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Welfare, Meaning, and Worth

What makes a life worth living? This is not the same question as what makes a life good for the one who lives it. To answer the latter question is to offer a theory of welfare (i.e., "well-being" or "prudential value"). The two questions are clearly related and they are often conflated.  But, most likely, worth is not strictly a matter of welfare, since one can live a life of great hardship and suffering that might nevertheless be worth living.

There are a variety of ways in which we can evaluate lives. We can assess live in terms of welfare—how good they are for the one who lives them. We can assess them in terms of meaning. And we can assess them, more broadly, in terms of worth. In my current book project, Welfare, Meaning, and Worth, I defend theories of each.

I argue that a life worth living is not merely one high in prudential value; rather, a life worth living is one high in objective goods, such as: the appreciation of beauty, happiness, knowledge, virtue, achievement, loving relationships, and meaning. I defend an objective list theory of the worth of a life, but I reject such accounts of welfare. By taking seriously the distinction between well-being and other forms of value we get a fresh perspective on a variety of problems in value theory.

On inspection, many of our seemingly self-interested motivations turn out to be for forms of significance that have little or no prudential benefit. Like Achilles, faced with the choice between a long life without glory and a short life of enduring significance, we frequently choose meaning over well-being. For many of us, the meaning of our lives is as important as our own happiness. We knowingly sacrifice our own welfare, our own happiness, for meaning. We not only sacrifice our own good for meaning, we selflessly pursue the good of others. Many of our motivations have to do with the good of others—parents, friends, family, other loved ones, and even those to whom we have passing obligations, such as our students.

However, it appears impossible to sacrifice one's own good for intrinsically valuable experiences. Accordingly, I argue that a plausible account of self-sacrifice will require a narrow theory of well-being. In particular, I am attracted to mental statism—the theory that the sole bearers of intrinsic prudential value are mental states. To put it crudely, the theory holds that what you do not experience cannot hurt you. Mental statism has been subject to a barrage of objections, from experience machines to outer Mongolian pornographers. But none of the objections is close to decisive. I argue that the principal objections to mental statism confuse conceptually distinct sources of value, typically the value of a life for the one who lives it and the worth of the life.

Much of the disagreement about the nature of well-being is a due to a lack of clarity about what we should expect the concept to do, about what criteria of normative adequacy we should apply. If we begin by assuming welfarism—the view that welfare is the ultimate ground for all moral value—then we will be inclined to accept a broad theory of welfare, one that includes all that we think is morally important. However, if we think that there are other, morally significant kinds of value, we will be more inclined to accept a narrow theory of welfare. I reject welfarism and defend a narrow, mental statist theory of well-being.

Although I defend mental statism, I reject the popular forms of hedonism—the view that the only thing that makes a life better for the one who lives it is pleasure. I find this implausible, because many nonpleasurable experiences appear to be intrinsically prudentially valuable. At least, many pleasurable experiences appear to be prudentially valuable disproportionate to the pleasure involved. This is, perhaps, what Mill tried to capture with "qualitative hedonism." Simply think of embracing a loved one. It might be pleasurable, but the prudential value of the experience exceeds its hedonic quotient. Or consider flow experiences: It is not clear that they are very pleasurable, but surely they are prudentially valuable.

Hence, I reject hedonism. Nonetheless, I think that mental statism is the best abstract theory of welfare. I defend mental statism in the face of a variety of prima facie damning objections. The critics are right to think that a life spent in the experience machine would not be worth living; they are wrong to think that this counts against mental statism.  Instead, it gives us good reason to think that well-being is not as important as many assume. There are other forms of value worth pursuing: aesthetic, moral, perfectionist, and achievement value. These cannot be directly pursued self-interestedly. But they should be pursued. They enhance the worth of one's life.

Very little has been written on the notion of what makes a life worth living. But the notion can help resolve some axiological stalemates. I defend an objective list account of the worth of a life. I propose that a life worth living is a life that a benevolent caretaker, given a synoptic preview, would allow someone to live rather than to never have been. Such lives are high in various objective goods. These principally include welfare and meaning.

Many philosophers think the value of the life for the one who lives is greater if the life is more meaningful. I disagree. This is generally the case, but not necessarily. I argue that it is only by caring about meaning that one can benefit prudentially from doing good. The connection between welfare and meaning is indirect. Nevertheless, there is something terrible about wasted lives—those that are devoted to trivial matters or worthless pursuits. It is better to care about the meaning of one's life. It makes one's life more worth living.

My theory of what makes a life worth living has important implications for value theory. If worth is a significant form of value, then it clearly explains why a life in the experience machine is defective in a way that leaves mental statism unscathed. And it explains the value of the examined life without appealing to egoistic considerations. The implications for ethics are extensive: If worth is morally relevant, then we should reject welfarism about moral value. In addition, the theory has important implications for aesthetics: It helps explain the value of art, why it is perfectly rational to pursue painful art, and the value of good taste.