"Sophisticated Theories of Welfare" by Eden Lin

Eden LinI want to raise a problem for a kind of theory of welfare that has recently been on the rise. I will argue that because theories of this kind are false of newborn infants, we should think that they are also false of us.

Theories of welfare differ with respect to the amount of cognitive or psychological sophistication that they require on the part of the subjects to which they are meant to apply. If hedonism is the correct theory of your welfare, then a particular thing is basically good for you—good for you in the most fundamental, non-derivative way—if and only if and because it is a pleasure experienced by you. Thus, if hedonism is true of you, then the capacity for pleasure is the only capacity that you must possess to be positive in welfare. If desire satisfactionism is the correct theory of your welfare, then a particular thing is basically good for you if and only if and because it is the obtaining object of one of your desires. Thus, if this theory is true of you, then the capacity to have desires is the only capacity that you must possess to be positive in welfare. Since these two capacities are relatively simple, we can adopt the convenient (but potentially misleading) convention of calling these theories simple theories.

By contrast, if the correct theory of your welfare is a sophisticated theory, then a particular thing is basically good for you only if you are related to it in a way that involves a fair amount of cognitive or psychological sophistication. Consider a view on which a particular is basically good for you if and only if and because it is the obtaining object of one of your valuing attitudes, and on which valuing something requires (among other things) believing that it is good. If this view is true of you, then in order to be positive in welfare, you need to have a fairly sophisticated capacity: the capacity to value things, which partly consists in the capacity to have evaluative beliefs. As I read them, a number of philosophers have proposed sophisticated theories—including Donald Bruckner, Dale Dorsey, Connie Rosati, Valerie Tiberius, Wayne Sumner and Benjamin Yelle.

Notice that whether a theory is simple or sophisticated in my sense depends on whether it requires sophisticated cognitive or psychological capacities on the part of the subjects to which it is meant to apply. The value-centered view that I just sketched is sophisticated in my sense even though it has an uncomplicated monistic structure. Likewise, an objective list theory on which pleasure or desire satisfaction is one of the entries on the list would be simple in my sense even if some of the other basic goods it enumerates involve sophisticated capacities. For such a view would say that the subjects to which it applies can be positive in welfare even if they lack sophisticated capacities, provided that they are getting pleasure or desire satisfaction.

A moment’s reflection reveals that no sophisticated theory can be true of all welfare subjects. Many subjects (e.g. many dogs and babies) are positive in welfare even though they lack the sophisticated capacities that those theories invoke. The claim that some such theory is true of those subjects falsely implies that none of them is positive in welfare. Thus, anyone who defends a sophisticated theory is best interpreted as merely claiming that the theory is true of the subjects that possess the capacities that it invokes. For any minimally plausible sophisticated theory, cognitively typical human adults will be among those subjects.

I will now argue that because sophisticated theories are false of certain psychologically simple welfare subjects, we should also think that they are false of us. (In “Against Welfare Subjectivism,” a paper that has been published online in Noûs, I apply this argument to sophisticated subjectivist theories. The argument generalizes, however.)

Let me grant for the sake of the argument that a theory of welfare can be true of some subjects but false of others. If this is the case, then from the mere fact that there are some subjects of which no sophisticated theory is true, it does not follow that no such theory is true of us. Notice, however, that some of the subjects of whom sophisticated theories are false are newborn infants who gradually mature into cognitively typical human adults. This fact suggests the following argument for the view that no sophisticated theory is true even of us.

Consider a newborn infant, Baby, who will gradually mature into a cognitively typical human adult. The correct theory of his welfare is not sophisticated, since he is capable of being positive in welfare even though he lacks sophisticated capacities. Instead, the correct theory of his welfare is one that is simple in my sense (e.g. hedonism). If some sophisticated theory T is nonetheless true of cognitively typical human adults, then this theory must become true of Baby at some stage in his development—presumably, the time at which he acquires the sophisticated capacities invoked by T. Now, suppose that Baby is currently high in welfare in virtue of possessing large quantities of some kind that the correct theory of his welfare deems to be a basic good, and only negligible quantities of any kind that this theory deems to be a basic bad. Imagine, for example, that hedonism is the correct theory of his welfare and that he is currently high in welfare in virtue of possessing large quantities of pleasure and only negligible quantities of pain. Imagine, further, that his life remains hedonically unchanged as he matures, well beyond the time at which he acquires the sophisticated capacities that T considers necessary for well-being. If T is true of cognitively typical human adults, then from that time onward, the correct theory of Baby’s welfare is no longer hedonism, but T. To determine how well off Baby is in the period of time immediately after he acquires those capacities, we must evaluate that period using T. Thus, Baby’s level of welfare during that period could differ greatly from what it was previously, even though his life has remained hedonically unchanged.

Here is the problem. Suppose that for some period of time after Baby acquires the capacities that T deems necessary for well-being, he fails to exercise those capacities. For example, if the relevant capacity is the capacity to value things, imagine that Baby does not value anything for some period of time after he becomes capable of doing so. If T is true of Baby during this period, then no particulars are basically good for him then, and his level of welfare during this period must therefore be, at best, zero. But it is implausible that Baby’s welfare could go from being very high to being neutral or negative simply because he has acquired certain capacities. Prior to acquiring them, his life was going very well thanks to the very favorable balance of pleasure over pain that it contained. This hedonic balance has remained unchanged: his life still contains the same amounts of pleasure and pain. Why, then, would he now be neutral or negative in welfare? The fact that he has acquired some capacities cannot plausibly explain this dramatic decrease in his level of welfare.

To summarize, here is the problem that I have raised for sophisticated theories. No such theory is true of newborn human infants. If some such theory is nonetheless true of cognitively typical human adults, then a subject’s level of welfare can go from being very high to being negative or neutral simply because the subject has acquired a capacity. It is not plausible that this can occur. Thus, we should believe that no sophisticated theory is true of us. Instead, we should think that the correct theory of our welfare is a simple theory—one that requires only simple psychological capacities on the part of the subjects to which it applies.

Eden Lin joined the philosophy department in the autumn of 2016 as an assistant professor. Prior to coming to Ohio State, he was an assistant professor at Rutgers University. Eden completed his PhD at Princeton University in 2013. You can read more of his work on his website, edenlin.com.

The above article is adapted from Eden's featured column on the PEA Soup blog, “Sophisticated Theories of Welfare” (October 1, 2016). 

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