Philosophy 156 - 8.4.3 Well-Being and the Satisfaction of Desire

Another way to think of well-being is the satisfaction of desire. There are multiple ways to define desire and think about its satisfaction. One approach is to describe desire as action based. A person’s desires dispose them to take certain actions—for example, you eat because you desire food. Another approach is to think of desire as related to beliefs about what is good. In this case, you would say that you eat because you believe it is good to do so. This theory of desire explains why it is relevant to philosophical concepts of well-being. Well-being is satisfying one’s desires. This concept of well-being is called satisfactionism.

In satisfactionism, if an individual is able to satisfy larger desires in their life, they live a good life. Flourishing is thus a matter of desire satisfaction that is dependent upon the individual’s preferences. However, individuals can be wrong about what is good and can make choices that they think will bring them happiness but do not. For example, a person may believe that being an astronaut will make them happy in life but then discover that they do not deal well with the loneliness of long space flights. Had they understood what being an astronaut entails, they would not have desired it. So only the satisfaction of informed desires leads to happiness, while the satisfaction of uninformed desires might not.

Cognitivism and Non-cognitivism

Explaining well-being in terms of desire and preferences exposes specific disagreements in how philosophers think about values—more specifically, whether values have content. In other words, do values express explicit ideas and beliefs that you can put in a statement, or are values the emotional states of an individual? Cognitivism argues that values are cognitive (involve thought) and express statements about properties of things (e.g., this apple is healthy) or states of events (e.g., the sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy). Non-cognitivism argues that values are not cognitive because they do not necessarily make statements about properties of things or states of events and have more to do with a psychological state of mind.


Emotivism is a branch of non-cognitivism that argues that value judgments express someone’s emotions, which unlike a belief cannot be true or false. English philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910–1989), a proponent for moral emotivism, proposed that people do not hold moral beliefs; instead, they emote moral feelings. That means that if someone says, “Killing innocent people is bad,” they are expressing how they feel about killing innocent people rather than making a statement that can be proven or disproven or that is up for debate.

Contemporary moral philosophers often argue against emotivism because it means that values are dependent on individuals’ feelings and thus are completely subjective. Moral philosophy often attempts to assert that there are objective values, particularly when it comes to well-being. The following section will explain such philosophical approaches.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax