My colleague Teo Ajantaival is currently writing an essay on minimalist views of wellbeing, i.e. views according to which wellbeing ultimately consists in the minimization of one or more sources of illbeing. My aim in this post is to sketch out a couple of related points about objective list theories of wellbeing.
I should note that objective list theories of wellbeing are not necessarily the ones that I myself consider most plausible, but I still think it is worth highlighting how one can endorse minimalist versions of objective list views, which are arguably the most plausible versions of these views.
- Objective list theories of wellbeing
- Harms of premature death
- A possible foundation for a negative utilitarian view
- Concluding remarks
Objective list theories of wellbeing
In their typical formulations, objective list theories say that wellbeing consists in having a variety of objective goods in one’s life. These purported objective goods could include knowledge, health, virtuous conduct, personal achievements, and autonomy. Note that a key claim of objective list views is that these purported goods contribute independently to a person’s wellbeing, and not merely by means of satisfying our desires or improving our hedonic states.
Minimalist versions of objective list theories can be largely equivalent to standard versions of these theories, in the sense that they may include essentially the same list of objective goods, except that these “goods” are construed in terms of the absence of bads. That is, minimalist versions of objective list theories understand wellbeing as consisting in the absence of objective bads, rather than consisting in the presence of objective goods (which do not exist on the minimalist conception of wellbeing).
For example, rather than seeing autonomy as an objective good that can bring our wellbeing above some neutral level, the absence of autonomy is seen as an objective bad that detracts from our wellbeing, placing us below a neutral or unproblematic state of wellbeing; and having full autonomy can at most bring us to an untroubled or unproblematic level of wellbeing.
Similarly, rather than seeing health as an objective good that takes us above a neutral or unproblematic state, the lack of health is seen as an objective bad, and complete health can at most bring us to an untroubled level of wellbeing. Rather than seeing virtue as an objective good that contributes positively to wellbeing, vice is seen as an objective bad that contributes negatively, and virtue may be understood as the mere absence of vice (cf, Kupfer, 2011; Knutsson, 2022, sec. 4). And so on for any other purported objective good.
Harms of premature death
It is worth noting that minimalist versions of objective list views can support the view that premature death is bad, and they can do so in many ways. For not only may these views consider premature death to be bad because it entails many other objective bads (e.g. death would prevent us from completing our life projects), but these views may also see premature death itself as an objective bad. Minimalist objective list views may thus see a far greater harm in death than do more optimistic views of wellbeing.
A possible foundation for a negative utilitarian view
Note also how these minimalist views could be incorporated into a version of utilitarianism that might be more intuitive than most other forms of utilitarianism. That is, minimalist objective list views could form the basis of a negative utilitarian view that says that we ought to minimize illbeing, understood as the minimization of the independent bads that contribute to illbeing.
Such views can avoid many of the counterintuitive implications of classical utilitarianism — e.g. that we should force people to bring about new happy beings in hypothetical worlds where nobody wants to create such beings, even at the price of increasing extreme suffering — while also avoiding the conclusion that early death is always morally best for any individual’s own sake in isolation, as implied by some other forms of negative utilitarianism.
Of course, minimalist theories of wellbeing are not tied to any particular view of ethics, but this ethics-related point seems worth stressing since discussions of negative utilitarianism often overlook the possibility of basing utilitarianism on the theories of wellbeing outlined above.
My aim in this post has not been to provide arguments in favor of minimalist objective list theories over competing “objective goods” theories of wellbeing. Such arguments could seek to establish that it is more plausible that the purported objective goods found in objective list theories are in fact objective bads to be avoided, or they could seek to establish that purported objective goods only contribute instrumentally to wellbeing by reducing objective bads. Yet such arguments are beyond the scope of this brief post, whose aim has been of a more modest nature, namely to draw attention to a group of minimalist views that is often overlooked.
Minimalist views can be construed in many different ways and can accommodate a wide range of intuitions, which makes them a far richer and more flexible class of views than is commonly acknowledged. Consequently, it is worth avoiding the common mistake of dismissing all minimalist views with reference to arguments that only apply to a relatively narrow subset of these views.