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Public Law & Legal Theory


What constitutes a “good” life—not necessarily a morally good life, but a life that is good for the person who lived it (sometimes called “prudential goodness” or “well-being” or “welfare”)? On some views, of course, a life cannot be good for the person who lived it if it was not also morally good, but we want to prescind from that question. Even scholars holding those views—such as some of the ancient Greeks or Kant, who arguably thought moral goodness was central to welfare—also recognized that a good life must have other features or attributes.

What might those attributes be, and which (if any) is most important? In this experimental philosophy study, we assess three candidate views of the “good life” or “wellbeing”1 : According to Desire-Satisfaction [“Preferentism”], a good life is one in which the agent is able to satisfy his desires, or most of his desires, or his most important desires, or in which desire-satisfaction outweighs desire-frustration. According to Objectivism,2 a good life is one that includes certain good features, quite independent of how they make the person feel or the person’s desires: this might include, e.g., perfecting one’s skills or talents (or particular kinds of skills and talents), realizing one’s essential traits, or having certain kinds of widely recognized goods, such as loving relationships, wealth, recognition, and success. According to Hedonism, a good life is one in which pleasurable (or enjoyable) mental states are either dominant or outweigh the painful (or unpleasant) mental states.

These traditional categories will be useful for our purposes, even if they simplify many of the theoretical positions on offer and cannot claim to exhaust the possible views in logical space. For example, Fred Feldman (2004), an important contemporary hedonist, emphasizes the attitude of enjoyment (rather than sensory pleasure).3