Thursday, March 5, 2009


Consider these statements:

  1. Polluted air is bad for a tree.
  2. Polluted air is bad for a ladybug.
  3. Polluted air is bad for a mouse.
  4. Polluted air is bad for a dog.
  5. Polluted air is bad for a human.
As far as I know, these are all true. Moreover, it does not appear to me that "bad for" is used equivocally in all the cases.

Furthermore, the reasons for the truth of the items higher on the list remain in the case of the items lower on the list, but new reasons are added. Thus, pollution harms the growth and survival of a mouse just as it does a tree. But the mouse can get sick and feel pain, while the tree cannot. Thus, there is an additional reason for why pollution is bad for a mouse that does not apply in the case of the tree. And a human being can have various higher level goals be frustrated by pollution. However, the reasons for why polluted air is bad for a tree, a ladybug, a mouse or a dog are all reasons for why it is bad for a human as well.

This has obvious implications for a theory of human well-being. Since the reasons for why (1) is true have nothing to do with actual or counterfactual desires of trees, likewise, at least one of the reasons for why (5) is true obtains least in part independently of any actual or counterfactual desires of humans. And this shows that desire-fulfillment theories of human well-being are false: some things, such as health, are valuable for humans regardless of how humans feel about them, for the very same reasons for which they are valuable for trees.

The opponent will, I expect, either deny (1) and (2) (and maybe even (3)), saying that nothing is good or bad for trees or ladybugs, or else claim that I am equivocating on "bad for". Neither, though, seems that plausible.


Heath White said...

Not only does this refute desire-fulfillment theories of well-being, it also refutes desire-involving analyses of 'bad' and 'good', e.g. that X is good for me iff I have reason to desire it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Though such analyses may still be extensionally correct, because it may be that I have reason to desire everything that's good for me. :-) (Actually, I am not sure. There might be a value in getting something good that you didn't want at all--the surprise, and all that.)

Heath White said...

Your "surprise" point aside, I was thinking that such analyses won't be extensionally correct for e.g. trees. Trees cannot desire, and a fortiori have no reasons to desire.

Alexander R Pruss said...

You're right. They can only be extensionally correct as restricted to humans.

This is structurally related to the multiple-realizability problem for theories of mind.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Bibliographic point (thanks to William Lauinger): These kinds of arguments are made by Kraut in What Is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being.

Heath White said...

"This is structurally related to the multiple-realizability problem for theories of mind."

Could you explain a little more? I don't get it.

Eric said...


Thank you for posting on a topic that is of great interest to me. While in many ways I'm sympathetic to your point, I don't think you've offered a knock down argument against the desire fulfillment theory. In examples 1-4 you seem to mean that polluted air is 'bad for the health of', and if that's what you mean in statement 5, then a desire fulfillment theorist can agree with this claim but insist that health is not equivalent to subjective well-being.

SWB is that quality of one's life that makes life good for the one who lives it. While health definitely makes life better for most people, there are situations where it can be argued that health makes one's life worse from a viewpoint of SWB. Consider the plight of the ancient king who is conquered by a cruel captor.... he kills the king's family, blinds him, but keeps him otherwise healthy so that he can torture him in non-life threatening ways indefinitely. Such a person might believe it would be better to be dead or even seriously ailing, rather than live for years in such a condition. The potential abuse from conquerors led many ancient leaders to commit suicide rather than face capture (similarly, I recently read the section of the City of God where Augustine addresses the status of women who committed suicide rather than face rape and violence at the hands of invaders).

For my part, I currently hold to an objective list theory of well-being. Health is one of the things on the list, but so is fulfilled desire, pleasure and freedom from pain. The main drawback to my position is its complexity... I need to provide a compelling justification for each item on the 'objective list' and a justification for anything I keep off the list.

-Eric Silverman

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think:

1. For any n and J, it's better to be tormented with intensity J for n days while healthy than to be tormented with intensity J for n while unhealthy.

I think this is all I am committed to. So the example you give seems compatible, since the claim in the example is:

2. It is better to be unhealthy and tormented n days than to be healthy and tormented m days, when m is much bigger than n.

And there seems to be no tension between (1) and (2).

As for the puzzle of what unifies objective lists, maybe the answer is: the metaphysics of human nature. It's just a fact about our nature that it has seeing and friendship as a telos and doesn't have echolocating as a telos. This fact is very much like the fact that having two legs is a part of our nature while having three arms is not.