Judgments of well-being across different circumstances and spheres of life exhibit a staggering diversity. Depending on the situation, we use different standards of well-being and even treat it as being constituted by different things. This is true of scientific studies as well as of everyday life. How should we interpret this diversity? I consider three ways of doing so: first, denying the legitimacy of this diversity, second, treating well-being as semantically invariant but differentially realizable, and, third, adopting contextualist semantics for well-being expressions. I reject the first option on the grounds that it is unable to make sense of much of everyday and scientific linguistic practices, and also because it makes the category of well-being insignificant or even otiose for practical purposes. We should thus pick between the second and the third options. I argue that contextualism about well-being is more plausible and faces fewer objections than the differential realization view. I conclude with a discussion of other features of contextualism: it does not imply that well-being is relative to individual taste, it need not result in eliminativism about well-being, nor in scepticism about a general theory of well-being. It does not commit us to an “anything goes” approach, nor does it threaten anarchy and miscommunication.
See Haybron2008, among others, for an articulation of a methodology in moral psychology that is constrained but not determined by linguistic usage (D. Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).