Basic Well-being

Our discussion of well-being, while asserting that it has to do with being able to cope with and function fully in one’s environ­ment, has also hinted at other dimensions.  One other dimension is security.  Another, for human beings, is not being ignored.

Human well-being certainly involves more.  It involves maintain­ing a certain culturally defined level of human dignity.  It involves having, in accordance with cultural standards, adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and educational oppor­tunities.  It involves having or being able to find a niche in which one can be productive and contribute meaningfully to the well-being of other persons and groups.

Human well-being also involves being secure in one’s person, being protected from unjust injury or coercion.  It involves basic freedoms of movement, speech, worship, as­sembly, the press, and self-protection.

Human dignity involves freedom of action–being at liber­ty to do what one chooses as long as it does not harm oth­ers–and also involves being able to make plans and have a reasonable expectation of fulfilling the plans.  Human dignity, in other words, involves being able to achieve reasonable goals that one has set for oneself.  Accordingly, as indicated earlier, human well-being is dependent upon everyone having access to appropri­ate resources and appro­priate help from others.  The appropriate resources and help are those needed to enable the individual to live a charac­teristically human life.  This entails pursuing a course of acquiring and exercising abilities that will allow the individual in adult life to fill, and function fully within, an ecological niche utilizing his or her aptitudes.

Again we need individually and collectively to look to an ideal while devoting our energies to achieving nothing less than the best attainable.

The Quality of Life

The amount of satisfaction that is gained from the exer­cise of one’s abilities is very much dependent upon a number of factors as indicated below:

Proficiency.  People enjoy doing what they can do well.

Fullness of use of abilities.  People prefer activities that make relatively full use of their capacities.  They prefer tasks that are complex, that are chal­lenging, that require intricate and subtle discrimi­nations, or that require a relatively large reper­toire of skills, to those that are less demanding.  Aside from social pressures and any exter­nal rewards or punishments that might be involved, the satisfac­tion of being able to utilize a large repertoire of abilities provides an incentive to withstand fail­ures and difficulties in order to learn new skills and gain profi­ciency in them.

Rationality and purposefulness.  People want their ac­tivities to have a purpose, and they want the ful­filling of that purpose to be something that they see as desirable and good.  They want to share with others a knowledge of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  They want to foresee the pos­sible and probable consequences of their actions with reasonable accuracy, and they want the chances for benefit to outweigh the risk of harm.

Functioning within a larger collective exercise of abili­ties.  People want their own abilities to function within and be a contributing part of some higher level collective abilities.  They also want there to be a shared understanding of the relation between their abilities and the higher abilities and of the rationality of the contemplated exercise of these abilities.

Being done within short-term and long-term plans for the acquisition and use of abilities.  People like their actions to be the carrying out of plans that they have made for the use of their abilities.  This is perhaps only an example of wanting fuller use of abilities; the people who are able to plan the use of their abilities reasonably well tend to want to do so.  Likewise, setting the goal of doing the most good creates a challenge for them, allowing them fuller use of their abilities.

In fact, each of the last three factors may only be an applica­tion, or corollary, of the first two.  The role of the first two factors in producing human happiness has been called the “Ari­stotelian Principle” by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (426-33).  For our purposes it is con­venient to think of all five factors as constituting the Aristotelian principle.

Our statement of the Aristotelian principle can be regar­ded as applying to groups as well as individuals.  When events occur that draw atten­tion to how any one group is affected, there is the possibility for shared feelings within that group.  Although some events might cause divi­sions within a given group, other events would cause feel­ings that were widely shared within it.  If in our wording of the five factors the words “people” and “they” are under­stood to refer not just to people generally but to the members of some group collectively, then the claim that these factors produce a feeling of satisfac­tion within the group can be understood.  More specifically, the claim is that to the extent that the members of the group exer­cise their individu­al abilities to generate an exercise of the group’s collective abilities, the members will share a feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction as predicted by the principle.  Thus if the group finds itself not profi­cient in responding to the disturbing event or finds itself greatly constrained in its use of its abilities, the group will feel dissatisfaction.  Sometimes the response of the group consists only of a statement made by some spokesman for the group.  If the members of the group feel that their spokesman has represented them well and has made an adequate response, they will feel some satisfaction.  If not, they will be dissatisfied.

Of course, some groups are much more cohesive and much better organized than others.  The abilities of a group are determined in part by the abilities of the group’s members and in part by how well the patterns of communication within the group enable the members to coordinate their efforts.  This observation is essential to a proper understanding of “collective abilities.”  It also makes it clear that shared satisfaction is enhanced by shared participation in activi­ties, particularly decision-making activities.

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