Bioethics Blogs

Helping Friends

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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.