Authored by: Neera K. Badhwar

The Routledge Handbook Of Philosophy Of Well-Being

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  July  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415714532
eBook ISBN: 9781315682266
Adobe ISBN: 9781317402657




To those familiar with discussions of eudaimonia in ancient philosophy, but not with contemporary philosophy of happiness and well-being, the difference between happiness and well-being will seem like a difference without a distinction. For a happy life, like a life of well-being, seems to be a life that is good or beneficial for the individual—indeed, the summum bonum. The fact that eudaimonia is variously translated as happiness or well-being only reinforces the impression that there is no difference between them. To add to the confusion, some contemporary philosophers use “happiness” to mean well-being (Foot 2001; Annas 2011; Russell 2012; Bloomfield 2014), and some psychologists use “subjective well-being” to mean happiness. However, most contemporary philosophers use “happiness” to mean simply a positive psychological state (either dispositional or occurrent), and “well-being” to mean a life that is good for the person living it. To avoid confusion, I will follow this philosophical usage. My focus will be happiness over a lifetime, or some period or domain of a life, rather than happiness at a moment.

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To those familiar with discussions of eudaimonia in ancient philosophy, but not with contemporary philosophy of happiness and well-being, the difference between happiness and well-being will seem like a difference without a distinction. For a happy life, like a life of well-being, seems to be a life that is good or beneficial for the individual—indeed, the summum bonum. The fact that eudaimonia is variously translated as happiness or well-being only reinforces the impression that there is no difference between them. To add to the confusion, some contemporary philosophers use “happiness” to mean well-being (Foot 2001; Annas 2011; Russell 2012; Bloomfield 2014), and some psychologists use “subjective well-being” to mean happiness. However, most contemporary philosophers use “happiness” to mean simply a positive psychological state (either dispositional or occurrent), and “well-being” to mean a life that is good for the person living it. To avoid confusion, I will follow this philosophical usage. My focus will be happiness over a lifetime, or some period or domain of a life, rather than happiness at a moment.

The fact that “happiness” and “well-being” are distinct concepts does not, however, mean that they are unrelated. Indeed, according to some philosophers, there is nothing more to a life of well-being than happiness: if your life is happy, you have well-being. On the other extreme, a few philosophers argue that we can have well-being without any happiness at all. Most philosophers, however, occupy the middle ground, arguing that happiness is essential to well-being, but not identical to it.

I will first discuss the main popular and philosophical conceptions of happiness, and then proceed to see what role they play, or don’t play, in well-being. I will follow common philosophical practice in using the following criteria for evaluating a conception: (i) coherence: is it internally consistent? (ii) descriptive adequacy: does it sufficiently closely match what we mean by a life of happiness or well-being in everyday (intelligent) discourse and literature? (ii) normative adequacy: does it help explain why we—or nearly all of us— want happiness and well-being for ourselves and others?

Conceptions of happiness

Everyone, or nearly everyone, wants to live a happy life. Great happiness makes us feel as though we are fully alive, and great unhappiness can call into question the point or value of life itself. These facts are enough to make happiness an important topic to consider. But what does a happy life mean to you? If you could have your pick, which of the following lives would you pick as the happiest life for yourself?

(1) A life in which you are wealthy, healthy, popular, and beautiful. Such a life might seem to have all the makings of happiness. After all, what more could anyone want? But surely it is possible for you to be wealthy, healthy, popular, and beautiful and still deeply dissatisfied. Or anxious and depressed. Maybe your popularity is due to your always going along with the crowd, in spite of serious moral reservations, and this has left you feeling like a fraud. Maybe your wealth has made you lazy, preventing you from making the effort you need to make to achieve your career goals. Either way, you feel that your life is sort of lightweight, lacking in meaning and gravitas. Or maybe you are worried because your wealth is attracting people who value you for your money rather than for who you are.

Indeed, not only are these things not sufficient for happiness, they are not even necessary. For it is entirely possible for you to be happy without being wealthy, healthy, popular, or beautiful. Why, then, is it so common for people to think that, if only they had these things, they would be happy? Because these goods are common sources of happiness, and their complete absence often a source of unhappiness. And this points to a further problem for this conception of happiness: instead of shedding light on the nature of happiness, it tells us about its common sources.

(2) A life of unending, varied pleasures for all the senses. Pleasures that leave you feeling wildly alive, as though, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words, “on honey-dew” you have fed and “drunk the milk of Paradise” (Kubla Khan 1816). What more can a human being want? What can be better than feeling wildly alive in all one’s waking moments? Such a life would be the realization of a “vision in a dream,” a fantasy that many of us can relate to. But alas, such wild, intense pleasure is not something we are capable of feeling for very long, leave alone over a whole lifetime. It really is only, as Samuel Coleridge calls it, a “vision in a dream.”

Nevertheless, even if our capacity for pleasure is limited, perhaps we can still defend a more realistic hedonist theory of happiness.

(3) A (more realistic) hedonist life. According to the hedonist theory, a happy life is one in which pleasure far outweighs pain and displeasure. But what exactly is pleasure? There are at least three philosophical answers to this question: internalist, externalist, and attitudinal. This last, however, is different enough from the other two to merit its own section.

Internalist theories hold that pleasure is a particular sensation or feeling common to all pleasurable experiences. This conception of pleasure goes back in modern times to Jeremy Bentham, who famously declared that the pleasures of poetry and pushpin differ only in quantity, not quality. But this view seems patently false: as John Stuart Mill argued, different pleasurable activities yield distinct kinds of pleasure. The pleasure of a good meal is very different from the pleasure of a good murder mystery. Hence, according to externalist hedonists, pleasure is any kind of positive (satisfying, pleasing, etc.) experience.

Both internalist and externalist hedonist theories of happiness equate happiness with pleasure, and pleasure with a feeling or experience (Bentham 1907: Ch. VII.1; Mill 1969: 210, 234). On the face of it, these theories seem pretty commonsensical. Further examination, however, reveals problems. As the following examples show, it is possible to have lots of pleasurable feelings or experiences in one’s life without being happy. Perhaps, having been brought up by puritanical parents, you feel guilty and conflicted about having so much pleasure. Perhaps you are displeased about the course of your life because it isn’t really making use of your talents and is altogether too easy—cloyingly easy. Like eating candy all day long. Deep down, you feel bored and restless. If this is happiness, you think, it’s overrated. Pleasurable sensations and experiences all by themselves just don’t go deep enough for the fulfillment we associate with happiness (Haybron 2008, 2013). Hence, too, they lack the importance we give to happiness.

(4) A life replete with intrinsic attitudinal pleasures. Fred Feldman’s attitudinal hedonist theory of happiness avoids the problems with the standard hedonist theories, by arguing that the pleasure that constitutes happiness is not a sensory pleasure, but the propositional attitude of being intrinsically pleased at or with something (2010). To take intrinsic attitudinal pleasure in something is to be pleased with it for its own sake, whereas to take extrinsic attitudinal pleasure in something is to be pleased with it because it has some suitable connection to intrinsic pleasure, such as being a means to it or a sign of it (117–118). Happiness at a moment is identical with intrinsic attitudinal pleasure minus intrinsic displeasure, and the net balance of such pleasures over some period of your life, or entire life, constitutes happiness over that period, or your entire life, respectively (110). Sensory feelings, in which Feldman includes not only physical pains and pleasures, itches, and creepy crawlies, but also cheery and smiley feelings, do not themselves constitute happiness or unhappiness— only our attitudes towards them and other states of affairs do (145). 2 Thus, the new mother is thrilled and happy at becoming a new mother at the very moment of childbirth in spite of the extreme pain (33–34), and the drunk is unhappy that he is drinking his fourth beer in spite of the pleasant taste of the beer. 3

Feldman’s arguments against sensory hedonism are convincing, but his arguments for his own attitudinal hedonistic theory of happiness not quite. One problem is that, although Feldman claims that his concern is with happiness in the ordinary sense of the word, his theory pushes into the background what is ordinarily seen as the essence of occurrent or dispositional happiness: emotion. Think of the joy in running free through an open field. On Feldman’s view, you take joy in the fact that you are running free through an open field. But this doesn’t quite capture your joy, which is not an attitude towards the running but an emotion inherent in the running, an emotion that is made up of perceptions, images, thoughts, and feelings. 4 Again, infants and animals are capable of happiness, both occurrent and dispositional, whether or not they are capable of propositional attitudes (McKay and Nelson 2014). Happy, well-fed, comfortable infants coo with satisfaction, kick their legs energetically, and smile at their caretaker. Happy dogs wag their tails, enthusiastically play fetch, and leap on their owners to be petted.

Another problem with the attitudinal hedonistic theory of happiness is that it cannot accommodate objectless emotions. Suppose that you have been feeling deeply depressed all week, but have no idea why. Then your depression doesn’t count as attitudinal displeasure because attitudinal displeasure at a moment requires awareness of the object of your displeasure (111). Suppose, further, that you are mildly displeased that you don’t know why you are seriously depressed. In that case, on Feldman’s view, you are mildly unhappy. Commonsensically, however, your deep depression means that you are very unhappy, and your mild unhappiness at not knowing why you are depressed simply adds to your unhappiness. 5 The ordinary notion of (un)happiness can recognize both objectless emotions and emotions with propositional objects as (partly) constitutive of (un)happiness.

A third problem with Feldman’s theory is his conception of a happy life as one in which the aggregate of the happy moments outweighs the aggregate of the unhappy moments (122–123). This is a pretty sad view of a happy life. Suppose that you are now 24 years old, and you have spent 12 years plus 1 minute feeling happy, and 12 years minus 1 minute feeling unhappy. Then, according to this view, you have had a happy life so far—even though you were just 1 minute away from a neutral state, and 2 minutes away from an unhappy life! The view that a happy life or happy period of your life is merely a function of happy moments also leaves out something important about happiness as a property of a person or her life. We will return to this under point (7), below.

(5) A life in which all your desires are satisfied. It’s hard to see what could be wrong with this. That happiness consists of the satisfaction of your desires seems like a platitude. Yet although several philosophers have endorsed a desire-satisfaction theory of well-being, hardly anyone has defended a desire-satisfaction theory of happiness. An examination of the argument of one who has shows why. According to Wayne Davis (1981), happiness at a moment consists of the strength of your intrinsic desires—that is, your desires for various things for their own sake—multiplied by the strength of your beliefs that your desires are being satisfied. 6 A happy life is a life in which the aggregate of the happy moments (far) outweighs the aggregate of the unhappy moments over a lifetime.

The problem, however, is that at any given moment we have tons of intrinsic desires that we believe are being satisfied without any effect on our mental state: that the sun rose this morning and is predicted to shine till 8 p.m., that we are not in the middle of an earthquake or other natural disaster, that the people we love are alive and well, or that we are not being eaten by a dinosaur (Feldman 2010), and so on. The frustration of these desires would ruin our lives (or kill us), but their satisfaction has no effect on our happiness because their satisfaction is an ongoing, everyday, only-to-be-expected occurrence. Believing that a desire is being satisfied can constitute a positive mental state, but not necessarily so.

(6) A life in which you both feel satisfied with the conditions of your life as you see them, and judge them to be satisfying by your own standards. On this life-satisfaction conception of happiness, defended by L.W. Sumner, you both approve of what you believe to be the conditions of your life (or some aspect or period of your life) in light of your values (or would approve of them were you to reflect on them), and feel emotionally satisfied by them (Sumner 1996: 148–156). Happiness is thus both an affective phenomenon, and a cognitive one.

Daniel Haybron, however, takes issue with the cognitive component of Sumner’s conception of happiness (2008, 2013). One reason is that, as some empirical studies have shown (and as Sumner recognizes), our judgments of our lives as satisfying can be notoriously unstable, being affected by trivial situational factors such as the weather or a sleepless night. But do attempts to identify how we feel about our lives overall, or how emotionally fulfilled we are overall, produce results that are any more stable? It would be surprising if they did, because strong emotions about a recent event, or about an important domain of our lives, can overwhelm our basic emotional condition, whether negative or positive. Strong judgments of life satisfaction or dissatisfaction can also have the same effect, since such evaluations don’t usually leave us cold. Accordingly, if there is instability in judgments of global life satisfaction, we should also expect some instability in subjects’ reports of their global emotional condition. Haybron himself gives several reasons for doubting the many surveys in which between 92% and 94% of Americans report that they are happy in this sense (2013: 47).

Both cognitive and affect measures of happiness would do better—and the former evidently do do better—when the questions asked are narrower. Studies in which subjects are first asked about their satisfaction in domains of their lives that are important to them, and then asked about global life satisfaction, show stability in their judgments of life satisfaction (Tiberius and Plakias 2010: 10). In some of these studies, the correlation between domain and global life satisfaction is 0.70. Moreover, in these studies, there is high retest stability in life satisfaction judgments over time, which shows that people are making their judgments on the basis of what matters to them rather than on the basis of the weather or passing mood. The same should be true of tests of emotional condition if they focus on what is important to subjects.

But Haybron has a second reason for taking issue with the cognitive component of Sumner’s view, viz., that people’s life satisfaction judgments often diverge from their emotional states. Thus, some people who judge their lives as satisfactory by their own values nevertheless also acknowledge being anxious or sad, and their emotional states have a better claim to being constitutive of happiness or unhappiness than their judgments of life satisfaction or dissatisfaction (Haybron 2008: 84–86). Such a divergence, however, does not seem to be a problem for Sumner, since his theory entails that we are happy iff we are both cognitively and emotionally satisfied. If only one component is positive, we are only partially happy, or not really happy.

(7) A life in which you are emotionally fulfilled. Haybron’s “emotional self-fulfillment” theory is the best-worked-out contemporary philosophical theory of happiness (2008, 2013). According to Haybron, happiness is “not merely a state of one’s consciousness” but “more like a state of one’s being—not just a pleasant experience, or a good mood, but psychic affirmation or, in more pronounced forms, psychic flourishing” (2008: 182). A happy person feels “fully at home” in his life, rather than defensive or alienated (3, 111–112); he is engaged with his life, rather than passive or disengaged; and he endorses his life as “worth pursuing enthusiastically” (2008: 112). Haybron calls these three faces of happiness attunement, engagement, and endorsement, respectively.

Happiness understood thus amounts to a favorable emotional evaluation of our lives (Haybron 2008, 2013: 19). It is worth pointing out the similarity here to Sumner’s view that happiness has both a cognitive, evaluative component, and an emotional component. The main difference is that, whereas for Haybron, happiness itself is an emotional evaluation, for Sumner the evaluative component of happiness is cognitive. However, if our emotional states and our judgments of life satisfaction typically influence each other, then the distinction is not as clear-cut as it might seem. And it is even less clear-cut if adult human emotions themselves are partly cognitive. This issue needs further analysis and clarification.

An important feature of Haybron’s view is that happiness goes deeper than conscious feelings. For example, someone who has (conscious) episodic feelings of happiness, but also a propensity to be easily irritated, depressed, stressed out, and so on, is not really very happy (2008: 136–138). In this respect, I think happiness is a lot like love. To love someone is to feel at home and engaged with him, to have one’s attention drawn by him, to take pleasure in his company, and to be free of an ongoing anger or irritation towards him. It is also, of course, to often feel love for him. But mere episodes of loving feelings, in the absence of the other feelings or the underlying disposition of love, don’t amount to love of a person.

A critic might object that happiness doesn’t have to be so, well, serious. Feldman complains that, like too many other philosophers, Haybron has a far too intellectual or “deep” conception of happiness, a conception that entails that happy-go-lucky Timmy, who has lots of fun, few worries, and certainly no “dark night of the soul,” cannot be happy (Feldman 2010: 147–149).

It is true that some people—especially young people—just are “high on life” without ever thinking about life or happiness or what they want to make of themselves. If infants and dogs can be happy, surely happy-go-lucky Timmy can also be happy. Contra Feldman, however, it seems to me that Timmy’s happiness does meet Haybron’s criteria for happiness. What Timmy derives happiness from may be shallow, but his enjoyment of life seems to be a deep-set disposition that permeates his dreams, and has all three features that Haybron requires: he feels at home rather than alienated, he is deeply engaged with his life, as shown by his enthusiasm over his activities, and he endorses his life as worth living. Timmy’s emotional nature is fulfilled.

Let us now see what role happiness plays—or doesn’t play—in well-being.

Happiness and well-being

Well-being concerns how well your life is going for you rather than for someone else—or everyone else. Like happiness, well-being is subject-relative or agent-relative. However, this idea is not easy to pinpoint. Can your life be going well for you even if you think and feel that it’s going badly? Can it be going badly even if you think and feel that it’s going well? Some theories answer both questions in the affirmative. They hold that, so long as you have realized certain values and developed certain capacities, your life is going well for you, regardless of your own judgments or feelings. And if you lack certain values, or certain capacities, such as for friendship, then your life can’t be going well for you, regardless of your own judgments or feelings. Hence, the North Pond Hermit, who found a hard-sought contentment only in the forest, where he lived alone for 27 years, lacked well-being. 7

Some theories, however, while agreeing that certain valuable capacities and activities are necessary for well-being, claim that your life can’t be going well for you if you are unhappy or disapproving of your life. Your happiness and positive evaluation of your life are necessary for your well-being. I will call theories that make certain objective values or capacities essential to well-being “objective,” and others “subjective.” Some philosophers call all theories that make it possible for the individual to be wrong about her well-being “objective” and the others “subjective.” But every major subjective theory allows the individual to be wrong about her well-being for one reason or another. Some philosophers call all theories that make positive mental states of one kind or another essential to well-being “subjective” and the others “objective.” But every major objective theory makes positive mental states of one kind or another essential to well-being. The one feature that differentiates objective from subjective theories is the value objectivism of the former.

Subjective theories of well-being

(1) Hedonist theories identify well-being with happiness, and happiness with pleasure. Thus they identify well-being with pleasure. We have already seen the problems with identifying happiness with pleasure; identifying well-being with pleasure creates even more problems (Griffin 1986; Sumner 1996). For one thing, the internalist and externalist forms of hedonism ignore the fact that crucial to our well-being is the well-being or success of people and projects that matter to us. In other words, our well-being requires not only positive mental states, but positive mental states in response to certain states of the world, including our own actions. On Robert Nozick’s experience machine, you could have a lifetime of pleasant experiences that have no connection at all to what’s happening in the world (1974: 42–45; 1989: 104–108). But this is practically no one’s idea of well-being.

Like other hedonist theories, Feldman’s attitudinal hedonism also identifies pleasure with happiness, and happiness with well-being. As Feldman puts it, “well-being tracks happiness” (2010: 169). Unlike other hedonist theories, however, Feldman’s hedonism recognizes the importance of states of the world for happiness, and thus for well-being. The problem lies in the idea of a life of well-being as one in which the totality of happy moments outweighs the totality of unhappy moments. We’ve already seen why this is implausible as a conception of a happy life; as a conception of well-being, it is even more implausible. Consider, for example, the case of Jamie and Jane (Bradford 2012: 271–272). Jamie is incapable of long-term projects because he has lost his long-term memory, thanks to Korsakov’s syndrome. Nevertheless, he has a few more happy moments during his life than Jane, whose memory is intact and who does have meaningful long-term projects. Feldman’s view entails that Jamie has greater well-being than Jane (Bradford 2012: 271–272). But it is hard to believe that anyone would want themselves or anyone they love to be Jamie rather than Jane.

(2) Desire-satisfaction theories of well-being identify well-being with the satisfaction of desire. This might seem no different from Wayne Davis’s desire theory of happiness, but in fact it is. Whereas Davis thinks of desire satisfaction as an experience or feeling, desire-satisfaction theories of well-being identify desire satisfaction with the occurrence of certain states of affairs. In doing so, however, they replace the problem with hedonist theories with one of their own. Suppose, for example, that King Midas has only one desire: that everything he touch turn to gold. Then his desire is satisfied when everything he touches does turn to gold. Even though this makes him miserable, the desire-satisfaction theory entails, counterintuitively, that he has well-being.

The informed desire-satisfaction theory of well-being tries to get around this problem by stipulating that desires must be formed through an “appreciation of the nature of the objects of desire” (Griffin 1986: 15). 8 More strongly, desires have to be informed all the way through to count (Angner 2012). Hence, if King Midas desires happiness more strongly than he desires anything else, but doesn’t realize that the satisfaction of his desire for a “golden touch” will leave him feeling unhappy, the satisfaction of this uninformed “spoiler” desire does not contribute to his well-being.

But there is a deeper problem for the desire-satisfaction theory that even the informed-desire view cannot overcome. This problem stems from the view, implicit in the theory, that happiness is important for well-being only insofar as the individual whose well-being is in question desires happiness. Making happiness optional in this way entails that someone who cherishes his unhappiness because, let us say, he thinks he deserves it, has well-being. This, however, is a very strange notion of well-being: no one who wishes well to another would ever wish him unhappiness.

(3) L.W. Sumner’s life-satisfaction theory, probably the most influential theory of well-being, tries to combine the strengths of the hedonist view with those of the desire-satisfaction view, while avoiding their problems. Well-being, on this theory, is authentic happiness, that is, happiness underwritten by an endorsement that is both autonomous and informed (Sumner 1996: 156–171). Your happiness is authentic iff (i) it is a response to those conditions of your life that you take to be important for your happiness, (ii) you endorse these conditions using values that are truly your own, and (iii) you periodically renew your endorsement. If, for example, your happiness is based on the illusion that your disloyal and deceptive friends love you and are loyal to you, if being disabused of this illusion would destroy your happiness, then your happiness is not a response to the facts of your life. If you endorse the conditions of your life by values that you have been taught to accept but would reject if you were to reflect on them in light of alternatives, your endorsement of your life is not autonomous. Your values are your own only if they survive, or would survive, critical reflection.

Happiness, thus, is essential to well-being, but not sufficient. Only authentic happiness—that is, happiness in your life by your standards—constitutes well-being. By making the individual’s informed and autonomous endorsement of her happiness all-important to her well-being, this view explains why well-being is subject-relative, that is, a good for the person who has it (Sumner 1996: 38, 41). However, the claim that your values are your own only if they survive, or would survive, critical reflection in light of alternatives is problematic for a theory that eschews objective values. For in a straightforward sense, internalizing your values, cherishing them, and living by them is enough to make them your own (Badhwar 2014a: 58, 65). The obvious reason for the autonomy requirement is that Sumner thinks that an uncritical acceptance of values we have absorbed from our culture, values that would not survive critical reflection, is not good enough for creatures like us (LeBar 2004: 195–217; Russell 2012: 41–42; Badhwar 2014a: 65). The autonomy requirement is a normative requirement motivated by this implicit realization. In requiring it, however, Sumner implicitly admits that an individual’s well-being has to meet certain objective standards, standards appropriate for all human beings capable of authentic happiness. And in so doing, Sumner opens the door to other objective standards.

At the same time, however, Sumner’s value subjectivism creates another problem for his theory. Because it imposes no substantive constraints on the values that you may adopt for your life and happiness, the theory becomes vulnerable to the experience machine counterexample. Suppose, for example, that your happiness lies in easy pleasures, the easier the better, and that your highest autonomously endorsed value is having a good time. Then Sumner’s theory gives no principled reason why you shouldn’t hook yourself to the experience machine for life, with periodic breaks for renewing your endorsement of your life (Badhwar 2014a: 65–67).

(4) Daniel Haybron’s individual nature-fulfillment theory of well-being holds that well-being consists of authentic self-fulfillment, that is, the authentic fulfillment of both your emotional nature (happiness) and your rational nature (2008: Chapter 9). This is a eudaimonist view with a modern twist, in that the nature it is concerned with is only individual nature. According to Haybron, well-being has nothing to do with human nature fulfillment, because what other human beings are like can have no bearing on what is intrinsically (non-instrumentally) good for you.

Haybron goes further than Sumner in his conception of what authenticity requires, but in doing so, he seems to unwittingly slide into old-fashioned eudaimonism (Badhwar 2014a). Among other things, he argues, authenticity requires “proper functioning,” and the “richer, more complex” your way of life, the more authentic is your happiness, because “such ways of living more fully express . . . [your] nature.” John Rawls’ grass counter’s happiness doesn’t express “his nature, his individuality,” because it lacks “the richness of an ordinary human life” (Haybron 2008: 186).

These claims, however, seem to imply that well-being is, after all, human nature fulfillment. Haybron might answer that his appeal to proper functioning and the richness of an ordinary human life rests on the plausible conjecture that, since most human beings wouldn’t be fulfilled by counting blades of grass, neither is Rawls’ grass counter. But what if this is false? Someone with highly limited capacities might be able to fully exercise them in counting blades of grass—or pebbles in a jar. So if such a person is happy (and he can be on Haybron’s view), there is no reason to think that he can’t also have well-being (on Haybron’s conception of well-being). It follows, then, that even if he could acquire more of the capacities of a normal human being, he would have no reason relevant to his well-being to do so (Russell and LeBar 2013). By making well-being entirely conditional on a notion of authentic happiness that makes no essential reference to human nature or objective values, Haybron’s theory encounters the same problem as Sumner’s: it doesn’t do justice to the importance of well-being in human life.

(5) The value-based life satisfaction (VBLS) theory of Valerie Tiberius et al. argues that well-being consists of life satisfaction, understood as “a cognitive/affective attitude toward one’s life as a whole,” an attitude that is grounded in “appropriate values,” that is, values that are not based on false beliefs about one’s needs, abilities, or circumstances, and that are in accord with one’s affective nature (Tiberius and Hall 2010: 218; Tiberius and Plakias 2010: 423). However, VBLS is led by its own internal logic to embrace two counterintuitive conclusions. On the one hand, VBLS allows that if someone values only pleasure, and pleasure suits his nature, then he can have well-being even on Nozick’s experience machine (Tiberius and Hall 2010: 221). On the other hand, although happiness is important for most people’s well-being (Tiberius and Hall 2010: 218–219; Tiberius and Plakias 2010: 426), in the rare case that someone values unhappiness, and unhappiness suits his nature because, say, he is naturally melancholic, his well-being requires his unhappiness. Indeed, even “serious depression” can be compatible with a person’s well-being (Tiberius and Hall 2010: 215–216; Tiberius and Plakias 2010: 426).

The problem, however, is that someone who has well-being must at least like living, and it’s hard to believe that either someone who opts for a life on the experience machine, or someone who is seriously depressed, likes living. The passive pleasure-monger doesn’t like being a choosing, acting agent, and the seriously depressed person is often suicidal. If a life of well-being is the best, the most desirable, life for you from your own point of view, then it can’t be something you want to either escape or destroy. Well-being is, in part, a disposition to see life as a blessing, not a burden, to welcome each new day, not dread it, and happiness in the sense of long-term emotional fulfillment is at the core of such a disposition. Claiming that we can have well-being even if we spend our lives hooked to a machine, or in serious depression, seems to rob the concept of the meaning it has in everyday discourse as well as in the long tradition of philosophical accounts of well-being, and makes it hard to see why we should wish it to anyone we care about.

A common objection to subjective theories is that they make well-being compatible not only with highly diminished lives, such as a life counting grass blades or experiencing pleasure on the experience machine, but also with vicious lives. There is nothing in the theories we have just seen that prevents vicious people from having well-being. Objective theories remedy these problems by making certain humanly valuable capacities, activities, traits, or attitudes essential to well-being. There are two main types of objective theories: objective list theories (OLTs), and eudaimonistic theories.

Objective theories

(1) OLTs of well-being equate well-being with a life rich in certain goods, such as knowledge, virtue, family, and friends. 9 These goods are necessary to your well-being, even if you don’t desire, or even like, any of them (Finnis 1980). This feature has been called the attitude-independence of OLTs, a feature that, according to many, makes it hard to see how well-being can be the value of the individual’s life for her.

It is not clear, however, that attitude-independence is essential to OLTs, since a pro-attitude is part of the very nature of the goods that are often seen as necessary for well-being. Objective list theorists commonly include happiness, pleasure, inner peace, self-respect, friendship, or excellence in work and play (Arneson 1999; Finnis 1980; Fletcher 2015; Griffin 1986, 2000; Murphy 2001). Happiness, pleasure, and inner peace (a state of psychic harmony) are inherently attractive to the person who has them. Self-respect, by definition, consists of a positive evaluation of, and positive feelings about, oneself. Friendship involves liking or loving your friend, and taking pleasure in her company and the fact of your friendship. Hence, even if, ex ante, you didn’t want these goods in your life, once you have them, you necessarily have a pro-attitude towards them. It’s possible, of course, to have a second-order con-attitude towards one’s happiness or pleasure, such as guilt, shame, pain, sense of alienation, or disapproval. In such a case, it is open to the OLT to say that, whereas happiness and pleasure are good for you, the second-order negative attitudes are bad for you. Attitude-independence is of the essence of OLTs only in the sense that what is good for you does not depend on your attitudes before you acquire this good.

It is true, however, that a pro-attitude is not part of the very nature of all the goods that are sometimes claimed to be necessary for everyone’s well-being, such as religion or children. To some people, religion and children are, at best, painful duties, not constituents of well-being. Hence, those who insist that they are necessary for well-being have to tell us what justifies their insistence. If the answer is that they “perfect” or realize human nature, then their defenders must explain what makes them more important “realizers” than the things that are almost universally regarded as central to well-being: happiness and pleasure.

All OLTs, even those that include happiness and pleasure on their list of essential goods, are open to the objection that they fail to give individual differences their due. (Griffin is the only list theorist who acknowledges this problem, and that, he says, is one reason why he calls his account a list account rather than an objective list account: 2000: 282–283.) Whereas everyone’s well-being arguably requires happiness and certain personality and character traits, everyone’s well-being doesn’t require all the same humanly valuable capacities, goals, or activities. For one thing, no one has the time or energy for developing their capacities for every important human good. For another, the absence of a capacity that is central to most people’s well-being, such as the capacity for close friendships, sometimes goes hand in hand with the presence of some unusual but valuable capacity. A case in point is Temple Grandin, who understands livestock intimately but human beings not so well (1995, 2006). Another objection to OLTs, this time from eudaimonists, is that when they add virtue to the list of goods necessary for well-being, they actually fail to give virtue its due, because virtue is not just another good like friendship, but a trait that is partly constitutive of goods like friendship or genuine self-respect.

(2) Eudaimonist theories hold that eudaimonia or well-being consists of the fulfillment of your nature as a human being and individual. As your highest good, it makes your life “complete” and “lacking in nothing [important]” (Aristotle 1999; see also Annas 1993; Russell 2012: Chapter 3; Badhwar 2014a: Chapter 2). 10 Furthermore, eudaimonia is largely in your control and hard to take from you. A eudaimonic life is not only emotionally fulfilling—happy—it is also objectively worthwhile, and happy (largely) because it is objectively worthwhile. But an objectively worthwhile life is, arguably, a virtuous life. Hence, eudaimonia consists of happiness in a virtuous life.

Eudaimonist theories thus endorse the idea that virtue is an essential component of well-being, when well-being is conceived of as your highest good. But how exactly is virtue connected with happiness, the emotional-fulfillment component of eudaimonia? It is hard to see how it can be if virtue is conceived of as a painful duty of always putting others first, or following rigid rules of behavior, such as never lying, regardless of the circumstances. But virtue in the eudaimonistic tradition is an integrated intellectual-emotional trait that embodies an understanding of important aspects of our own individual nature and human nature in general, and that is both self-regarding and other-regarding. By integrating your emotions with your intellect, virtue creates a psychic harmony, and thus is inherently happiness-making. By orienting you to what really matters in life, it frees you from petty anxieties or resentments, and gives you the perspective to enjoy your blessings in fortunate times and overcome many adversities in unfortunate times.

Virtue is also a means to happiness. This is easy to see in the case of self-regarding virtues such as honesty with yourself, or integrity in your work and relationships. If you delude yourself about your needs, interests, or abilities, you open yourself to frustration, and undermine both self-trust and others’ trust in you. If you lack integrity in your work or relationships, your work or relationships suffer, as does your self-respect (Bloomfield 2014). But what about other-regarding virtues such as honesty with others and justice? They also serve your happiness by engendering trust, without which you are unlikely to win others’ love or cooperation. By putting you in the right relation to yourself, to other people, and to your circumstances, virtue makes your happiness worth pursuing and attaining. And to the extent that you achieve happiness in a virtuous life, you are eudaimon.

The eudaimonist case is bolstered by considering the harm done to you by vice. Just as many virtues are both inherently happiness-making and sources of happiness, so many vices are both inherently unhappiness-making and sources of unhappiness. Envy, resentment, insatiable greed, and rage are inherently conflictual and psychologically noxious. This is why both Plato (Republic, Bk. IV) and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics (NE),, IX.4) depict the vicious man as full of conflict and self-hatred, and incapable of friendship and cooperation with others.

Unfortunately, not all vices are inherently noxious. The injustice that is motivated by indifference to the moral status of another spares the unjust individual the emotional cost of injustice that someone motivated by resentment, hatred, and so on must bear. To the extent that he is unjust, his vice still robs his life of worth, but he is unaware of his loss because he is unaware of his vice (NE, Book VII.8). He is like a city that faithfully follows its own bad laws (NE, VII.10). Of course, this doesn’t mean that he gets off scot-free, because even if he derives happiness from his injustice, it is not a happiness worth having. Virtue is not only an essential ingredient of eudaimonia, it is the controlling ingredient, incompatibility with which robs happiness of its worth.

However, if eudaimonism requires a eudaimon individual to be virtuous in every area of her life, it is open to serious objection. Both psychologists (Ross and Nisbett 1991; Bargh and Chartrand 1999) and philosophers (Doris 2002; Merritt et al. 2010) have questioned this Aristotelian ideal on the basis of experimental psychology. But even without the help of experimental psychology, it can be and has been argued that no one has the epistemic or emotional wherewithal to be completely virtuous (Badhwar 1996, 2014a, 2014b; Russell 2009). This, however, does not make virtue and eudaimonia impossible: it merely makes complete virtue and eudaimonia impossible (Badhwar 2014a, 2014b).

These challenges to virtue and practical rationality have not prevented some philosophers from taking the even stronger, Stoic position that a virtuous life is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia (Annas 1993, 2011; Becker 1999). Sages “can be . . . [eudaimon] even on the rack” (Becker 1999: 8). External goods are beyond our control, so a dependence on them for eudaimonia makes us vulnerable to loss and, thus, unhappiness. It also makes us vulnerable to wrongdoing. Such dependence is, thus, a double threat to our eudaimonia.

But how realistic is this view of eudaimonia? One reason for thinking that it isn’t is that a eudaimonic life is a life of “embodied” virtuous activity, that is, activity that takes place in our relationships with particular people and particular projects, such that our eudaimonia becomes inseparable from these virtuous relationships (Russell 2012: Chapters 911). Another reason for thinking that the Stoic view is unrealistic is that it seems psychologically impossible to love virtue and see it as (partly) constitutive of eudaimonia without loving the values that the different virtues seek to attain, preserve, or honor, and seeing them as partly constitutive of eudaimonia (Badhwar 2014a: 213ff.). For example, it is implausible to think that we can be virtuous parents if our eudaimonia is unaffected by our children growing up to be vicious killers.


I have given an overview of most of the important popular and philosophical conceptions of happiness, the place of happiness in the most influential theories of well-being, and the strengths and weaknesses of each of these theories. A satisfactory conception of happiness or of well-being must either accommodate our central intuitions about it, or explain why they are mistaken. It must also explain why happiness and well-being play such an important role in our lives. Of course, there is much more to be said both for and against the theories discussed here, as shown by many of the other chapters in this volume. This chapter is only an introduction.


Many thanks to Daniel Russell for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Feldman does not explain why he classifies cheery and smiley feelings as sensory feelings instead of emotions, given that they don’t involve the senses. What he says suggests that he does this only because they are experiences rather than propositional attitudes.

In his earlier book (2004), and “Replies” (2007), 439–450, Feldman denies that there are any sensory pains or pleasures: there are just sensations in which we can take pain or pleasure. His present position (2010) is more plausible.

For a discussion of various theories of emotion, see Ronald de Sousa (2014). Feldman tends to reduce the phenomenology of emotions to attitudinal pleasures or displeasures. For example, he states that if an irritable mood has its own distinctive phenomenology, its unpleasantness for the moody person is identical with “displeasure in the fact that he is feeling moody in the specified way” (142).

For similar criticisms, see Zimmerman (2010).

See Feldman (2010), 58–69, for a thorough discussion of Davis’ theory.

James Griffin presents his theory as a desire satisfaction theory in (1986), and this is how it has been widely interpreted. But as he makes clear in his “Replies” (2000), it is actually a list theory. See objective list theories below.

The moniker, objective list theory, comes from Parfit (1984), although Parfit himself does not support this theory.

A note of caution: Feldman calls his own theory of well-being eudaimonistic because he takes eudaimonism to hold that well-being tracks happiness (2010: Chapter 8). But neither eudaimonists like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, nor their contemporary defenders think that happiness in the psychological sense is all there is to eudaimonia. In contrast to Feldman, Besser-Jones (Chapter 15, this volume), takes happiness to be inessential to eudaimonia. Finally, although Hursthouse says in one place in her book, On Virtue Ethics, that virtue is the best bet for eudaimonia, not an essential ingredient of it (1999: 172), she also says in another place that a happiness worth having requires virtue (1999: 9–10, 185).


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