Not All Philosophy is Stupid

Anna Alexandrova in a series of posts at The Brains Blog about her new book ‘A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being’ does what philosophers *should* be doing! Thinking carefully about whether the terms they throw about have any real meaning – and looking for that meaning in the way those terms are actually used and understood.

I often sneer at the notion that philosophers are needed to tell scientists what they should be doing in order to further their purely scientific enterprise, but when it comes to using science “to establish an evidence base for governments, organisations, businesses, and individuals” to use in their political and personal decision-making, then I am much more sympathetic – but only to those philosophers who focus primarily on helping people clarify to themselves and to one another what it is that they are saying or doing, rather than on pretending to have any special expertise about what they “should” be saying or doing.

The use of “for” rather than “of” in Alexandrova’s title is particularly apt because I think it shows less inclination to interfere in the scientific process itself than to consider which scientific questions are of interest to the non-scientist and how the corresponding answers might be best used for personal and political guidance.

In a subsequent post in her series, Alexandrova asks ‘Can the science of well-being be value free?’ and claims that the value-freedom demanded by some scientists “is a big mistake.”

I am inclined, however, to side with those who claim the right to determine for themselves the nature of the “job” that they have chosen to take on. But perhaps there would be less resistance to the demand for value-aptness if the question were “*Should* the science of well-being be value free?” For despite my allegiance to the definition of science as any teachable technique for making predictions and my belief that one certainly *can* approach the study of what humans define as well-being without attaching any value of one’s own to the relevant parameters, I certainly make value judgements about how those results *should* be presented. (And of course there are also the scientific values of honesty, replicability, and scope that apply to any science, but I am assuming that “value-free” here means just not bound by the particular values under study.)

For example I find it annoying when certain “scientists” choose to use value-laden words from common language in a context where the concept being described does not have the value implied by the common language usage.

So actually, perhaps what I am suggesting is that a putative science of well-being can (and indeed should) be both value-free and value-apt at the same time. The investigation can and should proceed in a value-free manner but if it claims to be making predictions about human well-being (and especially if it claims public support and application for that reason!) then what it identifies as human well-being should actually correspond to what humans value.

A particularly promising aspect of Ms Alexandrova’s project is her attention to the fact that there are many different (and probably incompatible) aspects of human well-being and no clear way of comparing them. So there may well be no real way of saying that one choice is “better” than another.

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