Welcome to this weekend’s discussion of Anthony Kelley‘s “The Welfare-Nihilist Arguments Against Judgement Subjectivism“. We encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section.
What follows is a critical précis by Wayne Sumner.
Anthony Kelley’s paper joins the already voluminous literature interrogating the defensibility of subjective theories of well-being. One class of such theories holds that something is basically good for a person if and only if it is valued by that person (under the proper conditions). Kelley’s target in this paper is a theory of this type that has been advocated by Dale Dorsey (Dorsey 2012). Dorsey’s theory combines the foregoing rubric with a judgment- based conception of valuing, according to which a person’s valuing something is a matter of their believing or judging (under the proper conditions) that the thing is good for them. The result is a theory on which something is basically good for a person if and only if that person believes (under the proper conditions) that it is good for them. Following Dorsey, Kelley calls this view judgment subjectivism.
Kelley’s critique of Dorsey is nicely executed. For what it is worth, I join him in contending that judgment subjectivism is not the strongest or best version of a subjective theory. (Kelley may hold the view that there is no strongest or best version, in which case we part company at that point.) Furthermore, I think that Kelley’s arguments against Dorsey’s view are successful, at least if you grant the suppositions on which they are based. I will, however, have something to say, below, about those suppositions.
The qualifier “under the proper conditions” in the foregoing statement of Dorsey’s view signals that it is an idealized version of subjectivism, on which it is not the subject’s actual evaluative judgments that are authoritative, but those the subject would make were their beliefs both coherent and fully considered. Many other subjective theories have also chosen the idealization route, and have been criticized for doing so (see, e.g., Rosati 1995; Enoch 2005). Particularly worrisome has been the charge that when subjectivists appeal to the subject’s counterfactual pro-attitudes (whatever they may be), rather than their actual ones, they risk violating the alienation or resonance constraint whose satisfaction is often taken to be a particular strength of subjectivism. Dorsey’s theory may therefore also be vulnerable on this score, but because this is not the focus of Kelley’s arguments I will not pursue the issue here. From this point I will simply assume that Dorsey’s “proper conditions” are satisfied, and that their satisfaction does not threaten the integrity of his subjectivism.
Before going any farther, we should note that there is more than a whiff of circularity about Dorsey’s view. Leaving all qualifications aside, his theory tells us that something is basically good for a person if and only if they believe that it is good for them. The occurrence of “good for” in the analysans is the indicator that the kind of valuing that Dorsey has in mind here is prudential. (For the record, he stipulates this: Dorsey 2012, sec. 3.1) Furthermore, it has to be: the fact that I believe that some state of the world is good simpliciter is surely not sufficient (and maybe also not necessary) for it to be good for me. But that means that on Dorsey’s view something is prudentially valuable for a person if and only if they think it is prudentially valuable for them. So it looks like his theory of prudential value presupposes the very concept it was meant to explain. But Dorsey can defend himself here by saying that he is offering a substantive theory meant to tell us what makes something prudentially valuable, not a conceptual analysis of prudential value. So he is entitled to assume that we are already familiar with that concept. (This is, more or less, Dorsey’s defense: Dorsey 2012, 439–40.) I conclude that there is no vicious circularity here. At any rate, Kelley does not pursue this line of attack, and neither will I.
There is also this seeming oddity in Dorsey’s view that the belief that something is good for you makes itself true. This is not the usual way in which belief operates, where its confirmation or disconfirmation is settled by how the world is (cf. Hurka 2019, who also raises worries about an infinite regress). But again I will not pursue this point, since Kelley does not.
So, finally, to the business at hand. When a theory states both necessary and sufficient conditions for well-being, it can be attacked on either the necessity or the sufficiency side. Kelley elects the former route, which requires identifying subjects whose life is going well for them but who do not, or even cannot, believe that it is doing so. Eden Lin (Lin 2017) has also pursued this line by focussing on the case of infants who lack the capacity to have the requisite evaluative beliefs. (One could easily imagine making the same case on behalf of sentient animals.) Kelley takes a different approach, hypothesizing a class of subjects he calls welfare nihilists. “Welfare nihilism,” he tells us, “is the view that there are no welfare properties or at least that none are instantiated” (p. 6). He then tells us about Felicity, who has become convinced by metaphysical arguments that nothing is either good or bad for anyone. Nonetheless, since becoming a welfare nihilist she has led a good life (a life that has been good for her): she has had a happy marriage, loving children, a successful career, enjoyable hobbies, and so on. She is therefore a counterexample to the view that leading a good life (a life high in welfare) requires the belief that one is leading such a life.
A theory of welfare should also be a theory of illfare. Although Dorsey does not discuss illfare, it is plausible to think that he would have a symmetrical account of it, on which a necessary condition of leading a bad life (for you) is that you believe it to be bad. Kelley then introduces us to Felicity’s counterpart Mallory, who was convinced by the same metaphysical arguments as Felicity but whose subsequent life has been awful: she has been imprisoned for suspected terrorist activity and subjected to daily torture, her partner has divorced her, her children despise her—well, you get the picture. She has been leading an undeniably bad life since her conversion to welfare nihilism but her metaphysical beliefs prevent her from believing that it is bad. So Mallory is a second counterexample.
Kelley’s third argument builds on the previous two. Intuitively, we want to say that the segment of Felicity’s life that followed her adoption of welfare nihilism is going much better for her than the same segment of Mallory’s life is for her. But Dorsey’s judgment subjectivism seems to prevent us from saying this. If neither Felicity nor Mallory has the appropriate belief about how well their life is going at any time during these segments of their lives, then we have no ground for saying that Felicity’s life has gone better during this time than Mallory’s. Kelley claims that judgment subjectivism would yield the result that the welfare value of each of these segments is zero. I’m not sure that this is the right conclusion, or even quite what it would mean. When the necessary condition for something’s being good (or bad) fails, we need not (and maybe should not) conclude that the thing has zero value. We might want to say instead that the values of Felicity’s and Mallory’s lives are indeterminable, or that they are noncomparable. However this may be, what we cannot say is that Felicity’s life segment is better for her than Mallory’s is for her, and that is massively counterintuitive.
As I said earlier, Kelley’s arguments go through nicely once we accept the supposition of Felicity’s and Mallory’s welfare nihilism. So I want to take a closer look at the welfare nihilism they are said to have espoused. This is an aspect of the paper about which I wish that Kelley had said a little more. In order to serve as counterexamples to judgment subjectivism, Felicity and Mallory do not need to be probable cases (they are surely not). But they must be possible cases. So what, exactly, are we to take Felicity and Mallory to have concluded about the concept of welfare as a result of their metaphysics seminars?
Kelley offers two possibilities (p. 18, n. 26), both of which are presaged in his statement of welfare nihilism as “the view that there are no welfare properties or at least that none are instantiated.” The first is that “the concept of welfare is incoherent.” So how might this go?
It is common in the literature to suppose that there are (at least) two basic concepts of goodness: “good simpliciter” and “good for”(some subject), and to identify the latter with the concept of welfare or well-being. So Felicity and Mallory might think that there are particular problems with the latter concept. If so, they would be in good company. In a forthcoming article, Tom Hurka tries out two interpretations of the “subject-relativity” of “good for” and concludes that “neither yields a significantly distinct evaluative concept” (Hurka 2020). This seems close to the idea that the concept might be incoherent. However, that conclusion would be too hasty. Even if Hurka is right that “good for” cannot stand as a distinct evaluative concept, there remains the possibility that it could be explicated in terms of “good simpliciter” plus some appropriate relation. (As some will recall, G.E. Moore offered an analysis of this sort). If so, that would yield a view about the concept of welfare that is reductionist, or maybe eliminativist, but not nihilist. On this view it would still be possible for Felicity and Mallory to make welfare judgments. “Good for” would not be incoherent; it just wouldn’t be basic.
In order to abandon welfare judgments entirely, Felicity and Mallory would need something more: perhaps they would need to be nihilists about “good simpliciter” as well. We aren’t told whether their metaphysics seminars led them to this sweeping conclusion (perhaps they had been reading J.L. Mackie). I won’t speculate about their metaphysical stances any farther since in any case the incoherence option causes some problems for Kelley’s arguments. To see why, we need to return to Eden Lin’s counterexample of infants, whose lives can go well (or badly) despite their lacking the capacity to make welfare judgments. In response, Dorsey has contended that we need different theories of welfare for those who have this capacity and those who don’t (Dorsey 2017). Speaking personally, I find it a rather desperate measure to assign different theories of welfare to different kinds of subjects, but suppose we grant Dorsey this indulgence. Then we would need to ask whether Felicity and Mallory are capable of making such judgments, on the supposition that they regard the concept of welfare as incoherent. If they are not so capable, then they are not the sorts of beings to whom Dorsey’s theory is meant to apply, and so cannot be counterexamples to it. Kelley says that he is inclined to think that they do have this capacity, but I am inclined to think the opposite. If the concept is incoherent then it provides no instantiation conditions for its application to the world: no state of affairs could instantiate it. Felicity and Mallory therefore would not be capable of judging that any states of the world are good for (or bad for) themselves (or anyone else). That might place them in the same category as Lin’s infants.
However this might be, Kelley’s second construal of welfare nihilism offers another way of understanding where Felicity and Mallory are coming from. This is the view that, while the concept of welfare is quite coherent, it has no instantiations in the actual world: while some states of the world could be either good or bad for someone, none actually are. Kelley offers the example of the concept of a unicorn: while it is coherent, as it happens there are no unicorns. On this interpretation, Felicity and Mallory clearly have the capacity to make welfare judgments, so they do not join Lin’s objection; they simply do not find any states of the world to which to apply welfare concepts.
I wonder about the plausibility of this picture. Kelley’s concept of a unicorn gives him a set of properties (horse, white, horn in forehead) that tell him what to look for in the world as a possible instantiation, but wherever he looks he does not find anything answering to the description. For another example rather closer to the matter at hand we might use the concept of saintliness. This concept also provides properties (virtuous, to an exemplary degree) for its instantiation in the world, but we could imagine that, like Diogenes seeking an honest man, when we look about the world we just don’t find anyone with those properties. If Felicity and Mallory find the concepts of welfare and illfare coherent, then they too will know what to look for in possible instantiations (anything that makes a life go well or badly). But they will everywhere find states of affairs that answer to the description, including all of the positive events in Felicity’s life and all of the negative ones in Mallory’s. So how could they possibly conclude that the welfare concepts they understand lack instantiations? In particular, how could they draw such a conclusion from a metaphysical argument? Isn’t it a contingent matter of how the world is?
As a result, I am more than a little skeptical about the suppositions behind Kelley’s arguments; I’m not sure, on any available interpretation, that Felicity and Mallory are counterexamples to Dorsey’s theory. Either they are incapable of making welfare judgments, in which case they fall outside the class of subjects to whom the theory is meant to apply, or their failure to make such judgments remains mysterious and unexplained.
This is perhaps the point to acknowledge that Dorsey is not the only target of Kelley’s arguments. I have defended the view that welfare consists in happiness (under the proper conditions), and that happiness has both an affective and a cognitive component (Sumner 1996, ch. 6). The affective component I characterized as “finding your life enriching or rewarding, or feeling satisfied or fulfilled by it.” So far so good, but, as Kelley reminds me, the cognitive component took the form of “a judgment that, on balance and taking everything into account, your life is going well for you.” That makes my view vulnerable to arguments against judgment subjectivism, including Kelley’s arguments. Even if those arguments were decisive, I would not be entirely bereft (unlike Dorsey), for the affective component of my view would still stand. I would still be able to explain why Felicity’s post-nihilism life has been good for her (it feels good to her) and why Mallory’s has been bad for her. However, for the reasons given above, I am skeptical that Kelley’s arguments are decisive.
I’m not entirely convinced that my skepticism is warranted, but that’s because I find the welfare nihilism on which Kelley’s arguments rely underdeveloped. At the very least, he’s got some explaining to do.
Dorsey, Dale. 2012. “Subjectivism Without Desire.” The Philosophical Review 121, no. 3.
——. 2017. “Why Should Welfare ‘Fit’?” The Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 269.
Enoch, David. 2005. “Why Idealize?” Ethics 115, no. 4.
Hurka, Thomas. 2019. “A Surprisingly Common Dilemma.” Journal of Moral Philosophy 16.
——. 2020. “Against ‘Good For’/‘Well-Being’, for ‘Simply Good’.” The Philosophical Quarterly. doi:10.1093/pq/pqaa078.
Lin, Eden. 2017. “Against Welfare Subjectivism.” Nous 51, no. 2.
Rosati, Connie. 1995. “Persons, Perspectives, and Full Information Accounts of the Good.” Ethics 105, no. 2.
Sumner, L.W. 1996. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.