Crisps may be good for you

Well-Being and Morality
October 6, 2000

This collection of papers, addressed to a readership of professional philosophers, is inspired by the moral philosophy of James Griffin. Appropriately for the scholar being honoured, the contributors are distinguished and the quality of the papers is universally high. As is so often true of festschrifts , however, the topics are mixed. Some authors simply make polite references to some aspect of Griffin's work and then present trailers for their own theories, pointing the reader to their larger works on the subject in question. The volume derives its unity from those authors who address Griffin's ideas more directly and critically, or who grapple with the problems that Griffin has tried to resolve. At the end, Griffin makes short but thoughtful replies to these authors.

Griffin is probably best known for his attempt to explain what we mean when we speak of a person's "wellbeing", or of "prudential value", or of what is good for a person. The concept of wellbeing is central to those forms of consequentialism that treat the all-things-considered goodness of a state of affairs as an aggregation of the wellbeing of every individual in that state. Griffin's account of wellbeing is richly nuanced but theoretically modest. He is suspicious of grand theories and reluctant to take a stand on either side of the major divides of philosophical theory. A reviewer of Griffin's latest book aptly describes his approach as "intelligent but also wise": the intelligence of his philosophical analysis is combined with the wisdom of his advice on how we can live lives that achieve value for us. However, sceptical readers may feel uneasy about the philosophical authority that - however modestly - Griffin claims for his wisdom.

One theoretical divide is between "perception" and "reaction". On some accounts, value exists outside of us; we have reasons to desire things when we perceive that they are valuable. On other accounts, desire is simply a psychological reaction to features of the world; things come to have value for us because we desire them. Griffin takes a position in the middle. What is valuable in human life, he argues, is what human beings normally or naturally desire when they have a proper appreciation of the nature of things. Thus, value is connected with desire, but not everything that a person desires is valuable for him. This position is assessed by several contributors.

John Skorupski tries to flesh out the idea, implicit in Griffin's approach, that competent judges will agree about what it is properly to appreciate the good things of life. He succeeds in making the idea seem rather unappealing. In terms of one of his examples, Skorupski wants to say that the enjoyment of a perfect omelette is superior in quality to the enjoyment of a packet of crisps, and that this superiority is evident to all good judges, despite the contrary preferences of many people. What might seem a mildly complacent example comes to look more sinister when Skorupski applies the same principle to cross-species comparisons of wellbeing, with human enjoyments standing in the same relation to animal ones as the omelette does to the crisps. Speaking for myself as a middle-aged person, I share Skorupski's preference for the omelette, but as a young teenager I would have preferred the crisps; and I would have eaten the crisps with more relish than I can now feel for the omelette. Have I gained discernment, or lost some of my former zest for life? Mainly the latter, I suspect. What, then, privileges the middle-aged conception of wellbeing over the youthful one? It is interesting, too, how many of the authors endorse Griffin's high-minded idea that a life is made good by its having a strong sense of purpose and by its accomplishing something worthwhile. Perhaps people who lack a sense of purpose are unlikely to become well-known moral philosophers, but can we be so confident that their lives are thereby going badly for them?

Peter Railton offers a much more attractive resolution of the tension between perception and reaction. Developing the ideas of David Hume, he argues that there are standards of value, which relate to the typical desires of the people who use those standards. Thus, there are standards of taste among gourmets that make the omelette superior to the crisps; relative to that standard, it really is a mistake to claim that the crisps are better. But if teenagers have different typical desires about food, they will have different standards of value, and there is no perspective from which either standard can be judged superior to the other.

A second theoretical divide is between "mental states" and "desire-satisfaction" as the currency of wellbeing. On the mental-state view, wellbeing is a state of mind, and so depends only on what we experience. On the desire-satisfaction view, our wellbeing depends on our achieving what we desire, whether we know that we have done so or not. Again, Griffin takes a middle line. Broadly, he takes the desire-satisfaction view, but treats as relevant only those desires that "enter our lives" in some (rather imprecisely specified) sense. Wayne Sumner tries a different tack. Leaning much more to the mental-state view, he argues that wellbeing is a matter of how we see our own lives; to enjoy wellbeing is to feel happiness or fulfilment about the way our lives are going. But Sumner is uneasy about deception: if your sense of fulfilment is based on false beliefs (perhaps you believe your partner loves you, but he or she is having an affair), is this genuine wellbeing or a false belief about it? Sumner suggests that the answer depends on the attitude that the person being cheated would take if undeceived: some people would think their previous happiness had been devalued, others would not.

Joseph Raz offers a somewhat similar account of wellbeing. For Raz, we enjoy wellbeing to the extent that we are at peace with ourselves and wholehearted about and successful in our relationships and goals - provided those relationships and goals are "worthwhile" (a qualification that Griffin would endorse, but Sumner might not). But Raz argues that wellbeing is not necessarily a reason for action. For the most part, our reasons for action are given by our goals themselves; and to take one's own wellbeing as a goal would be unattractive, even narcissistic. Wellbeing, then, is typically a by-product of acting on other reasons. Because our goals are not fixed, the pursuit of our current goals (that is, doing what we have most reason to do) need not maximise our wellbeing. We are left with the paradoxical position that our own wellbeing is something that matters enormously to us, but which we may not have reason to seek. Raz ends by asking whether, given this understanding of wellbeing, morality in relations between people can be interpreted entirely in terms of concern for other people's wellbeing. Not surprisingly, he thinks not. An economic or political philosopher might go on to ask whether, as so many writers uncritically assume, public policy ought to be directed towards the achievement of wellbeing, rather than giving people as much opportunity as possible to pursue their own goals.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.


Well-Being and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin

Editor - Roger Crisp and Brad Hooker
ISBN - 0 19 823584 4
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 316

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