The experience requirement on well-being


According to the experience requirement on well-being, differences in subjects’ levels of welfare or well-being require differences in the phenomenology of their experiences. I explain why the two existing arguments for this requirement are not successful. Then, I introduce a more promising argument for it: that unless we accept the requirement, we cannot plausibly explain why only sentient beings are welfare subjects. I argue, however, that because the right kind of theory of well-being can plausibly account for that apparent fact about welfare subjects even if the requirement is false, this argument does not succeed. I tentatively conclude that no compelling case can be made for the requirement.

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  1. 1.

    McDaniel and Bradley (2008) argue that a conditional desire (e.g., my desire to have dessert later, provided that I am not too full by then) is satisfied just if both its object and its condition obtain. But since a desire’s object and condition can both obtain even though the subject who has the desire is not aware that they obtain and her experiences would be the same regardless of whether they obtain, the truth of their view would not affect the point that I am making here.

  2. 2.

    Griffin (1986), pp. 13–14.

  3. 3.

    Indeed, just a few pages after the passage I quoted above, Griffin (1986, pp. 18–19) proceeds as though the experience requirement concerns changes or differences in well-being in general, and not just those attributable to the fulfillment of desires. He does not attempt to formulate this more general version of the requirement, however.

  4. 4.

    Hawkins (2016), p. 365 and (2015), pp. 218–219. Sumner (1996, pp. 127–128) also appears to use ‘experience requirement’ to refer to this thesis.

  5. 5.

    It is arguable that if a subject has no level of well-being at all (not even zero), then it does not differ in well-being from any other subject. After all, it appears that such a subject cannot be compared with respect to well-being with any other subject. For the purposes of this paper, however, I needn’t commit myself one way or another on this issue.

  6. 6.

    Bramble (2016, p. 88) uses ‘experience requirement’ to refer to such a claim about supervenience—though, for reasons that I will explain in footnote 19, he restricts the claim so that it concerns only lifetime well-being.

  7. 7.

    Hawkins (2016) seems to use ‘experientialism’ in this way, though her official definition of the term suggests otherwise.

  8. 8.

    Notice that the aforementioned claim that something is in itself good for a subject only if she experiences it or is aware of it does not entail the requirement. Suppose that my son’s happiness is in itself good for me only if I experience it or am aware of it. This is compatible with the view that I would be worse off than I actually am if I were having exactly the same experiences but he were unhappy unbeknownst to me. Because the requirement imposes a necessary condition on differences in well-being that that claim does not impose, it is stronger than that claim.

  9. 9.

    You might worry that the experience requirement, as I have formulated it, precludes us from claiming that whereas a pig who spends its days happily frolicking in the mud has a good life for a pig, a human who spends his days similarly does not have a good life for a human. But although the requirement implies that a pig and a human who have perfectly indistinguishable experiences of mud-frolicking delight have the same level of welfare over the interval in which their experiences feel exactly the same, this implication does not rule out the aforementioned claim. For it is possible (and, indeed, plausible) that because humans typically have available to them higher levels of welfare than pigs do, the same level of welfare might make for a good life for a pig even though it doesn’t make for a good life for a human. In other words, it is plausible that a subject must have a higher level of welfare to count as having a good life for a human than it must to count as having a good life for a pig. Thus, the plausibility of the aforementioned claim does not suggest that I have formulated the requirement uncharitably. If you accept not only that claim but the stronger claim that a pig and a human who have exactly similar lives can have different levels of welfare—a claim on which I cast doubt in Lin (2018a)—then you can construe the requirement as applying only to subjects of the same species.

  10. 10.

    Some of the theories developed in Feldman (2004) deny this, but they might better be understood as hedonistic hybrid theories than as versions of hedonism proper. I will use ‘hedonism’ to refer to the theory as it is traditionally understood.

  11. 11.

    Crisp (2006), p. 118, Hawkins (2016), and Lin (2016a).

  12. 12.

    Kagan (1994), pp. 311–312.

  13. 13.

    Kagan (1992), pp. 181–183 and (1994), p. 315. As Kagan notes on p. 316 of the latter paper, the second premise of the argument was misstated in the former paper.

  14. 14.

    Kagan (1992), pp. 185–187. He can also be read as arguing for (1) on the basis of the premise, “If something constitutes an (ultimate) benefit to a person, it must involve the person’s intrinsic properties”—a premise that he reports finding “overwhelmingly plausible” even though he admits he has “no argument” for it (p. 186). But that premise strikes me as no more plausible than (1) is. Besides, it is so similar in content to (1) that it can hardly be the basis for a dialectically effective argument for it.

  15. 15.

    Darwall (2002) can be read as defending such an analysis of goodness for a person, though he later clarifies (Darwall 2006) that he meant to defend a different view in its vicinity.

  16. 16.

    Campbell (2013) and (2016), p. 407.

  17. 17.

    Kagan (1994).

  18. 18.

    For another critical discussion of Kagan’s argument, see Hawkins (2015), pp. 214–217.

  19. 19.

    Bramble (2018) denies that there is such a thing as levels of well-being over intervals shorter than the subject’s entire life, so he would not formulate the requirement as I have. Instead, he would understand it as claiming something that is entailed by the requirement as I have formulated it (assuming that a person’s lifetime well-being is just her level of well-being over all of time): for any individuals S1 and S2 and any possible worlds W1 and W2, if there is no phenomenological difference between S1 at W1 and S2 at W2, then S1’s lifetime well-being at W1 is the same as S2’s lifetime well-being at W2. But because his case for the requirement does not depend on his rejection of well-being over intervals shorter than the subject’s entire life, and because he is (to my knowledge) the only philosopher who rejects this, I will proceed as if he means to establish the requirement as I have formulated it.

  20. 20.

    Bramble (2016), p. 89. I have amended his formulation of the argument to make explicit the fact that it is concerned with lifetime well-being and whether it can be affected by posthumously occurring events (and not with whether well-being over posthumous intervals can be affected by such events). It is worth noting that Parfit (1984, p. 433) once made a suggestion in the vicinity of (1).

  21. 21.

    Bramble (2016), p. 89n13.

  22. 22.

    I have understood (i) as a claim about human beings as we are actually constituted—one that takes into account how strongly we can desire anything, including posthumous events. If it is construed instead as being about all metaphysically possible welfare subjects, then on the assumption that there is no limit to how strong desires can be, the kind of theory I described would not explain (i). But (i) is less plausible when construed in the latter way.

  23. 23.

    See, e.g., Pitcher (1984) and Boonin (2019).

  24. 24.

    An event directly affects someone’s lifetime well-being just if it is basically good or bad for her: good or bad for her, and not merely in virtue of causing, preventing, or being otherwise appropriately related to something else that is good or bad for her. The principle is therefore compatible with the possibility that an event that occurs before someone comes into existence could affect her lifetime well-being by causing events that occur during her lifetime. For a discussion of the concept of basic (dis)value for a person, see Lin (2014), pp. 128–129.

  25. 25.

    Bramble (2016), p. 90.

  26. 26.

    Such a theory is developed in Heathwood (2005). For a pluralistic subjectivist theory that is similar in the relevant respects and whose truth would also explain the Principle without appeal to the requirement, see Lin (2016b).

  27. 27.

    This is a broader use of ‘sentient’ than the one favored by Singer (1990), who writes that he uses the term ‘sentience’ as a “shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment” (pp. 8–9). Although anything that is capable of having pleasant or unpleasant experiences is capable of phenomenal consciousness, the reverse may not be true: perhaps an entity could be capable of having only conscious experiences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

  28. 28.

    Notice that I do not define welfare subjects as entities that are capable of having a level of well-being. This is because I want to leave open the view that at least some entities that are not welfare subjects have a welfare level of zero rather than no welfare level at all. Although I am inclined to accept that view, I needn’t commit to it in this paper.

  29. 29.

    Singer (1990, pp. 7–8) has long accepted this view about welfare subjects, and although he is now a hedonist, for many years he rejected the requirement because he accepted a desire-satisfaction theory of well-being. Sumner (1996) is drawn to this view about welfare subjects (pp. 74–75, 14–15), and since he believes that two equally happy people could differ in welfare because the happiness of the first is informed and autonomous while that of the second is not (ch. 6), he rejects the requirement. (Although he writes that any adequate theory must accept “some form of experience requirement” (p. 128), what he calls the experience requirement does not entail the requirement as I am understanding it (pp. 127–128).) Rosati (2009, p. 225) writes that “[o]ur good-for talk seems to treat as welfare subjects only conscious, sentient beings” and that “we do not talk in terms of the welfare of a living thing unless there is a way things can be for it, and for this to be the case, [it] must be a conscious being….” Since she adds that this view about which beings are welfare subjects is “[t]he deep truth in hedonism, which is otherwise quite problematic as a theory of welfare” (p. 225), she evidently rejects the requirement. I reject the requirement in Lin (2016a), and I express sympathy for the view that all welfare subjects are capable of desire and pleasure in Lin (2018a), pp. 340–341, 345.

  30. 30.

    Rosati (2009), pp. 224–225.

  31. 31.

    Notice that the claim in question could not be grounded in the view that health or life is a basic good. After all, some non-sentient beings (e.g., rocks) are not healthy or alive to any degree, and if health or life were a basic good, different non-sentient beings could surely differ in welfare on account of possessing different quantities of it. The claim could be explained only by something like the implausible view that existence itself—a property that, presumably, all non-sentient beings possess to the same degree at all world-time pairs at which they exist—is a basic good or bad.

  32. 32.

    DeGrazia (1996, p. 229) briefly suggests that rejecting what he calls the experience requirement opens the door to the view that all living things are welfare subjects. But since he follows Sumner in using ‘experience requirement’ to refer to a thesis that does not entail the requirement as I am understanding it (p. 221), his remark does not anticipate the welfare subject argument.

  33. 33.

    Many theorists take well-being and pity to be connected in something like this way: see, e.g., Campbell (2016), pp. 404, 410, Fuchs (2018), Hooker (1998), pp. 149–155, and Lin (2017a), p. 363.

  34. 34.

    Parfit (2011), p. 43.

  35. 35.

    Heathwood (2019).

  36. 36.

    Heathwood (2019), pp. 668, 678. This example is based on a case famously presented in Quinn (1993).

  37. 37.

    Lin (2018b), p. 11.

  38. 38.

    Smithies (2019).

  39. 39.

    Perhaps the truth of the correct theory is explained by the correct metaethical analyses of welfare, prudential value, and prudential disvalue. This is more plausible in the case of monistic theories—ones on which there is one basic good and one basic bad—than in the case of pluralistic theories: see Heathwood (2013), p. 7 and Lin (2016c), p. 335.

  40. 40.

    van der Deijl (2020). I was unaware of this until soon after the present paper was accepted for publication. It seems that we independently arrived at the idea that the experience requirement can be argued for using the view that only sentient beings are welfare subjects.

  41. 41.

    van der Deijl (2020), p. 9.

  42. 42.

    van der Deijl (2020), pp. 11–13, 14–17.

  43. 43.

    For more on this distinction, see Lin (2017b), pp. 180–181.

  44. 44.

    What exactly is the content of Sentience if it doesn’t imply that a being is a welfare subject at a given time only if it is sentient at that time? Does it merely say that a being is never a welfare subject if there is no time at which it is sentient? I am leaving these questions open because it seems to me that what I have claimed about the welfare subject argument—that it is promising but ultimately unsuccessful—is true on a number of ways of making the content of Sentience more precise. Moreover, because the argument derives much of its interest from the fact that so many philosophers find it plausible that only sentient beings are welfare subjects, and because there is likely no fully determinate version of that thought that those philosophers all find plausible, it would be undesirable to formulate Sentience too precisely.

  45. 45.

    van der Deijl (2020), p. 11 n9.

  46. 46.

    van der Deijl (2020), pp. 11–13 and Lin (2017b).

  47. 47.

    See Lin (2017b), in which I describe two views about the timing of benefits that would allow desire theorists to hold this: concurrentism about timing (which must be distinguished from concurrentism about benefit—see pp. 164–165) and the final version of asymmetrism (p. 181).

  48. 48.

    van der Deijl (2020, p. 15) briefly argues that if one rejects the experience requirement, as those who deem friendship a basic good do, then one has no plausible rationale for this view. But he ignores an obvious and plausible rationale for it: that you are an essential constituent of your friendships—one that they cannot survive without. He also seems to neglect the fact that, as I explained in my discussion of Bramble, one can explain the impossibility of posthumous benefits and harms without accepting the requirement by endorsing the Principle.


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I thank Chris Heathwood, Anthony Kelley, David Sobel, participants at the 2019 Kansas Workshop on Well-Being, audiences at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, the University of Notre Dame, Syracuse University, UC Santa Barbara, and Washington University in St. Louis, and an anonymous reviewer.

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Correspondence to Eden Lin.

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Lin, E. The experience requirement on well-being. Philos Stud 178, 867–886 (2021).

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  • Well-being
  • Welfare
  • Prudential value
  • Experience requirement
  • Experientialism
  • Hedonism
  • Desire-satisfaction theory
  • Objective list theory