I work at the intersection of value theory and psychology. Broadly speaking, I am interested in the connection between human nature and the good life. My research ranges widely in this area but focuses mainly on the psychology of well-being and its connections with issues in ethical and political thought and policy, as well as scientific practice. I also have longstanding interests in environmental ethics, and my work on well-being is concerned partly with finding more sustainable ways to secure good lives.
At present my chief project is a book aimed at situating happiness and well-being in the broader fabric of a good life, The Lives We Should Want. A major goal of this project is to reconcile modern attitudes about well-being with the richer ideals of the good life that can be found in the ancient tradition and others, where for instance goods like beauty and excellence might be seen as mattering in themselves, and not simply because people want or like them.
Work in Progress
Comments most welcome on the works in this section, but please ask permission before citing.
The Lives We Should Want
Under contract with Oxford University Press
Someone you know well dies, and you are asked to deliver a eulogy. Part of your task, as you see it, is to come to an accurate assessment: did she have a good life? How do you answer this question? What, in short, does it mean to have a good life: the sort of life one should want? That is the animating question of this book. The Lives We Should Want undertakes what may be the first explicit, extended defense of an account of the good life, where this notion is not simply reduced to that of well-being or the moral life. It is the second entry of a projected three-volume series that began with 2008’s The Pursuit of Unhappiness. The third, Good Societies, will extend my policy work with a focus on well-being policy.
I have released a full "beta" draft of the book as of May 9, 2023, with all materials posted here. Please cite only with permission.
Comments will be most gratefully accepted, and I would be happy to do Zoom or in-person visits with classes or reading groups. I will maintain a record of substantial changes in the published version for early readers.
You can download the full book as a single file, a zip file with all chapters, or individual chapters here
Contents: drafts of all chapters as of May 9, 2023
Life as we should know it (probably the best overview of what the book is about)
The Folk Concept of the Good Life: Neither Happiness nor Well-Being. With Markus Kneer. Evidence for a distinct concept of the good life (perhaps the one that is the subject of Lives We Should Want), and against a basic role for virtue in well-being.
Choosing Well-Being Metrics for Policy. Argues that key metrics of well-being for policy should be, and also be validated against, consensus predictors of well-being. To illustrate, data are presented, some using a new scale devised with David Yaden, suggesting that emotional well-being measures may be at least as promising as the more popular life satisfaction instruments.
Not quite papers just yet, but Real Soon Now
In the meantime, perhaps a summary or slides will do. All have been presented in talks.
The Limited Abilities of the Capabilities Approach. The capabilities approach is importantly distinct from, and cannot supplant, well-being policy. There's a paper I can share but it needs a major update.
Happiness, Nudges, and Freedom. Part of the problem with nudges is that they're often intrusive or manipulative, with middling benefits to show for it. The solution is to go bigger.
Columbia University Press 2023
Coauthored with Owen Flanagan, Joseph E. LeDoux, Bobby Bingle, Batja Mesquita, Michele Moody-Adams, Songyao Ren, Anna Sun, and Yolonda Y. Wilson. With responses from critics Jennifer Frey, Hazel Rose Markus, Jeffrey D. Sachs, and Jeanne Tsai
A critical examination of "New Benthamite" and related approaches to measuring and promoting happiness, especially in relation to policy, disadvantage, race, and cultural differences
Happiness: A Very Short Introduction
Oxford University Press 2008
A short, accessible and opinionated survey of happiness, including its role in a good life, its measurement, and its sources. Several translations available
The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being
Oxford University Press 2008
A broad discussion of prudential psychology--the psychology of well-being--including the nature and importance of happiness, as well as our tendencies to err in the pursuit of well-being
Papers by Topic (selected)
What matters: happiness, well-being and the good life
In a very crude nutshell: happiness = emotional well-being, or roughly the opposite of depression and anxiety. Well-being is a hybrid of hedonic and eudaimonic elements (including happiness and value-fulfillment). And a good life consists in well-being + virtue: a life well-lived, and well worth living. See also Resources, the papers on life satisfaction under Science, and the "Mental State Approaches" paper under Policy.
In Lieu of an Environmental Ethic: Beauty, Good Lives and the Preservation of Nature. The Harvard Review of Philosophy (2022). This paper argues that a specifically environmental ethic is neither needed nor perhaps desirable for effecting the change in values for which many environmentalists have rightly called. Rather, familiar values such as beauty, and especially an outlook that regards those values as central aspects of a good life, may be all that is needed. The requisite ethic of appreciation is already embedded to some degree in a wide range of cultures, so no radical shift in values is called for, nor convergence on a tendentious moral framework. But this outlook meets with skepticism from the dominant public ethos, as embodied for instance in mainstream economics. While this paper does not offer a full-blooded defense of an aesthetic grounding for environmental concern, it does suggest that the skepticism is considerably overblown.
Happiness and the Metaphysics of Affect. Forthcoming in Les Ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum. Explores and motivates the idea of happiness as a matter of one's emotional condition, where this involves a distinctive category of an individual's functional condition, and centrally involves dispositional states.
“Well-Being: Taking Our Selves Seriously.” In Philosophy and Human Flourishing, edited by John Stuhr, New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
“Happiness,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (originally 2011, revised 2020).
“Flourishing and the Value of Authenticity.” In Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing, Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston (ed.s). New York: Oxford University Press (2019).
“Comments on Badhwar, Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 50 (1) (2016): 195–207.
“The Value of Positive Emotion: Philosophical Doubts and Reassurances,” in Gruber and Moskowitz, Seeing both Sides: The Light and Dark Side of Positive Emotion, Oxford (2014).
“The Nature and Significance of Happiness.” The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, eds. Ilona Boniwell and Susan David, Oxford University Press, 2012.
“Mood Propensity as a Constituent of Happiness: A Rejoinder to Hill.” The Journal of Happiness Studies, 11 (2010), pp. 19-31.
“Happiness, the Self, and Human Flourishing.” Utilitas, 20:1 (2008), pp. 21-49.
“Well-Being and Virtue.” The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2:2 (2007).
“On Being Happy or Unhappy.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, LXXI:2 (September 2005), pp. 287-317.
“What Do We Want from a Theory of Happiness?” Metaphilosophy, 34:3 (2003), pp. 305-329.
“Happiness and Pleasure.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 62:3 (2001), pp. 501-528.
The science of well-being: measurement and other issues
I am relatively optimistic about extant measures of well-being, and think improving measurement is vitally important. But there are also deep challenges that have not been fully appreciated by researchers, especially regarding life satisfaction instruments. At present, I suspect our best overall well-being measures are mental health scales, e.g., of depression and anxiety.
“Prudential Psychology: Theory, Method and Measurement.” With Valerie Tiberius. Invited contribution for Manuel Vargas and John M. Doris (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology, Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
The emotional state assessment tool: A brief, philosophically informed, and cross-culturally sensitive measure. With David Yaden. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2022, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.2016910
“Is Construct Validation Valid?” With Anna Alexandrova. Philosophy of Science 83 (5) (2016): 1098–1109.
“Taking the Satisfaction (and the Life) Out of Life Satisfaction.” Philosophical Explorations, 14:3 (2011), 249-262.
“Philosophy and the Science of Subjective Well-Being.” In The Science of Subjective Well-Being, edited by Michael Eid and Randy J Larsen, 17–43. New York: Guilford Press, 2008.
“Life Satisfaction, Ethical Reflection, and the Science of Happiness.” The Journal of Happiness Studies, 8:1 (2007), pp. 99-138.
“Do We Know How Happy We Are?” Noûs, 41:3 (2007), pp. 394-428.
How well-being happens (or not)
A central theme here is a kind of contextualism: human psychology is not well-suited to the highly individualized pursuit of well-being, which is substantially something we must do together. See also "Do we know how happy we are?" under Science.
“Happiness: An Interactionist Perspective.” With the Project Plus Working Group (Aaron Ahuvia, Neil Thin, Robert Biswas-Diener, Matthieu Ricard, and Jean Timsit). In The International Journal of Wellbeing, (5)1 (2015), pp. 1-18.
“Adventures in Assisted Living: Well-Being and Situationist Psychology,” in Snow and Trivigno, The Philosophy and Psychology of Character and Happiness, Routledge (2014). No, this is not about nursing homes. Rather, the importance of mostly unconscious situational influences in shaping people's behavior and cognition, and in turn their well-being.
“The Proper Pursuit of Happiness,” Res Philosophica, 90:3 (2013), pp. 387-411.
"The Sources of Happiness," from Happiness: A Very Short Introduction (2013).
“Central Park: Nature, Context, and Human Well-Being.” The International Journal of Wellbeing, 1:2 (2011), 235-254.
"The Pursuit of Unhappiness," from The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (2008). As far as I know, the most comprehensive survey of cognitive biases and other sources of mistakes in the pursuit of well-being.
"Happiness in Context: Notes on the Good Society," from The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (2008).
Policy and economics
I am working toward a third monograph following on Pursuit and Lives, Good Societies. I take well-being to be a central goal of policy, but one among others including opportunities and justice. Valerie Tiberius and I have argued for a "pragmatic subjectivist" approach to policy, where people's own values should be the standard used for assessing their well-being in policy, whatever the correct theory of well-being is. In practice, I believe this counsels a focus on a plurality of "consensus predictors" of well-being, such as happiness, relationships, rewarding work, and stressors.
Despite popular worries to the contrary, I see well-being policy as an essential tool for avoiding paternalism, though there are certainly tensions with liberty given people's tendency to make serious, predictable mistakes. Anna Alexandrova and I have argued that traditional economic approaches to policy have often been objectionably paternalistic, in some cases precisely by refusing to take account of available information about happiness and other cherished values.
“Well-Being Policy: Consensus Hallmarks and Cultural Variation.” Forthcoming in Rooney and Zoll, eds., Beyond Classical Liberalism: Freedom and the Good, Routledge. A framework for selecting consensus metrics of well-being for policy in the face of cultural variation.
“Mental State Approaches to Well-Being.” In The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy, edited by Matthew D Adler and Marc Fleurbaey. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford (2016). A survey of psychological metrics of well-being for a policy context: why each matters, key measurement issues that arise with each.
“Well-Being Policy: What Standard of Well-Being?” With Valerie Tiberius. The Journal of the American Philosophical Association, (1)4 (2015), pp. 712-733.
“The Desirability of Sustainable Happiness as a Policy Goal.” With Neil Thin, Robert Biswas-Diener, Aaron Ahuvia, Jean Timsit. A chapter for the Report on Wellbeing and Happiness of the International Expert Working Group, sponsored by Bhutan, for the United Nations (2013).
“Paternalism in Economics.” With Anna Alexandrova. Paternalism: Theory and Practice, eds. Christian Coons and Michael Weber, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
“High Fidelity Economics,” with Anna Alexandrova. In The Elgar Companion to Recent Economic Methodology, eds. John Davis and D. Wade Hands, Elgar, 2012.
“Moral Monsters and Saints.” The Monist, 85:2 (2002), pp. 260-284.
“Consistency of Character and the Character of Evil.” In Haybron, Daniel M., ed. Earth’s Abominations: Philosophical Studies of Evil. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.
“Evil Characters.” American Philosophical Quarterly, 36:2 (April 1999), pp. 131-148.
“The Causal and Explanatory Role of Information Stored in Connectionist Networks.” Minds and Machines, 10:3 (2000), pp. 361-380.
A reading guide and other resources can also be found at the website for Happiness and Well-Being: Integrating Research Across the Disciplines. This is a 3-year, $5M Templeton-funded grant I supervised from 2015-2018, funding 21 subgrants with the aim of promoting cross-disciplinary well-being research. The site has reading guides and other resources
The best accessible explanation of my views about happiness, along with work by other scholars, can be found in these outstanding videos by Will Schoder. A third video, on how to be happier, focuses on others' work but is also excellent.