Well-Being Across the Social and Behavioral Sciences
Abstract. In my presentation, I will explore conceptions of individual and social well-being (or welfare) implicit in the literature on subjective well-being. While contributors to the literature all give pride of place to subjectively experienced positive or desirable mental states, I will argue that they differ on at least two points. First, they disagree about whether subjective well-being constitutes well-being or merely is a component of it. Second, they disagree about the nature of subjective well-being: about whether it is constituted by a cognitive, hedonic, emotional, or mood state, or some combination, and about whether to call that state “happiness,” “satisfaction,” or something else entirely. Meanwhile, the vast majority of contributors appear to adopt some utilitarian account of social welfare, according to which social welfare is the total – or equivalently, when the size of the population is constant, the average – welfare of the members of the group. In addition, I will compare these approaches to the study of well-being to some of those found in modern economics. I will argue that the different approaches differ dramatically when it comes to the underlying account of individual welfare. Instead of studying mental states, what I call the standard economic approach is based on some preference-satisfaction account of well-being, while the social-indicators / capability approach is based on some objective-list account. For all their evident differences, however, I will argue that there is a great deal of continuity when it comes to accounts of social welfare: economic and subjective measures are by and large applications of some utilitarian social welfare function. As it turns out, both similarities and differences are instructive. The discussion will demonstrate the value of philosophical inquiry into the foundations of policy-relevant social science.