Self-conscious beings


0727 |  This morning I am feeling a bit more optimistic and angry and bold, rather than resigned. For me, anger is a good thing. It makes me want good things — like justice, and life. Resignation is bad for me, in general, and one ought not to choose it if she can help it, since it is to refuse to fight for what is one’s own. When I am angry, I don’t want the world to end. I want to fix it (and it does need fixing), and to make it better, and wrangle it over to where I want it to be even by the sheer force of my will if that’s all that I have left. AUDENTES FORTUNA JUVAT.

Today, I start on Chapter 3 of Scanlon’s book. It’s called, “Well-Being.”

On the first page of this chapter, there is already a controversial topic for me: the domain of morality. Scanlon names the utilitarian domain of morality:

“This last claim is most plausible when the morality in question is utilitarian, since on a utilitarian account the moral point of view is just the point of view of a benefactor who is impartially concerned with everyone, and hence, if the second aim is correct, with the well-being of everyone.” (p. 108)

This sentence explains a lot. And I think that this brand of morality — the utilitarian one — is ingrained into the English culture/mindset. All the great utilitarians were Englishmen– Bentham, Mill, Hobbes. They tend to think in a utilitarian manner by habit, and take the “view from nowhere” for granted. They never even question it, it seems. They just take it as a given that the domain of morality is outside of the self — in fact, outside of all selves. It’s a very curious view — perhaps a very Medieval, Christian, Aristotelian view…

In any case, it is a viewpoint that is the perfect opposite of the Homeric values, which say that the domain of morality is the individual self. And so, my moral views will always be fundamentally at odds with those of most of the English. My own view is that the proper domain of morality is the self. And only involves everyone else insofar as each individual is a self. In this way the self is transcendent (not general), and there is no paternalism. And I believe that my views on this matter are the views that Plato/Socrates put forth; and thus, the Homeric values are incompatible with a utilitarian domain of morality.


1246 | [On Tim Scanlon’s What We Owe To Each Other… ]

One thing that really puzzles me is that Scanlon seems to think that the philosophical “concept of well-being” is only important for a guardian of the individual to know, but is not something that the individual herself needs to know. He writes:

“…in regard to their own lives they have little need to use the concept of well-being itself, either in giving justifications or in drawing distinctions. In particular, individuals have no need for a theory that would clarify the boundaries of their own well-being and provide a basis for sharper quantitative comparison. From a third-person point of view, such as that of a parent or benefactor, a notion of well-being has greater significance.” (p.110)

Of course, my prima facie intuition is completely against this. How can any individual be “well” at all, if she does not know what “being well” is? Mature persons are necessarily “self-conscious” beings; not merely rational or social. And if the mature person doesn’t have a clear definition of what well-being itself is, then she cannot fully appreciate what she has or does not have, for she will not even know what belongs to her. Furthermore, his language would seem to reduce the mature individual to the status of a dependent child or beneficiary — little more than a slave, really. It makes no difference whether the slave is well-cared for or not. A mature person isn’t a mere thing to be cared-for in this sort of way. Actually, not even livestock deserve to be cared-for in this way, since livestock aren’t our children or beneficiaries (and, if they were in such a category, then we shouldn’t be eating them or exploiting them in the ways that we currently now do).

As I had noted a couple of days ago, I can understand why Scanlon wouldn’t want happiness to be “completely determined by experiential quality” (as he says on page 112). But I don’t see why he needs to go the entirely opposite way, and say that the “experiential quality” has nothing to do with it at all. If Scanlon means to simply bifurcate happiness into the subjective and the objective — calling the former “experiential” and the latter “well-being” — then I can see how experiential quality might have nothing to do with well-being. But is this what Scanlon means when he speaks of “well-being”?

Suppose that Scanlon means something else when he says “well-being.” Suppose he means eudaimonia proper — ie, “completeness” in terms of the soul/story — something that involves the notion of justice and an appropriate ending. [It’s what I would mean, if I were to speak properly of eudaimonia.] But then, I still don’t understand why the mature person would have no use of this concept herself. Isn’t it in fact the individual herself who ought to be the one single person who absolutely must have a formal grasp of what “completeness” is, so that she can know how best to shape her own life with this notion in mind?

What am I not understanding here?

But Scanlon does provide a couple key clues as to what he means by “well-being”:

“The intuitive notion of well-being that I am concerned with, then, is an idea of the quality of a life for the person who lives it that is broader than material and social conditions, at least potentially broader than experiential quality, different from worthiness or value, and narrower than choiceworthiness all things considered.” (p.112-113)

And also in note#4:

“A person who abandons a valued ambition in order to help his family may have made a net sacrifice in the quality of his life, by giving up the accomplishments he would have made, even if the experiential quality of the life he chooses is no lower than that of the one he forgoes. It may, for example, involve more joy and less struggle, stress, and frustration. The life he lives could therefore be more choiceworthy and involve no loss in experiential quality while still being a worse life for him, in the sense with which I am here concerned.” (p.386)

This last clue makes me think of the word “full.” Does Scanlon’s “well-being” mean something like a “full” or “actualized” life?