A theory of wellbeing contributes to explaining whether this or that state of affairs is a benefit or harm to a particular subject. A natural starting point from which to build such a theory is the subject’s valenced attitudes: I benefit from occurrences I like, desire, value, take a subjective interest in, etc. and am harmed by occurrences I dislike, desire not to happen, disvalue, take a subjective interest against, etc. Call this theory “Unrestricted Wellbeing Subjectivism.” The theory is unrestricted, since no state-of-affair types are excluded; that is, any occurring state of affairs that the subject takes a valenced attitude towards will benefit or harm that subject. There are several reasons philosophers have adduced in favor of restricting wellbeing subjectivism – i.e. in favor of stipulating that some specified types of events are ineligible to affect a subject’s wellbeing. One such source of reasons, against which I will defend unrestricted wellbeing subjectivism, is the problem of self-sacrifice.
The existence of self-sacrifice is difficult for unrestricted wellbeing subjectivism to account for. Consider the following example:
Thomas the Conductor: Thomas has been the conductor of the New York Symphony for many years and his skills are beginning to decline in his old age. He deliberates over whether to retire or continue conducting. He knows he will enjoy conducting more than retirement, but he decides, for the sake of the music, to retire. (He reasons that the music produced by the symphony will be better if the up-and-coming conductor, Rodrigo, takes over.)
Thomas has made a self-sacrificial choice – he values the music even at a cost to his own happiness. On the other hand, he gets the outcome that he most prefers and, according to unrestricted wellbeing subjectivism, the outcome a person most prefers is the one that most benefits that person. But that is counterintuitive: How could it be that Thomas makes a choice that both benefits him more than any other choice and is self-sacrificial? That would violate what Heathwood calls “A Principle about Welfare and Self-Sacrifice: An act is an act of self-sacrifice only if the act fails to be in the agent’s best interest.”
Heathwood’s principle makes intuitive sense, but in what follows I will try to convince you to reject that principle and instead accept that an act can be in the agent’s best interest while also self-sacrificial. My thesis thus follows Connie Rosati’s strategy of debating the definition of self-sacrifice rather than the traditional strategy of revising the definition of wellbeing. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space in this blog post to explain Rosati’s view and the differences it bears to my own.
Here are two cases to get us started:
Fidel the Revolutionary: Fidel joins a militant group of revolutionaries. He suffers many hardships during the war. When the war ends, and because of his many acts of heroism, he becomes the leader of his country and his life goes very well for him. His life goes so well that it counterbalances the harms he faced during the war. Intuitively, Fidel’s decision to join the revolution was both self-sacrificial and, at the end of the day, in his best interest. (Assume that, counterfactually, he would have had a boring life of mediocrity had he not joined the revolution.)
Leah the Heroic Metro Rider: Leah sees that someone has fallen onto the subway tracks and is not able to climb back out. She leaps into action, jumping down and pushing the person back onto the platform, even though she sees the subway train coming and knows there is a significant risk of not having enough time for herself to escape. Luckily, the train’s emergency brakes engage and nobody is harmed (nor would anybody have been harmed even if Lead had not leaped to the rescue). Nonetheless, the person formerly on the tracks, out of gratefulness and admiration, gives Leah $100. Intuitively, Leah’s decision to put herself in harm’s way was self-sacrificial and, in hindsight, in her best interest.
What happened in these cases? What features give rise to the surprising result that a self-sacrificial act can be in a person’s best interests? The answer, I believe, is that self-sacrifice, unlike best interests, is partly determined by a person’s motivations at the time they make their decision. We judge that Fidel and Leah act self-sacrificially because they are motivated to act for the sake of something greater or other than their own wellbeing (a political cause for Fidel, the wellbeing of a stranger for Leah). Whether a state of affairs is in a person’s best interests, in contrast, is determined solely by how well things actually go for a person and not depend on the subject’s motivations.
What kind of motivations am I talking about, exactly? The agent must be motivated by the goal of benefiting some “thing” other than the agent herself. The beneficiary may or may not be a person. Thomas the Conductor sought to benefit “the music.” Consider also Gloria, who is motivated by the goal of benefitting the New York Symphony qua institution. We can imagine Gloria taking the time to philosophize about what, exactly, would count as making the Symphony a better or worse institution (non-instrumentally speaking) – the quality of its music? The wellbeing of its musicians? Its cultural impact? The duration of its existence? – but none of that philosophizing is necessary in order for Gloria to act for the sake of the Symphony. Acting for the sake of the Symphony requires merely that Gloria have a very basic, intuitive sense of what benefits or harms it. Acting for the sake of music requires merely that Thomas have a basic, intuitive sense of what it takes to benefit music. Motivations need not be deliberate, fully-fleshed out, or even philosophically coherent. Motivations are the implicit “folk theories” that a person acts on.
Of course, many of us often act for our own sake or out of behavioral inclination. Consuming chocolate ice cream, for example, involves both the former motivation and the latter “motivation.” Those are the kind of motivations that have nothing to do with self-sacrifice.
Motivations alone cannot be the entire answer, of course. Common sense demands a sacrifice. Consider the following case:
Rodrigo the Conductor: Rodrigo, a youthful, up-and-coming talent who, like Thomas, is motivated to act for the sake of the music (as a final end). Unlike Thomas, however, for Rodrigo to act for the sake of the music is for him to accept the position of conductor that Thomas has just relinquished. Rodrigo is quite eager to conduct the New York Symphony. Even if, counterfactually, he did not take the music as a final end he would still enthusiastically desire this opportunity.
Rodrigo does nothing selfish, but nor does he act self-sacrificially. His motivations are pure enough, sure, but where’s the sacrifice? In addition to the right motivations, then, an act of self-sacrifice requires an opportunity cost, local harm, or risk of harm to the agent. The extent of the local cost will determine the degree of self-sacrifice. Fidel, Leah, Alice, and Thomas all meet these criteria, whereas Rodrigo does not:
|Case||Opportunity Cost, Local Harm, or Risk of Harm?||Motivated to (Non-instrumentally) benefit something other than the agent?||Self-Sacrificial?|
|Fidel the Revolutionary||Yes – Risk of Harm||Yes – Political Cause||Yes|
|Leah the Heroic Metro Rider||Yes – Risk of Harm||Yes – Another Person’s Wellbeing||Yes|
|Alice’s Friday Night||Yes – Opportunity Cost||Yes – Several People’s Wellbeing||Yes|
|Thomas the Conductor||Yes – Local Harm (or Opportunity Cost, depending on the proper theory of harm)||Yes – The Music||Yes|
|Rodrigo the Conductor||No||Yes – The Music||No|
Note that the definition I propose here is external to philosophy of wellbeing; it is compatible with any theory of wellbeing. Of course, this paper is intended to be a defense of Unrestricted Wellbeing Subjectivism, but the definition and its argument stand on their own.
 Inspired by the character of Thomas Pembridge of the television show Mozart in the Jungle.
 Chris Heathwood, “Preferentism and Self-Sacrifice,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 92, no. 1 (2011): 21.
 Connie S. Rosati, “Self-Interest and Self-Sacrifice,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 109, no. 1 pt. 3 (2009): 311–325.
Avi Appel is a Philosophy PhD candidate at Cornell University focusing in Ethics.