Saturday, October 29, 2011

Another objection to a hypothetical desire-satisfaction theory of well-being

According to the simple desire-satisfaction theory of well-being, something would contribute to your well-being, would be good for you, precisely to the extent that it would satisfy your desires. The simple theory is clearly mistaken, because one's desires could be based on false beliefs or mental illness, and so it is easy to come up with examples of desires the satisfaction of which does not make one be well off. Imagine, for instance, that one desires that Patrick flourish, because one believes that Sally is one's long-lost brother, but in fact Patrick is one's long-lost brother's murderer; Patrick's flourishing is not a part of one's well-being.

The standard move is to hypotheticalize the theory by defining well-being in terms of the desires one would have after being informed of all the relevant non-normative facts and being given ideal psychotherapy. There are serious problems with this suggestion (for instance, the order in which one is informed of the non-normative facts can clearly make a difference as to what desires one comes to have.[note 1]

Here I want to focus on one particular difficulty that has struck me. Suppose I have no genuine friends and no prospects for friendship, but I desperately want friendship. Surely, friendship would contribute to my well-being, and I am badly off for not having a friendship. But the following is also conceivable. After ideal psychotherapy, and after being informed of the non-normative fact that there are no prospects for friendship for me, I might stoically suppress the desire for friendship. Indeed, unless one thinks that friendship is an essential aspect of human well-being, it might be quite rational, even rationally required, to suppress the desire under the circumstances. But now it would be absurd to say to someone who desparately wants friendship that she is not badly off for not having one because after ideal psychotherapy she would stoically and rationally suppress that desire.

That's a dreary example. Here's a positive one. Suppose I have no interest in collecting matchboxes. Getting a matchbox would not contribute to my well-being, surely. But it might be that after ideal psychotherapy and being informed of the details of the hobby, I would come to realize that collecting matchboxes is a perfect hobby for me, and come to desire matchboxes. But I don't go for the ideal psychotherapy, and I don't come to desire matchboxes, and so I don't desire matchboxes. How does getting a matchbox contribute to my well-being? (Well, on an objective theory, it might contribute somewhat despite my lack of desire, because the matchbox is intrinsically valuable. But the desire-satisfaction theorist can't say that.)

This post is inspired by William Lauinger's work on well-being. I would not be surprised if some of my examples parallel his.


.InshAllah. said...

Conceivably, what is good G for a particular subject S is never to have ideal psychotherapy and knowledge of all relevant facts. According to the hypothetical desire-satisfaction theory, if knowledge of all relevant facts and ideal psychotherapy leads to a particular desire, then satisfying that desire will promote S's wellbeing. But having such psychotherapy and relevant knowledge means that G can never be achieved for S. The only way it can be achieved is if the conditions specified by the desire theory are never fulfilled. This seems a bit wierd to me, but maybe it's okay.

Anonymous said...

I assume that "ideal psychotherapy" implies a thorough psychotherapy (or, "ideal psychoanalysis"). I think that the desire-satisfaction theory of psychotherapy represents only one model within the varied praxis of, and paradigms for, goals within psychotherapy. E.g., there are psychotherapists who are Roman Catholics, and, I assume, other psychotherapists who would endorse libertinism, assuming they had the sense to not endorse self-destructive actions and behaviors in their patients. Surely the "RC psychotherapist" and the "libertine psychotherapist" would predictably disagree on what may or may not be self-destructive behavior (e.g. promiscuousness, etc.), and, disagree on the wisdom of what a desire-satisfaction criterion for well being in the patient's experience might entail. What if the collector of matchboxes were a potential artist or novelist instead? We might consider this proto-analysand fortunate indeed were he/she to experience a crisis, or sense of existential angst, that led him/her to the theraputic process.