The Folk Theory of Well-Being

In Shaun Nichols & Joshua Knobe (eds.), Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, Volume 5. Oxford University Press (2024)
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What constitutes a “good” life—not necessarily a morally good life, but a life that is good for the person who lived it? In response to this question of “well-being," philosophers have offered three significant answers: A good life is one in which a person can satisfy their desires (“Desire-Satisfaction” or “Preferentism”), one that includes certain good features (“Objectivism”), or one in which pleasurable states dominate or outweigh painful ones (“Hedonism”). To adjudicate among these competing theories, moral philosophers traditionally gather data from thought experiments and intuition. In this chapter, we supplement that traditional approach with a pair of experimental studies that examine whether the three theories reflect laypeople’s intuitions about well-being. The empirical studies yield two primary findings. First, they provide evidence for lay "well-being pluralism": laypeople treat desire satisfaction, positive objective conditions, and happiness as all constitutive of well-being. Second, the studies provide evidence of "hedonic dominance": laypeople evaluate an individual’s happiness as more important to an individual’s overall well-being than desire satisfaction or objective conditions.

Author Profiles

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago
Kevin Tobia
Georgetown University


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