R – E – S – P – E – C – T

To investigate the nature of well-being, let’s start with the basic respect assumption: Most people with a concept of well-being are generally successful in talking about and identifying instances of well-being. The basic respect assumption isn’t very bold. We can talk about well-being even if we’re quite mistaken about what it is. People who had deeply mistaken or incomplete views about the nature of water, electricity, electrons, atoms, planets, stars, meteors, asteroids, combustion, disease, light (this list could go on and on) were nonetheless able to talk about those things.

And so the basic respect assumption doesn’t commit us to saying that no one makes mistakes, even systematic mistakes, about well-being. It only commits us to saying that when philosophers theorize about well-being, they’re usually not too far from the truth about it; and when psychologists study well-being, they usually manage to investigate it. A point in favor of the basic respect assumption is that it’s hard to see where else to start our investigation into well-being. If philosophers or psychologists are deeply confused about well-being, it seems like that should be the conclusion of our investigation into the nature of well-being, not its starting point.


We don’t know what well-being is, but we’ve got a bunch of philosophers and psychologists studying it. So here’s a suggestion: Let’s see if we can find something that philosophers and psychologists are all roughly right about when they study well-being. Suppose we find this special something. The best explanation for why it makes philosophers’ theorizing about well-being and psychologists’ empirical studies of well-being roughly true is that this something really is well-being.

This inclusive approach makes the study of well-being a genuinely interdisciplinary enterprise. To find out what well-being is, we need as evidence both the philosopher’s intuitions and the psychologist’s empirical findings.

If you adopt a more exclusive approach, one that leaves out the philosophers or the psychologists, you’re committed to rejecting the basic respect assumption. If you think that a theory of well-being doesn’t need to make sense of psychologists’ studies, you’re not just saying that psychologists are somewhat mistaken – even systematically mistaken – about what well-being is. You’re saying that psychologists are so confused about what well-being is that their research isn’t just false – it isn’t even about well-being.


An epistemological thesis supports the Great Divide: Normative theories are based on intuition; science is based on observation and experiment. And so there is a Great Divide between descriptive science and the normative branches of philosophy. The inclusive approach challenges this epistemological thesis. There’s no guarantee, of course, that the approach will work. But if it does, the epistemological thesis topples. And once it falls, the Great Divide falls with it.


I’ll bet you have doubts about the inclusive approach: What does it mean for a theory of well-being to “make sense” of Positive Psychology? What if there is no special something that philosophers and psychologists are all roughly right about when they study well-being? And even if there is, why should we think that special something is well-being?

In this forum, frankly, my attempts to put your doubts to rest are going to be terse and sketchy. For more details, I’m afraid you’ll have to check out TGL

So revel in your doubts. But keep in mind that no approach to doing philosophy comes without risk. In fact, given the failure of the traditional intuition-based approach to home in on a preferred theory or a family of theories about well-being, I would suggest that the inclusive approach introduces no more risk than philosophers have gladly borne for millennia.


Notes: While the inclusive approach is unorthodox in the study of well-being, elements of it can be found in the work of recent philosophers (such as Valerie Tiberius, Daniel Haybron, Anna Alexandrova, Erik Angner, JD Trout, and others). Further, the approach is familiar in other areas of philosophy, such as the philosophy of psychology (e.g., see debates about belief, emotions, and consciousness). In Knowledge and Its Place in Nature (2002), Hilary Kornblith employs something much like the inclusive approach to defend a reliabilist theory of knowledge. Kornblith’s example is an important precedent since he applies the approach to a normative category.

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