Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

The Limits of Well-Being

Shelly Kagana1

a1 Philosophy, University of Illinois at Chicago

What are the limits of well-being? This question nicely captures one of the central debates concerning the nature of the individual human good. For rival theories differ as to what sort of facts directly constitute a person's being well-off. On some views, well-being is limited to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But other views push the boundaries of well-being beyond this, so that it encompasses a variety of mental states, not merely pleasure alone. Some theories then draw the line here, limiting well-being to the presence of the appropriately broadened set of mental states. But still others extend the limits of well-being even further, so that it is constituted in part by facts that are not themselves mental states at all; on such views, well-being is partly constituted by states of affairs that are “external” to the individual's experiences.

In this essay, I want to explore some of this debate by focusing on a particular stretch of the dialectic. That is, I want to think hard about a particular connected series of arguments and counterarguments. These arguments – or, at least, the concerns they seek to express – emerge naturally in the give and take of philosophical discussion. Together they make up a rather simple story, whose plot, in very rough terms, is this: first there is an attempt to push the limits of well-being outward, moving from a narrow to a broader conception; then comes the claim that the resulting notion is too broad, and so we must retreat to a narrower conception after all.