Super excited Valerie is our next Featured Philosopher. Take it away Val!
I’m very grateful to Dave and Dave for giving me this opportunity to talk to the Pea Soup community. It is (for me, anyway) challenging to stay philosophically engaged while being department chair. Sometimes I sit down to read a philosophy article and all I can think about is the probationary review forms I have to fill out, or next budget document I have to produce. It’s really nice to be here, where no one cares about my budget requests!
In Well-Being as Value Fulfillment: How We Can Help Each Other to Live Well(OUP 2018), I argue that one achieves well-being to the extent that one fulfills one’s appropriate values over time. Each term in this short statement requires explanation, but before I get to that, let me offer a bit of background that will put the details in context.
There are various criteria for an adequate theory of well-being that I think often pull in different directions. The so-called “resonance constraint” requires that a person’s well-being should not turn out to be something the person would be indifferent to or that leaves them cold. (Yes, it’s the singular “they”; I think we should get used to it.) Some think theories of well-being should meet an “experience requirement”, according to which for something to contribute to a person’s well-being it must register in their experience. Some think there is a “morality requirement”: it should not turn out that a morally vicious person could achieve well-being. And some think there is a “generality requirement” according to which theories of well-being must make sense of attributions of well-being across all possible welfare subjects. Pretty much everyone thinks the right theory of well-being should line up reasonably well with intuitions about who is doing well and who is doing poorly, but the diverse set of criteria for an adequate theory means that there are intractable differences in our intuitions. We end up with a lot of intuitions pumps, pumping away in different directions. So, I think that to make progress, we need to be very clear about what practical problem we want our target normative notion to solve, where it fits into a larger normative practice, and therefore what features it needs to have.
I spend some time in the book articulating the problem that I’m looking for a theory of well-being to solve. In short, I want a notion of well-being that is the thing we aim to promote when we are interested in helping people, and the thing we aim for in our own lives when we’re trying to figure out how best to live. I also wanted to articulate a theory that might have some traction with psychologists who work on well-being. In part this is because such psychologists are, I think, in the trenches of those who think that the point of well-being research is to improve human lives. And, in part it’s because I think the way that psychologists tend to understand well-being could use some improvement. This interest of mine meant writing a book that was more accessible than a standard philosophical monograph. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I’m glad I tried. (I hope some psychologists will read the book, but I’m also working on a few projects that aim to introduce value fulfillment theory into the psychological literature more directly: one with organizational psychologist Laurent Kuykendall and one with personality psychologist Colin DeYoung.)
So, now, back to my short statement. Three terms need explanation: values, appropriateness, and fulfillment. Valuesare patterns of emotions, desires and judgments suitably organized around some end. A paradigm case of valuing being a parent, for example, is one in which Dad enjoys being a Dad, wants to spend time with his child, and judges that he has reasons to take ‘being a good Dad’ into consideration in his plans and decisions. Our values are very often not this coherent, and there’s a point at which a person’s set of attitudes might be so unharmonious that we wouldn’t want to call it valuing at all. I’m not really concerned exactly where the line gets drawn between values and non-values; the important thing is that the more psychological harmony one has in valuing something, the more the fulfillment of that value contributes to one’s well-being. There’s a lot more to say here about how values are related to each other, and how the theory can make room for the idea that we should value something that we don’t currently value, but the Daves said I should keep this short.
Appropriatevalues are psychologically integrated or harmonious values that can be fulfilled over time. This adds an external condition to the notion of appropriate values. It’s not enough that your valuing being a parent integrates your desires, emotions, and judgments if you are incapable of doing any of the things you want, care about, and think you have reason to do. If the devoted Dad also values being the first astronaut on Mars, for example, his system of values is not as appropriate as it could be, because he just can’t be a good Dad from Mars.
To fulfilla value is to meet the standards that are inherent to valuing. For Dad, upholding the value of being a Dad means (among other things) caring for his kid and spending time with her. These standards can vary from person to person, though there will be a good deal of similarity of standards for similar values. Further, standards are not always discretionary; if you value being a great baseball player, you have to play by the rules of baseball and you have to succeed in its terms. It’s possible to be a real iconoclast – you can create your own standards for shmaseball and value being a shmaseball player to your heart’s content – but I don’t think this is very easy, given what social creatures we are.
So, well-being is the fulfillment of appropriate values over time. That, very, very roughly, is the view. I spend the second half of the book talking about how to help friends, given the value fulfillment theory I’ve defended. Even though the theory is, ultimately, a subjective theory, there’s a lot of room for people to sensibly disagree about what’s good for each other. This is because people can be wrong about whether their circumstances will hinder the fulfillment of their values, the degree to which their values will conflict over time, and even the degree to which their own values are psychologically integrated. Our friends can know more about these things than we do, and if we have the right kind of relationship, they can help us see what would be better for us. But the value fulfillment theory also urges humility about what others care about and how they care about it. I think we too often assume that others are just like us, and this can incline us to be judgmental, unsympathetic, and unhelpful.
I’m interested in working next on a value fulfillment theory of ill-being. The unfulfillment theory, maybe. I haven’t thought about this very much yet, but one thing I like about the approach is the way it makes sense of certain crappy experiences that many women (and others too) have of being in circumstances where you just can’t fulfill all your psychologically entrenched values. I’ve been thinking of Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. She wants financial security and status, but she also wants to marry someone she respects who is her moral and intellectual peer. Her options are such that she ends up dying in a flophouse of an opium overdose (oops, that was a spoiler). Obviously, there’s pain in Lily’s life, but to me what is tragic about her situation is the way that her oppressive conditions psychologically sustain a set of goals that make real fulfillment impossible.