Well-Being as Nature-Fulfillment? WTF?!

What are happiness and well-being? No need to make it complicated. Dan Haybron is correct:

The short answer, according to me

Happiness is best understood as consisting in a person’s overall emotional condition. This includes moods, many emotions, and a person’s mood propensity, or tendency to experience various moods (which varies considerably over time). To be happy is roughly for one’s emotional condition to be solidly positive, with a heavy predominance of positive over negative affect.

Well-being consists in nature-fulfillment, making my view eudaimonistic. The account will likely take this form: well-being consists mainly in the fulfillment of the self’s emotional and rational aspects—i.e., in being authentically happy, and in success regarding the commitments that shape one’s identity. But our subpersonal natures probably also count, so we might add, secondarily, the fulfillment of our “nutritive” and “animal” natures: health or vitality and pleasure.

Almost correct. So, I take it back. Plenty of need to make it complicated. Starting about ten minutes ago, I no longer understand what “nature-fulfillment” is. I have no idea what my self’s “emotional and rational aspects” are. I have emotional capacities and cognitive capacities of various sorts—powers Hobbes might say. But I can’t exercise all of them. I am budget-constrained in the exercise of my capacities. Which ones to exercise, then? Which one’s to develop, perfect? Which to ignore, let wither? (How do I even individuate them—know where one ends and another begins?) If I’m supposed to exercise just the ones that add up to “well-being,” then we’ve circularly defined well-being, and haven’t said anything about it.

Further, I claim, our basic, culturally untutored cognitive capacities don’t add up to some kind of natural “rationality” in either an Aristotelian or Kantian (or whatever) sense. Rationality is an art. So our normative conception of rationality (and probably our conception of various forms of emotion) just is a kind identity-shaping commitment that doesn’t exist prior to or independent of set of social conventions and a personal commitment to hew to them. If I shape my identity by commitment to the exercise of certain emotional or rational capacities, then it may be necessary to sacrifice the exercise of some other emotional capacities—for example, the ones that reinforce a “solidly positive emotional condition,” or happiness. Can happiness be anathema to some people’s well-being?

Back to this nature-fulfillment business. Many folks seem to believe in “callings,” or nature-fulfilling activities. Maybe your calling is to make beautiful music on the piano. But it’s not like there are pianos in the wild, sprouting from the ground under the baobab trees. In a possible world without pianos, where would you be? Is the piano just a specification of a general to-be-fulfilled nature, a general naturally defined set of begging-to-be-realized potentials just hanging around in some kind of waiting room of the “self” (or subpersonal animal)? It seems doubtful. It seems more likely that the piano is an opportunity for a previously undreamt identity-shaping—capacity-shaping—commitment. There is no kind of personal nature that mastering the piano fulfills without pianos.

It is tempting for me to see this conclusion as a fat shiny nail craving the tender attentions of my hammer and to argue (Bang!) here is an argument for the proliferating plenitude and specialization of market society. The more piano-like opportunities to uniquely shape a custom soul, the better. But, the thought is, there may be no relevant fixed “nature,” and so there may be little normative  oomph in the possibility of committing to and fulfilling a particular constructed nature, unless there is something especially fitting about that nature relative to the infinite alternatives. But in that case we still need something fixed, like natures, just more individualized and specific.

Maybe we do have them, not because we come with them built in, but because they get built in through the interaction of our natural material–basic capacities, powers, etc.—with the culture we find ourselves embedded in. The more various and abundant the culture, the more fine-grained our micro-natures. So well-being as nature-fulfillment in market societies requires the maintenance of markets that churn out a dizzying variety of undreamt identity-shaping “pianos” that we can commit to in order to realize our seemingly factory-installed but hyper-individualized “potentials.”

So, Bang!, anyway.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center