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September 08, 2009

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Clifford Sosis

In the milk case, it's easy to see why you shouldn't drink the milk if you're lactose intolerant: it'll make you sick!

Here, we might say milk is good for people in general. When we say it is bad for an individual it's because it makes them sick, which presumably reduces the fitness of that person. So, in general milk is excellent for the species, and in some cases, it is bad for the individuals. However, as I think you suggested, this doesn't show that species excellence and subject excellence are distinct, as many philosophers have suggested. If anything, it shows how closely related they are, because in both cases we are determining the value of milk in reference to your health.

The question remains: How should we calculate our well-being?

1) In terms of positive subjective feelings which are stimulated by activities which were conducive to our fitness in our evolutionary past, but undermine our fitness in the environment in which we find ourselves?

2) According to the common sense folk concept which is, like the subjective feelings mentioned above, a reflection of what was good for us from an evolutionary point of view?

3) Directly in terms of how fit we are, even if pursuing fitness makes us miserable in the environment in which we live now, which is fairly different from the environment in which we evolved?

Clifford Sosis

So, the question is, which conception of well-being is better? You might say that the collectivist cultures have a better conception of well-being because it maximizes chances of reproductive success.

What would explain why individualistic cultures think a good life can be childless? Presumably, it's because it has the elements of a life that would ordinarily probilify reproductive success.

Now, you might think, people living in individualistic cultures hedonically hijack evolution: we reap the hedonic benefits of doing things that increase our chances of reproducing (such as having intercourse) without the costs (the energy you expend raising children) by taking precautions (wearing condoms).

I think, contrary to popular opinion, our beliefs about subject excellence (what we say would be good for a particular person, based largely on how that person feels) can be explained by those features which tend to ensure the reproductive success of the species.

So we might think that, as a general rule, people who aren't deceived are well-off. However, there are circumstances in which people are deceived, but have other features we tend to associate with (or automatically believe are parts of) a good life, such as happiness.

Now, here, many philosophers want to decide whether the happy guy whose wife is cheating on him is well-off. There is disagreement. If our beliefs about well-being are the by-product of these evolutionary considerations we would expect this.

Consider this example: Suppose you live a prosperous, excellent life and you die of old age. However, all of your children and grandchildren die on the car ride to your funeral. It seems at least a few people want to say your life didn't go as well as it could have. On one hand, this is puzzling because these events in no way affect you: you're dead! On the other hand, if our beliefs about well-being are the upshot of that which is conducive to our fitness, we would expect this.

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I think that the notion of "a fabulous life plan which doesn't include children" is one that would be found primarily in individualist modern western cultures. It's my understanding that other more collectivist cultures emphasize the importance of family as a central element in a life plan that will ultimately lead to well-being. This makes sense from the ultimate perspective of satisfying reproductive motives as well as the proximate psychological sense of needing a reliable social support structure in order to maintain well-being.

I'm not entirely clear on the distinction between species excellence and subject excellence. Would it be more accurate to say that species excellence is "what is generally good for individual human beings"? If so, what is the distinction between that formulation and "what is good for an individual"? Perhaps an analogy or an example would help. Would it be accurate to say that subject excellence involves individual exceptions to the rules that govern well-being for the species?
For example:
[Species excellence] In general, consumption of milk promotes well-being since it serves as a rich source of calcium that helps with the development of strong bones and healthy teeth.
[Subject excellence] Some individuals are lactose intolerant and consumption of milk by these individuals would result in more digestive problems than overall health benefits.

Am I understanding this correctly?

Clifford Sosis

That makes sense...it becomes increasingly apparent to me that our welfare judgments are probably the by-product of our evolutionary past. If our welfare judgments seem to be unified by underlying principles, it's because they reflect the rules that usually worked in the environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Often a distinction is made between species excellence—what is good for human beings in general—and subject excellence—what is good for an individual. It has been observed that intuitively, the principles that usually ensure the fitness of members of a species in general might fail ensure the welfare of a specific individual in a particular environment.

Many take it that even though this type of model might explain why we feel the way we feel about well-being now, it doesn't help us figure out 1) how to ensure the fitness of our species as a whole in this environment, or 2) what well-being is in the subject centered sense which many philosophers are concerned with.

In my opinion, the first concern is simply a matter of doing the consequentialist calculus. The second concern might be misguided if our conception of well-being is a reflection of the rules which ensured our fitness...

For example, say that you might have a fabulous life plan which doesn't include children. If welfare judgments are the by-product of evolutionary forces, as your comment suggests, the reason we believe this is because this amazing life plan has features which usually would ensure your fitness.

But if that's the reason why we believe what we believe, we might be tempted to calculate our welfare directly in terms of fitness now, or rely on those inherited rules and principles which were conducive to our fitness. The choice, here, seems arbitrary. What do you think?


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The hypothesized function of disgust is disease avoidance. Material that produces (or can potentially produce) illness is generally considered to be disgusting. A good example of this is water that is contaminated with fecal bacteria. Likewise, most people probably consider physical health and access to clean drinking water to be critical factors in measuring well-being.

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