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The Quality of Life$

Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780198287971

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198287976.001.0001

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Value, Desire, and Quality of Life

Value, Desire, and Quality of Life

(p.185) Value, Desire, and Quality of Life
The Quality of Life

Thomas Scanlon

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Scanlon questions the adequacy of desire as a measure of quality of life, arguing instead, for exploring an approach based on a critical scrutiny of a substantive list of elements that make human life valuable. The aim, according to Scanlon, is to develop a set of goods and bads which all human beings, insofar as there is an attempt to find a common vocabulary of justification, have reason to accept as covering the most important ways in which life can be made better or worse.

Keywords:   desire theory, objectivity, Derek Parfit, preferences, reasonable agreement, universality, utilitarianism


The subject of this volume, the quality of life, suffers from an embarrassing richness of possibilities. First, there are a number of related but distinct questions with which this notion might be associated. What kinds of circumstances provide good conditions under which to live? What makes a life a good one for the person who lives it? What makes a life a valuable one (a good thing, as Sidgwick put it, ‘from the point of view of the universe’)? Second, each of these questions admits of different interpretations and a number of possible answers. Finally, there are a number of different standpoints from which the question of what makes a person's life better, in any one of these senses, might be asked. It might be asked from the point of view of that person herself, who is trying to decide how to live. It might be asked from the point of view of a benevolent third party, a friend or parent, who wants to make the person's life better. It might be asked, in a more general sense, from the point of view of a conscientious administrator, whose duty it is to act in the interest of some group of people. It might be asked, again in this more general sense, by a conscientious voter who is trying to decide which policy to vote for and defend in public debate and wants to support the policy which will improve the quality of life in her society. Finally, the question of what makes a person's life better also arises in the course of moral argument about what our duties and obligations are, since these duties and obligations are surely determined, at least to some extent, by what is needed to make people's lives better or, at least, to prevent them from being made worse.

It is important to keep in mind not only the question we are asking but also the point of view from which it is being asked, since the plausibility of various answers can be strongly influenced by the point of view of the question, and unnoticed shifts in point of view can drive us back and forth between different answers. I assume that in discussing the quality of life our main concern is with the second question listed above, ‘What makes a life a good one for the person who lives it?’ and perhaps with the closely related question ‘What circumstances constitute good conditions under which to live?’ These questions have priority in so far as we see improvement in the quality of people's lives as morally and politically important because of the benefit it brings to them.

I have mentioned the third question, the question of value, primarily to distinguish it from these two, with the intention of then leaving it aside. This question admits of several interpretations, each of which is somewhat tangential to what I take to be our present concern. One might be moved to improve the quality of a person's life by the thought that one would thereby make it more valuable—that (p.186) the world containing this life would become a better world. But this aim seems, to me at least, to depart from the concern with what we owe to the person which lies at the heart of morality and justice. An individual might try to make her own life more valuable, in a slightly different sense, by making herself a morally better person or by aiming at other things that she takes to be worthwhile. This is certainly a laudable aim, but making people's lives more valuable in this sense does not seem to me to be part of the concern with others which lies behind our inquiry into the quality of life. (That it is not is a consequence of the point of view from which the question is normally asked, a matter I will discuss in Section 2.)

Several answers—or, rather, several types of answer—to the question of what makes a life good for the person who lives it have become established in the literature as the standard alternatives to be considered. Derek Parfit,1 for example, distinguishes hedonistic theories, desire theories, and objective list theories. The defining mark of hedonistic theories is what James Griffin2 has called the ‘experience requirement’, that is, the thesis that nothing can affect the quality of a life except by affecting the experience of living that life. A hedonistic theory needs to be filled out by specifying how the quality of this experience is to be judged. This has normally been done by specifying certain states (such as pleasure or happiness, understood in a particular way) as the ones which make a life better or worse. An alternative is to adopt the view that the experience of living a life is made better by the presence in it of those mental states, whatever they may be, which the person living the life wants to have, and is made worse by containing those states which that person would prefer to avoid. Parfit calls this alternative view ‘preference hedonism’.

Desire theories reject the experience requirement and allow that a person's life can be made better and worse not only by changes in that person's states of consciousness but also by occurrences elsewhere in the world which fulfil that person's preferences. The most general view of this kind—it might be called the ‘unrestricted actual desire theory’—holds that the quality of a person's life at a given time3 is measured by the degree to which the preferences which he or she has at that time are fulfilled. Since a person can in principle have preferences about anything whatever—about the number of moons the planet Uranus has, about the colour of Frank Sinatra's eyes, or about the sexual mores of people whom they will never see—this theory makes the determinants of the quality of a person's life very wide indeed. Other forms of desire theory restrict the range of these determinants. Sometimes this is done by restricting the objects (p.187) which the relevant preferences can have. What Parfit calls the ‘success theory’, for example, counts only preferences which are, intuitively, ‘about the person's own life’.4 Other forms of desire theory restrict attention to preferences which have a certain sort of basis. Harsanyi,5 for example, excludes preferences based on a person's moral beliefs, as well as what he calls ‘anti‐social’ preferences, and Griffin proposes what he calls an ‘informed desire theory’, which would make the quality of people's lives depend only on the fulfilment of those desires that they would have if they ‘appreciated the true nature’ of the objects of those desires.6

What is the rationale for these departures from the unrestricted actual desire theory? Parfit's success theory might be proposed simply as a way of bringing the desire theory closer to the ordinary meaning of the phrase ‘quality of a person's life’. It sounds odd to say that if I happen to have a desire that Uranus should have six moons, then my life will be better if it turns out that this is in fact the case. (Assuming, of course, that I am not an astronomer and have not invested any effort in trying to determine how many moons Uranus has or in developing cosmological theories which would be confirmed or disconfirmed by such a fact.)

A second reason for such restrictions is provided by the aim of describing a concept of well‐being which preserves the idea that any improvement in a person's well‐being has positive ethical value. The unrestricted actual desire theory fails to preserve this idea, since there are many preferences whose fulfilment appears to have no weight in determining what others should do. If, for example, I were to have a strong preference about how people quite remote from me in time and space lead their personal lives, this preference would give rise to no reason at all—not even a reason which is outweighed by other considerations—why they should behave in the way that I prefer. So the unrestricted actual desire theory must be scaled back if the direct ethical significance of well‐being is to be preserved, and I believe that most modifications of the desire theory are motivated by similar ethical concerns.7

The appeal of desire theories also derives in large part from ethical ideas. Harsanyi, for example, bases his preference utilitarianism on what he calls the ‘principle of preference autonomy’, ‘the principle that, in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences’.8 Some of the modified desire theories mentioned above involve departures from this principle, however. The exclusion of preferences based on moral beliefs may not be such a departure: since a person who wants a certain thing to happen because he considers it morally right is (p.188) unlikely to take its happening as a benefit to him, the preferences excluded by this restriction may not represent a person's view about ‘what is good and bad for him’. The same may be true of the preferences excluded by the success theory. But the informed desire theory is in stronger tension with the principle of preference autonomy, since it allows us to say that some of a person's firmly held preferences about his life are simply mistaken. For this reason and some others, I believe that the informed desire theory should probably not be counted as a form of desire theory at all but assigned instead to Parfit's third category, which he calls objective list theories. I will return to this question after I have discussed that category in more detail.

Of the three categories listed by Parfit, the category of objective list theories is least closely tied to a specific and well‐known view of what makes a life go better. (There is no familiar theory of which it is the generalization in the way that the category of mental state theories is a generalization of hedonism.) None the less, this category seems to me to contain all the most plausible candidates for an account of what makes a life better. The name, ‘objective list theory’, is doubly unfortunate. The term ‘list’ suggests a kind of arbitrariness (just what its critics would charge), and ‘objective’ suggests a kind of rigidity (as if the same things must be valuable for everyone), as well as inviting a host of difficult questions about the various forms of objectivity and the possibility of values being objective in any of these senses. One might think the name had been coined by opponents of views of this kind.9

But while its name may seem to imply a controversial claim to objectivity, this is not what is essential to the category as I understand it. What is essential is that these are theories according to which an assessment of a person's well‐being involves a substantive judgement about what things make life better, a judgement which may conflict with that of the person whose well‐being is in question. This is in contrast to the central idea of desire theories, according to which substantive questions about which things are actually good are (at least within limits) deferred to the judgement of the person whose well‐being is being assessed. According to the unrestricted actual desire theory, for example, if a person cares as much about A as about B then A contributes as much to that person's well‐being as B does, and if a person cares more about A than about B then A contributes more to that person's well‐being. Other desire theories depart from this principle in some cases, but it remains the central touchstone of theories of this type. Since this seems to amount to the claim that standards of well‐being are subjective, it is tempting to apply the contrasting term ‘objective’ to any view which rejects this principle. But this now seems to me a mistake.10 I am not sure what the best label is for theories in Parfit's third (p.189) category, but I suggest that we call them ‘substantive good theories’ since, unlike desire theories, they are based on substantive claims about what goods, conditions, and opportunities make life better.

Hedonism in its classical form,11 according to which pleasure is the only thing which contributes to the quality of a life, counts as a substantive good theory on the definition I have offered. This may seem odd. Hedonism may seem more akin to desire theories because it bases well‐being in certain mental states and because it introduces an important element of subjectivity into the determination of well‐being since different people receive pleasure from, and are made happy by, different things. But both of these reasons for associating the two views with one another are mistaken. Both views involve ‘mental states’, but they do so in very different ways. Hedonism takes certain mental states to be the only things of ultimate value. Desire theories count things as valuable if they are the objects of the appropriate ‘mental states’ or attitudes, but the things valued need not be mental states and the attitudes which confer value need not themselves be valuable.

The mistake underlying the second reason for linking hedonism and desire theories is, for present purposes, more important. What Parfit calls objective list theories of well‐being, and I am calling substantive good theories, have often been accused of excessive rigidity, as if they had to prescribe the same goods for everyone without regard for individual differences. Griffin, for example, cites ‘flexibility’ as an important advantage of his informed desire theory, and as his main reason for classifying it as a form of desire theory:

The informed‐desire account can allow that the values on the list (enjoyment, accomplishment, autonomy, etc.) are values for everyone, but it also allows that there may be very special persons for whom any value on the list (say, accomplishment), though valuable for them as for everybody, conflicts enough with another value (say, freedom from anxiety) for it not, all things considered, to be valuable for them to have.12

As Griffin goes on to acknowledge, however, substantive good theories can also allow for this kind of variation. They can count various kinds of enjoyment among those things that can make a life better, and can also recognize that different people experience these forms of enjoyment under different (p.190) circumstances, and are capable of experiencing them to different degrees and at different costs. Consequently, a substantive good theory can allow for the fact that the best lives for different people may contain quite different ingredients. Griffin observes that a substantive good theory of this kind becomes ‘very hard to distinguish from the informed‐desire approach’.13 As he also suggests, a decision about how to classify the resulting theory is apt to turn on the question of priority between value and desire. As I see it, according to a desire theory, when something makes life better this is always because that thing satisfies some desire. Substantive good theories can allow for the fact that this is sometimes the case—it is sometimes a good thing simply to be getting what you want—but according to these theories being an object of desire is not in general what makes things valuable.

Someone who accepts a substantive good theory, according to which certain goods make a life better, will no doubt also believe that these goods are the objects of informed desire—that they would be desired by people who fully appreciated their nature and the nature of life. But the order of explanation here is likely to be from the belief that these things are genuine goods to the conclusion that people will, if informed, come to desire them. The fact that certain things are the object of desires which are, as far as we can tell, informed desires, can be a reason for believing these things to be goods. But ‘reason’ here is a matter of evidence—of reason for believing—not a ground of value of the sort which the original desire theory was, I am assuming, supposed to supply.

This assumption raises a general question about what a philosophical theory of well‐being is supposed to do. One objective of such a theory is to describe a class of things which make lives better, perhaps also offering some account of the kind of case that can be made for the claim that a thing belongs to this class. A second, more ambitious objective is to give a general account of the ground of this kind of value—a general account of what it is that makes a life a good life. I take it that classical hedonism was supposed to do both of these things, and I have been assuming that the unrestricted actual desire theory also aimed at the second of these objectives at least as much as the first; that is, that it sought to explain what makes things valuable at least as much as to identify any particular group of things as desirable.

If I am right about this then the introduction of the adjective ‘informed’, which looks like a small qualification, in fact represents a significant departure. Informed desires are desires which are responsive to the relevant features of their objects. By acknowledging the importance of these features in making the objects good (and making the desires for them appropriate rather than mistaken), this theory parts company sharply with the unrestricted actual desire theory, according to which it was the satisfaction of desire which made things good.14

(p.191) A substantive good theory could have both of the theoretical objectives mentioned above, but the most plausible theories of this kind aim only at the first. Such a theory claims that certain diverse goods make a life better, and it will be prepared to defend this claim by offering reasons (possibly different in each case) about why these things are desirable. But it may offer no unified account of what makes things good. It seems to me unlikely that there is any such account to be had, since it is unlikely that there are any good‐making properties which are common to all good things. If this is correct, then there will be no general theory of goodness in between, on the one hand, a purely formal analysis of ‘good’ such as ‘answers to certain interests’ or ‘has the properties it is rational to want in a thing of that kind’15 and, on the other hand, diverse arguments about why various properties of particular objects make those objects good.


Let me turn now to a consideration of the various points of view which I have distinguished above. I have long been sceptical about desire theories as an account of well‐being appropriate for moral theory, but I have supposed that there is more to be said for them as an account appropriate for individual decision‐making. This seems to me to be a mistake, and I now believe that desire theories should also be rejected as accounts of well‐being appropriate to the first‐person point of view. I will argue against such theories in the following way. The fact that an outcome would improve a person's well‐being (‘make his or her life go better’) provides that person with a reason (other things being equal) for wanting that outcome to occur. If a desire theory were correct as an account of well‐being, then, the fact that a certain outcome would fulfil a person's desire would be a basic reason for that person to want that thing to come about. But desires do not provide basic reasons of this sort, at least not in non‐trivial cases. The fact that we prefer a certain outcome can provide us with a serious reason for bringing it about ‘for our own sake’. But when it does, this reason is either a reason of the sort described by a mental state view such as hedonism or a reason based on some other notion of substantive good rather than a reason grounded simply in the fact of desire, in the way that desire theories would require. To see this we need to consider each of these cases in a little more detail.

In many cases, the fact that I desire a certain outcome provides me with a reason for trying to bring it about because the presence of that desire indicates that the outcome will be pleasant or enjoyable for me. I can have reasons of this kind, for example, for ordering fish rather than tortellini, for climbing to the top of a hill, or for wearing a particular necktie. The end sought in these cases is the experience or mental state which the object or activity in question (p.192) is expected to produce, and the desire is an indication that this state is likely to be forthcoming (as well as, perhaps, a factor in producing it).

In other cases, my desire that a certain state of affairs should obtain reflects my judgement that that state of affairs is desirable for some reason other than the mere fact that I prefer it: it may reflect, for example, my judgement that state of affairs is morally good, or that it is in my overall interest, or that it is a good thing of its kind. This represents, I believe, the most common kind of case in which preferences are cited as reasons for action; the fact that I prefer a certain outcome is a reason for action in such a case, but not a fundamental one. My preferences are not the source of reasons but reflect conclusions based on reasons of other kinds. There are, of course, other cases in which I might say that the only reason I have for doing or choosing something is simply that ‘I prefer it’. But these cases are trivial ones rather than examples of the typical form of rational decision‐making.

My conclusion, then, is that when statements of preference or desire represent serious reasons for action they can be understood in one of the two ways just described: either as stating reasons which are at base hedonistic or as stating judgements of desirability reached on other grounds. What convinces me of this conclusion is chiefly the fact that I am unable to think of any clear cases in which preferences provide non‐trivial reasons for action which are not of these two kinds.

Additional support for this conclusion is provided by its ability to explain the familiar fact, emphasized by Richard Brandt, that past desires do not in general provide reasons for action and that their fulfilment does not in itself contribute to a person's well‐being. Brandt16 gives the example of a man who, as a child, desired intensely that he go for a roller‐coaster ride on his fiftieth birthday. As the date approaches, however, the man finds that he no longer enjoys roller‐coaster rides and that there are many other things he would rather do to celebrate his birthday. Surely, Brandt claims, the fact that he once had this desire gives the man no reason to take a roller coaster ride which he will not enjoy, nor would taking the ride contribute towards making his life better on the whole just because it is something which he once desired.

Brandt's conclusion is that the desire theory should be rejected as an account of what makes a person's life go better, and that a mental state theory should be adopted instead. But these examples provide no reason to move to a mental state theory rather than a substantive good theory, particularly when we bear in mind the fact that any plausible substantive good theory will count agreeable mental states among the things which can make a life better. If some such theory is correct, then the conclusion arrived at above—namely that the reason‐giving force of preferences always depends either on the pleasure which their fulfilment will bring or on the truth of the substantive judgements of desirability which they reflect—provides a systematic explanation of the phenomenon which Brandt describes.

(p.193) On the one hand, the fulfilment of desires that are no longer held brings no pleasure or satisfaction. On the other, in so far as the reason‐giving force of past preferences depends on substantive judgements of desirability, they obviously lose this force when those judgements are rejected. That is to say, the agent will no longer regard these preferences as providing reasons for action. Of course it may be that the agent's original judgement of desirability was correct, and he or she is therefore wrong to reject it. In that case the fulfilment of the original preference might indeed make the agent's life better and so, in a sense, he or she may have reason to seek its fulfilment. But the force of that reason, if it is one, has nothing to do with the fact that the agent once had this preference.

Similar remarks apply to future preferences. When one agrees with the judgement of desirability that a future preference will express, one will believe that one has reason now to promote the fulfilment of that preference. So, for example, a person who believes that in ten years she will have children for whom she will want to provide a good education, and who believes now that educating one's children is very important, will believe that she now has a reason to promote that future goal. But the future preference itself is doing little work in such cases; what matters is the underlying judgement of desirability. The cases in which the fact of future preference is itself most clearly fundamental fit the hedonistic (or, more broadly, experiential) model: our concern in these cases is to bring ourselves the pleasant experience of having these preferences fulfilled or to spare ourselves the unpleasant experience of having them frustrated. For example, a 19‐year‐old who cares nothing for old family photographs but believes that in thirty years he will feel quite different about such things has reason to save them simply in order to bring himself pleasure, and avoid sadness, in the future.

It is difficult to come up with a plausible example in which future preferences which one does not now have none the less provide one with direct reasons for action that are independent of experiential or other indirect effects and independent of the merits of the judgements on which those preferences are based. My belief is that if such an example were offered, it would turn out on examination to be better understood as an instance of a quasi‐moral obligation to respect the autonomy of one's future self rather than as a case of regard for one's overall well‐being (identified with one's level of preference satisfaction). For it is hard to see how a concern for one's well‐being could be the motive for promoting the fulfilment of a future preference if one regards that preference as mistaken (i.e. believes that its object is inferior to other alternatives) and if one's concern is not with the quality of one's future experience.

Nothing that I have said here in criticizing the desire theory as an account of an individual's view of his or her own well‐being is incompatible with the thesis that it is rational to act in such a way as to maximize one's expected utility. This thesis does not assert that people should take utility maximization to be their most basic reason for action. It is not a thesis about the reasons people have for acting but rather a thesis about the structure which the preferences of a (p.194) rational individual will have (whatever the content or ground of these preferences may be). The thesis asserts that the preferences of a rational person will satisfy certain axioms and that when this is the case there will be a mathematical measure of expected preference satisfaction such that the individual will always prefer the alternative to which this measure assigns the greater number. In short, it asserts that a rational individual will choose in such a way as to maximize utility, but does not claim that utility is a quantity which (like pleasure) supplies the reasons for these choices.17

Let me turn now to consider the point of view of a benevolent third party, such as a friend or parent, who wants to promote a person's well‐being. What concept of well‐being is appropriate here? Harsanyi has suggested that the relevant notion is fulfilment of the preferences of the intended beneficiary, and he points out that this is what we aim at when we are selecting a gift for a friend.18 Brandt, on the other hand, has argued, citing psychological evidence, that what benevolent individuals in fact aim at is the happiness of their intended beneficiaries rather than the fulfilment of their desires, and he defends this aim as rational.19 It seems to me that Brandt offers the correct account of Harsanyi's examples. Preferences are important when we are selecting a gift, baking a birthday cake, or deciding where to take a friend to dinner because what we are aiming at in such cases is a person's happiness. What we want is to please them, and preferences play a double role here. First, they indicate what gift is likely to bring pleasure. In addition, a person can be pleased simply by the fact that we have taken care to discern what his preferences are and to find a gift that fulfils them. But, contrary to Brandt's suggestion, it is not clear that pleasure is what we should always aim at qua benefactors. Surely there are cases in which a true benefactor will aim at a person's overall good at the expense of what would be pleasing (or will at least be torn between these two objectives). If this is correct, then a benefactor's conception of well‐being must include a notion of the substantive good of the beneficiary which can diverge from the idea of what the beneficiary will find pleasing. But in so far as the idea of pure desire satisfaction diverges from these two it seems to play little role in the thinking of a rational benefactor.

This idea gets greater weight, however, when we shift from the role of benefactor to that of agent or representative. A person who is acting for a friend (or son or daughter) may be constrained by that person's preferences, in so far as these are known, in a way that a benefactor is not. (Certainly this is the view that my own children take!) Whatever view children may take, however, (p.195) the role of parents is not merely to be the agents of their children. They are not bound always to take their children's preferences as definitive of their good, and need to be able to form an independent judgement about that good. But it is when we focus on people whose role is solely that of agents for other adults that the desire theory has its greatest plausibility. That view owes much of its influence to its wide acceptance among economists, and it seems likely that this acceptance is in turn based on the idea that officials who must choose social policies for a society should think of themselves as agents of the members of that society, and therefore as bound to promote the fulfilment of the members' preferences.

It is no objection here that from the point of view of the members themselves the reason‐giving force of these preferences depends on other factors, in the way I have argued above. These preferences can count as ultimate sources of reasons from the point of view of the decision‐maker whatever their standing may be for the individuals whose preferences they are. Official responsibility can be defined in many different ways, but it is natural to suppose that an official could be conceived both to be acting for the good of a group and to be bound to accept the expressed judgement of members of that group as to where that good lies. Here, then, is a natural home for desire theories.

What makes such theories seem appropriate to questions of social policy is not the nature of the questions at issue. If the same policy questions were to be decided by referendum then each individual voter would be free to consider what he or she thinks would be best, and not bound to take the idea of what is ‘best’ as defined by the expressed preferences of all the members of society. The appeal of desire theories arises rather from the constraints which we have taken to apply to the decision‐maker, and the point to be made is that these constraints, which may in context be quite appealing, are also quite special. The question is how broadly they apply. Do they, for example, apply to each of us when we adopt the attitude of impartiality which is appropriate to moral argument? I will turn next to that question.


Any discussion of the role of well‐being in moral argument takes place against the background of utilitarianism, which assigns this concept such a fundamental role. Even in non‐utilitarian theories, however, the justification of rights and principles must refer at least in part to the importance of the interests which they promote and protect, and any such theory must therefore face the questions of how these interests are to be characterized and how their claims to moral importance are to be justified.

Answers to these questions depend on a view of the nature of moral judgement and moral argument. I will discuss the answers which seem to me to be supported (p.196) by my own contractualist moral theory.20 According to this theory, the basic motive behind morality is the desire to be able to justify one's actions to others on grounds that they have reason to accept if they are also concerned with mutual justification. The theory holds that when we address a question of right and wrong the question we are addressing is whether the proposed action would be allowed by principles of conduct which people moved by this desire could not reasonably reject.

When can a principle be reasonably rejected by someone who is motivated in this way? This is a difficult question which I cannot answer fully, but I think that at least the following is true. A person can reasonably reject a principle if (1) general acceptance of that principle in a world like the one we are familiar with would cause that person serious hardship, and (2) there are alternative principles, the general acceptance of which would not entail comparable burdens for anyone. In order, then, to decide whether a given principle can reasonably be rejected we will need some interpretation of the terms ‘serious hardship’ and ‘comparable burden’. This is how the notion of individual well‐being makes its fundamental appearance in contractualist moral argument.

Note that the context of moral argument as contractualism describes it differs in two important respects from the situation of the social decision‐maker discussed at the end of the preceding section. First, that decision‐maker was assumed to be dealing with a given set of specific individuals whose preferences had been expressed. But when we are trying to work out what is right we are concerned with the choice of general principles of action, which will apply to an indefinite range of individuals whose particular preferences there is no way of knowing in detail (though we do know general facts about the kinds of preference most people have.) Second, while the task of the official is to reach a decision by amalgamating the stated preferences of the members of the group, a person considering a moral question is (according to contractualism) trying to work out the terms of a hypothetical agreement among these people. The imagined role of the members of the group is thus quite different in the two cases: in one case all they are taken to have done is to submit their personal preferences, while in the other they are thought of, hypothetically, as reacting to one another, trying to find principles that they can all accept. These two features, the generality of moral argument and the central place within it of the aim of agreement, are important in determining the relevant notions of individual benefit and burden.

I argued above that individuals' choices, and their conceptions of their own well‐being, are guided by their ideas of substantive good, which typically include but are not limited to the experiential goods of various ‘desirable states of consciousness’. Such a conception of substantive goods will provide an individual with a basis for deciding what a good life is, but it may also go beyond that, since the things which an individual recognizes as substantive goods may include (p.197) some which lie outside his or her ‘life’ in the ordinary sense.

An individual will thus have a reason for wanting to reject a principle if the results of its general acceptance would be very bad from the point of view of that person's conception of substantive good. Suppose, however, that the person is moved to find and act on principles which no one could reasonably reject. How could his or her rejection of this principle be shown to be reasonable? What the person must do to show this is to put the reasons for that rejection in terms that others must recognize as important, terms that they would want to employ themselves to reject principles which burden them and that they are therefore prepared to recognize as generally compelling.

It is easiest to claim this status for substantive bads which everyone recognizes as serious: such things as loss of life, intense physical pain, and mental or physical disability. In general, losses of what Sen21 calls ‘functionings’ will be good candidates for this list. But the things that are important to an individual will go beyond these basic functionings, and there will normally be less agreement about the nature and relative value of these further goods. Different individuals may enjoy different pursuits, follow different religions, and find different aims worth pursuing.

There are several ways to find agreement despite this diversity. First, there may be agreement on the importance of those goods and opportunities which are the main means to these diverse ends. Rawlsian ‘primary social goods’ such as income, wealth, and socially protected opportunities for self‐expression would be examples of such means. The value that we can agree to assign to these resources need not be ‘fetishistic’ in the sense criticized by Sen22 as long as it is acknowledged that their moral importance depends on their strategic role in the pursuit of diverse individual aims. Even if they are of only instrumental value, however, it might be claimed that these resources are none the less morally basic measures of well‐being because their importance to life can be the object of the kind of consensus required to confer moral status, whereas there may be no consensus on the value of the particular pursuits to which they are the means (no agreement, for example, on the value of the particular forms of expression which various individuals want to engage in).

It is unlikely, however, that particular resources will be morally basic in this sense.23 Lying behind such primary goods will be broad categories of good and harm which carry specific weight in moral argument. People can agree, for example, on the importance of having opportunities for self‐expression (the exact form of these opportunities being as yet unspecified) even though they disagree sharply over the merits of particular speeches, plays, demonstrations, (p.198) etc. Similarly, people who hold very different and conflicting beliefs may still be able to agree that ‘being able to follow one's religion’ is (for those who have one) an important part of life, and consequently a personal value which must be given significant weight in moral argument. The formulation of such abstract categories of good and harm is one of the main means through which a common set of moral values is developed. Moral argument clearly requires values of this kind which are intermediate between specific resources on the one hand and particular individual aims on the other, since the adequacy of specific resources, such as specific legally defined rights of freedom of expression or freedom of religion, can always be questioned, and these rights may need to be redefined as conditions change. In order to argue about such matters we need a moral vocabulary in which we can express the moral importance of the underlying individual interests.

What emerges, then, as a basis for arguing about the acceptability or unacceptability of particular moral principles is a heterogeneous collection of conditions, goods, and categories of activity24 to which certain moral weights are assigned. Let me call this a system of moral goods and bads. The process of thought through which one arrives at such a system includes a mixture of ‘fact’ and ‘value’ elements. One begins with one's own view of the substantive goods which, in general, make life better and with a knowledge of how other individuals differ in their circumstances and in their views about what is substantively good.25 The pressure to formulate a system of common values is then provided by the moral aim of finding a way of evaluating principles of action which all these individuals could accept despite their differences.

I argued in Section 2 that individuals themselves, and benevolent third parties, assess well‐being in terms of substantive goods rather than in terms of the satisfaction of desires. In moral thinking as well, what we should (and, I believe, normally do) appeal to is our best estimate of what is important to making our lives and the lives of others good (recognizing that, in view of our differences, this will not always be the same). But the aim of finding a mode of argument that others could not reasonably refuse to accept forces us to consider not only what we take to be important goods for other people (what we think they would recognize as good if they were fully informed and rational) but also what it would be unreasonable of them, under normal conditions, not to recognize as important goods. The aim then is to develop a set of goods and bads which we all, in so far as we are trying to find a common vocabulary of justification, have reason to accept as covering the most important ways in which life can be made better or worse.

The system of moral goods and bads which emerges from such a search for common standards of evaluation may include some elements, such as the importance of avoiding physical pain and bodily harm, which are common to almost (p.199) every individual's list of substantive goods. But because it must be the object of a consensus, the system of moral goods and bads may not assign these goods and bads the same relative values which they receive in some individual outlooks. In addition, it may contain some elements which have no analogous role in individuals' views of the good. The category of religion can be seen as an example of this. For a believer, the abstract category of religion may be of little interest since it groups her own most important beliefs together with other systems of thought which may strike her as, at best, objects of curiosity. The importance of this category lies either in sociological reflection or, more relevant for present purposes, in liberal morality. In the former, it groups together disparate practices and systems of belief in virtue of similarities in the role they play in the lives of different groups of people. In the latter, it serves to express a willingness to equate, for the purposes of moral argument, beliefs and practices which have a similar importance in the lives of different people but which are, from the point of view of any one such person, of very different value. The moral aim of finding forms of justification which others can also accept pushes us to develop such categories and to give them a central role in our thinking.

In so far as a system of moral goods and bads differs in these ways from individual conceptions of well‐being, it could be said to be ‘not subjective’, that is, not an expression of any individual's preferences. As I mentioned earlier in this paper, however, it does not follow that such a system is ‘objective’. For one thing, there is the question of the objectivity of the judgement that a particular system of values of this kind represents a standard which it is reasonable to employ, given the existing diversity of individual points of view. Second, the process I have described, through which such a system is arrived at and defended, can be expected to yield different outcomes in different social settings, since the activities and pursuits which are important to individual lives will vary from society to society. Even the relative importance of various physical and mental capacities will vary depending on the kind of life that people have the opportunity to live. Whether these considerations undermine the ‘objectivity’ of a system of moral goods and bads, and how, if at all, that matters, are difficult questions which it seems best to leave aside for the present.

For the purposes of argument about which principles it is reasonable to reject, a system of moral goods and bads does not need to provide a very complete ordering of levels of well‐being. It is enough to distinguish between those ‘very severe’ losses which count as grounds for reasonable rejection and those gains and losses which are not of comparable severity. If we were to accept a principle requiring the equalization of well‐being (as defined by such a system of moral goods and bads) then the level of completeness demanded would be much stronger. My own view is that such a global principle of equality is not very plausible: the ideas of equality which are most significant and morally compelling deal with a narrower range of goods. But that is larger issue which I will leave for another occasion.

(p.200) Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Brandt, Richard (1979). A Theory of the Good and the Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Griffin, James (1986). Well Being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harman, Gilbert (1977). The Nature of Morality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harsanyi, John C. (1975). ‘Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls's Theory’, American Political Science Review, 69, 594–606.

—— (1977). ‘Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour’, Social Research, 44. Repr. in Sen and Williams, 1982: 39–62. (Page references in text are to the reprinted version.)

Parfit, Derek (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, T. M. (1975). ‘Preference and Urgency’, Journal of Philosophy, 72, 655–69.

—— (1982). ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, in Sen and Williams, 1982: 103–28.

—— (1991). ‘The Moral Basis of Interpersonal Comparisons’, in Jon Elster and John Roemer (eds.), Interpersonal Comparisons of Well‐Being. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Amartya K. (1980). ‘Equality of What?’ in S. M. McMarrin (ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, I. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, and Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Repr. in Sen, Choice, Welfare and Measurement. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (Page references in text are to reprinted version.)

—— (1984). ‘Well‐being, Agency and Freedom’, Journal of Philosophy, 82, 169–221.

—— and Williams, Bernard (eds.) (1982). Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ziff, Paul (1960). Semantic Analysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


I am grateful to Sissela Bok and James Griffin for their helpful comments on the version of this paper presented at the Helsinki conference.

(1) Parfit, 1984: app. I.

(2) Griffin, 1986: 13.

(3) I set aside here the problem of how this view can be extended into an account of the quality of a person's life as a whole which allows for the fact that preferences change over time. The difficulty of making this extension has been emphasized by Richard Brandt. See Brandt, 1979: ch. 13.

(4) Parfit, 1984: 494. For a similar proposal see Griffin, 1986: 13.

(5) See Harsanyi, 1977: 56.

(6) Griffin, 1986: 11.

(7) I argue elsewhere that this is true of the modifications which Harsanyi proposes. See Scanlon, 1991.

(8) Harsanyi, 1977: 55.

(9) Though Parfit is not such an opponent, and I myself bear some responsibility here since I have also used the term ‘objective’ in arguing for the necessity of a view of this kind. See Scanlon, 1975.

(10) In Scanlon 1975: 658, I wrote, ‘By an objective criterion I mean a criterion which provides a basis for appraisal of a person's well‐being which is independent of that person's tastes and interests.’ This formulation now seems unfortunate in several respects. As I have said, the term ‘objective’ was not apt. In addition, I should have made it clearer that by ‘independent of’ I meant ‘not wholly dependent on’. I did not mean to suggest that a criterion of the kind I had in mind would always ignore differences in individual tastes and interests, but only that it did not have to be governed by them.

(11) ‘Preference hedonism’ may seem a different case since, while it retains the experience requirement, it leaves the qualities of experience which make life better to be determined by each individual's own preferences. It could thus be classed as a restricted desire theory. But the restriction in question—excluding everything other than the quality of a person's experience—is sufficiently strong that I would count preference hedonism too as a substantive good theory. Note that it could be arrived at from the informed desire theory only by adding a strong claim about what it is in fact rational to desire.

(12) Griffin, 1986: 33.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Compare Gilbert Harman's observation about the tendency of emotivism to evolve into ideal observer theory in Harman, 1977: ch. 4.

(15) Analyses such as those offered in Ziff, 1960: ch. 6; and Rawls, 1971: ch. 7.

(16) Brandt, 1979: ch. 13.

(17) It should also be noted that the most plausible version of the utility maximization thesis is one in which the relevant notion of utility is based on all of a person's preferences, no matter what the objects of these preferences may be. For the reasons noted in the previous section, the breadth of this notion of utility makes it an implausible account of well‐being, whatever merits it may have as a description of what a rational individual would aim at.

(18) Harsanyi, 1975: 600–1.

(19) Brandt, 1979: 147–8.

(20) As outlined in Scanlon, 1982.

(21) In, for example, Sen, 1984: 197 ff.

(22) See Sen, 1980: 366.

(23) This is not an objection to Rawls since he does not present ‘primary social goods’ as the most fundamental moral measures of well‐being but rather as an index of distributive shares to be used for the purposes of assessing the justice of basic economic and political institutions. Their adequacy for this more specialized purpose is a separate question from the one I am discussing.

(24) Sen's notion of ‘functionings’ may be broad enough to encompass all of these.

(25) See Griffin, 1986: 114, for an excellent statement of this starting point.