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Helping Friends

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Guest post: Valerie Tiberius, University of Minnesota. Read the related paper: How Theories of Well-being Can Help Us Help in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics.

I have a friend I’ll call Liam who is ruining his life.  Liam is marrying the wrong man:  someone controlling and unappreciative who seems to all the world to be making Liam unhappy and stressed.  What should I do for Liam?  I think it’s very unclear.  If you have ever wanted to help a friend or a family member who is in trouble, you know that helping isn’t as easy as it sounds.  There are lots of ways to go wrong – your “help” may be perceived as insulting, condescending, paternalistic, insensitive, or just plain unhelpful.

Can philosophy help? You might think that theories of well-being would be useful here.  Such theories aim to tell us what makes something good for a person.  So, if we’re aiming to help someone – to do something for their sake, something that’s good for them – a theory of what makes something good for a person is a good place to start.  Unfortunately, theories of well-being aren’t that helpful when it comes to helping.  There are two main types of wellbeing theory. Theories that emphasize the psychological dimensions of well-being would tell us to promote desire satisfaction, life satisfaction, or pleasure.  But sometimes the reason that a person’s life isn’t going well is that she wants (or is satisfied by or gets pleasure from) the wrong things.  The other type of theory emphasizes the importance of achieving objective goods (e.g., friendship, love, knowledge), things that make a like go well whether or not they are desired. However, if we are guided in our attempts to help by objective values that are not connected to a person’s desires, then we risk giving advice that is thought of as condescending, insensitive or the like.

The theory of well-being that I propose is designed to answer questions about how to help.  (Indeed, it might be better thought of as a theory of norms of well-being improvement than a theory of well-being itself).  The “value fulfillment theory” tells you to follow two different kinds of norms when you’re trying to help people.  First, it tells you to attend to what people value now and to how they could develop a more sustainable, achievable, emotionally fitting and reflectively endorse set of values over time.  Second, it directs you to think about the position you are in as the potential helper:  how well do you understand the person you are trying to help, and how good are you at finding ways of helping without being bossy or inappropriate?

Getting back to Liam, one thing that we should notice is that different people can help him in different ways.  Liam’s therapist, because of her knowledge of his situation and her experience with discovering ways that people are able to change, can probably afford to be pretty blunt.  Liam’s mother who has never really accepted that he’s gay and will be suspected of ulterior motives, will probably be most helpful if she says nothing at all.  His friends, like me, need to be careful, but we might find ways of talking to Liam about the ways that this relationship is affecting his ability to secure what is important to him.  And if we do find these ways, it will not be by thinking about how to get Liam more desire satisfaction, pleasure or objective goodness; rather, it will be by thinking about what will be achievable and important to Liam over the long term, and about our own limitations as helpers.

Read the full paper: How Theories of Well-being Can Help Us Help in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics.

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