Super excited Valerie is our next Featured Philosopher. Take it away Val!

I’m very grateful to Dave and Dave for giving me this opportunity to talk to the Pea Soup community. It is (for me, anyway) challenging to stay philosophically engaged while being department chair.  Sometimes I sit down to read a philosophy article and all I can think about is the probationary review forms I have to fill out, or next budget document I have to produce.  It’s really nice to be here, where no one cares about my budget requests!

In Well-Being as Value Fulfillment: How We Can Help Each Other to Live Well(OUP 2018), I argue that one achieves well-being to the extent that one fulfills one’s appropriate values over time.  Each term in this short statement requires explanation, but before I get to that, let me offer a bit of background that will put the details in context.

There are various criteria for an adequate theory of well-being that I think often pull in different directions. The so-called “resonance constraint” requires that a person’s well-being should not turn out to be something the person would be indifferent to or that leaves them cold.  (Yes, it’s the singular “they”; I think we should get used to it.)  Some think theories of well-being should meet an “experience requirement”, according to which for something to contribute to a person’s well-being it must register in their experience.  Some think there is a “morality requirement”:  it should not turn out that a morally vicious person could achieve well-being. And some think there is a “generality requirement” according to which theories of well-being must make sense of attributions of well-being across all possible welfare subjects.  Pretty much everyone thinks the right theory of well-being should line up reasonably well with intuitions about who is doing well and who is doing poorly, but the diverse set of criteria for an adequate theory means that there are intractable differences in our intuitions.  We end up with a lot of intuitions pumps, pumping away in different directions. So, I think that to make progress, we need to be very clear about what practical problem we want our target normative notion to solve, where it fits into a larger normative practice, and therefore what features it needs to have.

I spend some time in the book articulating the problem that I’m looking for a theory of well-being to solve. In short, I want a notion of well-being that is the thing we aim to promote when we are interested in helping people, and the thing we aim for in our own lives when we’re trying to figure out how best to live.  I also wanted to articulate a theory that might have some traction with psychologists who work on well-being.  In part this is because such psychologists are, I think, in the trenches of those who think that the point of well-being research is to improve human lives.  And, in part it’s because I think the way that psychologists tend to understand well-being could use some improvement. This interest of mine meant writing a book that was more accessible than a standard philosophical monograph. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I’m glad I tried.  (I hope some psychologists will read the book, but I’m also working on a few projects that aim to introduce value fulfillment theory into the psychological literature more directly: one with organizational psychologist Laurent Kuykendall and one with personality psychologist Colin DeYoung.)

So, now, back to my short statement.  Three terms need explanation:  values, appropriateness, and fulfillment.  Valuesare patterns of emotions, desires and judgments suitably organized around some end. A paradigm case of valuing being a parent, for example, is one in which Dad enjoys being a Dad, wants to spend time with his child, and judges that he has reasons to take ‘being a good Dad’ into consideration in his plans and decisions.  Our values are very often not this coherent, and there’s a point at which a person’s set of attitudes might be so unharmonious that we wouldn’t want to call it valuing at all.  I’m not really concerned exactly where the line gets drawn between values and non-values; the important thing is that the more psychological harmony one has in valuing something, the more the fulfillment of that value contributes to one’s well-being. There’s a lot more to say here about how values are related to each other, and how the theory can make room for the idea that we should value something that we don’t currently value, but the Daves said I should keep this short.

Appropriatevalues are psychologically integrated or harmonious values that can be fulfilled over time.  This adds an external condition to the notion of appropriate values.  It’s not enough that your valuing being a parent integrates your desires, emotions, and judgments if you are incapable of doing any of the things you want, care about, and think you have reason to do. If the devoted Dad also values being the first astronaut on Mars, for example, his system of values is not as appropriate as it could be, because he just can’t be a good Dad from Mars.

To fulfilla value is to meet the standards that are inherent to valuing.  For Dad, upholding the value of being a Dad means (among other things) caring for his kid and spending time with her.  These standards can vary from person to person, though there will be a good deal of similarity of standards for similar values.  Further, standards are not always discretionary; if you value being a great baseball player, you have to play by the rules of baseball and you have to succeed in its terms.  It’s possible to be a real iconoclast – you can create your own standards for shmaseball and value being a shmaseball player to your heart’s content – but I don’t think this is very easy, given what social creatures we are.

So, well-being is the fulfillment of appropriate values over time.  That, very, very roughly, is the view. I spend the second half of the book talking about how to help friends, given the value fulfillment theory I’ve defended.  Even though the theory is, ultimately, a subjective theory, there’s a lot of room for people to sensibly disagree about what’s good for each other.  This is because people can be wrong about whether their circumstances will hinder the fulfillment of their values, the degree to which their values will conflict over time, and even the degree to which their own values are psychologically integrated.  Our friends can know more about these things than we do, and if we have the right kind of relationship, they can help us see what would be better for us.  But the value fulfillment theory also urges humility about what others care about and how they care about it.  I think we too often assume that others are just like us, and this can incline us to be judgmental, unsympathetic, and unhelpful.

I’m interested in working next on a value fulfillment theory of ill-being.  The unfulfillment theory, maybe.  I haven’t thought about this very much yet, but one thing I like about the approach is the way it makes sense of certain crappy experiences that many women (and others too) have of being in circumstances where you just can’t fulfill all your psychologically entrenched values.  I’ve been thinking of Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.  She wants financial security and status, but she also wants to marry someone she respects who is her moral and intellectual peer.  Her options are such that she ends up dying in a flophouse of an opium overdose (oops, that was a spoiler).  Obviously, there’s pain in Lily’s life, but to me what is tragic about her situation is the way that her oppressive conditions psychologically sustain a set of goals that make real fulfillment impossible.

8 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Valerie Tiberius

  1. Valerie, thank you for sharing this! I am so very excited to read the book and very annoyed I have not yet done so. Also, hurray for helping normalize the singular “they”!

    Quick question: how does your view deal with adapted preferences or values i.e. values or preferences that we develop in response to oppressive conditions. Do you think these values will turn out not to meet the appropriateness condition (because they are unlikely to be harmonious or integrated with our other values)?

  2. Thanks Sukaina! I was really happy that OUP didn’t give me any push-back about the singular “they”. I did include a note about it in the preface.

    I have a section on adaptive preferences in the book. It’s a multi-pronged answer. First, I think that some cases of adaptive values can be dealt with by appeal to appropriateness. For example, if you value your children’s health and welfare, there may be reasons for you to also value decently paid work, even if you live in a culture in which your opportunities for decently paid work, or for advocating for such, are limited or even stigmatized. Second, I think many cases of adaptive values that cannot be ruled out in this way (by appeal to considerations of conflicting or frustrated values in the long term) are cases in which it is actually plausible to say that fulfilling the adaptive values is good for the person who has them. Third, I argue that the fact that fulfilling adaptive values might be good for a person does NOT mean that we shouldn’t find against the forces that create adaption to oppression. This is for moral reasons, reasons of justice, and also for reasons having to do with the prospects for well-being of future people who have not yet adapted to anything.

  3. * that should have been “adaptation” rather than “adaption”. Sorry. Though the dictionary says “adaption” is an alternate form.

  4. I so enjoyed reading this, Valerie! Thank you for taking the time away from those budgets and your next project to compose it.

  5. Hi Valerie,

    The book sounds great – I look forward to reading it. Can I ask about the appropriateness of values? You say that appropriate values are in some way harmonious, and give the example of the Dad whose values conflict since he can’t be both an astronaut and a good Dad. But I’m inclined to think that it can be perfectly appropriate for us to acknowledge competing goods: I think there’s something very nice about beer, and yet I also value my health. Though it’s sad that these two things come into some degree of conflict, I tend to think I’d be missing something if I tried to resolve this competition by just disavowing the value of one of these things. Is that something you are happy to allow, or not?

    (If it helps contextualise this, I’m thinking partly by analogy with the moral case, where I think we should recognise various moral conflicts (in preferred jargon, “conflicting moral reasons”), and not try to resolve those conflicts just by refusing to acknowledge some of those pressures.)


  6. Hi Alex,
    Thanks for leaving a reply! That’s a great question and one I’ve thought a lot about. I try to make the case that for most people a life with values that compete for time and attention is better than a life with one value and nothing else. The argument appeals to diminishing marginal returns from the pursuit of one thing (risk of boredom among other things), risk management (if you go “all in” for violin playing and you break your hand, you’re really in trouble), and (most importantly, I think) the ways that important relationships tend to be interwoven with other values, even if there is also some competition (the violinist at least needs a teacher and parental support, many of the things we do are done better with friends, and so on).

    So, I agree with you that we should (often) recognize competing prudential reasons for the sake of total value fulfillment in the long term. The Dad/astronaut example was meant to be one in which there’s just no way he could be a good parent by his own lights and go to Mars (but I don’t actually know anything about the life of an astronaut, so the example might not be perfect!)

    – Valerie

  7. Thanks Valerie! (and sorry for the slow response!) I’m inclined to think that there are more than just instrumental reasons to value competing goods, and I wonder how consistent that is with what you say. Sounds like I should read the book to find out!


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