The concept of well-being plays a central role in moral and political theory. Policies and actions are justified or criticized on the grounds that they make people better or worse off. But is there really such a thing as well-being, and if so, what is it? Is it pleasure, desire-satisfaction, knowledge, virtue, achievement, some combination of these, or something else entirely? How can we measure well-being, amongst individuals and society? And how can we use it to make moral judgements about people, policies and institutions?
In this entertaining and accessible new book, Ben Bradley guides readers through the various philosophical theories of well-being, such as hedonism, perfectionism and pluralism, showing the benefits and drawbacks of each theory. He explores the role of well-being in moral and political theory, and the limitations of welfare-based approaches to ethics such as utilitarianism and welfare egalitarianism. Finally, he introduces puzzles about well-being that arise in moral and prudential deliberations about procreation and death.
Well-Being is an ideal introduction to these topics for those with no philosophical background, or for philosophers looking for an overview of current thinking about the subject.
Ben Bradley is Allan and Anita Sutton Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University. He is the author of Well-Being and Death (Oxford 2009) and many articles on a variety of topics in moral philosophy.
Hedonists believe that pleasure and pain are the only fundamental components of well-being. In discussing hedonism, the first question to ask is: what are pleasure and pain? We will focus on the nature of pleasure.2.1 What Pleasure Is
Broadly speaking, there are two views about the nature of pleasure. On one view, pleasure is a certain distinctive kind of feeling. Just as there are feelings of coldness or warmth, pressure, nausea, and the taste of strawberries, there is also the feeling of pleasure itself. This feeling might be caused by other feelings. For example, eating strawberries might cause one to have the taste of strawberries, and this in turn might cause one to have the feeling of pleasure itself. But the feeling of pleasure is not the same thing as the taste of strawberries. It is a distinct feeling. The very same feeling of pleasure is caused by many different kinds of experiences, such as the pressure of a massage, or the warmth of the sun. Call this the "distinctive feeling view."
We might doubt the distinctive feeling view in light of the fact that it is difficult to pin down what the feeling of pleasure would be. You may find it implausible that there is a single distinct feeling that you have when you enjoy eating a strawberry and when you enjoy the sun's warmth. What do those sensations have in common? Furthermore, consider how it feels to enjoy having completed a difficult puzzle. Does this feel anything like eating a strawberry? Is there even a way it feels at all? If you don't think so, then you cannot accept the distinctive feeling view.
Suppose pleasure is not a distinctive feeling - then what is it? According to Henry Sidgwick, pleasures are feelings that we want to continue (Sidgwick 1907: 42-3). Thus if I am having the pleasant experience of eating a strawberry, there are certain taste sensations that I want to continue - those sensations are themselves pleasures. Those sensations do not feel the same as the sensations of warmth I get from the sun when I am enjoying being outside. What they have in common is that I want both to continue - but I can want two sensations to continue even though they feel completely different from one another. Call this view the "desire view" of pleasure.
On another view, pleasure is not a feeling at all. Rather, it is an attitude. Attitudes include such things as desires, beliefs, hopes, and fears. When one has a belief, there is nothing it feels like to have that belief. Beliefs are mental states that are about something. So, for example, I believe that it is sunny outside. My belief is about the weather - in particular it is about the proposition that it is sunny. You can't have a belief that isn't a belief about something. Belief is, in this way, unlike the feeling of warmth. The sun might cause you to feel warm, but your feeling of warmth is not about the sun. On the attitudinal view of pleasure, when you are pleased, there is always something you are pleased about. You might be pleased that you are meeting someone you've wanted to meet, or that your team is winning the game. You might be pleased that you are having a feeling of warmth. In all these cases, pleasure is an attitude directed at some fact - the fact that you are meeting someone, or that you are feeling warm. Call this the "attitudinal view."
We do not need to decide which of these three views about pleasure is true. But the distinction will come in handy as we examine different versions of hedonism.
It will be helpful to remind ourselves of some very common assumptions we tend to make about pleasure and pain. One assumption is that pleasures and pains come in different intensities and durations. Obviously, some pleasures last longer than others. Some pleasures are also more intense than others. T