In contrast to the popular use of the term, which is typically related to health, ‘well-being’ in philosophical contexts is used to describe an intrinsic, or ultimate, good for a person (this is not to say that health is not, or cannot be, included in the philosophical account of well-being).
In short, the philosophical use of the term ‘well-being’ is broader than the term’s common everyday use. To consider a person’s well-being is to consider how well life goes, on the whole, for that person. It is similar to, though not identical with, the concept of happiness.
Theories of well-being typically fall into one of three categories:
(1) The hedonistic view: Hedonistic theories of well-being account for well-being strictly in terms of pleasure. On this view, a good life – that is, a life in which one enjoys a high level of well-being – amounts to the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.
(2) The desire-satisfaction view: The satisfaction of desires is another way of accounting for well-being. Proponents of this view note that we sometimes desire things that do not bring us pleasure, or which on balance bring about more pain than pleasure. I may desire, for example, to run a marathon, or to climb Mount Everest. While I may experience pleasure upon the completion of my endeavor (if indeed I am successful), that pleasure may not outweigh the pains to which I subjected myself in the process. The desire-satisfaction view allows for well-being to consist in more than simply pleasure (I may have climbed Mount Everest not for pleasure’s sake, but because it was somehow meaningful to me, for example).
(3) The objective list view: Finally, well-being can be accounted for in terms of an objective list of human goods. On this view, well-being consists in various goods which, objective list theorists claim, cannot be merely reduced to pleasure or the satisfaction of desires. The list of goods may include pleasure and the satisfaction of desire, but it may also include things like knowledge, for example, or friendship.
Well-being, however it is accounted for, plays an important role in moral theories, as they seek to promote the well-being of persons. When a moral theory claims that well-being is the only consideration that matters morally, the view is regarded as a welfarism view. Of the views associated with welfarism, utilitarianism is perhaps the best known.