Well-Being and Six Features of the Human Condition

The concept of well-being is very slippery having many different meanings and applications. Moreover, with politicians and governments increasingly using it as an adjudicating value for how policies should be formulated and implemented (including, most recently, the Welsh Government’s Social Services and Well-being Act 2014), it has become especially important to take a step back and assess what well-being means exactly, and how this value relates to who we are as human beings. It is in this light that WISERD recently hosted a workshop on well-being at the University of South Wales, raising important questions amongst academics, practitioners, and policy-makers, about its meaning and measurement. My observations below summarise the main points in the paper I presented, entitled: ‘Six features of the human condition: a conceptual mapping exercise for competing understandings of well-being and some implications for public policy.’

First, I described six features of the human condition which I contended are common to us all, so bearing on questions concerning human well-being. In short, drawing on the wider well-being literature in philosophy, I argue that whatever conception of well-being is used, all must accommodate these six features of the human condition – though, I argued, the precise relationship between these features vary, depending on the position taken.

Six features of the human condition
Embodiment: We are physical creatures who relate and connect with the world through bodily sensations; via our senses – touch, sight, hearing, taste; our experiences of pain and pleasure; our emotions – joy, happiness, anger, sadness, fear; our physical needs for food, water, shelter, rest, warmth; our numerous wants, desires and aversions; and, our feelings towards others – such as pity, compassion, disgust, love, and hate. Whatever our embodied responses, conceptions of human well-being should, I propose, acknowledge this physicality.

Finiteness: We are limited by beginnings and ends – less abstractly, we are necessarily bounded by our existence or survival, the parameters being our births and deaths; our inability to be in two places and times at once; our limited capabilities constrained by social and physical environments, and so on. These constraints, derived from our finiteness, make us vulnerable to harm, disappointment, failure, conflicting choices, and error when calculating what is best for our well-being to pursue. However, being limited in these respects (and others beside), also shapes our life experiences, paradoxically, enabling us, as subjective differentiated persons, to enjoy and become immersed ‘in the moment’ and so be ‘attuned’ to our lives.

Sociability: We learn language and communicate with others, becoming members of social groups. These groups generate social rules of behaviour which delineate arenas of well-being, as different ways of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ are created through social cooperation. These memberships also lead to reciprocal exchanges, which, should be accounted for, to understand how well-being is best promoted. Therefore, conceptions of well-being only focusing on individual endeavour and accomplishments are likely to be inadequate given this condition of sociability.

Cognition: We also understand, rationally calculate, and can be reasonable toward others. Human cognition is clearly mind-orientated, exercising logic, gather information and evidence, and engaging in, what we might be described as, creative imagination – via our imagination we can, for example, picture new possibilities for the future, and remember the past. This ability is also crucial in understanding how well-being, most notably over life-times, is best promoted.

Evaluation: It matters to our well-being that we successfully accomplish goals and ambitions, and these goals and ambitions are valuable to us. Value is understood in terms of what is worthwhile (pastimes, career options, other lifestyle choices), but also refers to moral principles – what is considered right, wrong, just or unjust. Consequently, we evaluate what we do and achieve, and so not merely count our successes, with both success and positive evaluation enhancing our well-being. Value is also derived from exercising self-knowledge – being true to ourselves, or authentic, as it is sometimes called.

Agency: As individuals and/or as members of groups, we, as stated, set goals and have plans and ambitions considered valuable or worthwhile. This implies a degree of agency, where, to lesser or greater degrees, we choose from alternatives, and so become authors of our own actions and life-plans. These alternatives, for sure, are restricted by social, political and physical environments, but, despite these restrictions, we all have options, allowing us to accomplish goals, however limited these might be. Moreover, our choices reflect desires which are shaped by information concerning these desires, so becoming “informed”. Informed desires cohere with wider understandings of what is best for us, reflecting the pursuit of our more important goals and ambitions.

Given this brief outline of these six human conditions, what are some further implications of these features for understanding well-being; how might we use these features to understand better the philosophical debates concerning well-being and their application to social and public policy?

Exploring some philosophical terrains and implications for policy
Even if all six features of the human condition are accommodated for in any conception of well-being there is still considerable scope for debate concerning how these features precisely relate. Kantians, for example, are likely to establish our capacity for agency and cognition as a foundation for understanding and promoting well-being, tending to view well-being as, at best, an inclusive or transparent value. Consequently, well-being for Kantians is usually enhanced by successfully pursuing valuable, rational and reasonable goals, but is not best, or commonly, pursued for its own sake.

Classical Utilitarians, and those from a Humeian persuasion, alternatively, view well-being as based on embodied experiences, with these experiences understood, at least primitively, as subjective and individual. For Utilitarians and Humeians, subjective well-being is more likely seen as a primary value, and although may be constrained by agency, cognition, evaluation, and sociability, is usually promoted within public policy as a relatively substantial, even dominant, end. Other policy debates also ensue concerning, for example, the significance of a person being present-orientated in her pursuit of well-being, as distinct from a rational evaluator of her life overall.

Communitarians, and most feminist, post-modern and post-structuralists writers, would likely view well-being differently again, emphasising the human feature of sociability as a better platform for understanding well-being. Public policy should, in turn, focus on the social groups we belong to, and on how our realities are constructed by, for example, shared language-use and other social behaviours. In short, well-being is viewed primarily as a social product, derived from collective endeavours, with the business of public and social policy being to facilitate these activities.

Of course, these brief sketches of the philosophical terrain and their application to public policy are bound to oversimplify issues and over-polarise debate, given many positions are taken in between, plus many others beside. Nevertheless, my contention is that describing these features of the human condition at least define some general territories of discussions about well-being – for example, highlighting the relationship between subjective and objective accounts of well-being, experience and evaluation/life-satisfaction accounts, and the various ways in which individual and collective/group endeavours relate and are both promoted.

Written by Steve Smith, University of South Wales, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, steve.smith@southwales.ac.uk) – Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Policy

This blog was first published in Issue 12 October 2015 ‘Celebrating the first year of WISERD Civil Society’

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