues that objective-list welfare theories can satisfy the strong-tie requirement, though probably only if they take a perfectionist form, as opposed to a brute-list form.

Keywords

Well-beingWelfareWelfare hedonismObjective-list theoriesDesire-fulfillment theoriesPerfectionism

1 Introduction

Many philosophers with hedonistic sympathies have claimed that well-being is necessarily experiential (e.g., see Mill 1998; Sidgwick 1981, 391–407; Sumner 1996; Feldman 2004; Crisp 2006, 98–125; Heathwood 2006, 539–563; and Bradley 2009). Sumner puts this claim as follows: “[H]edonism underlines a truth which applies to all goods and ills, whether they consist merely in our feelings or in states of the world. This is the truth that nothing can make our lives go better or worse unless it somehow affects the quality of our experience” (Sumner 1996, 112). Kagan once made a slightly different claim. He said that, although unexperienced bodily events can directly impact a person’s well-being, it is nonetheless true that any change in a person’s well-being must involve a change in her (i.e., either in her mind or in her body). Kagan elaborated by saying that a person’s well-being cannot float freely of her such that it is affected by events that do not affect her (Kagan 1992, 169–189).

These two claims—that well-being is necessarily experiential and that changes in well-being must involve changes in the person—are two different ways of specifying the general intuition that a person’s well-being must be strongly tied to her. Though there is little agreement about how best to specify this general intuition, it is widely accepted. In fact, it is fair to say that this general intuition imposes an adequacy constraint on welfare theorizing: To be adequate, a welfare theory cannot allow that someone can be directly benefited by events that are not strongly tied to her. Call this the strong-tie requirement. The strong-tie requirement is easily satisfied by welfare hedonism, but it poses problems for desire-fulfillment welfare theories and objective-list welfare theories. A great deal has been written about desire-fulfillment welfare theories in relation to the strong-tie requirement.1 However, not as much has been written about objective-list welfare theories (OL theories) in relation to the strong-tie requirement.2 This paper argues that OL theories can satisfy the strong-tie requirement, though probably only if they take a perfectionist form, as opposed to a brute-list form.

Why does the strong-tie requirement pose problems for desire-fulfillment welfare theories? It does because a person can desire an event to occur and this event can occur without this person’s being at all aware of its occurrence, and without this person’s being at all changed by its occurrence. Parfit’s stranger case is often discussed in this context. Suppose that Parfit desires that a stranger that he met be cured of some illness, and suppose that, unbeknownst to Parfit, this stranger is eventually cured (Parfit 1984, 493–502). Here Parfit’s desire is fulfilled, and so, on a desire-fulfillment welfare theory that is left unqualified or unrestricted, it follows that Parfit’s welfare is advanced. But this seems implausible, since the stranger’s being cured is not tied to Parfit in any strong way. Many philosophers have written about this case and others like it, either with the aim of showing that desire-fulfillment welfare theories are implausible or with the aim of showing that desire-fulfillment welfare theories can somehow be made to work.

Before I make it clear that the strong-tie requirement poses problems for OL theories, I should, very briefly, explain how OL theories work. OL theories operate on two levels, a type level and a token level. On the type level, OL theories assert that there are various general goods that are directly good for one, and that are so regardless of whether one has any sort of pro-attitude toward them. Here is a plausible list of the general goods that OL theorists might invoke: health, accomplishment, friendship, knowledge, pleasure, and aesthetic experience. On the token level, OL theories claim that the occurrence of an event advances a person’s well-being if and only if, and because, this event is, for this person, an instance of one of the general goods on the list. Brute-list OL theorists consider the general goods on the list to be prudential goods but not perfectionist goods, whereas perfectionist OL theorists consider the general goods on the list not only to be prudential goods, but also to be perfectionist goods (i.e., goods that are completing or fulfilling of one’s human nature). Later I will say more about the distinction between brute-list OL theories and perfectionist OL theories, but, for now, this suffices.3

Here is an example that shows that the strong-tie requirement poses problems for OL theories. Suppose that a friend of yours sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, and also suppose that the event your friend’s sticking up for you never enters your experience or in any way changes you (say, because nobody, including your friend, ever tells you about this event’s occurrence). Is this event’s occurrence directly good for you? Since OL theories entail that friendship is one of the general goods that enhances well-being, and since this event seems (on the face of things) to be an event that is, for you, an instance of friendship, it seems (on the face of things) that OL theories entail that this event’s occurrence is indeed directly good for you. But, if that is so, then it is not at all clear that OL theories pay adequate respect to the thought that a person’s well-being must be strongly tied to her (i.e., that it cannot float too freely of her). Later I will come back to this case. For now, the point is just that OL theories do seem (on the face of things) to have difficulties in satisfying the strong-tie requirement.

Let me be clear about the focus of this paper. There are various objections that one might level against OL theories. (1) One might point to the disagreements among OL theorists about what general goods are on the supposedly one true list, and then one might say that OL theories should be rejected because OL theorists cannot even agree among themselves about what their theory says. (2) One might find OL theories intolerably alienating, since they offer us a pro-attitude independent account of welfare. (3) One might think that, in order to have enough explanatory power or theoretical unity, OL theories must take a perfectionist form, as opposed to a brute-list form; and yet one might also think that perfectionism is implausible (say, because it requires the assumption that there is such a thing as a human nature that each of us has, where this human nature that each of us has is something that can be completed or fulfilled). Though the third of these three objections will come up again later, I should stress that I am not trying to answer any of these three objections in this paper. Indeed, the aim of this paper is only to answer the objection that OL theories fail because they cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement.

Three sections follow. Section 2 will discuss the fact that various philosophers have rejected OL theories largely because, on their view, OL theories fail to satisfy the strong-tie requirement. Then section 3 will argue that, although it is probably true that brute-list OL theories fail to satisfy the strong-tie requirement, it seems fairly clear that perfectionist OL theories can satisfy the strong-tie requirement. Finally, section 4 will very briefly conclude the paper.

2 Why Many Philosophers Believe that OL Theories Fail to Satisfy the Strong-Tie Requirement

Many philosophers reject OL theories largely because they believe that OL theories fail to satisfy the strong-tie requirement. What are these philosophers thinking? To begin to answer this question, it will help if we consider three groups of philosophers with hedonistic sympathies.

Sidgwick and Crisp, among others, belong to the first group. This group holds (a) that only certain mental states can and do enter the content of well-being and (b) that the welfare-value of these mental states does not depend on what causes them.4

In agreement with the first group, the second group holds (a) that only certain mental states can and do enter the content of well-being; but, in disagreement with the first group, the second group holds (b) that the welfare-value of these mental states depends at least partly on what causes them. J. S. Mill seems to belong to this second group. Though certain comments that Mill makes in On Liberty strongly suggest that he is a perfectionist about welfare (e.g., see Mill 2004, 66–67), I think that, in light of what Mill later says in Utilitarianism, he is best thought of as being a welfare hedonist who holds (a) that only instances of pleasure can and do enter the content of well-being and (b) that the welfare-value of these instances of pleasure depends at least partly on what causes them. In particular, Mill holds that instances of pleasure that are caused by activities that employ our higher faculties (e.g., our intellects or our imaginations) are, all else equal, worth significantly more, welfare-wise, than instances of pleasure that are caused by activities that employ our lower or bodily faculties (Mill 1998, 55–59). Some of the welfare theories that Feldman has advanced also fall into this second group. For example, Feldman’s truth-adjusted version of intrinsic attitudinal hedonism claims (a) that only episodes of intrinsic attitudinal pleasure can and do enter the content of well-being and (b) that episodes of intrinsic attitudinal pleasure that are caused by true beliefs are, all else equal, worth significantly more, welfare-wise, than episodes of intrinsic attitudinal pleasure that are caused by false beliefs (Feldman 2004, 109–114).5

Turn now to the third group, which claims that various non-mental states (i.e., states of the world) can enter the content of a person’s welfare, though only if this person experiences them. Sumner belongs to this third group (Sumner 1996, 138–183). He holds that various states of the world can enter the content of a person’s welfare, though only if she experiences these states by having the pro-attitude of happiness toward them when they obtain. Here “happiness” refers to “a positive cognitive/affective response on the part of a subject to (some or all of) the conditions or circumstances of her life” (Sumner 2000, 15). Adams also seems to fall into this third group. He is attracted to a welfare theory that says that welfare consists in, and only in, the enjoyment of the excellent (Adams 1999, 93–101). Here enjoyment is a pro-attitude, and here the excellent is a non-relational and objective sort of value (i.e., a non-relational sort of value that is irreducible to mental states). With respect to the strong-tie requirement, Adams says: “Even though what I enjoy is often external to myself, the enjoyment itself must be an event in my experience. Because of this, the enjoyment criterion helps to assure that what we are assessing is my good…” (Adams 1999, 100). There are many excellent states of affairs that are external to Adams, but Adams is here saying that it is only those excellent states of affairs that he enjoys that are directly good for him; and the enjoyment criterion is helpful, Adams believes, because it ensures that he experiences (and therefore is strongly tied to) everything that is directly good for him.

Stepping back now, all three of the above groups of philosophers hold that well-being is necessarily experiential, and, for all three groups, this is a significant part of what leads them to reject OL theories. To make this last point clearer, it will help if I further elaborate on the views of (1) Sidgwick, (2) Mill, and (3) Adams.

(1) Sidgwick took OL theories seriously. Indeed, he readily admits that, in addition to thinking that the experience of pleasure is directly good for one, it is natural to think of general goods such as virtue and knowledge as being directly good for one; and he even goes so far as to say that “the pursuit of the ideal objects before mentioned, Virtue, Truth, Freedom, Beauty, etc., for their own sakes, is indirectly and secondarily, though not primarily and absolutely, rational [Sidgwick’s emphasis]” (Sidgwick 1981, 405–406). Here Sidgwick is saying that one particularly effective way of gaining pleasure for oneself is to pursue the non-hedonic general goods on the OL theory list, and to pursue them for their own sakes (i.e., to pursue them without consciously thinking of them as merely instrumental goods). This is a paradoxical claim from Sidgwick, since Sidgwick did in fact consider these non-hedonic general goods to be merely instrumental goods. In any case, the key point that I want us to see here is simply that Sidgwick did take OL theories seriously.

But why, then, did Sidgwick ultimately reject the OL theory view in favor of welfare hedonism? Sidgwick did this largely because of his conviction that well-being is necessarily experiential. Here it is worth highlighting that, with regard to the general good of life, considered on its physical or non-mental side, Sidgwick says:

It is in their purely physical aspect, as complex processes of corporeal change, that they [i.e., physical processes] are means to the maintenance of life: but so long as we confine our attention to their corporeal aspect,—regarding them merely as complex movements of certain particles of organized matter—it seems impossible to attribute to these movements, considered in themselves, either goodness or badness…In short, if a certain quality of human Life is that which is ultimately desirable, it must belong to human Life regarded on its psychical side, or, briefly, Consciousness (Sidgwick 1981, 396).

Thus Sidgwick maintains that purely physical events cannot enter a person’s well-being—that, indeed, nothing except what enters one’s conscious experience can truly count as being directly beneficial for one. Naturally, as Sidwick makes clear (Sidgwick 1981, 398–399), the case for adopting welfare hedonism over the OL theory view is not settled just in virtue of one’s accepting that welfare is necessarily experiential. After all, one could in principle accept that well-being is necessarily experiential and then proceed to claim that a person directly benefits from, and only from, the occurrence of events (a) that instantiate friendship, or knowledge, or accomplishment, or health, etc., for her and (b) that she experiences. In fact, though, it seems that nobody ever does take this position; indeed, it seems that all actual philosophers who accept the claim that well-being is necessarily experiential also accept the claim that it is only pleasant or enjoyable experiences that can enhance well-being. Of course, even if one accepts both the claim that welfare is necessarily experiential and the claim that it is only pleasant or enjoyable experiences that can enhance well-being, one could still accept that OL theories are partly true, for one could claim that a person’s welfare is advanced by, and only by, the occurrence of events (a) that instantiate friendship, or knowledge, or accomplishment, or health, etc., for her and (b) that she enjoys. This view would be somewhat like Adams’s proposal that welfare consists in, and only in, the enjoyment of the excellent. As things turned out, of course, Sidgwick decided to reject OL theories entirely; that is, he adopted a pure version of welfare hedonism. Regardless of whether Sidgwick was right or wrong to do this, it is undeniable that he did this largely because he was convinced that welfare is necessarily experiential. In short, when Sidgwick accepted the claim that welfare is necessarily experiential, he thereby took the first, crucial step on the path leading to welfare hedonism.

(2) Mill seems to have taken OL theories even more seriously than Sidgwick did. Like Sidgwick, Mill only allowed instances of pleasure to enter the content of well-being. But, unlike Sidgwick, Mill did not consider all of the non-hedonic general goods on the OL theory list to be merely instrumental goods. Indeed, if one were to experience pleasure derived from one’s pursuit of knowledge, or artistic achievement, or moral virtue, or liberty, then Mill would count this instance of pleasure as a higher one and as one that is therefore, all else equal, of significantly more worth, welfare-wise, than a lower pleasure. In this way Mill remained a welfare hedonist, while nonetheless giving many of the non-hedonic general goods on the OL theory list more than a merely instrumental importance vis-à-vis well-being.

It is worth noting that some philosophers go so far as to consider Mill to be an objectivist about welfare. For instance, Brink classifies Mill as a perfectionist about well-being (Brink 2006, 391), and Donagan says:

[T]he ultimate tendency of Mill’s understanding of happiness is Aristotelian…Health, membership in a flourishing family and in a flourishing civil society, friendship, liberty, and having and making the most of opportunities to engage in pursuits found worth engaging in seem to constitute human well-being; and the want of any of them to be ill-being (Donagan 1977, 192).

As I have said, I think that Mill is really a hedonist about well-being, since he only allows certain mental states (i.e., instances of pleasure) to enter the content of well-being. Still, it is undeniable that Mill took OL theories very seriously. I suspect that, in the end, Mill rejected OL theories mainly because, like Sidgwick, he was convinced that welfare is necessarily experiential.

(3) Similar remarks can be made about Adams. He takes objectivism about well-being seriously, and, indeed, he even includes an objective-value criterion in his theory of welfare. However, he is ultimately unwilling to be a pure objectivist about well-being (i.e., he insists on adding an enjoyment criterion to his theory of welfare), and a large part of the reason for this is that he strongly inclines toward the view that well-being is necessarily experiential.

Why do so many philosophers—not just Sidgwick, Mill, and Adams, but also Sumner, Feldman, Crisp, Heathwood, and Bradley—believe that welfare is necessarily experiential? Here we can consider Sumner’s claim that each of us is a subject, that is, “a unique, enduring center of consciousness” (Sumner 1996, 30). If we think of ourselves predominantly in this way, then it is natural also to think that something can be of direct benefit to us only if it directly affects the unique, enduring center of consciousness that each of us is. This conception of ourselves as unique, enduring centers of consciousness has a tenacious grip on virtually all of us, at least from time to time; and it seems that it is this conception of ourselves that is the real driving force behind the common acceptance of the view that welfare is necessarily experiential.

To be clear, this claim that each of us is a unique, enduring center of consciousness may not need to be understood as an official metaphysical pronouncement regarding the nature of personal identity. For instance, when Sumner claims that each of us is a unique, enduring center of consciousness, he does not seem to be making an official metaphysical claim—rather, he seems simply to be saying that, in relation to welfare, this particular conception of ourselves is central.

But is it true that, in relation to welfare, this particular conception of ourselves is central? And is it true that well-being is necessarily experiential?

We might think that, in relation to welfare, what is central is the view of ourselves as being both mental and physical. As Kagan says, “No doubt we all have our moments in which we are drawn to the thought that we are indeed simply our minds. But typically this is not our considered view of the matter. Generally, we are quite prepared to insist that we have bodies as well as minds” (Kagan 1992, 181). This conception of ourselves as having both minds and bodies underpins Kagan’s claim that changes in well-being must involve changes in the person (i.e., either in her mind or in her body). If this claim from Kagan is correct, then unexperienced bodily events can directly impact well-being. Suppose, for example, that someone has contracted cancer, but that he is not yet experiencing symptoms and, more generally, that he does not yet have any awareness of his having contracted cancer. If we hold that well-being is necessarily experiential, then we will say that this man’s having cancer is not directly bad for him. However, it seems reasonable to think that this man’s having cancer is directly bad for him and that, if and when this man finds out that he has cancer, he will be finding out about a diminishment of his well-being that has already taken place. (Naturally, his finding out will be painful, and this experience of pain will also diminish his welfare. But that is a different point.) My claim here is not that it is obviously right to affirm that unexperienced bodily events can directly impact well-being. Certainly Sidgwick and other philosophers who deny this are not, in any obvious way, being unreasonable. My claim here is simply that it seems reasonable to think that unexperienced bodily events can directly impact welfare, especially if we accept that, in relation to welfare, the conception of ourselves that is central is the one that says that we have both minds and bodies.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept that unexperienced bodily events can directly impact welfare, and also suppose, for the sake of argument, that we are at least tentatively committed to accepting the OL theory view of well-being (say, because we are unconvinced by the arguments for all of the non-objectivist views of welfare, and because we are inclined to think that there is a certain core of general goods—i.e., health, friendship, knowledge, accomplishment, aesthetic experience, and pleasure—that well-being depends on). How, then, should we deal with the strong-tie requirement? For instance, what should we say about the case where your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, and yet where you never experience this event and are never in any way changed by this event? Does this event—that is, the event your friend’s sticking up for you—directly enhance your welfare?

If OL theorists answer “yes” here, that is worrisome, because then it is not at all clear that they are paying adequate respect to the thought that a person’s well-being must be strongly tied to her (i.e., that it cannot float too freely of her). On the face of things, though, it seems that OL theorists have little choice but to answer “yes” here. After all, friendship is one of the general goods on the OL theory list, and this event seems, on the face of things, to be an event that is, for you, an instance of friendship. Of course, OL theorists could simply amend their theory so that it incorporates Kagan’s claim that changes in well-being must involve changes in the person. That is, OL theorists could claim that an event’s occurrence advances a person’s well-being if and only if, and because, (1) this event is, for this person, an instance of one of the general goods on the OL theory list and (2) this event’s occurrence brings with it a change in this person (i.e., either in her mind or in her body). If OL theorists were to add Kagan’s claim to their theory in this way, then they would thereby satisfy the strong-tie requirement (e.g., they would thereby be able to deny that you directly benefit when your friend sticks up for you in the above case). However, tacking Kagan’s claim onto their theory, simply in order to block the objection that OL theories fail to tie the contents of a person’s well-being to the person in a strong enough way, seems somewhat ad hoc.6 If possible, OL theorists should come up with a more principled way of blocking the objection that OL theories fail to satisfy the strong-tie requirement.7

3 How OL Theories can Satisfy the Strong-Tie Requirement

Let me begin this section by briefly discussing the distinction between brute-list OL theories and perfectionist OL theories. After this brief discussion, I will explain why perfectionist OL theories can satisfy the strong-tie requirement, while brute-list OL theories probably cannot.

On a brute-list OL theory, the general goods on the OL theory list are prudential goods but not perfectionist goods. One worry about brute-list OL theories is that they do not ground the general goods on the OL theory list in anything deeper. Some OL theorists are not greatly bothered by this and are ultimately content to stop with a brute-list theory (e.g., see Arneson 1999, 113–142 and Griffin 1996, 19–36). But other OL theorists are convinced that the general goods on the list are grounded in something deeper, namely, the perfection of human nature. For instance, Finnis, Brink, and Murphy are all perfectionist OL theorists, which is to say that they all maintain that the general goods on the OL theory list are not only prudential goods, but are also perfectionist goods (see Finnis 1980, 59–99 and Finnis 1998, 91; see Murphy 2001, 6–45 and 76–80; and see Brink 1989, 217–236 and Brink 2006, 391–392).8 In terms of explanatory power or theoretical unity, perfectionist OL theories are in good shape in that they ground the various contents of one’s welfare is some one thing, namely, the perfection of one’s human nature. In this respect, perfectionist OL theories are similar to desire-fulfillment welfare theories, which ground the various contents of one’s welfare in some one thing, namely, one’s desires.

Here is an explanation, albeit an oversimplified one, of what perfectionist OL theorists think: “One’s faring well depends on various general goods (say, accomplishment, knowledge, pleasure, aesthetic experience, friendship, and health), where these general goods are unified in that each of them is keyed into a capacity that is central to one’s human nature and that, if exercised or developed or actualized, would complete or fulfill one’s human nature. The upshot of this is that you both fare well and perfect your own human nature insofar as you exercise or develop or actualize your capacity to accomplish worthwhile tasks, or your capacity to deepen or to maintain friendships, or your capacity to gain knowledge of yourself and the world in general, or your capacity to improve or to maintain your health or physical well-functioning, or your capacity to experience or to recognize the beauty that the world has to offer, or your capacity to experience pleasure.”

The above (oversimplified) explanation of what perfectionist OL theorists think glosses over various difficulties that attach to the perfectionist OL theory position. Here consider two sets of points. (1) Are perfectionist OL theorists claiming that well-being and perfectionist value are metaphysically identical, just as water and H2O are? Or are they claiming that well-being and perfectionist value are co-extensive but not identical? Or are they simply claiming that every prudential good is also a perfectionist good? Further, is it even plausible to think that every prudential good is also a perfectionist good? Pleasure could pose a problem here, since many philosophers think that pleasure is a prudential good but not a perfectionist good.9 (2) There are some nasty capacities that appear to be central to human nature (e.g., the capacity for greed), and it seems absurd to say that you perfect your human nature or complete yourself as a human being insofar as you exercise or develop or actualize your nasty capacities. It seems fairly clear, then, that perfectionist OL theorists must construe human nature in an irreducibly evaluative way, since it is only by doing so that they can hit upon just those capacities that, if exercised or developed or actualized, really would complete or fulfill one as a human being. However, if the appeal to human nature is irreducibly evaluative, then it is not entirely clear that the appeal to human nature is doing any real work.10 The worry here is that an appeal to various non-perfectionist objective goods (accomplishment, friendship, etc.) is being made, and then the claim that these various goods are all grounded in the perfection of human nature is being tacked on, but in a way that is empty.

I think that perfectionist OL theorists can adequately resolve the above-mentioned difficulties, but it would take us too far afield if I were to try, in this paper, to show that this is so. I am mentioning these difficulties here, just so that the reader is aware of them. Henceforth, I will proceed under the assumption that perfectionist OL theories can adequately resolve these difficulties.

I am now ready to discuss OL theories in relation to the strong-tie requirement. Here we should focus on the instancing relation that connects the general goods on the OL theory list to those events that are, for the person in question, instances of the general goods on the OL theory list. Is there a clear and principled way to rein in this instancing relation, so that events that are not strongly tied to the person do not count as being, for her, genuine instances of the general goods on the list? Here we can think about the above-mentioned case where your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, and yet where you never experience this event and are never in any way changed by this event. Does this event—that is, the event your friend’s sticking up for you—directly enhance your welfare?

I have said that, since friendship is one of the general goods on the OL theory list, and since it seems (on the face of things) that the event your friend’s sticking up for you is an event that instantiates friendship for you, it seems (on the face of things) that OL theorists have little choice but to answer “yes” here. Further, I see no clear and principled way for brute-list OL theorists to answer “no” here. Thus I think that brute-list OL theories probably cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement, as they do not seem to pay adequate respect to the thought that a person’s well-being must be strongly tied to her (i.e., that it cannot float too freely of her).

But now turn to perfectionist OL theories. On a perfectionist OL theory, the instancing relation—that is, the one that connects the general goods on the list to those events that are, for the person in question, instances of these general goods—will be specified in a perfectionist way, which is to say that this instancing relation will be specified in a way that directly appeals to the exercise or development or actualization of some capacity that belongs to the person in question. Specifying this instancing relation in this way ensures that anything that is directly beneficial to the person in question has a clear toehold in her, that is, by way of having a clear toehold in some capacity that she has. With regard to the case where your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, perfectionist OL theorists can say: “On a perfectionist OL theory, no event can be, for you, an instance of one of the general goods on the list unless it includes within it the exercise or development or actualization of one of your capacities. When your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, there is no capacity of yours that is exercised or developed or actualized. Certainly your friend’s friendship-related capacities are being exercised or developed or actualized in this case, but, just as certainly, your friendship-related capacities are not being exercised or developed or actualized in this case. Thus, with regard to this case, perfectionist OL theories imply, correctly, that you are not directly benefited by your friend’s sticking up for you.” This is a clear and principled explanation of why it is that this event (i.e., the event your friend’s sticking up for you) does not directly benefit you.

There are different protests that might be voiced at this juncture. (1) Some brute-list OL theorists will protest my claim that brute-list OL theories probably cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement. (2) Other brute-list OL theorists will grant that brute-list OL theories probably cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement. But then they will say: “Why, though, is it so important to satisfy the strong-tie requirement?” (3) Welfare hedonists and others who are convinced that the strong-tie requirement does need to be satisfied may say: “So far you have only discussed the general good of friendship, but surely you must discuss other general goods as well (knowledge, health, accomplishment, etc.). What, in relation to the strong-tie requirement, do perfectionist OL theorists have to say about these other general goods?”

In the rest of section 3 of this paper, I will address these three protests in a one-by-one manner. Let me start, then, with the first one.

When Parfit discusses OL theories, he speaks of someone’s having the general goods on the list (Parfit 1984, 499). In line with this, brute-list OL theorists might say that they can satisfy the strong-tie requirement in a clear and principled way, namely, by claiming that someone is directly benefited just when, and just because, she has or possesses one of the general goods on the list. Then, with regard to the case where your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, brute-list OL theorists might say: “You do not have or possess friendship in this case, since, after all, you are not present when your friend sticks up for you. It follows that the event your friend’s sticking up for you is not directly good for you.”

I am skeptical of this appeal to the notion of having or possessing. I have children. But, if I am at work and my children are at home, then do I still have my children? I am inclined to answer “yes”, but it is hard to be confident about this answer, because the word “have” is vague. Or again, do I have or possess my car even when I am not in it or near it (e.g., when I am asleep in my bed)? I think that I probably do, though, again here, it is hard to be confident about this answer, because the words “have” and “possess” are vague. Turning now to the case where your friend sticks up for you when you are not there, I grant that it is plausible to say that you do not have or possess friendship in this case, because you are not there when your friend sticks up for you. Notice, though, that it also seems plausible to say that you do have or possess friendship in this case, not in the sense that you are there and are holding friendship in your hands, but rather in the sense that this case involves an instance of friendship that is, in some way, relativized to you and so is, in that way, yours. In any case, my general point here is simply that appealing to the notion of having or possessing the general goods on the list will probably not provide brute-list OL theorists with a clear and principled way of satisfying the strong-tie requirement, because the words “having” and “possessing” are too vague to allow for this.11

There is another way in which brute-list OL theorists might try to satisfy the strong-tie requirement. Finnis (who is a perfectionist OL theorist, not a brute-list OL theorist) often speaks of participating in the general goods on the list (e.g., see Finnis 1980, 96). Brute-list OL theorists might seize on this notion of participation and then claim that someone is directly benefited just when, and just because, she participates in one of the general goods on the list. Then, with regard to the case where your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, brute-list OL theorists might say: “You are not directly benefited in this case because you are not participating in friendship when your friend sticks up for you.”

This appeal to participation is, I believe, more promising than the appeal to having or possessing. Still, this appeal to participation is problematic. The word “participation” connotes doing or an exercising of one’s agency, but there are some ways of directly benefiting that do not involve any doing or any exercising of agency. Here, in particular, I have in mind cases involving health and pleasure, respectively. If a cut on my knee is healing itself, then I am thereby gaining an instance of health and so am thereby gaining in well-being. Yet it seems strained to say that I am here participating in health, for I am not doing anything (or exercising my agency) in this case (though, of course, my body is doing something in this case). Similar remarks apply to pleasure. I directly benefit in cases where I experience pleasure, but it is a distortion to say that I am participating in pleasure in these cases, since, indeed, the truth seems to be that pleasure befalls me in these cases. In sum, the appeal to participation is problematic, because, if brute-list OL theorists make this appeal, they seemingly will have to say what is false, namely, that there are various instances of health and pleasure that are not directly good for people because these people have not participated in health and pleasure in the cases that contain these instances of health and pleasure. (Naturally, brute-list OL theorists could try to appeal to a looser or vaguer sense of “participation”, one that allows us to speak of people’s participating in health and pleasure. But, once this looser or vaguer sense of “participation” is invoked, the aim of providing a clear and principled way of satisfying the strong-tie requirement has effectively been abandoned.12)

There are other ways in which brute-list OL theorists might try to satisfy the strong-tie requirement.13 But, instead of continuing that line of discussion, let us now turn to the second protest mentioned earlier. This protest comes from brute-list OL theorists who grant that brute-list OL theories probably cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement, but who then say something like this: “Why, though, should we aim to satisfy the strong-tie requirement? It is not at all clear that this requirement needs to be satisfied. For example, with regard to the case where your friend sticks up for you when others are belittling you behind your back, why shouldn’t we just go ahead and conclude that the event your friend’s sticking up for you actually is directly good for you? It is not as though concluding this runs contrary to common sense. After all, common sense seems undecided on this case, as some people pre-theoretically think that you can be directly benefited by your friend’s sticking up for you, while others pre-theoretically think not (because this event does not have any direct impact on you).”

Here we should recall what is centrally at issue in this paper. This paper is focused on the objection that OL theories fail because they do not pay adequate respect to the thought that a person’s welfare must be strongly tied to her (i.e., that it cannot float too freely of her). This objection is accepted, implicitly or explicitly, by a number of philosophers. Many of these philosophers (e.g., Sidgwick, Mill, and Adams) take OL theories seriously, but they ultimately reject the OL theory view and do so largely because they believe that OL theories do not link the contents of a person’s well-being to the person herself in a strong enough way. If certain brute-list OL theorists want to dismiss this objection to OL theories (e.g., by saying that your friend’s sticking up for you is directly good for you in the above-mentioned case), then they can do so without falling into any clear inconsistency, and also without doing anything that is clearly implausible. However, since those who advance this objection to OL theories are (by all appearances) reasonable people who are trying to reach the truth of the matter concerning well-being, and since the intuition that a person’s welfare must be strongly tied to her does seem to have a fair amount of force behind it, the move of simply dismissing this objection is, in my view, one that OL theorists should avoid making, if at all possible. In short, I think that OL theorists should first try to answer this objection, that is, by trying (in a clear and principled way) to accommodate the intuition that a person’s welfare must be strongly tied to her. If OL theorists cannot find a clear and principled way to accommodate this intuition, or if they can but this turns out to be more trouble than it is worth (say, because it requires OL theorists to appeal to perfectionism, and because perfectionism and the assumptions that it brings with it turn out to be too difficult to defend), then OL theorists can fall back on the move of simply dismissing this objection.

Now turn to the third protest mentioned earlier. This protest comes from welfare hedonists and others who are convinced that the strong-tie requirement must be satisfied. The protest here is this: “You have discussed the general good of friendship, but you need to discuss health, knowledge, pleasure, aesthetic experience, and accomplishment. What, in relation to the strong-tie requirement, do perfectionist OL theorists have to say about these other general goods?” I will now discuss these other general goods in a one-by-one way.

In relation to health, perfectionist OL theorists can say: “If your city passes an anti-pollution law but you have no awareness of this, then this event is not an instance of health for you (i.e., it is not directly good for you), since it does not include within it the exercise or development or actualization of your capacity to improve or to maintain your health or physical well-functioning. (This is not to deny that the passing of this law may indirectly benefit you, in that it may lead to health benefits that directly accrue to you in the future.) Here is another case. If your immune system fights off the flu, then, whether you experience this event or not, it is directly good for you. This is so because this event includes within it the actualization of your capacity to improve or to maintain your health or physical well-functioning. Or again, if someone has cancer, then this is directly bad for him even if he does not yet know that he has cancer and is not yet experiencing any symptoms. This is so because his having cancer is something that directly frustrates the actualization of his capacity to improve or to maintain his health or physical well-functioning. These remarks show that the structure of perfectionist OL theories allows for a clear and principled satisfying of the strong-tie requirement in relation to the general good of health.”

In relation to knowledge, perfectionist OL theorists can say: “Any event that is, for you, an instance of knowledge will be an event that includes within it the exercise or development or actualization of your capacity for gaining knowledge; and surely any event of this sort will be strongly tied to you. Think of the matter this way. Your knowing that a given proposition holds true is always at least in part a matter of your believing that this proposition holds true, and this portion of your knowing—that is, the believing portion—is something that will always be strongly tied to you in that it will always be internal to your mind.”

In relation to pleasure, perfectionist OL theorists can say: “Any event that is, for you, an instance of pleasure will be an event that includes within it the actualization of your capacity to experience pleasure. It is obvious that any event of this sort will be one that you experience and that is therefore strongly tied to you.”

In relation to aesthetic experience, perfectionist OL theorists can say: “Any event that is, for you, an instance of aesthetic experience will be an event that includes within it the exercise or development or actualization of your capacity to experience or to recognize the beauty that the world has to offer. It is obvious, moreover, that any event of this sort will be one that you experience and that is therefore strongly tied to you.”14

Now turn to the general good of accomplishment. This general good poses some serious difficulties for perfectionist OL theorists. This is so because there are some accomplishments that are the products of a series of events, where, although the person in question both initiates this series of events and intends the culminating event in this series, things nonetheless turn out such that the culminating event in this series (i.e., the event that brings to fruition the accomplishment in question) is one that occurs without entering into the experience of this person, and also without changing this person in any clear way. For example, someone who has applied to law school may be officially accepted by the admissions committee, but she may not know, as of yet, that she has been accepted (say, because she has not yet read the email that informs her of this). Here she has accomplished something (i.e., getting into law school), but this accomplishment is one that has not, as of yet, entered into her experience or changed her in any clear way. Or again, suppose that a quarterback (playing football in the USA) throws a game-winning touchdown pass with time running out. But also suppose that, while the ball is still in the air, this quarterback is knocked unconscious by a blitzing linebacker from the opposing team. When the pass is caught, it becomes true that the quarterback has thrown a game-winning touchdown pass; and this event’s occurrence (i.e., his throwing a game-winning touchdown pass) seems to be a genuine instance of accomplishment for him. But, since he is unconscious when this event occurs, the occurrence of this event neither enters his experience nor changes him in any clear way.

Do these sorts of cases show that perfectionist OL theories cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement? Here perfectionist OL theorists can say: “Any event that is, for a given person, an instance of accomplishment will be an event that includes within it the exercise or development or actualization of this person’s capacity to accomplish worthwhile tasks. And this is enough to ensure that the strong-tie requirement is satisfied. Consider the law school case. The student is strongly tied to the event her being admitted into law school, that is, when this event occurs. The strong tie is in place here not because the student experiences this event when it occurs, and not because this student is changed in any clear way when this event occurs, but rather because this event includes within it the actualization of this student’s capacity to accomplish worthwhile tasks. In short, this event has a clear toehold in this student by way of having a clear toehold in a certain capacity that this student has. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, with regard to the quarterback and his throwing of the game-winning touchdown pass.”

Two objections might now put to me. (1) “When you were discussing friendship, you said that, if friend #1 sticks up for friend #2, and if friend #2 has no awareness of this and is not clearly changed by this, then friend #2 is not directly benefited by this. Yet you are now saying that the actualization of a person’s capacity to accomplish worthwhile tasks can directly benefit him or her, even if he or she has no awareness of this and is not clearly changed by this. Aren’t you being inconsistent?” (2) “If what you have said above is correct, then it seems to follow that perfectionist OL theories must allow for posthumous accomplishments to be of direct benefit to the dead. But, if perfectionist OL theories must allow for this, isn’t it clear that perfectionist OL theories fail to satisfy the strong-tie requirement? After all, to allow for this is to allow that one’s welfare can float away from one’s dead self and then be enhanced when certain events occur.”

In response to the first objection: Friend #2 is not directly benefited when friend #1 sticks up for friend #2 because, when this happens, there is no capacity of friend #2’s that is exercised or developed or actualized. By contrast, in the cases of accomplishment that are at issue, the people in question do have a capacity (i.e., their capacity to accomplish worthwhile tasks) that is actualized. One may protest: “But, when friend #1 sticks up for friend #2, doesn’t this deepen the friendship between friend #1 and friend #2? And shouldn’t this deepening of the friendship count as an actualization of friend #2’s friendship-related capacities?” This is, I think, too much of a stretch. When friend #1 sticks up for friend #2, friend #2’s friendship-related capacities do not seem to be directly in play, and hence cannot be actualized. I say this because friend #2 has not done anything to kick his or her friendship-related capacities into motion here. Indeed, friend #2 is causally isolated from the event friend #1’s sticking up for friend #2, that is, when this event occurs. Things are different in the accomplishment cases that I have been discussing. After all, in these cases the people in question—say, the student who has applied to law school and the quarterback—have kicked their capacities for accomplishing into motion, that is, by initiating the series of events that is in question, and also by intending the culminating event in this series. The student initiated the series of events in question by filling out the application for law school, and by sending this application off; and the student intended the culminating event in this series, namely, her being accepted into law school. With regard to the quarterback, he initiated the series of events in question by throwing the pass in question; and he intended the culminating event in this series, namely, the receiver’s catching the touchdown pass. It seems fairly clear, then, that the student is not causally isolated from the event her being accepted into law school, that is, when this event occurs; and, similarly, it seems fairly clear that the quarterback is not causally isolated from the event his throwing the game-winning touchdown pass, that is, when this event occurs. Regarding these cases, then, it is sensible to think that the accomplishment-related capacities of these people (i.e., of the student and of the quarterback) are directly in play, and hence can be actualized.

In response to the second objection: Assuming that there is no afterlife, I do not see how the dead can be directly benefited by anything, including so-called posthumous accomplishments. (How could a direct benefit accrue to a dead person? If one is dead, then one is not there. And, if one is not there, then there is nothing there for a direct benefit to accrue to.) Admittedly, it may seem that I am being inconsistent in denying that the dead can be directly benefited by so-called posthumous accomplishments, since, after all, I have already affirmed that someone can be directly benefited by an instance of accomplishment that she does not experience and that she is not clearly changed by. However, in the cases where I allow that someone can be directly benefited by an instance of accomplishment that she does not experience and that she is not clearly changed by, the person in question is still alive and still has accomplishment-related capacities that are operational (and that therefore can be exercised or developed or actualized). By contrast, if someone is dead, then it stands to reason that her accomplishment-related capacities are also dead (and therefore cannot be exercised or developed or actualized). Thus there really is no inconsistency in my position.15

4 Conclusion

In section 2 of this paper, I pointed out that there are various philosophers who reject OL theories largely because, on their view, OL theories fail to satisfy the strong-tie requirement. Also, I stressed that many of these philosophers (e.g., Sidgwick, Mill, and Adams) are willing to take OL theories seriously, even though they do ultimately reject them. In section 3 of this paper, I argued that OL theories can satisfy the strong-tie requirement, though probably only if they take a perfectionist form, as opposed to a brute-list form. My hope is that, among those philosophers who reject OL theories largely for reasons relating to the strong-tie requirement, there will be some who will read this paper, and who in turn will rethink their position.16

Footnotes
1

For example, see Parfit 1984, 493–502; Griffin 1986, 7–72; Kagan 1992, 169–189; Kagan 1994, 309–324; Heathwood 2006, 539–563; and Lukas 2010, 1–24.

 
2

This is certainly not to say that nothing has been written about OL theories in relation to the strong-tie requirement. This matter has been touched on, either implicitly or explicitly, in at least the following places: Griffin 1986, 7–72; Kagan 1992, 169–189; Adams 1999, 93–101; Griffin 2000, 281–313; Murphy 2001, 118–126; Kagan 2009, 253–272; and Fletcher 2012, 1–26. Though all of these discussions are helpful, none of them is directly focused on the question of whether OL theories can satisfy the strong-tie requirement. This paper, by contrast, is directly focused on this question.

 
3

For some examples of defenses of OL theories, see Finnis 1980, 59–99; Brink 1989, 217–236; Griffin 1996, 19–36; Hooker 2000, 37–43; and Murphy 2001, 6–138. Whereas Griffin and Hooker seem to be brute-list OL theorists, Finnis, Brink, and Murphy seem to be perfectionist OL theorists.

 
4

The unrevised version of Feldman’s intrinsic attitudinal hedonism theory of welfare is another example of a view that falls into this first group (Feldman 2004, 66), and the same can be said with regard to the unrevised version of Heathwood’s subjective-desire-satisfactionism theory of welfare (i.e., it too falls into this first group). For Heathwood, the relevant mental states are beliefs to the effect that one is having a desire fulfilled (Heathwood 2006, 547–551).

 
5

The revised versions of Heathwood’s subjective-desire-satisfactionism theory of welfare also fall into this second group (Heathwood 2006, 539–563).

 
6

Am I being too swift here? Instead of saying that the move of adding Kagan’s claim to the OL theory seems somewhat ad hoc, couldn’t we say that, if OL theorists make this move, then they are just building a legitimate requirement into their theory? I grant that this is a difficult question and, more generally, that it is often hard to tell the difference between an ad hoc add-on to a theory and the building in of a legitimate requirement to a theory. As I have indicated, though, I do think that the move of adding Kagan’s claim to the OL theory seems somewhat ad hoc. Here, in particular, I am thinking that this move seems to be motivated by one thing, and one thing only, namely, the desire to block the objection that OL theories should be rejected because they cannot satisfy the strong-tie requirement. If there were some independent reason for making this move, then the charge that this move is ad hoc would have less (and perhaps no) force—but, alas, there does not seem to be any independent reason available here. Granted, one might think that, if OL theorists take my advice and appeal to perfectionism in order to satisfy the strong-tie requirement, then they will, in a similar way, be doing something that seems somewhat ad hoc. But here it is worth stressing that those OL theorists who appeal to perfectionism are usually not guided by the goal of trying to satisfy the strong-tie requirement. Indeed, these OL theorists are usually guided by independent reasons (i.e., ones having to do with theoretical unity) when they appeal to perfectionism. (For a very brief discussion of why some OL theorists appeal to perfectionism, see the beginning of section 3 of this paper.)

 
7

Kagan has recently stated that he no longer accepts the claim that changes in well-being must involve changes in the person (Kagan 2009, 271, n. 3). In his article entitled “Well-Being as Enjoying the Good” (Kagan 2009, 253–272), Kagan advances a view that is somewhat like Adams’s view that well-being consists in, and only in, the enjoyment of the excellent.

 
8

Kraut may also seem to be a perfectionist about welfare (Kraut 2007, 131–204). However, I do not think that Kraut belongs in the same camp as Finnis, Murphy, and Brink. One reason I say this is that Kraut’s theory of welfare includes an enjoyment condition (Kraut 2007, 127–128), whereas perfectionist accounts of welfare such as those advanced by Finnis, Murphy, and Brink are pro-attitude independent accounts.

 
9

For a discussion of this point about pleasure, see Hurka 2006, 366.

 
10

Murphy and Brink both explicitly advance irreducibly evaluative versions of perfectionism (see Murphy 2001, 41 and Brink 2006, 391–392). This contrasts with versions of perfectionism that construe human nature non-evaluatively (e.g., see Hurka 1993).

 
11

Kagan has recently pointed out that the words “having” and “possessing” are vague words to use in this context (Kagan 2009, 255–256).

 
12

It is usually fine if OL theorists speak loosely of having, possessing, or participating in the general goods on the list. It is only in the context of the strong-tie requirement, and perhaps in some other specific contexts, that more precision is needed.

 
13

For instance, brute-list OL theorists might try to satisfy the strong-tie requirement by construing the general goods on the list in ways that (if necessary) simply build in either an experience requirement or Kagan’s requirement that any change in a person’s well-being must bring with it a change in that person. For example, in relation to the general good of friendship, brute-list OL theorists might say: “We can construe the general good of friendship in terms of certain dispositions that friends have in relation to each other (e.g., dispositions to spend time together, to confide in each other, and to help each other). Further, we can claim that the only dispositions that are relevant here are those that make an experiential difference in friends’ lives. Given this construal of the general good of friendship, we can deny that you are directly benefited when your friend sticks up for you when you are not there, as, indeed, this event is not, for you, an instance of the general good of friendship.” Though I admit that this move deserves more exploration than I am giving it here, I find myself (at least tentatively) opposed to it, simply because it seems somewhat ad hoc for brute-list OL theorists to allow themselves to build in extra requirements in this way. In short, and mutatis mutandis, what I say above in n. 6 also applies here.

 
14

Although beauty may be impersonally good, it clearly cannot be directly good for a person (either in the sense of enhancing a person’s welfare or in the sense of perfecting a person’s human nature) if this person does not perceive it or experience it. Unsurprisingly, then, OL theorists tend not to put beauty as such on their lists. For example, in laying out his OL theory list of general goods, Griffin references the perception of beauty (Griffin 1996, 30); and Finnis is explicit that the general good on the OL theory list is aesthetic experience (Finnis 1980, 87).

 
15

Aristotle seems to have thought that one’s perfection can be affected after one’s death (see Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics). Sumner also thinks this (e.g., he says that “posthumous success could make a life a better specimen of its kind”—see Sumner 1996, 126). My view, by contrast, is that, if someone is dead and there is no afterlife, then her human nature cannot be further perfected (or further diminished in terms of its perfection), because all of her capacities have died, in which case none of them can be further exercised or developed or actualized (or further frustrated in terms of their exercise or development or actualization).

 
16

I presented an early version of this paper at the Baltimore-Washington Graduate Conference in 2008 (at Johns Hopkins University). Thanks to the participants at that conference for comments that I never forgot, even though I put this paper aside for a long time. More recently, I received helpful comments on this paper from two anonymous referees from Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Thanks to both of them.

 

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