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Exploring Well-Being: A Philosophical Perspective

As a concept, philosophy uses well-being to describe what is ultimately good for a person. Classical utilitarianism holds that well-being consists simply in obtaining pleasure and the avoidance or absence of pain, but this view carries a variety of objections. There is a multitude of theories which attempt to improve upon the simple but flawed aspects of classical utilitarianism including desire satisfaction theory and objective list theory, however, these theories are not without their faults and shortcomings either.

Humanistic Principle

Being fully aware of the term welfare is vital because it plays a central role in moral theory. If we look at the ‘humanistic principle’ by Joseph Raz, it suggests ‘the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derive ultimately from its contribution, actual or possible, to human life and its quality’ and if we expand this to beyond human well-being, then the justification for any moral reasoning can be seen to rest on well-being.


Understanding fully what classical utilitarianism is, stands fundamental to answering the question. Hedonists believe that well-being is a type of psychological state in which pleasure is a form of sensation, and that same pleasure can be measured on a cardinal scale.

The evaluative hedonistic viewpoint towards well-being from the work of Jeremy Bentham in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation suggests well-being exists as striving for the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. Bentham believed that the value of pleasure and the disvalue of pain could be measured according to “its intensity, its duration, its certainty or uncertainty and its propinquity or remoteness”.

Bentham’s views enable us to adopt the cardinal comparison method, allowing us to apply a unit of measurement to calculate our well-being. From this interpretation, it’s clear that a hedonist maintains that well-being and a happy life consist solely of pleasure and the absence of pain.

As well-being is perceived as a conscious experience, then you cannot be affected by things you are unconscious of. Robert Nozick’s experience requirement supposes you are nothing more than a blob floating inside a simulation in which you live out your wildest dreams and your perfect life. The interesting aspect of this comes from the questions raised as a result. Nozick states, “First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them”, showing the importance of the actual performance of the experience. This allows us to see the importance of experiencing the event, rather than having just the simulation.

Fit For Swine

Unfortunately, obtaining a happy life is not as simple as a hedonist would like to think. A commonplace objection to classical utilitarianism comes from Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. He held the view that Bentham’s theory allowed for no higher-end pleasure, resulting in Carlyle labelling hedonism as “pig philosophy” due to its devolving ethics to calculus and pleasures that would satisfy swine.

Desire Satisfaction Theory

A more potent objection to the idea that well-being solely consists of pleasure and the absence of pain is the desire satisfaction theory. Chris Heathwood labelled the simplest form of desire satisfaction theory as “simple desire satisfactionism”. According to this, “your life goes well to the extent that your desires are satisfied”. Heathwood’s theory allows for subjective variation as people’s desires are not entirely the same and it also rejects the experience requirement.

However, like other theories, this theory isn’t without flaws either. Having desires that are not fully informed can be detrimental to the individual. One such example of this is put forward with the case of an orphan monk. The monk initiated his training to be a monk at the earliest age, living a particularly sheltered life. Faced with three choices: he can remain as a monk or become either a cook or a gardener outside the monastery.

Due to his life up to this point, he has no possible conception of the alternatives, so chooses to remain a monk. This shows the importance of being informed about your desires so that the most satisfaction can be obtained from life. The desire satisfaction theory enables people to fulfil personal desires which grants the individual a sense of accomplishment which leads to greater well-being, signifying that aspects such as pleasure and avoidance of pain are not the sole drivers of well-being.

There are very strong arguments present to suggest that pleasure and the absence of pain are not the only fundamental aspects that a person needs to be happy and have a healthy well-being. Classical utilitarianism upholds a simple but effective strategy for promoting well-being, but for many people, it is simply not feasible. Each person is different, and one person’s pain may be another person’s pleasure. What can be gathered is that well-being does exist outside of the narrow confines of the hedonistic view that well-being consists only of pleasure and the absence of pain.

Edited By Shawn

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