Research

PhilPapers Profile

Dissertation Abstract: Asymmetries and Ill-Being

Because most ethical theories include well-being as a morally relevant factor, philosophers have developed many accounts of what makes individuals well off. There are three broad types of well-being theory. First, mental state theories hold that well-being consists of positive attitudes. Second, desire theories hold that we are made intrinsically better off if our desires are fulfilled. Third, objective theories hold that there are objective goods of which the possession make us better off regardless of our attitudes. Despite the attention given to the intrinsic goods, few philosophers have considered what makes us intrinsically worse off. We have many candidate theories of well-being but few for ill-being.

My dissertation addresses this gap in the literature by determining the most plausible theories of ill-being for each of the main theories of well-being. I show that a complete theory is plausible only if it includes an account of intrinsic badness. A theory of ill-being does not trivially follow from its positive counterpart and can require significant departures from the original theory. I demonstrate that, in some cases, a theory’s inability to account for ill-being makes it implausible as a theory of well-being. Further, considering ill-being reveals the possibility of asymmetries between the good and the bad. I show that asymmetries are common, a result philosophers overlook when they ignore ill-being.

In Chapter 1, I taxonomize the various theories of well-being and describe the two main types of asymmetry. A structural asymmetry occurs when a feature of one component does not apply to its counterpart. A value asymmetry occurs when the good and its counterpart bad are weighted differently. In Chapter 2, on hedonism, I argue that there is a value asymmetry between pleasure and pain. I show that at equal intensities pain contributes more disvalue than pleasure contributes value. Chapter 3 addresses adjusted subjective theories, according to which our attitudes contribute intrinsic value but the value can be discounted for non-subjective features. The most famous example of this type of theory is John Stuart Mill’s quality-adjusted hedonism. I demonstrate that any additional value for higher pleasures does not carry over to pains. ‘Low quality’ pains, such as physical pain, are just as bad as intellectual ones.

I consider the desire theory in Chapter 4. The most common account of ill-being for the desire theory holds that we are made intrinsically worse off when a desire goes unfulfilled. However, I demonstrate that this approach produces unsatisfactory results. The most obvious problem is that there are desires which, when they go unfulfilled, merely fail to increase our welfare instead of decreasing it. In place of this view, I show that the best account involves positing a negative counterpart to desires, which I call aversions.

Chapter 5 concerns objective theories. One potential objective good I consider is achievement. I argue that failure is the counterpart to achievement, but that this pair is structurally asymmetrical. For example, Bradford (2015) argues that goals are not required for achievement; I show that they are for failure. I also demonstrate that perfectionist theories are all implausible because of their inability to account for ill-being. One cannot perfect something to a negative degree, which means that one’s life can never possess more badness than goodness, which is an unacceptable result.

Finally, in Chapter 6 I discuss hybrid theories, according to which one is well off if one takes pleasure in an objectively good object. Ill-being for hybrid theories is the most complex. One surprising result is that pain can sometimes make one better off when the object is appropriate. While hedonism says that all pain is bad, pain in the hybrid theory can be appropriate, such as mourning the death of a loved one.

Throughout my dissertation, I demonstrate the importance of an underexplored approach to theories of well-being. Philosophers have been focused on determining what is intrinsically good, but my work shows that the good is at most half the story. It is only by considering what is bad that we get closer to seeing the full picture of what makes us intrinsically well off.

Is There a Right to the Death of the Foetus? (with Jeremy Davis)

Bioethics 31:4 (2017): 313-320.

At some point in the future—perhaps within the next few decades—it will be possible for foetuses to develop completely outside the womb. Ectogenesis, as this technology is called, raises substantial issues for the abortion debate. One such issue is that it will become possible for a woman to have an abortion, in the sense of having the foetus removed from her body, but for the foetus to be kept alive. We argue that while there is a right to an abortion, there are reasons to doubt that there is a right to the death of the foetus. Our strategy in this essay is to consider and reject three arguments in favour of this latter right. The first claims that people have a right not to be biological parents, the second that women have a right to genetic privacy, and the third that a foetus is one’s property. Furthermore, we argue that it follows from rejecting the third claim that genetic parents also lack a right to the destruction of cryopreserved embryos used for in vitro fertilization. The conclusion that people possess no right to the death of the foetus builds upon the claims that other pro-choice advocates, such as Judith Jarvis Thomson, have made.