Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is human well-being subjective or objective?

I usually try to begin the discussion of topics on my blog by explaining why the question and my answer might be of interest to potential readers. That is difficult this time because I am attempting to answer the question in the hope that doing so will help me to become less confused about the topic. However, confusion about subjectivity and objectivity seems fairly common - particularly so among economists - so hopefully what I am about to write will have a potential audience of more than one person.

In Free to Flourish I wrote:
“Observers can clearly make judgements about the extent that individual humans are flourishing or languishing in much the same way as they can make such judgements about plants and animals. In the case of humans, however, the subjects are capable of telling an observer how they feel about their own lives and their opinions usually deserve more respect than those observing. For example, it may appear obvious that people with poor physical health or very low income have a low quality of life, but if the individuals concerned feel content, what right has any observer to imply that they do not know how they feel?
As noted previously, individual flourishing involves a variety of factors including emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction, as well as more objective factors such as physical health, education and wealth. The relative weights any individual gives to these factors reflect personal preferences. …

If we were to substitute community values for personal preferences we would be at risk of attempting to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with. That would certainly be inappropriate.” (Chapter 5).

I stand by what I wrote. (At least I did earlier in the day when I wrote the preceding sentence.) 

Does that mean that I believe human well-being is objective or subjective? The first sentence in the quote implies that well-being is objective. Are the sentiments in the final paragraph of the quote consistent with those in the first sentence?

Before reading the first part of Well-Being: Happiness in a worthwhile life, by Neera Badhwar, a philosopher, I believed that well-being is subjective. Now I am fairly sure that there are objective standards of well-being.  (Many of the relevant issues are also discussed by Neera Badhwar in an article published last year.)

The problem is conceptual. My previous view that well-being is subjective was based on the view that it must be because it contains important subjective elements. That seems to have been the view of the welfare economists who declared interpersonal comparisons of utility to be impossible. It is also the view of the philosopher, Wayne Sumner, who suggested that the term ‘objective’ be reserved for the view that well-being is simply a matter of meeting certain objective standards, regardless of the individual’s emotional condition and her evaluation of her life.

At this point I recall a discussion a long time ago with an economist who pointed out to me that people often make interpersonal comparisons of utility - so we can hardly claim that such comparisons are impossible. In our everyday lives we often make judgements about whether other people are happy or sad, satisfied or unsatisfied with their lives, whether they feel that they are achieving anything worthwhile and so forth. Those judgements are based on what people say and do. They are often ill-informed, but that does not necessarily mean they are not objective. 

I suspect that it is only in their professional lives that economists have ever refrained from making interpersonal comparisons of utility. These days, many economists (self included) view the subjective ratings that individuals place on their happiness, satisfaction with life etc. as objective evidence pertaining to important aspects of their well-being relative to other people.

Neera Badhwar suggests that we should view theories of well-being as objective if they make objective worth essential to well-being. She argues that for individuals to be flourishing their lives must be supremely desirable and worthwhile, and therefore eminently worth living. They must not only meet the individual’s own standards of worth but be able to pass muster according to objective standards of worth.

The author argues that objective well-being requires self-direction:
the idea of objective well-being is perfectly compatible with the idea that objectively worthy lives can take many different shapes depending on the interests, opportunities and abilities of the individual and, in fact, must take a shape that both suits the individual’s own psychological nature and meets her standards to count as a life of well-being”. (p 8)

Neera Badhwar answers those who argue that objective theories of well-being are paternalistic by pointing out that theories of well-being in themselves do not tell us to promote other people’s well-being, let alone to promote our conception of their well-being.
That is consistent with the position that I have previously taken that “the case for individuals to be responsible for their own lives does not necessarily rest on each individual being the best judge of what is good for himself or herself”. In my view it rests on the proposition that adult humans cannot fully flourish unless they accept responsibility for their own lives. (Free to Flourish, Chapter 3.)

Coming back now to the last paragraph of the quote at the beginning of this post, if I now accept that a flourishing life must pass muster in terms of objective standards of worth, can I still maintain that it is inappropriate to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with? 

I don’t think so. I can acknowledge that objective standards of worth are relevant, whilst also urging researchers to accept the implications of the fact that “community standards” can be controversial. But that does not mean that it is never appropriate "to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with". For example, it is appropriate to assert that it is not possible for slaves to flourish, even though it is possible that an individual slave might claim that freedom has no value to her.

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