Many debates about moral philosophy focused on the concept of “well-being” flow from the difficulty in nailing down whether well-being is an objective or subjective concept. On the one hand an overly objective theory of well-being risks imposing controversial values upon people who do not share them. One argument in the debate over international human rights suggests that the rights approach takes an attitude that is too controversially objective in this way.
On the other hand, an overly subjective theory of well-being risks a loss of any practical value as a normative theory. It would offer little to no ground for judgment or critique of another’s subjective preferences. The subjective approach to well-being is widely used by economists as it avoids a number of difficult philosophical questions and has the virtue of providing access to readily observable data in the form of unadjusted market-based transactions. But this is often a point of criticism from philosophers since this strategy avoids difficult philosophical questions by ignoring them, not by solving them in a satisfactory way.
Adler starts from an intuition about the way we care about our friends. I want a friend to be happy on her own terms. If I like vanilla ice cream, but my friend likes chocolate, I would want chocolate for her even though I personally prefer vanilla. But there might also be times where I challenge her preferences about what is best for her life. She might be tired of studying for the bar exam wanting instead to take a week off, where I want her to stick to it in order to pass the exam. Adler identifies this perspective as that of a “spectator” taking the attitude of a concerned friend or parent (Adler calls this attitude “unreserved sympathy”). Adler’s sympathetic spectator can keep the subjectivity implicit in respecting each individual’s own preferences, while simultaneously approaching something that looks like an objective account of well-being by collecting everyone’s appropriately sympathetic judgments about the well-being of others.
This concept of “unreserved sympathy” drove much of the conversation at the Workshop. Workshop participants were particularly interested in what Adler asks his spectator to do. In particular, how can we decide which attributes and preferences of the subject of our unreserved sympathy to take on? If one person’s attributes and preferences would make her suited for a life as a tax lawyer, while another’s attributes and preferences would make him suited for a life as a philosopher, what life would the tax lawyer sympathetically choose for the individual suited to being a philosopher?
Adler’s answer was that a sympathetic tax lawyer would choose for her philosopher friend a life suited to the philosopher’s attributes. More formally, if the tax lawyer prefers a life of philosophy for the philosopher given his attributes, the tax lawyer should prefer a life of philosophy for herself if she were to possess the philosopher’s attributes. The tax lawyer would need to realize that her preference for tax law was a contingent preference that would be inappropriate (unsympathetic) to impose on her philosopher friend.
But here, another participant suggested that what might be missing is an account to explain how the spectator would pick out these contingent and non-contingent preferences and attributes. If all preferences and attributes are taken into account, then we would seem to be in the economist’s camp, with the unfortunate side-effect of losing the critical force of the theory of well-being. If there are some preferences and attributes of the subject to be ignored, while others are to be taken into consideration, the distinction between these groups is very important. Furthermore, to distinguish this account from simpler informed preference theories (theories which impose certain idealized states of information and rationality on an individual’s preferences), the spectator would need to do more than simply overcome deficits in information or rationality on behalf of the subject.
The most obvious examples of a properly sympathetic parent involve this latter type of deficit (think of telling a child to stop playing video games and go to sleep so that he’ll have enough energy for the big soccer game in the morning). But the parent as sympathetic spectator loses some of its intuitive appeal where the father tells his daughter to stop playing with the soccer ball and get back to practicing piano because the he prefers music to sports. If something more than information and rationality deficits are at issue, but something less than imposing a preference for music, there is a question as to what “sympathy” entails.
But for Adler, the spectator serves an additional purpose. The spectator allows for a comparison between lives (“interpersonal comparisons”). This is to say that the tax lawyer spectator can look at Phil the philosopher’s life given his attributes, then she can look at Travis the zamboni driver’s life given his attributes, and in each case can determine the utility she would gain from living those lives. If the tax-lawyer spectator considers that her life as a zamboni driver with Travis’s attributes would be better than the philosopher’s life given Phil’s attributes, she can compare the relative utilities of the two lifestyles on her own account. By allowing each person to be a spectator, making the same attribute-relative utility estimation, and then by summing up the results of all of these life-comparisons, the hope is that we might get something that looks like an objective account of the comparative utility of a philosopher’s philosopher and a zamboni driver’s zamboni driver. In essence, each person as a spectator contributes to a welfarist Zagat’s; a standardized utility ranking tabulating the joint evaluation of all spectators with respect to different lives.
One workshop participant asked what would happen if everyone disagreed about these relative utilities. What if half of the spectators think Travis’s life as a zamboni driver is a better life than Phil’s as a philosopher, while the other half think the opposite? Adler suggested that we would hope that there is not a massive divergence, particularly if we assume full information about the outcomes. While it seems plausible that disagreement might remain about the utility of a philosopher’s life and the utility of a zamboni driver’s life, it might seem less plausible that anyone would rank the utility of a subsistence farmer in a drought-ridden country above the life of a professional academic in the United States. If most of the comparisons look like this second comparison (where we might very plausibly expect to see a convergence) then Adler’s view starts to solve the important problem of providing some objectivity and critical force to our account of well-being.