Early-Career Research Spotlight: Benjamin Yelle

The purpose of the early-career research spotlight is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.


For this installment of the early-career research spotlight series, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fellow southeastern Massachusetts native, Benjamin Yelle. Yelle is a visiting instructor at Mount Holyoke College. He received his M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and his Ph.D. at the University of Miami in 2014. He works in normative and applied ethics and is especially interested in the nature of our well-being and personal autonomy, as well as the relationship between the two. Currently, he is working on developing and defending a novel, broadly subjectivist theory of well-being that maintains that an individual’s well-being consists in her “self-realization,” specifically, the realization of her values. The broad contours of this view can be found in his article “Alienation, Deprivation, and the Well-Being of Persons.” He is also interested in how work being done in empirical psychology ought to influence normative theories of well-being. Yelle teaches classes on topics such as medical ethics, the philosophy of law, and happiness and meaning in life, as well as any other sort of class that he thinks will make his students as excited about ethics as he is.BEN YELLE PICTURE


Justin: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me, Benjamin. Okay, let’s jump right into some content questions. In the Utilitas piece mentioned above (“Alienation, Deprivation, and the Well-Being of Persons”), you sketch your view of well-being. You decide on a theory that is subjective rather than objective, meaning (broadly) that the subjective values of the agent are what’s going to be doing the heavy lifting for what your view will suggest is best for an agent’s well-being. Is this right? If so, this raises a worry, one that you mention in the piece but that I’d like to discuss further here. As you are likely aware, many agents value some pretty harmful stuff! For instance, some might value hurting others, and others might value racial segregation. Still others might value trolling philosophers online because, well, they enjoy it. On your view, it might be that partaking in actions that promote these values are best for that agent. But this seems to suggest that it wouldn’t be better for agents to partake in a course of actions that could lead them to value more ethical options in the future. To my ears, this seems false. Surely it’s better for anyone to partake in actions that promote values that truly benefit the agent beyond the fulfillment of some perverse desires, even if the agent cannot yet understand or see these other values as best or beneficial to their well-being, or is it? Where have I gone wrong in thinking about this? Could you explain how you deal with such cases?

Benjamin: Hi, Justin, its great to have the opportunity to talk to you. You are right. I think that an individual’s values should do a lot of the heavy lifting in a theory of well-being. Here’s why. I think that much of the literature on well-being is dominated by two intuitions: “What is good for an individual depends upon what she is like,” and “In some cases an individual is worse off because she is deprived of some putatively essential or basic good even if she cannot be brought to appreciate this fact.” I follow many well-being theorists in calling the first thought “the subjective intuition” and the second our intuitions about “deprivation.” While I think that no theory of well-being is ultimately going to be able to completely capture both of these intuitions, by focusing on individuals’ values, we can accommodate them to the greatest extent possible. Put succinctly, this is because an individual’s values are central to “what she is like” and because this approach recognizes the importance of the development and exercise of the cognitive, affective, and volitional capacities (e.g., a capacity for autonomy) that are constitutive of both an individual’s personhood and her capacity to value.

All right, now that my theoretical motivations are out of the way, you are right: people value some pretty harmful, base, pointless, and bad stuff. We need to be careful, though, when considering what we mean here. I think that another way of phrasing your objection is that some values are intrinsically “defective” because they are, for example, morally bad. I agree; such values are morally bad and one morally ought not act upon them. But well-being theorists aren’t giving an account of what individuals morally ought to do; we are interested in what is prudentially valuable. Accordingly, I think we need to bite the bullet in response to objections like yours and concede that yes, realizing such values is indeed prudentially valuable for the person who has them. Two points, however, are in order. First, the mere fact that realizing such values is good for a person does not mean that we (the rest of us) ought to devote our efforts to the actualization of values like racial segregation or trolling philosophers. In fact, if the values are morally repugnant, we have overwhelming reason not to aid individuals in realizing them, even if doing so makes them better off. I’m interested in advancing a theory of prudential value, not a theory of what individuals have all-things-considered most reason to do or bring about. The fact that an individual may value something morally abhorrent or pointless (think Rawls’s grass-counter) says nothing about what she morally ought to do, what would best perfect her nature as a human, etc.

The cost of biting the bullet is that you are left saying that people can prudentially benefit from realizing base (e.g., immoral) or pointless values. It’s worth it, however, because it allows you to capture the subjective intuition. This helps to ensure two things. First, your theory of well-being won’t offer an “alienating” conception of an individual’s good. That is, it won’t maintain that something is good for a person even if she is resiliently unable to have any pro-attitude toward it. Second, in helps to ensure that your theory of well-being is normatively adequate and authoritative such that individuals have reason to follow its dictates and imperatives.

Finally, my theory can capture the idea that acting morally is good for a person. Again, I define an individual’s values as those aspects of her idiosyncratic makeup in relation to which she is autonomous. One of the virtues of well-being as self-realization is that you can plug different conceptions of autonomy into it. So if, for example, you have a rather “robust” or thicker conception of autonomy such that being autonomous commits you to being moral, then my view will explain why it is better for agents to partake in courses of action that lead them to realize ethical options: they necessarily value morality in virtue of being the kind of being they are (i.e., “persons”).

Justin: That was very helpful, Benjamin! Thanks. I think I see where I disagree a bit more clearly, but I will save a further back-and-forth for personal correspondence between us in the future. 

In Washington, D.C. (at the most recent Eastern APA), I heard you give a very nice talk titled “Questioning Happiness’s Objective Value.” I especially liked the way you handled yourself during the Q&A. So, I have a general question about this piece, but it also relates to your Utilitas piece. You speak often about concerns of alienation. Put briefly, objectivists about well-being face a criticism that if someone partakes in an action that they do not themselves see as assisting in their flourishing, then partaking in it could cause them to alienate themselves from these sorts of actions. Now, if I am correct in my thinking about this criticism, it leads me to ask a question about personal identity. It seems that you must have a theory of personal identity in mind if you think someone will be alienated in the way you describe, but you do not work it out in too much detail as of yet (after all, neither of these pieces require such a spelling-out). That said, I wonder if certain understandings of personal identity could get around your concerns. So, first, is this true? Do you have a specific theory in mind? If yes, could you let us in on what you’re thinking? If no, do you think your concerns about alienation are tied to a specific subset of identity theories, or do you think the alienation concerns permeate all or most theories you’ve encountered?

Benjamin: I’m not so much interested in questions of personal identity that deal with issues concerning the identification of individuals over time, but in personal identity as it concerns those aspects of us that are important to understanding what makes us the distinct individuals we are—that is, understanding who we are. If you think that what is good for a person depends upon “what she is like,” then we need to be clear about what the “she is like” is referring to. Do we identify a person with her desires, her nature as a human, her emotional state, or her values?

I think that my work on well-being has been influenced by the fact that I wrote my master’s thesis on personal identity, specifically on psychological continuity theories of well-being and the role that autonomy played in them. Because of this, when I began exploring the well-being literature, I noticed that many theorists, especially Aristotelians, were interested in our flourishing qua human. Those who are familiar with the literature on personal identity know that there is a big divide between psychological and bodily continuity theorists. I fell squarely in the former camp, in part because I thought this approach was better able to capture our practical (i.e., prudential) concerns. Accordingly, when I saw well-being theorists focus on our well-being qua human, I thought, “Why aren’t they focusing on our nature qua person?” I thought that a theory of well-being that focused on our nature as persons might prove especially attractive, because if you define a person’s identity—as many in, say, the Frankfurtian tradition have, i.e., with those aspects of her psychological and volitional makeup to which she has (or would have) higher-order attitudes and responses—then you can both capture the subjective intuition and avoid worries about alienation, two central desirata for a theory of well-being.

Justin: Okay, and now a couple of general questions. You mentioned that you have interests in a number of areas. I often find that teaching gives rise to new and thoughtful research ideas. Is this the case for you as well? Have you been cooking up any new work on topics related to some of the things you teach?

Benjamin: I’m currently teaching a seminar on well-being, and the students are reading some of my work and getting my perspective on a lot of issues. I’m hoping that they will put my theory through the ringer and give me some new ideas!

Justin: Do you find research easier or harder since graduating from Miami? Do you have any advice for those of us about to graduate, on how to transition from researching as a grad student to researching as a lecturer?

Benjamin: I found that I was able to get through graduate school by treating it as a professional job. I’d come in at around eight or nine in the morning and leave at around five or six at night, and I would try (but not always with success) not to work (much) on the weekends. I feel as though this helped in the transition from researching as a graduate student to researching as a lecturer, because structuring my time became a habit. I come in each day knowing that I have a couple of hours I need to dedicate to office hours and meeting with students, a couple more hours to work on class preparation and grading, and then the rest of the time to work on research. A lot of your time working as a graduate student—on, say, your dissertation—is done at all hours, between the one or two classes you are teaching. This doesn’t lend itself to giving your life too much structure, and that can be hard for transitioning into a new job in which you have more students and more responsibilities toward them, and all this while you are navigating the job market.

Justin: Well, thanks a bunch for taking the time to talk with me and APA blog readers about your work.

Please feel free to ask Benjamin questions about his work in the comment thread.

If you know of an early-career researcher doing interesting work, nominate them for a research spotlight through our submission form.  Our goal is to cover early-career research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members.