Well-being

My dissertation focuses on well-being, in particular on desire-satisfaction based accounts. Many philosophers find those views attractive because they tie a person’s well-being to what that person cares about. I address two major issues faced by such views. The first issue arises because desires can be satisfied without us being aware of it. Many think that what we don’t experience cannot affect our welfare. I argue against this, by showing that when people are unknowingly betrayed or ridiculed it is fitting to feel compassion towards them, which tells us that they are badly off. This argument is also at the center of my paper “A Working Test for Well-being”, which is forthcoming in Utilitas.The second issue is that desire-satisfaction views apparently cannot accommodate cases of self-sacrifice, where people willingly act against their self-interest. I propose a novel desire-based theory of well-being which avoids this problem. It does not count all desires towards well-being, but only a limited set of them, which I call core-desires. This gives the theory several advantages over its competitors.

It also gives rise to several questions. Let's just say I won't be out of problems to work on for quite some time...


Desires

When discussing desire-satisfaction views of welfare, philosophers frequently speak of what an agent ‘wants most’, or what an agent’s ‘strongest desire’ is. But it is not clear what ‘strength’ exactly amounts to. Does it refer to motivational efficacy, rank of preference, intensity of feeling, or something else entirely? I am in the process of disentangling these different conceptions.

Once we are clear on what exactly the strength of a desire is, we can question the role it plays in our theorizing about well-being. It is standardly employed to determine the contribution of some state of affairs to a person’s welfare. Given that desire-satisfaction is taken to be good for an agent, it seems intuitive that the strength of her desires should count in evaluating how good it is for her to have them satisfied. But a closer examination of some longstanding problems for desire-based welfare theories reveals that their taking into account of the strength of desires is what generates those problems. It seems worth asking, therefore, whether we are right in counting strength in this way. Are there principled reasons to do so, beyond initial intuition? I intend to argue that we should put less weight on strength.

Another project I plan to pursue is to answer some of the questions I raise at the end of my dissertation about the status of what I call core-desires, a small set of ‘basic’ desires I take to have special significance for our well-being. There are conceptual as well as empirical questions here, and I am planning a collaborative research project involving the cognitive sciences.  Ultimately, these various projects should help me to more fully present and defend my original proposal for a new theory of well-being.


Emotions

In my work on well-being, I make use of the philosophy of emotion. In particular, I have investigated compassion. Currently, I am running a yearlong, interdisciplinary Andrew W. Mellon graduate workshop that explores the nature and concept of compassion, and its relationships with morality, the good life, and a healthy society. This workshop has led to several projects.

One of these projects bears on debates in metaphysics and epistemology. Emotions are commonly taken to ascribe certain properties to their targets. Fear, for example, ascribes the property of posing a threat to the object it is directed at. Some philosophers have argued that our emotions can provide us with knowledge of the world. In particular, they tell us about value properties. But there is a genuine question of how we know about those properties. One way to answer it is by taking those properties to be response-dependent. Several philosophers have taken this route. I see compassion as providing a counter example to this approach. The property compassion ascribes to its target is that of being badly off, in the sense of diminished well-being. But we do not usually take our level of well-being to be a response-dependent property. If we are right, then at least compassion does not fit the pattern, so it is not true that all such properties are response dependent properties.

Compassion is philosophically interesting in many ways. Over the next few years, I plan to continue to investigate this underdiscussed emotion. 


Kant’s writings in practical philosophy have filled my mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more frequently and persistently I have contemplated them.

An ongoing project of mine is to work out a coherent interpretation of how some of Kant’s views on moral worth, motivation and the cultivation of feelings like sympathy or compassion fit together. So far, this has led to a paper that I presented at the Pacific APA in the spring of 2015, and which I am preparing for publication. Another issue I have begun to investigate concerns the precise extend of our duty to benevolence. Kant claims that we have to make others’ ends our own, but he does not mean all of their ends, indiscriminately. The difficulty is to find a principled way of restricting those ends, based on the resources in Kant’s writings. My working hypothesis is that applying the methodology of the Metaphysics of Morals, which takes contingent conditions of human existence into account, we can develop an account of rational ends based on universal, but contingent, human needs.

My overall aim is to create synergies between my research on emotions, desires, and well-being on the one hand, and my work on Kant’s practical philosophy on the other hand. My motivation is to produce interpretations of Kant’s account of moral motivation and action that is informed by contemporary results in the field of moral psychology. The view I have developed on human well-being informs my thinking on these issues, and has the potential to inspire original readings that can move various debates forward.

Kant