Valerie Tiberius asks: “If subjective theories have serious problems that Badhwar’s hybrid objectivism solves, and if her form of objective theory does not have the main problem that objective theories have been thought to have, why bother with subjective theories?” Her answer is that some subjectivists about well-being are subjectivists because they are skeptical about the existence of the kind of objective values that I need for my theory: “mind-independent values that transcend the moral-prudential distinction.”
It’s not clear, however, that the objective values I’m talking about are mind-independent, if that means: “values that no human mind under any conditions ever has or ever could recognize as values.” Such values may be values for other beings, but not for us. But if mind-independent values are values that no particular individual, or even any individual, necessarily currently appreciates, but would come to appreciate under the right conditions, then, yes, my objective values may be seen as mind-independent. My argument is also consistent with the kind of constructivist realism that Christine Korsgaard defends, on which moral values are solutions to the practical problems that beings like us face.Footnote 8 An example of an objectively “false value” – that is, a disvalue – is wars of conquest. For centuries, many human beings believed (and too many still believe) that wars of conquest were inherently fine and noble because they showed courage, brought glory upon the ruler and country, and rewards in the hereafter. Even Aristotle seems to have fallen for this view. But it was as false then as it is now that there is anything fine and glorious about wars of conquest, both because such wars are unjust and because cooperating and trading with others makes for a far richer life, materially and psychologically, than war. Wars of conquest were both morally and prudentially bad, and peaceful cooperation both morally and prudentially good.
At any rate, I tried to avoid the metaethical jungle in my book by stating at the outset that my argument was addressed to those who believe that there are some values that are objective, even if they don’t believe that they are relevant to well-being. And most subjectivists about well-being, including most of the ones I address, do believe that there are at least some objective moral values.
Tiberius argues that even people who believe that there are objective values are skeptical that “objective values give rise to prudential reasons independently of the attitudes of the person in question.” Now I agree that not all objective values give rise to prudential reasons independently of the attitudes of the person in question. Such are the “external goods” that people build their lives around: art, cooking, medicine, and so on. The objective value that I claim gives everyone capable of achieving well-being as the HPG a reason to incorporate in their lives is the moral-prudential character trait I call realism, and that, I argue, entails the virtues of integrity, justice, courage, and so on. The arguments I’ve seen against an objective value requirement show only that such values are not sufficient for well-being, not that they are not necessary.Footnote 9 The objective value requirement rules out as candidates for well-being both morally unscrupulous lives and wasted lives, such as a life of pleasure on the experience machine – or, if you prefer, hallucinogenic drugs. Yet subjectivists about well-being are committed to accepting that these can be lives of well-being.
Tiberius responds: not if well-being consists of “satisfying your preferences or fulfilling your values,” because you can’t do this simply by believing that you’re “satisfying your preferences or fulfilling your values.” But there’s no reason why your overarching preference or value cannot be to have a life of pleasant experiences on drugs or the experience machine. If the improvements we are seeing in drugs or robotics continue apace, there may soon be no downside to such a life – other than its worthlessness. Or consider a severely retarded person who finds his fulfillment in making the same doodles on a sheet of paper, or listening to the same songs, day after day. Whereas we should all be happy that there is something that he finds fulfilling, most of us would also feel sad that he wasn’t capable of a richer and more worthwhile life. The subjectivist, however, would have no reason to feel sad for him on prudential grounds, since he is happily fulfilling his values. Yet, I think it is fair to point out, Tiberius herself sometimes can’t resist the objectivist pull, as when she argues in her co-authored paper, “Well-being,” that stressed-out Jim, working long hours with irritating co-workers on developing an AIDS vaccine, has more well-being than easygoing Will who, on inheriting some wealth, has given up his career as a physician to paint mediocre paintings.Footnote 10
I can also agree with Tiberius that her Mormon cousins are thriving in spite of their false beliefs about their transcendental purpose in the world, that is, their lack of realism in this respect, because this is compatible with their earthly goals and their pursuit of them being sound in many respects. On my view, a test of good values is that they are compatible with true metaphysical and empirical beliefs; if they are, then it doesn’t matter if they are also compatible with false beliefs. For example, the belief that we ought to be just is compatible both with the false metaphysical view that it’s Zeus who has made justice important for leading a worthwhile life, and with the true metaphysical view that it’s our nature and the nature of human societies that has made justice important for leading a worthwhile life. (In general, I don’t give much importance to people’s beliefs about gods or other worlds – except insofar as these beliefs corrupt their attitudes or actions in this world.) By contrast, bad values, such as jingoism, are incompatible with true metaphysical or empirical beliefs or theories, or with valid inferences from true beliefs.
More important for my theory is Tiberius’ claim that her cousins have well-being even though they are subservient to their husbands on important issues of culture, politics, or religion. If by this she means that they mouth their husbands’ opinions on these matters just because they can’t be bothered to think for themselves, then yes, they are lacking in autonomy (and reality-orientation) in these respects. Why not opt for not having any views on these matters? At the same time, however, if these views don’t occupy an important place in their lives – if they are only material for chit-chat rather than political action or teaching – then it matters relatively little that they don’t think for themselves about them. No one is autonomous in every important respect and, as I noted earlier, some important matters are not important to every individual’s well-being. Another possibility, however, is that these Mormon cousins agree with their husbands because they have good reason to believe that their husbands’ views are sound on these matters, and that they would disagree if they found reason to do so. In this case, even if their husbands and thus they themselves are mostly wrong, Tiberius’ cousins are autonomous vis-à-vis their husbands, not subservient.
However, even if these cousins are subservient in this area of their lives, they can be highly autonomous and realistic in many others. In the words of the psychologists Jacqui Smith and Paul B. Baltes, they can have “rich factual knowledge about life matters” and “extensive procedural knowledge about ways of dealing with life problems.Footnote 11 They can be honest and generous, tolerant of small faults in others (and themselves), be strong and loving parents, have good will towards people in general, be lacking in envy or spite, and so on. But these qualities can’t be acquired or (especially) exercised unthinkingly or blindly: they require being perceptive and understanding, and this is possible only insofar as her cousins are autonomous, that is, insofar as they think for themselves. So if Tiberius’ cousins have the qualities I’ve just described, then they are realistic – that is, autonomous, reality-oriented, and right – in a whole lot of important ways.
Tiberius suggests that we academics are more realistic, presumably because it’s our job to think and talk and write. But I actually didn’t have anything very intellectual in mind by realism. Owen Flanagan has argued that countless “intrapersonal and extrapersonal feedback mechanisms, by way of feelings of coordination, integration, and integrity, of fit with the social world mediated by the body language of others, and so on,” can provide a person with self-understanding.Footnote 12 I suggest in my book that the same mechanisms can also help us to achieve understanding of others, and even of the natural world. In both the practical and the theoretical realm, insight often seems to be “the result of a sustained implicit training of our senses, emotions, and intellect by experience—akin, perhaps, to the navigational and kinesthetic training of the mind and body as we learn to make our way in the physical environment.”Footnote 13 But whatever the explanation, it is undeniable that people’s grasp often exceeds their ability to articulate what they know, and that such grasp is not limited to intellectuals.
Surprisingly, even Aristotle notes that there are people who reliably do the right thing, at the right time, from the right desires, but cannot say why they do it, or don’t make much sense when they try to say it.Footnote 14 His explanation for their success is that they are naturally lucky: they lack understanding of virtue but act from naturally good desires, like naturally good singers who sing without understanding music. They are inspired. I say these people have understanding, but lack the words to express it. Like philosophers before and after, Aristotle is biased against people who are not very articulate.
In short, being an intellectual is not necessarily an asset as far as realism or virtue is concerned, and we academics are as likely to be conformists as anyone else in some areas of our lives. Consider, for example, that just as most people are born into their parents’ religion, most people are also born into their parents’ political affiliations – and academics are often born again to conform to their colleagues’ political views. Of course, this doesn’t automatically show that they don’t acquire them or hold them autonomously. But if they avoid reading material that challenges their views because they are afraid of their colleagues’ disapproval should the challenge undermine their views, or if they read challenging material only to find weak spots in the opposition’s position instead of their own, they can safely be called heteronomous in their political commitments. And research supports the common observation that most people do avoid being challenged in at least some of their commitments. In short, it’s not only Mormon wives who can be and are heteronomous in some areas of their lives, but all and any of us.
To clear up a misunderstanding, I do not question Sumner’s epistemic condition for authentic happiness (or any subjective theory’s information constraint) on the grounds that it sneaks in objective values, but rather, on the grounds that it is too weak to rule out wasted lives, such as a life spent largely on the experience machine.
Tiberius rightly questions my statement that it would be odd for an autonomous (and reality-oriented) person to be vicious. My statement is misleading, because all I end up ruling out is that insofar as someone is autonomous, he cannot be indifferent or opposed to what he recognizes as the relevant normative considerations. This is because, by my definition of autonomy, if the autonomous person recognizes these considerations, he must be motivated by them. But as I argue, autonomy need not characteristically result in understanding or right action, whereas moral virtue must, hence autonomy is not sufficient for virtue. Perhaps some people who supported the drug war before its devastating effects and its violations of liberty became clear were people who considered the arguments against it with an open mind, but still mistakenly concluded that it was justified.
In closing, I’d like to suggest a partial reconciliation between my objectivist theory and certain subjectivist theories. I think these theories try to do justice to one of two opposite intuitions, both of which I share and suspect that most people share, regardless of the theory they subscribe to. Most subjectivist theories take as central the intuition that if someone is happy in a life that meets her own standards, she has everything her own good can require. But subjectivism is then committed to admitting that if someone values spending his life as a couch potato, or doing drugs, he has everything his own good can require. And this is hard to see as enviable, or as something the rest of us should wish for him. Neo-Aristotelian objectivist theories take as central the intuition that if well-being is the summum bonum, the highest prudential good for an individual, then it is something enviable and worth wishing for ourselves and others, hence only someone who is happy in a worthwhile life has everything her own good can require.
If I’m right that extant arguments against the claim that virtue is partly constitutive of well-being as the HPG fail, then the disagreement over the nature of well-being revolves around which of two contrary intuitions should be seen as more important. In my book, I try to accommodate both intuitions (although, unfortunately, not entirely consistently) by distinguishing between well-being as the HPG, and mere well-being. The happy individual with a worthless life that meets her own standards can be said to have mere well-being, well-being that is neither enviable nor something that others ought to wish her. But only a happy individual with a worthwhile life has well-being as the highest prudential good, and only well-being conceived thus is enviable and something others ought to wish her.