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Scales for Scope: A New Solution to the Scope Problem for Pro-Attitude-Based Well-Being

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2018

Ryerson University – Ted Rogers School of


Theories of well-being that give an important role to satisfied pro-attitudes need to account for the fact that, intuitively, the scope of possible objects of pro-attitudes seems much wider than the scope of things, states or events that affect our well-being. Parfit famously illustrated this with his wish that a stranger may recover from an illness: it seems implausible that the stranger's recovery would constitute a benefit for Parfit. There is no consensus in the literature about how to rule out such well-being-irrelevant pro-attitudes. I argue, first, that there is no distinction in kind between well-being-relevant and irrelevant pro-attitudes. Instead, well-being-irrelevant pro-attitudes are the limiting cases on the scale measuring how much of a difference pro-attitudes make to the subject's well-being. Second, I propose a particular scalar model according to which the well-being-relevance of pro-attitudes is measured either by their hedonic tone, or by the subject's conative commitment.

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1 Sumner, E.g. W., Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford, 1996), p. 36Google Scholar; Lin, E., ‘Against Welfare-Subjectivism’, Noûs 51.2 (2017), pp. 354–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 354.

2 Many authors claim that to accept some version of ST* as (part of) an account of well-being is required to satisfy the so-called ‘resonance constraint’, i.e. they believe that nothing could be good for us unless it is connected to what we ‘find in some degree compelling or attractive’ (Railton, P., ‘Facts and Values’, Philosophical Topics 14.2 (1986), pp. 531CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 9; cf. Rosati, C., ‘Internalism and the Good for a Person’, Ethics 106.2 (1996), pp. 297326CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Velleman, D., ‘Is Motivation Internal to Value?’, Preferences, ed. Fehige, C. and Wessels, U. (Berlin 1998), pp. 88102Google Scholar; Dorsey, D., ‘Subjectivism without Desire’, The Philosophical Review 121.3 (2012), pp. 407–42)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While this is often taken to entail a commitment to subjectivism, Fletcher, among others, shows that this is not necessarily so: Fletcher, G., ‘A Fresh Start for the Objective-List Theory of Well-Being’, Utilitas 25.2 (2013), pp. 206–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Notable exceptions are some forms of hedonism. ST* is compatible with forms of hedonism that give a role for attitudinal pleasure (or analyse sensory pleasure in terms of attitudes), but not all hedonists do so. Moreover, some attitudinal hedonists may take issue with ST* for implying that the actual obtaining of E makes a difference to the well-being of the subject. This point is discussed in more detail in section VII.2.

4 Arneson, E.g. R., ‘Human Flourishing versus Desire Satisfaction’, Social Philosophy and Policy 16.1 (1999), pp. 113–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 124.

5 This question provides one plausible way to distinguish between objectivists and subjectivists about well-being with the former claiming that the right version of ST* is the whole truth about well-being and the latter denying this claim.

6 Arneson, ‘Human Flourishing’, p. 125; Darwall, S., Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 2; Sumner, Welfare, pp. 133–5.

7 Lukas, M., ‘Desire Satisfactionism and the Problem of Irrelevant Desires’, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 4.2 (2010), pp. 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Griffin, J., Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance (Oxford, 1986), p. 17Google Scholar.

9 Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), p. 494Google Scholar.

10 E.g. Griffin, Welfare, p. 16–17; Sumner, Welfare, p. 132; Kagan, S., Normative Ethics (Boulder, 1998), p. 37Google Scholar; Scanlon, T., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, 1998), p. 120–1Google Scholar; Murphy, M., ‘The Simple Desire-Fulfillment Theory’, Nous 33.2 (1999), pp. 247–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 269.

11 Sumner, Welfare, p. 134.

12 Cf. Bykvist, K., ‘Sumner on Desires and Well-Being’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32.4 (2002), pp. 475–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 488.

13 See Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 494.

14 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 494.

15 Overvold, M., ‘Self-Interest and the Concept of Self-Sacrifice’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 10.1 (1980), pp. 105–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 117–18 n. 10.

16 Overvold may reply that we can understand the pro-attitude in question as a combination of two desires: the desire that her books be appreciated during her lifetime and the desire that her books be appreciated after her death. She may have either or both of those desires but only the first satisfies Overvold's restriction and thus only its satisfaction would enhance her well-being. Even if we accept this somewhat artificial carving-up of pro-attitudes, Overvold's view remains suspect. Whether the posthumous satisfaction of pro-attitudes can make us better-off is a contested question. And even those who think that an artist can be made better-off by the posthumous appreciation of their work will want to exclude other pro-attitudes such as the desire that the number of years between my death and the end of Western civilization be even. A solution to the scope problem that rules out all of these pro-attitudes on the very same grounds is going to be unable to account for this difference. If Overvold's suggestion was otherwise overwhelmingly plausible, we might take it to provide a way to decide the question regarding posthumous pro-attitude satisfaction and disregard the intuitions of those who believe that it can sometimes make us better-off. But, as we will see, the proposal is also too permissive.

17 Bykvist, ‘Sumner’, p. 480 n. 9. Cf. Dorsey, ‘Subjectivism’, p. 420; Sobel, D., ‘Well-Being as the Object of Moral Consideration’, Economics and Philosophy 14.2 (1998), pp. 249–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 267.

18 See e.g. Bykvist, ‘Sumner’, p. 480.

19 Dorsey, ‘Subjectivism’, p. 421.

20 It might be responded that, in Dorsey's example, the objects of the two pro-attitudes are not the same: in one case the desired event is the subject's own involvement in the vaccination effort, in the other it is simply that the children be vaccinated. This is, for example, Bykvist's suggestion (Bykvist, ‘Sumner’, pp. 483–4). While I doubt that this reply will work for all cases, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. But even if an object-based proposal could escape Dorsey's critique, there is, as far as I can tell, no such proposal in the literature (including Bykvist's tweaked version of Overvold's view) that avoids being both too permissive and too restrictive in the range of pro-attitudes it counts as well-being-relevant.

21 E.g. Griffin, Well-Being, pp. 21–2.

22 Bykvist spells out the distinction between mere wishes and goals in terms of the content of a pro-attitude: the content of goals includes the agent being involved in bringing about the favoured event (Bykvist, ‘Sumner’, p. 483). While this may be a promising way of characterizing goals, it does not help with solving the scope problem. You could have well-being-relevant desires that do not have this feature of goals. And you could also have goals that are not well-being-relevant.

23 E.g. Feldman, F., Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford, 2004), pp. 64–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Dorsey, ‘Subjectivism’, p. 419.

25 Dorsey, ‘Subjectivism’, p. 415.

26 One may think that such beliefs should be ruled out on grounds of being irrational. But how would such a condition work without begging the question (by saying something that amounts to: the belief is irrational, because it is obviously false)? Dorsey, aware that his own rationality condition has no bite against cases like the ones imagined here (Dorsey, ‘Subjectivism’, pp. 415–16), suggests that we may need to supplement his proposal with some object-based way of delineating well-being-relevance. As we have seen, such views have problems as self-standing proposals, but it is possible that they play a role in a plausible hybrid account. However, Dorsey provides no argument why such a proposal would work especially well with the cognitive pro-attitudes that he focuses on. It is hard to imagine what plausible reason there could be. Dorsey contends that JS can claim an advantage over other theories simply in virtue of having an account of well-being-relevance (Dorsey, ‘Subjectivism’, p. 422). But plainly this is an advantage only if the account works.

27 Cf. Feldman, F., What Is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Interestingly, this is reminiscent of criticisms of Feldman's own view to the effect that his attitudinal understanding takes ‘the fun out of pleasure’ and thus fundamentally misconstrues what is valuable about it. See Haybron, D., The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford, 2008), pp. 64–5Google Scholar.

28 Note that Dorsey is mainly concerned with a theory of valuing: he argues that to value E is to believe that E is good; to prudentially value E is to believe that E is good for me. I am not concerned with the merits of this theory of valuing. However, if this is the best way of thinking about valuing, many cases of prudential valuing are not well-being-relevant.

29 Note that the narrower notion does not imply that at some point or other the agent actually does act. If the person has resolved to act in pursuit of the goal, such resolve will usually be defeasible and sometimes even conditional. The difference between such resolve and a mere disposition to act under the right circumstances is merely psychological and need not manifest itself in behaviour.

30 The editor worries that in employing this narrow version of conative commitment ST appears to have the consequence of assigning intrinsic value to achievements, thus illicitly smuggling an objectivist value into an allegedly subjectivist view. The connection between fulfilled desires and achievements is interesting and cannot be fully explored here. There are two reasons, however, why the worry is misplaced. First, having a satisfied desire with high conative commitment is not sufficient for achievement, because the desired event could have come about independently of anything the subject did. This would enhance the well-being of the subject according to ST, but not according to an objectivist view that values achievement. Having a pro-attitude with high conative commitment might also not be necessary for achievement, if we allow for achievements that the achiever did not aim for (see e.g. Bradford, G., Achievement (Oxford, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Such ‘accidental’ achievements would be well-being-enhancing for an objectivist believer in achievement, but not according to ST. Second, even if it turned out that ST did have the consequence that achievements are always valuable, this would not necessarily undermine its subjectivist credentials. Rather, it would simply be an interesting implication of the view that achievements are valuable from a subjectivist point of view. Indeed, this might be a welcome result for subjectivists who would have found a new way of accommodating one of the primary categories of purported goods that drive objectivist intuitions.

31 Brandt, Notably R., A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford, 1979)Google Scholar; Feldman, Pleasure; Feldman, Happiness; Heathwood, C., ‘The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire’, Philosophical Studies 133.1 (2007), pp. 2344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 Broad, Notably C. D., Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 1930)Google Scholar; Crisp, R., Reasons and the Good (Oxford, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Labukt, I., ‘Hedonic Tone and the Heterogeneity of Pleasure’, Utilitas 24.2 (2012), pp. 172–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Kagan, S., ‘The Limits of Well-Being’, Social Philosophy and Policy 9.2 (1992), pp. 169–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 172.

34 Aydede, M., ‘How to Unify Theories of Sensory Pleasure: An Adverbialist Proposal’, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 5.1 (2014), pp. 119–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 Aydede, ‘How to Unify’, p. 130.

36 Some may insist, in the spirit of a beefed-up heterogeneity objection, that these experiences are not introspectively comparable in terms of degrees of hedonic tone. I am not sure how to respond to this charge other than by insisting that I am able to make these introspective comparisons.

37 Sumner, Welfare, p. 123.

38 Cf. Feldman, Happiness, ch. 11.

39 Mind you, pegging well-being to pro-attitudes is not the only way of doing this. The perfectionist view that a life is good if the one who lives it fulfils their essential nature offers an alternative. But, unless our cares and interests are declared to be part of our essential nature, this fails to account for the notion that what makes for a good life for me depends not just on what kind of being I am, but on what I care about, deem important, take an interest in, and so forth (for a perfectionist view that incorporates our individual wants and needs see A. Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being, 2nd edn. (Princeton, 1962), p. 4). As I am not trying to argue for subjectivism (i.e. the claim that ST* is the whole truth about well-being), I can leave open whether perfectionism captures part of what it is to live a good life.

40 Cf. Scanlon, What We Owe, pp. 120–1.

41 Note that, contrary to what Dorsey's JS would imply, the intuitive verdict does not change, if we replace the cognitive judgement in question with ‘well, that's good for me’.

42 Overvold ‘Self-Interest’; Cf. Sumner, Welfare, pp. 134–5; Darwall, Welfare, ch. 2.

43 Cf. Heathwood, C., ‘Preferentism and Self-Sacrifice’, Pacific Philosophical Quartely 92.1 (2011), pp. 1838CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 19–20.

44 It may be worth noting here that Overvold's example is not as uncontroversial as he may think. While Bykvist does not point this out, even the relatively minor modification of Overvold's criterion that he suggests (that the object of the desire logically implies that the subject existed at some point in time) has the result that the desire of the self-sacrificing father is actually well-being-relevant (Bykvist, ‘Sumner’, p. 480).

45 Readers convinced that anything after your death cannot affect your well-being may imagine, instead, that the father's sacrifice consisted in sending his children to a well-off foster family knowing that he will never see them again.

46 Cf. Heathwood, ‘Preferentism’.

47 Cf. Heathwood, ‘Reduction’.

48 Nagel, T., ‘Death’, Noûs 4.1 (1970), pp. 7380CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 76; Kagan, S., ‘Me and My Life’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94 (1994), pp. 309–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 311–12.

49 Cf. Lin, E., ‘Pluralism about Well-Being’, Philosophical Perspectives 28.1 (2014), pp. 127–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 It is worthwhile to draw attention here to the distinction between the concepts of well-being and happiness. While it seems doubtful whether false pleasures contribute to one's well-being, it strikes me as an obvious mistake to say that people like the deceived businessman or people on Robert Nozick's experience machine are not happy (Nozick, R., Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York, 1974), pp. 42–4Google Scholar). These cases show (among other things) that happiness and well-being can come apart.

51 For a similar proposal, see Lin, E., ‘The Subjective List Theory of Well-Being’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94.1 (2016), pp. 99114CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 107.

52 Arneson, ‘Human Flourishing’, pp. 124–5.

53 It is, in fact, a version of what Eden Lin (in Lin, ‘Subjective List’) has termed ‘subjective list theories of well-being’.

54 I would like to thank the following individuals for extraordinarily helpful comments on earlier versions of this article: Daniel Attas, Kenneth Boyd, David Enoch, Diana Heney, Tom Hurka, Duncan Purves, Andreas Tupac Schmidt, Etye Steinberg, Wayne Sumner, Sergio Tenenbaum and Ariel Zylberman. In addition, I received very helpful feedback from audience members at the Israeli Philosophical Association, the Centre for Moral and Political Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Joint Sessions of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association, the Rocky Mountains Ethics Congress, the 2nd Speculative Ethics Forum at St John's University, and the Meetings on Ethics and Political Philosophy in Braga. Finally, the editor and two anonymous referees for this journal are to be credited with recommending genuinely major improvements.

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