Philosophy Well-Being
by
Andrew Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0284

Introduction

One’s well-being is a matter of having things go well for oneself or with one’s life, and one’s ill-being is a matter of their going ill. Among well-being’s friends and relations are welfare, happiness, utility, eudaimonia, self-interest, quality of life, fulfillment, flourishing, and prudential good. What is it for things to go well for oneself or one’s life? Hedonists say it is a matter of having pleasure and not having pain or displeasure. Desire theorists think it is having in one’s life things that fulfill one’s desires, objectivists say it is having certain things in one’s life whether or not they fulfill one’s desires, and perfectionists think it is having in one’s life things that are relevantly related to one’s individual or group nature. Monists hold that well-being is constituted by just one basic sort of matter, while pluralists think it is constituted by more than one. For most of these theories, parallel accounts are possible also for ill-being. Much of the contemporary philosophical debate about well-being concerns which properties, states, or activities in one’s life are prudential goods or bads for one, in themselves and independent of any further effects they might have. Less prominent but also significant is a loosely connected set of debates about the nature of well-being’s subjects and the shape of their lives, concerning human versus non-human subjects of well-being; individual versus group or collective subjects of well-being; whether there are any phase-sensitive prudential goods, such as goods of childhood; relations between one’s well-being at a time and one’s well-being over time, including over one’s lifetime; the role played by life’s overall “shape”; and the place of culture and social forms or practices in well-being. The good, bad, or indifference for one’s own well-being of one’s birth, death, and posthumous legacy is also examined. Further subjects of ongoing debate include well-being’s wider connections to the psychology of happiness, the meaning of life, practical reason, morality, and politics.

General Overviews

A good overview sets out an overall framework and places the main positions and lines of argument within this. Perhaps the most significant overviews are those that were and that remain formative and continuous influences on contemporary discussion. In these terms, the most significant general overview of the well-being terrain is Appendix I of Parfit 1984. This work is highly influential both for its tripartite carve-up of the terrain into hedonist, desire-fulfillment, and objective list theories of what makes life go best, and for its sharply focused critical examination of each of these welfare-theoretic options. In its Part 1, Griffin 1986 broadly retains Parfit’s tripartite framework, but with the significant and influential addition of perfectionism as an option, plus the less influential option of need-based accounts. Part 2 of Griffin 1986 examines well-being’s measurability, and Part 3 assesses its moral importance. Griffin 1998 further develops the author’s account of prudential matters, including his nuanced variant of informed desire theory. Nussbaum and Sen 1993 is a collection of leading work by philosophers, economists, and social scientists on quality of life. Kupperman 2006 presents a brief, accessible, broad-visioned examination of “myths” about the good life, engaging with Confucius and Buddha alongside Plato and Aristotle, and also with empirical studies of happiness. In its chapters 2 and 3, Crisp 1997 offers a Mill-centered overview and examination of hedonist, experiential, desire-based, and ideal-based accounts of well-being. Hooker 2000 presents a brief and incisive overview of the well-being terrain in its chapter 2.3, then gives well-being a central role within Hooker’s rule consequentialist moral theory. In its third chapter, Scanlon 1999 presents an overview and powerful critical assessment of the role of well-being in practical deliberation, action, and morality.

  • Crisp, Roger. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    In his clear and highly readable chapters 2 and 3, Crisp offers a Mill-centered overview and examination of hedonist, experiential, desire-based, and ideal-based accounts of well-being. Here too, Parfit’s influence in how the well-being terrain is mapped and approached is discernible without being dominant.

  • Griffin, James. Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    This critical overview has proved to be subtle, influential, and durable. Part 1 broadly retains Parfit’s tripartite framework while also adding the important option of perfectionism, Part 2 is an overview and examination of well-being’s measurability, and Part 3 introduces and assesses well-being’s moral importance.

  • Griffin, James. Value Judgment. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198752318.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This is a further development of Griffin’s account of prudential matters, including his nuanced variant of informed desire theory, and his articulate mistrust of such “dubious dualisms” as that between subjective or “good-because-desired” accounts and objective or “desired-because-good” accounts.

  • Hooker, Brad. Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule Consequentialist Theory of Morality. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

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    This book presents a brief and incisive overview of accounts of well-being in its chapter 2.3, while the rest of the book places well-being centrally within Hooker’s influential rule consequentialist moral theory.

  • Kupperman, Joel. Six Myths about the Good Life: Thinking about What Has Value. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006

    E-mail Citation »

    Kupperman here presents a brief, accessible, broad-visioned examination of “myths” about the good life, engaging with Confucius and Buddha alongside Plato and Aristotle. The book is informed too by contemporary empirical studies of happiness.

  • Nussbaum, Martha, and Amartya Sen. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198287976.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume collects leading work by philosophers, economists, and social scientists on quality of life. It includes a paper by Sen that sets out the core content and merits of his influential “capabilities-and-functionings” conception of well-being.

  • Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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    Appendix I is an influential critical overview of hedonist, desire-fulfillment, and objective list theories of what makes life go best. Parfit’s tripartite carve-up of the terrain remains the default map of theories of well-being, though “desire theory” is often replaced by the broader category “subjectivism,” and “perfectionism” is widely added.

  • Scanlon, Thomas. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999

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    Scanlon presents an overview and critical assessment of well-being’s role in practical deliberation, action, and morality. He argues that the idea of well-being lacks unification of the sort that theory requires, and that appeal to well-being is typically not needed in deliberation about one’s own life or in moral understanding.

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