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Philosophical Quality of Life and Ethical Dimensions

Philosophical Theories Of Quality Of Life

Philosophical theories are systematic accounts that can be used to provide a foundation for our beliefs and to sort out those ideas that should be held with rational conviction from those that should be discarded. Thus a philosophical theory of quality of life is an account of what makes human life worth living and an attempt to single out those fundamental elements of human experience or the human condition that provide the content for such an account. In the history of philosophy there are, of course, innumerable such accounts, presented as each philosopher explicates his or her preferred account of the human good. Most of these theories fall into the following three categories:

Hedonic theories. Hedonic theories identify quality of life with states of awareness, consciousness, or experience of the individual. Happiness or pleasure, however those terms are precisely to be defined, are the sine qua non of quality of life. This allows for considerable individual variation in assessing good quality of life because different things make different people happy, but it also allows for some kind of common metric (at least on the negative side) because there are seemingly universal negative states of pain or suffering or unhappiness that all (normal) persons avoid.

An interesting question is whether it is necessary for the person to realize he is happy in order to be happy. In other words, is the kind of happiness (or pleasure) that makes for a good quality of life a direct, unmediated sensation, or is it a psychic state that results from some act of self-interpretation? If it is the former, then it would seem to follow that a person locked in a cell with an electrode implanted in a pleasure center of the brain would be experiencing the highest quality of life. That conclusion must be mistaken and counts against the theory. On the other hand, if the pleasure or happiness the theory requires involves some form of cognitive mediation and secondary interpretation, then persons who have serious cognitive deficits will be automatically judged to have a poor quality of life by definition, and that view seems unduly biased against nonintellectual goods in life.

Rational preference theories. The second type, rational preference theories, define quality of life in terms of the actual satisfaction or realization of a person’s rational desires or preferences. This is a much more objective theory than the hedonic account in that a person need not be aware that his or her preferences are being fulfilled (or need not take pleasure in that knowledge) in order for the quality of his life to be good; it just must be the case that they are being fulfilled in fact. The underlying appeal of theories of this type is the notion that individuals have a good life when the objective state of the world conforms to what they rationally desire.

Theories of human flourishing. Theories of human flourishing attempt to base our understanding of the good life on an account of those functions, capacities, and excellences that are most fully and constitutively human. To the extent that we attain and master those capacities, and to the extent that we avoid those conditions that would stunt or undermine those capacities, we flourish as human beings. Theories of this type also usually have a developmental component built into them, for those most fully human capacities are ones that are not mastered at birth or automatically expressed by instinct, but must be developed and nurtured by education, interaction with others, and practice over the course of a lifetime. To the extent, then, that the individual continues to grow and develop throughout his or her life, the quality of life is enhanced thereby.

Accounts of these most fully human capacities differ among philosophers working in this tradition of theorizing, but as a generalization we can say that philosophical accounts of this type usually emphasize the human capacity to express and to experience meaning in social relationships of intimacy, friendship, and cooperation; the capacity to use reason and to develop and follow a life plan of self-fulfillment and self-realization; the capacity for independence and self-reliance; and the human need for an appropriate social and cultural environment that provides the individual with various types of resources—material, symbolic, spiritual—necessary to live a developmentally human life and to meet both basic and secondary needs.

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