Before jumping into the Q/A itself, a general reminder. We are talking about two kinds of claims.

Descriptive Claim: A claim about how things are.

Prescriptive Claim: A claim about how things ought to be / how people ought to behave, etc.

But before going further, keep in mind that both kinds of claims admit of being true or false. That is, a claim (or in the terminology of “A Short Lesson for Arguments and Logic”, a statement) is true if and only if it’s the idea expressed really is the case. For example:

The claim “Singapore is part of Asia” is true if and only if it really is the case that Singapore is part of Asia.

The claim “People ought to be more caring to those who come from a disadvantaged background” is true if and only if it really is the case that people ought to be more caring to those who come from a disadvantaged background.

Conversely, when the thing expressed isn’t the case, then the claim is false. Don’t confuse the definition of what it means for a claim to be true with other issues such as, for instance, how we can know if a certain claim is true. They are related but not the same things. Ok, on with the questions.

Are all predictions descriptive?

If the claim made is about how things are going to be in the future–a prediction in this sense–then yes, it’s descriptive.

Is prediction not the same as claiming how things ought to behave?

It is–except that what is meant by “ought to” here means something different the “ought to” that shows up in prescriptive claims. When the “ought to” or “should” means something like “expected to”, “likely to”–we are saying something descriptive. As for instance when you say, “According to our calculations, the comet should pass within one lunar distance to earth”. It’s like a prediction. But not a prescription.

To see more of the difference, think of what it would mean if the comet didn’t behave as it “should” or “ought to”. If the comet didn’t pass within the stated distance to earth, it’s not the comet’s fault, it didn’t do something bad, or wrong, or deserving of criticism. (The person who did the calculation might be, but notice that the claim said something about how the comet “ought to” or “should” something–so focus your attention there.) Now contrast it with a situation where, say, you say to the Grab driver–“You should/ought to obey the traffic laws” (prescriptive). If driver didn’t obey the traffic laws and started dashing red lights, it’s not that you have made a prediction which turned out false; rather, the driver did something bad, or wrong, or deserving of criticism.

Can claims be both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time?

“the kit-kat looks delicious, you ought to give it to us” — is this a case of both descriptive and prescriptive?

I want to say technically no. However, there are a couple of complications. First, the same sentence can be broken down into components–some of which can be prescriptive, some, descriptive. The one in the second question, however, isn’t a clear example–it could just as well be taken as two claims with an implied connection between them.  Second, the same sentence might be subject to multiple interpretations, some of which will take the sentence to be making a descriptive claim, while others will have it make a prescriptive claim.

Suppose someone says “John really should be more mindful of his actions, given what has happened to him”–is he making a prediction/laying down an expectation about how John is likely to behave (descriptive), or is he saying that, given John’s experience, he should behave in a certain way, i.e., otherwise, he would be deserving of criticism, etc., (prescriptive). Context will tell. By the way, the fact that some sentences are ambiguous isn’t a problem for the descriptive/prescriptive distinction–in fact, our very ability to grasp the ambiguity requires us to take for granted the distinction.

it’s wrong to do X is prescriptive only if the assumption that “we should not do wrong things” holds? cuz if there is an objective “right” and “wrong” then the statement is just descriptive?

It’s taken for granted that in the normal usage, to say that X is wrong (morally, let’s say) is at least partly to say that we should not do X. It will be another issue whether this particular “should” can be overridden by other considerations–but the implied “should” remains. If it turns out that there’s no such thing as objectively true moral claims, then that initial prescriptive claim and all other claims like it will be false. That doesn’t make them any less prescriptive; just false.

Hi prof can you clarify why the ‘If you want to …. job interview….. you ought to prepare…..’ is prescriptive? Because I interpreted it as a descriptive fact that ‘ to do well for a job interview, you need to prepare’ i.e. preparing is a necessary factual action to obtain the result of doin wel

This one isn’t ambiguous in that way though. Consider the following:

If you want to X, you ought to Y

If you want to X, you need to Y

In order for you to X, you need to Y

Only the third one is clearly descriptive. The first one is descriptive only if you take it to mean something like “if you want to X, then, my prediction is that you will Y”, which is not a natural way to understand what the sentence says. The second one, if taken as a descriptive, literally says that you need to Y in order for you to want to X. Not natural again. The more plausible reading is to see it as a nicer way to say what’s said by the first.

Some students are going to look at the discussion above and get the wrong idea that philosophy is about “semantics”. In fact, it shows exactly the opposite–there are differences in thought that are often not explicitly captured by surface structure of a piece of language. If all you can do is to follow every twist and turn of the language, you are good in language, that’s all. Doing philosophy requires you to notice that sometimes, literally the same form of words could mean things that are quite different from each other.

I think the most important thing is intention, so with the Panadol example, it might be ambiguous. If the doctor’s intention is just to let you know what the medicine is for then it’s descriptive, but if the doctor is trying to persuade you to take your medicines then it’s prescriptive…?

the interview one is more of saying if u wna do well u shd go prepared, but the bicycle one is phrased such that the “should” means there’s a likelihood that u can ride aft a few days

Very good!

Ok, on to a different cluster of questions–about the general idea of well-being.

aren’t most religions based on some theory of well-being? providing people with a code of conduct that takes out the critical thought required. (I’m not saying these codes of conduct are 100% right but they are presented as such)

Any system of thinking–religious or otherwise–that makes recommendations about how people can best live their lives, in principle, implies a conception of well-being. Such a conception aren’t always fully systematized or even articulated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. But don’t be hasty in thinking that just because some of these are religions, that somehow, “critical thought” is straightforwardly missing. For millennia, each of the major doctrinal religions include among its followers both critical thinkers–its philosopher-theologians, let’s say–and a larger group of devotees who are not as big on critical thinking. In this respect, secular movements of thought aren’t all that different–those who write the columns and those who mouth the pieties (or click on the like buttons).

Why can’t we just conclude that wellbeing depends on one’s values and priorities, other than basic needs for survival?

Your conception of well-being is going to be embedded within, or part and parcel of a larger set of commitments–your values and priorities.

What are some examples of things that are intrinsically and instrumentally good? Would something like exercise (jogging) be a possible example? (Based on Objective List theory)

would sleep be both intrinsically & instrumentally good since maybe some people enjoy sleeping & at the same time sleep leads to better rest rejuvenation etc

Let’s be clear about the distinction first. So things that are good (for us) can be either good in and of themselves, i.e., intrinsically, or good derivatively (the technical term is “extrinsically“), for instance, by being the instrument for bringing about something else that is good (for us). Or more generally, by being in a certain relationship with something that is intrinsically good (for us).

Let’s say that health (or being healthy) is intrinsically good for human beings. This means that being healthy is just part and parcel of what it means for you to be “well-off”, “in a good situation”. Brushing your teeth, however, is among the things that help you maintain your health–it makes it more probable that your teeth and gums will remain healthy. So, presumably, it’s a good thing to brush your teeth–but derivatively rather than in and of itself. On the other hand, being healthy enables you to participate in an active friendship with others–and let’s say that friendship is also an intrinsic good. But this means that health is not just intrinsically good, it is also, at the same time, extrinsically good in relationship to another good–friendship.

(This raises a further question–could something be intrinsically good but extrinsically bad? personally, I think it’s not impossible. Let’s say we agree that pleasure is intrinsically good. But suppose the enjoyment of an inordinate amount of pleasure led to bad health and the neglect of friendship?)

If well-being is about living a good life, I would argue that we will not be able to appreciate all the good days unless we have a few bad days. Like is happiness on some level dependent on pain?

If one’s life is solely comprised of “good days” then would they know that they’ve had a “good life”? Would it be just a mundane life for them?

Presumably, we are interested in the whole range of application–good actions, good character, good days, good lives. And the way they relate to each other may not be straightforwardly ‘additive’. Yes, a life is as if the concatenation of many days. But this doesn’t have to imply that a good life just is the concatenation of many good days–just as a good day may not be a uniform many “good hours or minutes or seconds”. Not even if you adopt a Pleasure/Pain Theory of Well-being, in fact–since it’s entirely possible that the best overall balance of pleasure over pain for a whole life is best achieved by including some painful stretches.

isn’t it difficult to decide what should constitute an objective list considering different people have different pleasures or wants that fulfil their own definition of ‘the good life’?

but if it’s things that are intrinsically good eg knowledge, wealth, why would it differ between people?

Considering the subjectivity of the human experience, can we truly have a theory of well-being? How do we even define what is well in the first place?

Of course it’s difficult–who told you philosophy is easy? But here, do watch the difference between two distinct ideas. First is the idea that people don’t agree on what is good, or well-being, or what constitutes a well lived life. But, by itself, this isn’t a problem for theories of well-being. Suppose you and I disagree vehemently over whether Goldbach’s Conjecture is true. The fact of our disagreement is not going to show that–somehow–there isn’t an objective answer, even if one that is hard for us to know and agree upon.

More generally, from the fact that each of us experience the world from a certain point of view–each of us has a certain “subjectivity”, it doesn’t follow that there aren’t objective facts. Even objective facts regarding our own well-being. In fact, if well-being is a purely subjective thing where there’s no further truth to the matter beyond how you or I happened to feel about it, we couldn’t be disagreeing. To disagree is exactly to presuppose that our views are incompatible and at least one of us is wrong–objectively wrong.

The second is the idea that different things could be good/bad for different people. This is entirely commonsensical for the many goods are only extrinsically good–a certain class of medicine is good for X because it targets the particular illness that X suffers from, giving him a higher probability of regaining his health, but bad for Y because not having that disease, she will only suffer from the side effects of the medicine.

But I think the student is wondering about my second “worry” on Slide #19, where I mentioned that “different mixtures of these goods are good for different people”—more wealth can be good for Betty but bad for Charlie. So the question is whether, if we have a list of (supposedly) intrinsic goods, this can still be a worry. It can, provided you think that people’s circumstances may differ sufficiently such that what’s intrinsically good for one is not so for another. To give a slightly weird example–imagine that, Jack has a certain personality such that he tends to be very arrogant when healthy, so much so that he fails to have any friend. It’s when he is somewhat under the weather that he is… well… humbled and a sweet friend.

Is relativism necessarily undesirable when defining well-being?

Not sure if you noticed but a certain degree of “relativism” is already baked into the discussion. We are talking about what’s intrinsically good for human beings. And we are even willing to consider that people may be sufficiently different in their circumstances such that the same package of things may be good for one and bad for another. This “relativism”, however, is rather innocuous–it doesn’t do anything to the intended objectivity of the proposed answers. If whether something is good for you and bad for me isn’t just up to whatever you or I happened to feel, if there’s a truth to the matter beyond our subjective feelings, then it’s an objective matter.

Prof, can you elaborate further on what a placeholder is? I am still confused

Imagine that you are facing a really complicated mathematical expression that fills half a blackboard (it has to be a blackboard, and written with chalk). And you wonder–what’s the answer? What does it “equals to”? And your friend comes along and put a “x” after the equals sign–declaring, “let’s just call what it’s equal to ‘x’!” Well, that “x” is your placeholder–a stand in for the answer. I hope you see that it’s not really an actual answer.

Now, of course, this whole thing came from my addition to the Aristotle reference in Hausman. So here’s a little extra. Here is Aristotle talking about the “final good”–the good that is ultimately at the end point of all our actions (or our lives). For our purposes, you can think of it as “the set of intrinsic goods for human beings”. This is what Aristotle says about it:

About its name, most people are pretty much agreed, since both ordinary people and sophisticated ones say it is “happiness” and suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy. Concerning happiness, however, and what it is, they are in dispute, and ordinary people do not give the same answer as wise ones. For ordinary people think it is one of the plainly evident things, such as pleasure or wealth or honor—some taking it to be one thing, others another. And often the same person thinks it is different things, since when he gets a disease, it is health, whereas when he is poor, it is wealth. But when these people are conscious of their own ignorance they are wonder-struck by those who proclaim some great thing that is over their heads. And some people did used to think that, beyond these many good things, there is another intrinsically good one that causes all of them to be good. Now it is presumably quite pointless to inquire into all these beliefs, and enough to inquire into those that are most prevalent or that seem to have some argument for them. (Nicomachean Ethics I.4, C. D. C Reeve trans.)

The bit I need you to notice is highlighted. Aristotle points out that most agree to calling the final good “happiness”–meaning “living well and doing well”. But that’s just a name, a placeholder, since people don’t actually agree what living well and doing well, or “happiness” consists in. In fact, people often also don’t agree with themselves.

Since I also mentioned that “happiness” can be a misleading translation of the Greek term (eudainomia) , I guess I should follow up. As you can see from the quote, for Aristotle, the term is taken to mean “living well, doing well”–i.e., actually, objectively, living well, doing well. The translation is traditional and, I suspect, became misleading more because of the way the English word changed rather that because it was bad from the beginning. Nowadays, some translators also prefer “flourishing”.

What about our common use of the term “happiness” today? A big part of it is strongly related to “subjective well-being” or “SWB” for short in the relevant research area–the “self-reported measure of well-being, typically obtained by questionnaire”. That is, from what I can tell, what we mean by “happiness” tends to be not so much “living well, doing well” as much as “the subject’s feeling that he or she is living well, doing well”.

does that mean humans need a benchmark of what is a good life to gain happiness?

If there’s really such a thing as objective well-being–then, in a certain manner of speaking, there’s a ‘benchmark’ for the good life. And we would be living well, doing well if we are hitting that benchmark. This is no different from saying that–if the time it takes for one to run 100m is an objective thing, then, there’s a ‘benchmark’ for what it means to run 100m within 10seconds. And you would be running 100m within 10seconds if you managed to hit that benchmark.

It doesn’t follow directly from the above, however, that the benchmark is something in our conscious mind or guiding our action–whether Bob ran 100m within 10sec is just that. For all we care, he wasn’t aware that he was doing it. At the very least, he wasn’t aware of the clock ticking–he was just running. And this brings me to what I suspect is the thing that the student might be thinking of–benchmark in the sense of there being an idea accessible to our thinking, or something like knowledge, the grasping of which will help guide our life so that we gain well-being.

Nonetheless, it is entirely plausible that knowledge of what is good for us will help us be able to live well. This is something that Aristotle observed too:

Hence regarding our life as well, won’t knowing the good have great influence and—like archers with a target—won’t we be better able to hit what we should? If so, we should try to grasp in outline, at least, what the good is… (ibid., I.2)

I said it’s plausible. Even tempting. But is it true? Is it true that knowledge of what’s good for us helps us gain what’s good for us? (Did Bob’s knowledge of what it means for him to run 100m within 10sec help him do that?) Since this is philosophy, obviously, there would be some philosophers who differ (I mentioned Zhuangzi)–even though in this case, it’s the distinct minority opinion. Let me first put a pin on this matter–I’ll get back to it another time.