Knowing What is Good for You:
A Theory of Prudential Value and Well-Being
Tim E. Taylor
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
ISBN 9780230285118 (hbk.)
Dr Tim Taylor is visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds, UK. He is a very analytical, very careful writer, and enters the analysis of the nature of value in great depth. An irony of the book is that, as Taylor says, you will not read an analytical philosophy book unless you already value thought provoking, detailed analytical literature. But then, Taylor argues, we can believe something to be of no interest or value and yet, with hindsight, find that we were wrong.
So there is a reason to read this book: It is a chance to challenge your perceived values. However, I recommend it because on the second page of the first chapter Taylor says that he wants a theory of prudential value and well-being that accords with our common sense and our pre-theoretical thoughts about what is good for us. Common sense tells us that we can reflect on our lives and think about how to improve them to increase our sense of well-being and this is by increasing the amount of things that we value in our lives and getting rid of those things that we don’t value.
Basing his analysis on intuitive common sense, Taylor doesn’t leap on any current in-theory bandwagon. For instance he doesn’t believe our well-being is determined by what is good for us in evolutionary terms, as this would give ‘a very impoverished picture of what is good for humans’ (p.51).
Though based on common sense, the book is quite technical. Taylor considers in depth both subjectivist and objectivist approaches to prudential value and well-being and is firmly on the subjectivist side, given that a value requires that we evaluate as subjects and satisfaction of value gives rise to a positive psychological attitude.
Many questions are raised, but the main questions are: How do we know that something contributes to our personal well-being and why we can be wrong about this? What is it about some things that makes them good for us? What brings together different evaluations into a class of ‘prudential value’? We know if something contributes to our well-being if it brings about a positive state of mind, but our attitudes can be distorted. We know what is good for us by reference to our subjective states of mind. What brings together prudential values is that they contribute to our well-being.
Prudential values are not the only values. There are moral and aesthetic values, for instance. These differ from prudential values in that you may lead a highly moral life or achieve a high level of aesthetic appreciative understanding, but that is not a guarantee that these things are good for you or that such commitments contribute to your well-being. They might lead to restrictions on other areas of activity that would have led to greater well-being. It is not even obvious that prudential values do lead to well-being unless they satisfy desires and, through hindsight, we can find we were wrong to hold something of value.
Taylor holds that prudential value determines well-being since the more things that we value are present in our lives, the greater our well-being. Given that values are subjective and personal, it needs to be explained why states of affairs, such as the health of the economy, have prudential value and so contribute to our well-being. Taylor argues that such states of affairs have prudential value for us because a healthy economy fulfils a psychological desire which we want to be satisfied, which will contribute to our well-being.
Taylor’s subjectivist position is that value depends on psychological attitudes of individuals. The opposing position comes from the objectivist. The objectivist — according to Taylor’s definition — holds that this not entirely so. So at the end of the spectrum between subjectivism and objectivism, there is a rather strange ‘objectivist list approach’ of what is of prudential value. A list of what is valuable doesn’t answer the question about what makes these things valuable though. Further, the list cannot be all encompassing because people, Taylor says, are ‘capricious’ in what they hold to be of value. There is no universal or independent determination of what can be of value. The capriciousness of people is also a problem for the subjectivist, as seen in the two questions above. However the subjectivist can more readily acknowledge relativity or personal variation in prudential evaluations on what will determine well-being for an individual. Indeed, the ‘reasons why people value things can vary from case to case, and there is no requirement that we must always value things for a reason’ (p.81). It seems, further that in giving reasons why you value something, you run out of reasons, and end up saying ‘I just do’ think so.
A theory of well-being as ‘what is good for you’ is quite closely allied to hedonism, such as utilitarianism, where it is claimed that what is good for you is what is pleasurable for you. Jeremy Bentham, who espoused the first form of hedonistic utilitarianism held that a ‘game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and the sciences of music and poetry’ in providing pleasure’ (p.23). Taylor, as well as nearly everyone else, finds this doesn’t accord with our common sense values. We just do think watching documentaries is more valuable than watching East Enders, even if we like to watch East Enders. Although our values are subjective evaluations, we sometimes attribute ‘real’ value to things. That is, we have a tendency to objectify value as if it was a truth was out in the world, that watching documentaries is more valuable than watching East Enders.
Bentham’s utilitarianism is the most basic form of hedonism and, of course, Taylor rejects this as not in line with common sense. What matters to Taylor is that pleasurable should be valuable if it is to be prudential. Is watching East Enders in any way valuable for your future or a prolonged sense of well-being? On looking in the dictionary I find that prudence includes concepts of caution and wisdom, so it cannot simply be about the pleasure and pain of the moment.
A closer subjectivist theory of well-being to that of Taylor is ‘life-satisfaction’. This is a theory laid out by Wayne Sumner. As opposed to hedonism, this has some relevance to business ethics. Sumner argues that we don’t simply want to be happy, but we want it to be authentic. We don’t want to be deceived. We don’t want to be happily married only to find out that our husband has been having a string of affairs. So if we are to have life satisfaction, we should at least be well informed. Sumner argued that on top of being well-informed, we need autonomy. We shouldn’t be indoctrinated, programmed, brain-washed or role scripted.
Sumner would probably say that that leadership should be well-informed about it’s workforce. If a leader has satisfaction in his job — as a leader — and he is not informed that his workers have no satisfaction, then his own satisfaction rests on false beliefs and he does not have an authentic sense of well-being. Furthermore, any worker who is in the least bit indoctrinated, programmed or role scripted does not have autonomy. Role playing and indoctrination, such as being expected to commit to a product or service, means the CEOs, management and the workers only questionably possess well-being, at least in the work place, as well as the time spent building up to go the workplace and winding down from it.
Prudential value is what is good for you and there should be the potential to know that it is good for you. You may not have realised that you were indoctrinated or bullied in the workplace, but you should become able to come to see. Lack of information and distorted perceptions answer the question about how we can be wrong about what is of prudential value. Taylor is in agreement with Sumner on this, but the life-satisfaction theory in general is too vague. Taylor stresses prudential values first and argues that the more positive values over negative which occur in our lives, the greater the well-being. Hence we have some measurement of well being. Albeit, not perhaps a useable one.
Taylor is persuasive about prudential value. If he is right, what does this suggest for business ethics? Taylor seems to suggest that an organisation can have well-being but not prudential value. Well-being here is well-being of the company. Prudential value refers to the individual subject and a psychological state. The prudential values of the individual are likely to be at odds with the well-being of the company. The well-being of the company will rest upon it’s reputation and how it satisfies it’s customers. It has been reported that shop-workers who are told to tell customers to ‘have a nice day’ are actually a particularly angry part of the workforce. It might be noted that the customers find this irritating too. There is a lack of prudential value for individuals where policy is concerned and policy is essential to businesses or people don’t know what the boundaries are and nor do they know the norms of behaviour for a particular company. The consequence of Taylor’s argument is again common sense. Those of us who shy away from the workplace know that it is not conducive to well-being.
This is an analytical philosophy book. The continental philosopher would argue for the role of culture in determining values. There is no incompatibility here though. Cultural values can be internalised and become your own. The basis of the book, it’s consequences for business and it compatibility with a different style of philosophy make it a recommendable read, as stating something true.
© Rachel Browne 2012