Today I interview philosopher Valerie Tiberius about living wisely and the nature of well-being. Her current work is funded by the John Templeton Foundation through the University of Chicago’s Defining Wisdom project.
Download CPBD episode 077 with Valerie Tiberius. Total time is 36:20.
Valerie Tiberius links:
- Valerie Tiberius at the University of Minnesota
- The Reflective Life: Living Wisely Within Our Limits
- Valerie Tiberius on Philosophy TV
Links for things we discussed:
- Crisp, “Well-Being“
- Peter Singer
- Derek Parfit
- Leonard Wayne Sumner
- Martha Nussbaum
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “flow“
- Bernard Williams
- The partially examined life
LUKE: Dr. Valerie Tiberius is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and the author of several books and articles on ethics and well-being. Valerie, welcome to the show.
VALERIE: Thank you.
LUKE: Valerie, much of your research concerns this idea of well-being. It seems like well-being has been at the center of lots of different moral theories in the history of philosophy. Could you give us some examples of how this idea of well-being comes into play?
VALERIE: It’s actually a little bit tricky to trace the concept through history because there are different related concepts that at different periods have been highlighted. So, well-being, that term, is actually fairly recent. But in some ways it’s in the same family of goods or values as happiness and Eudaimonia, which is the ancient word for human flourishing.
In the ancient period, ethics was entirely about Eudaimonia, or flourishing, which some people would translate that as well-being. Ethical theories were really just about what it is to flourish as a human being. That was the whole purpose of ethical theorizing.
And then of course, in the late 18th and into the 19th century, utilitarians were concerned with happiness, which is at least probably a component of well-being, or some people think that they’re the same thing. There’s some controversy there.
But the utilitarian picture was that what we ought to do is to maximize, produce as much as possible, of whatever it is that’s good in the world. And they thought that it’s pretty obvious that the only thing that’s good for it’s own sake and worth promoting for it’s own sake is happiness.
So obviously that gave them a concern about what happiness is, and how it can be measured, and how it can be added up, and maximized.
LUKE: Are there more recent theories that also incorporate notions of well-being?
VALERIE: There’s still a lot of utilitarians. The utilitarians from the 19th century tended to being hedonists, and to think that happiness is the greatest good and what happiness is, is basically pleasure. Currently there aren’t very many hedonists anymore.
There aren’t very many people who that think that happiness is the same thing as pleasure. There are even fewer people who think that well-being is the same thing as pleasure. And very few who think that what moral theory should be concerned with, alone, is pleasure.
Now the kinds of utilitarians there are tend to think about preference satisfaction, or desire satisfaction as the good that’s to be maximized. Or sometimes the satisfaction or meeting of interests. Peter Singer, that’s somebody I think a lot of people have heard about.
His view about what ought to be maximized makes use of this concept of an interest. I don’t know that he says this, but I think that would be his view about what well-being is, that well-being is getting your interests met.
Different creatures have different interests, of course. But according to Singer, all the interests of all of the creatures who have them, matter as far as moral theory goes. There’s the way that utilitarianism has developed into current contemporary philosophy.
But then there are a lot of people who have become interested in the notion of well-being for it’s own sake, because it’s an interesting concept. So they’re not necessarily utilitarians who think that this is what has to be maximized but they’re interested in exploring what it is.
And in the wake of a general rejection of hedonism, people are trying to figure out what the best theory is that’s not hedonistic. Utilitarianism is the theory right now that really puts happiness or well-being right at the center, and says, “This is what all moral action is about. It’s about producing this stuff.”
But any moral theory is going to include some obligations to promote the interests of other people, or to promote the welfare of other people. Even a Kantian moral theory would say, we do have some obligations of beneficence to help out other people.
And if we do have obligations of beneficence, we need to know what it means to promote somebody else’s good. And that question, “What does it mean to promote someone else’s good?”, is really just the question, “what is well-being?”
LUKE: You spoke about studying well-being for it’s own sake, because it’s an interesting concept. Some researchers who do so will break down well-being into one of three different models: hedonism, Eudaimonism, and life satisfaction view. We’ve spoken about hedonism already. What are those other two?
VALERIE: Generally that’s the way that psychologists categorize the theories of well-being. There are psychological life satisfaction theories and there are philosophical life satisfaction theories. Let me say a little bit about the psychology research first.
Psychologists, I think partly, they love life satisfaction because it’s easy to measure. It’s a kind of overall judgment, or assessment about how your life is going. And the thought is that what it is to achieve well-being is to achieve a state where you are satisfied with the overall conditions of your life.
Life satisfaction is a subjective kind of theory. It identifies well-being with a subjective feeling or assessment. Eudaimonism is… there are a couple of different ways of thinking about Eudaimonism for psychologists.
Some of them think of it as flourishing where it’s an objective matter of positive psychological functioning. So psychologists will list the psychological functionings that people could have, like personal growth and relations with others, purpose in life. And then measure how well people function according to those dimensions.
And then there’s well-being as self realization, which involves some objective components of psychological functioning, and also a subjective component, which is, it’s really eudaimonistic feelings, like the feeling of flow. It’s gotten taken up in the popular press lately, this idea of flow, where you feel completely absorbed in some experience because you’re engaging your skills and capacities.
So, some of the psychologists who favor a eudaimonist theory of well-being, they think of it still in subjective terms. But the subjective state that they’re interested in is not pleasure, but something else like flow, or a subjective feeling of flourishing.
That’s the way I’ve seen psychological theories broken down. In philosophy, in the tradition, in the literature you see the theories categorized this way, hedonism, desire satisfaction, and objective-list theories.
Derek Parfit set up that trichotomy and it’s been taken up and used by lots of people. You’ll notice that both psychological theories and philosophical theories have hedonism as one of the views. That’s always there. But one of the theories, the desire satisfaction theory that’s very popular in philosophy, doesn’t appear on the list of theories that psychologists are interested in.
Nevertheless, it has been a very popular view in philosophy that well-being is, essentially, getting what you want. That’s also a really popular view, in fact it’s probably THE view, in economics. Getting your preferences satisfied is the good.
One thing to know that is an important point about philosophical theories like that is that most philosophers who favor that sort of theory have abandoned the idea that it is just whatever you actually happen to want, that’s what’s good for you. Usually philosophers will say that the preferences we’re talking about have to meet some conditions. One condition that most people suggest is that your preferences have to be relatively informed.
To give a kind of silly example, let’s say that there is a glass of clear liquid in front of you. You want to take a drink but you are misinformed because you think that what is in that clear is water but in fact it is gasoline. Well, no one is going to say that it would be good for you to get what you want, namely a drink out of that glass. What they would say instead is “Well, what’s good for you is to get what you would want if your desires were informed”.
If your desires were informed, you would not want to drink out of that glass because it actually has gasoline in it. That’s kind of a simplistic example, but it sort of shows the point of saying that it can’t be your actual preferences that determine what your well-being is because people’s preferences can be really screwy. So we have to think about idealizing the preferences in some way.
Philosophers, there are still hedonists in philosophy. There are lot of people who favor some kind of desire or preference satisfaction view. I’d actually lump Peter Singer in there probably.
Then the third type of theory that Parfit listed was what he called objective list theory. I think calling it that sort of puts a negative light on it because he was thinking of theories where the theory is just a list of objective goods. It could be that pleasure might be on that list. Pleasure, knowledge, self approval, whatever is on the list. Artistic achievement, using your skills, there is a lot of variation about what kind of objective goods you might have on your list.
VALERIE: But a list isn’t really a theory. I think it is a little unfair to just call these theories objective list theories because many of them have explanations for why those things are on the list and that’s what makes it a theory.
LUKE: …Objective list makes it sounds just arbitrary when very often justification is given.
VALERIE: That’s exactly right. I think a number of people have pointed this out about Parfit’s taxonomy. The fact that he uses the phrase “objective list” makes it sounds like he is sort of insulting those kinds of views when they really have more going for them.
LUKE: Yeah. Parfit is not a member of that category.
VALERIE: No, he’s not. He’s in the desire satisfaction category. The other thing about Parfit’s list is it leaves out life satisfaction theories. Life satisfaction is not hedonism. It’s not the same as pleasure. It is a subjective theory, but the subjective state of life satisfaction is a kind of global assessment of your life as opposed to a momentary pleasure.
It might be that the reason that doesn’t appear in Parfit’s list is that the person who really brought life satisfaction to the floor in philosophy is Wayne Sumner and I think the timing of it… I think Sumner’s book came out after Parfit wrote this taxonomy which then got repeated by lots of other people. Probably life satisfaction theories didn’t have much grip in the philosophical literature until after Parfit wrote this list.
LUKE: Very interesting. So if we are trying to put together a model of what we mean by well-being, it would seem like culture would have a big influence. I’m sure different cultures have different notions of what well-being is, right?
VALERIE: Right. So, I actually think, certainly if you look at the psyche literature, that there is huge attention to culture there. One of the things that psychologists are particularly interested in is whether taking a standard measure like their life satisfaction measures – are different cultures or societies or different countries happier than others? Do they achieve more well-being than others? And what are the variables that effect how high different cultures get on these various happiness scales?
I am inclined to think that at the level of abstraction at which the philosophical theories are operating, I am not sure how much the cultural differences really matter. So just to take some examples, think about a philosophical objective theory like Martha Nussbaum’s.
Martha Nussbaum has the view that… She actually doesn’t use the word well-being for various reasons, but she would say that the good for a person, a good life for a person, is one in which they achieve human functionings. She gives a list of these key human functionings. They are life, bodily health, integrity, imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, play, political and material control over your environment. I think I might have missed a couple, but that’s the basic list of functionings.
She makes quite an effort to demonstrate that these functionings have cross-cultural relevance. She has actually interviewed people in lots of other cultures besides western cultures to see that these kinds of functionings are things that people really do care about. One thing to notice is that those functionings she lists are all very abstraction described. She talks about practical reason and political control over your environment. That could mean many, many different things depending on what your circumstances are.
I think at the level of the abstract theory, cultural differences aren’t that important. As soon as you try to apply the theory, if you wanted to take Martha Nussbaum’s theory and use it to construct a political policy or a public program or even to use it in your own life, then I think culture differences – and even individual differences – are going to make a huge difference.
Similarly for subjectivist kind of theories, if you think about life satisfaction theory, life satisfaction is, according to that kind of a theory, that will be a good thing for anyone to experience no matter what culture they are in. Obviously what the causes are of someone having a life where they feel satisfied with the overall conditions, culture is going to have a huge effect on what conditions produce that kind of feeling. I think that where the cultural differences are going to be most important is kind of farther down the road from the theories that philosophers are working on. It’s going to have to do with how we apply the theories.
LUKE: I’d like to jump back to ethics for just a moment. I am personally very interested in the way that empirical research can have an effect on moral philosophy. So what I’d be interested to know here is how might empirical research on the nature of well-being that’s coming from psychologists come in to play when constructing moral theories?
For example, there might be certain moral theories in philosophy that don’t fit very well with the empirical data on what well-being is, but maybe there are other philosophical theories that fit better with the empirical data on well-being. Do you think that is true yet? Maybe enough research hasn’t been done. I don’t know.
VALERIE: So partly I’m inclined to think that because philosophical theories are operating at a high level of abstraction, they are not going to be falsified by empirical data, but it might be that there are some philosophical theories that make empirical assumptions that turn out to be false. That could be…
I don’t think I have a good argument for saying that’s true, but that certainly could be true. I think actually there is a kind of relationship between empirical theories and philosophical theories that I am in a way more worried about which has to do with, and maybe this is because my training is in philosophy and not psychology, but it sometimes seems to me that psychological research on well-being ignores questions about the normativity of what they are measuring.
To put that another way, well-being is just a word. I think the way it’s perceived and what it is taken to mean, it is supposed to be something good. It is worth promoting.
And, in philosophy jargon, that means it’s a normative concept. It’s not purely descriptive. So colleges when they measure stuff, like they measure pleasure, life satisfaction, or positive emotions on a scale, they don’t want to be measuring anything normative because that’s fuzzy and debatable and they want to operationalize basic psychological concepts, that are purely empirical which makes sense for their purposes.
When their work starts to become the basis for moral action like public policy or therapeutic intervention or self help programs that get promoted for people: “Here’s something you should do. This will be good for you to do.” Then I think there is a kind of jump that needs to be justified or at least noticed between research that says here are some empirically measurable concepts and we’ve learned how to make more of these things.
We know how to increase peoples positive affect. What we need to know in order to make the leap from there to moral conclusions about what people ought to do or what states and governments ought to do for their citizens, we need some arguments that these things are good and worth promoting for people and that it’s worth sacrificing other stuff that we could be promoting for the sake of making more of whatever it is, positive affect or pleasure.
I think it is perfectly fair for psychologists to measure things that are not normative, and that is what science needs to do. When they draw conclusions from that empirical research that are normative, conclusions about how we ought to treat other people or how government policy ought to be written, then I think we ought to confront that norms are being built in here somewhere. I think that’s where philosophical theorizing can actually be helpful.
So it’s not that I think that psychologists are doing terrible things. It’s just I think there is a role for philosophical argument there.
LUKE: When you are going to make claims about what is it that increases positive affect, that’s a descriptive scientific question. Then when we are going to decide to, how we ought to develop public policy or something there is a leap from is to ought there that is the purview of philosophy.
VALERIE: Exactly. Of course, I like to think it’s the purview of philosophy because I’m a philosopher. Other people might disagree. But, it is true that psychologists back away from those kinds of philosophical questions because it’s not their training. I think when it comes to these sorts of questions about what to do with the well-being research in psychology, it would kind of be nice of philosophers and psychologists work together and talked a bit more.
Here’s a kind of example that might help illustrate this point a little bit. Here are a couple of worries with applying well-being theories. One worry is paternalism. That’s the worry for objective theories. You’ve got this objective theory that says “hey, here’s your list of objective goods. People achieve well-being when they get these goods”. The worry is, if you go around promoting that theory or applying that theory in the world, you are going to end up, basically, to put it starkly, shoving goods down people’s throats who don’t want them.
LUKE: Would the worry be, for example, maybe in some cultures they don’t agree that political control over your environment is a good and there may be more kind of communal or anarchist…
VALERIE: Exactly. Yep. Absolutely. Right. And you don’t even need to go to other cultures because there could be individual people in our culture who don’t agree that these objective goods are all good for them.
Other cultures makes the point really clearly, I think. So then subjective theories face the problem of adaptive preferences. The idea here is, look, I might be satisfied with my life or I might have all my desires met and so I’ve achieved a kind of subjective well-being because I’ve just adapted to my super crappy circumstances.
Maybe I’ve lived a life where I have very few options and I’ve never had many options and I’m just good at… When life gives you lemons make lemonade, right? Maybe that’s my attitude.
As a theorist about well-being, you don’t quite want to say, “Oh, things for Valerie are going extremely well even though she is oppressed and has no options because she feels good about it. She’s adapted to her crappy circumstances.” So the problem of adaptive preferences is a problem that really hits subjective theories.
LUKE: Yeah. The example that comes to my mind there is a lot of Muslim women in the Muslim world where many of them will actually report very high life satisfaction if they are asked but their objective circumstances are very poor by pretty much anyone’s list so you wonder are they really well off? Are they really experiencing a lot of well-being to be oppressed and have no power and no freedom and be taught by their religion and their male counterparts and their scripture, that they are inferior, inherently wicked, and have to be contained. Is this really well-being?
VALERIE: Right. That’s exactly the kind of example that gets talked about in this discussion about adaptive preferences. Exactly. And now they might be achieving very high levels of well-being. I’m not saying that they aren’t. It’s just kind of an open question about whether the subjective feelings of satisfaction are really determinative, whether they’re really authoritative about these normative questions.
So we have these two problems, paternalism for objective theories and adaptive preferences for subjective theories. And, I guess, my point about the empirical and the philosophical is that you can’t steer your way through these problems without some good philosophy to help us understand how to avoid them.
I actually think that, you know we talked before about how in philosophy subjective theories typically idealize in some way the subjective states that are relevant, and I think that those kinds of idealized subjective theories are actually pretty successful at avoiding the two horns there, those two problems of paternalism and adaptive preferences.
LUKE: So, does that mean that that’s the kind of model of well-being that you find to be most useful or most correct or something like that?
VALERIE: It is actually, yeah. I think that these idealized subjective models are on the right track.
LUKE: So what do you mean by idealized subjective theory? What’s an example?
VALERIE: Right. So here’s the easiest example to explain and I mentioned this one before. It would be informed desire theory, informed desire satisfaction. What’s good for you is what you would want if you were fully informed. That’s the simplest picture. So, getting what you happen to want at the moment, that’s not necessarily good for you. But what you would want if you were informed about your options, that’s good for you.
LUKE: On that informed desire satisfaction view I would imagine it’s not assumed there that if we were all perfectly well informed that we would have the same desires, right?
LUKE: It’s still subjective.
LUKE: So it’s not like an ideal observer theory in ethics.
LUKE: But it just means, you know, if you knew that glass was gasoline you wouldn’t want to drink it anymore.
VALERIE: Exactly, yeah. So you’re kind of touching on something there that’s the reason why that version of idealized subjective theory isn’t my favorite, which is this idea of what you would want if you were fully informed – it’s a little bit tricky. What is being fully informed? Is it being omniscient? Well, who the heck know what I’d want if I were omniscient?
If I knew absolutely everything how would that change my subjective desires? So, there’s been a lot of literature, a number of articles, on that full information idea that caused some serious problems for it.
LUKE: Yeah. If fully informed means omniscient, that would seem to mean, well we have a concept of well-being but we can’t ever know if we have well-being. [laughs]
VALERIE: Yes. Yeah. Indeed that is another problem that I’ve heard, that epistemic access to it, right. So people have pointed out that problem. They have also pointed out that even if we could imagine a fully informed version of ourselves it seems like there’s so much distance between me and that omniscient being that that that omniscient being’s desires don’t really have that much to do with me anymore. And that starts to make it look like getting those omniscient desires satisfied isn’t going to do me any good, right?
VALERIE: The theory that I like is the life satisfaction theory. And essentially I think life satisfaction of a certain kind, life satisfaction according to certain standards that are guided by a person’s values, that’s what well-being is. So, just to try to put it kind of intuitively, the idea of you’re life goes well for you if you have a good sense of what matters in life and you feel good about your life because you’re achieving it. That’s the kind of nutshell version.
LUKE: OK. Valerie, that’s been a very interesting discussion of well-being. And I’d like to end with a broader question about philosophy in general. Philosophy is considered the love of wisdom. What do you think that it means to live your life wisely?
VALERIE: Interestingly, I think I actually got into wisdom by way of well-being. Because I started to think that coming up with a really meaty substantive of theory about well-being is not…well, I almost thought it is kind of a non starter, that we can come up with a good theory of abstract well-being but to come up with the details is really something that individual people living their lives have to do. And that got me thinking about what it is to figure out how to live your life.
So I kind of came to wisdom through thinking about well-being and realizing that a philosopher can’t tell people what a good life is for them. A philosopher can make some generalizations but if you want to actually life your own life well, wisdom is the thing that’s needed.
You asked me, “what do I think it means to live your life wisely?” The first thing to say is that, one thing that seemed absolutely clear is that if you think you’re wise you’re probably not, [laughs] which makes me always reluctant to say anything about what wisdom is with any certainty.
But with that qualification in mind, there are a couple things I’ve emphasized in the work that I’ve done so far on wisdom. One of them is the importance of having a reflective practice that makes sense of all the various things that we value in life and tries to put them in some kind of order. But at the same time, and this I try to emphasize equally, is that practice of reflection of thinking about what matters in life has to not take over your life.
So I try to emphasize the importance of being reflective but only sometimes.
VALERIE: And at other times in life we need to be in the moment.
I think it’s all really important to learn to be reflective without poking our noses into everything that’s working so that it stops working because suddenly we start thinking about why it’s working. There’s examples about this that are kind of simple where an athlete is doing their athletic performance and suddenly starts being reflective about, how am I swinging the bat, or how am I exactly turning my legs around these pedals. That’s going to just screw them up.
VALERIE: So similarly, I think, in life there are things that are going well and you don’t need to be reflective about everything.
LUKE: Well, this goes back to like the work of somebody like — I am going to massacre his name but — Mihaly Cskikszentmihalyi and ‘flow’ and all of that. When your in the flow of experience and your skills and abilities are just barely surpassing the challenge that meets you and you’re just kind of in that flow, you don’t want to just step out side of it all of a sudden and say, “Hmm, what’s can I ponder about philosophically about what’s going on here”. Maybe, what’s most important there is to experience the flow of competent existence.
VALERIE: Yes. That’s absolutely right. And in some ways that seems rather obvious. But on the other hand, being a reflective person has taken a bit of a beating recently, at least in psychology. And to some extent, in philosophy too. Like, Bernard Williams has been very critical of reflection. And I think part of the problem is that they just have a caricature of what being a reflective person is really like.
So that is why I want to argue that being a reflective person doesn’t mean [laughs] thinking all the time. That’s not a good reflective life. That’s a kind of narcissistic self obsession or rationalistic fetishism or something like that.
LUKE: Well, Valerie, the standard position or advocation of philosophers is something like, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And it sounds like you’re advocating a partially examined life.
VALERIE: Yes. I like that. Maybe what I should have called my book.
LUKE: Well, Valerie, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.
VALERIE: Thanks a lot. That was my pleasure as well.