Duration in Desire Satisfactionism

Where I come from, there are two main theories of welfare value: Hedonism, and Desire Satisfactionism. Typical versions of hedonism about value say that things are going well (for you, in the world, in this situation, in the consequence of this event, etc.) to the extent that the relevant entity contains a favorable balance of pleasure over pain; whereas typical versions of desire satisfactionism say that things are going well to the extent that the relevant entity contains a favorable balance of desire satisfaction over frustration. If you’re reading this, this is probably familiar.

Typical versions of the hedonic calculus involve the claims that pleasure and pain come in episodes, that the value of an episode of pleasure depends on how much pleasure it contains, and that the amount of pleasure contained in an episode is determined by multiplying the intensity of the pleasure by its duration. This means that, other things being equal, if one episode of pleasure is more intense than another, it is better. It also means that, other things being equal, if one episode lasts longer than the other, it is also better. This makes sense to me.

But desire satisfactionism is different. Typical versions of desire satisfactionism identify the satisfaction of a desire with a situation in which S desires that p be the case at a time and p is the case at that time, and then claim that the value of a desire satisfaction is equal to the intensity of the desire.

In an exceptionally clear instance of this trend, Chris Heathwood writes:

The Desire Satisfactionist picture is this. Each day of our lives, and over greater spans as well, we get some things we want and fail to get other things we want. When the former happens, we enjoy a desire satisfaction; when the latter happens, we suffer a desire frustration. The greater the number and intensity of the satisfactions and the lesser the number and intensity of the frustrations, the greater the balance of desire satisfaction over frustration.

Preferentism and Self Sacrifice.” p. 25*

And Heathwood is not alone; prominent philosophers who do not indicate that the duration of the satisfaction makes a difference include: Brandt, A Theory of the Good and the Right, pp. 24 – 30, 126 – 9; Griffin, Well-Being, pp. 10 – 13; Hare, Moral Thinking, pp. 91, 95; Heathwood, “Preferentism and Self-Sacrifice,” p. 25.; Heathwood, “Desire-Satisfactionism and Hedonism,” p. 540; Heathwood, “The Problem of Defective Desires,” p. 489; and Kagan, Normative Ethics, p. 36.

This inattention to the duration of the individual cases of desire satisfaction seems to me to be problematic. Consider, for example, the following case: Smith and Jones each work at the same button factory. In a world without labor laws, Smith and Jones work 16-hour shifts, seven days a week. Smith loves the work and has a constant desire to be at work, making buttons. This desire is, of course, satisfied 16 hours out of every day and frustrated the other 8. On the other hand, Jones does not like the work and has a constant desire to be at home with her family. This desire is satisfied eight hours out of every day and frustrated the other 16.

Intuitively, it seems that things are going better for Smith than they are for Jones, but a version of satisfactionism that attends only to the number of desire satisfactions while ignoring their duration will entail that they are equally well-off.

But then suppose that Smith is made to go home for lunch every day. This doubles the number of satisfactions she is involved in, by chopping the workday into two halves separated by a frustrating break, but without affecting their overall duration. Desire satisfactionism as it is normally formulated has the implauisble implication that this policy would double Smith’s well-being.

Here’s another example. Suppose Smith has just one desire his entire life: he wants to be the owner of a Ford Mustang. Suppose that this desire is frustrated early on–in particular, when he is not old enough to drive. But suppose that later on it is satisfied, and that this period begins on his 16th birthday and continues uninterrupted for the rest of his life. Jones has a similar life-long desire for a Ford Mustang, which is just as intense as Smith’s, and which is frustrated early on and satisfied later in life. Unlike Smith, Jones doesn’t acquire a Mustang until his 76th birthday. Suppose they each die at age 80. Smith and Jones each have the same number of satisfactions (1) and frustrations (also 1). According to the standard formulation, which says that it is the number and intensity of desire satisfactions that contribute to the value of a life, Jones is just as well-off as Smith. But this seems wrong. Smith spent practically his entire life with his only desire satisfied, and Jones spent practically his entire life going without.

Of course, it is possible that there is some good reason why satisfactionists don’t talk about duration, although I am not aware of an instance of a discussion of desire-satisfactionism that addresses this question. But all of these problems seem to be serious. As it is normally formulated, desire satisfactionism gives highly implausible results in each of these cases. So I suggest that an alternative formulation that recognizes the effect of duration on the value of a case of desire satisfaction be adopted.

* I asked Chris about this, and he tells me that his actual view is more sophisticated than the view contained in the quotation, that according to his actual view desires satisfactions are instantaneous events consisting of someone desiring that P while P is true, and that this gives his view the resources to do approximately what I’m looking for, since what I would call a longer-lasting satisfaction is what he would call a lot more satisfactions.

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Two Conceptions of Justice

Whether or not a situation is just depends on whether or not the people involved get what they deserve. Justice is, obviously, a subject of great moral concern–it is of vital moral importance, for example, that undeserved suffering be minimized. The question I am interested in concerns how this moral importance works. There are (at least) two conceptions of the moral importance of justice in the literature.

The first conceives of justice as a limiting condition on how objects of value may be pursued. This view could be described as “deontological,” and we might think of it as the “orthodox” view. The defining characteristic of this view is how it deals with cases in which the best outcome can be achieved only in an unjust manner. Prominent examples include: the Organ Harvest case, according to which the only way to save the lives of five very productive, beloved people is to slaughter an innocent person in order to harvest his organs for transplant; the Punish-the-Innocent case, according to which the only way to make everyone happy is to frame and unfairly punish an innocent person while letting the guilty party go free; Free Rider cases, in which a person takes advantage of the system in a way that makes himself better off and which does not cause an offsetting harm to others, but which is unfair because the effects of everyone engaging in this behavior would be disastrous; etc.

In these cases, the fact that the gains in utility, welfare, value, or whatever, can be had only at the expense of justice seems to be sufficient to render the relevant actions morally impermissible. Although it would be “better” in a clear sense to perform the organ harvest, or punish the innocent, or free ride, these actions are morally forbidden because they are unfair. The injustice involved rules them out.

This conception can be found throughout the history of moral and political philosophy from at least the modern period forward. Kant’s Formula of Humanity, according to which we must treat humanity always as an end in itself and never as a mere means, is a clear example. Rawls’s theory of justice, according to which “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others,” regardless of the consequences, is also an instance of this conception. As different as Nozick’s political philosophy is from that of Rawls, his principles of justice in acquisition and transfer are also instances of this conception.

The second conception sees justice as an object of value in itself. On this view, states of affairs consisting of a person getting what she deserves are good, and those consisting of a person failing to get what she deserves are bad, and this is only indirectly related to the moral permissibility of actions that bring such situations about. Ross’s insistence that, in addition to pleasure and virtue, the apportionment of pleasure to the virtuous is intrinsically good is an instance of this conception of justice. This conception can also be found in Feldman’s various desert-adjusted versions of utilitarianism and hedonism, according to which the value of an episode of pleasure is determined by its intensity, duration, and the degree to which it was deserved; Portmore’s recent attempts to “consequentialize” various moral theories (that have traditionally thought to be essentially deontological); and, interestingly, in Kant’s discussion of the value of happiness in the opening pages of the Groundwork, in which he says that happiness is valuable only if it is associated with a (deserving) good will, and that the highest, most complete form of goodness obtains when the perfectly good will enjoys perfect happiness.

The first conception has the advantage of being the traditional view, and it is intuitively attractive–even intuitively obvious. But, assuming that we have a fundamental obligation to bring about all-things-considered better states of affairs rather than worse ones, and given that this obligation is not closely related to an obligation to do what would be fair, it is theoretically disunified. It contains a larger number of fundamental moral obligations, and is therefore more difficult to integrate into an overall theory of moral permissibility and obligation, than its main competitor. Such a theory would have to emphasize the competing duties to do what would be best for everyone and to do what would be fair, and introduce ways of weighing these considerations against one another. And it is not clear how this could be done in a consistent, principled, non-arbitrary way. (For example, as it is traditionally interpreted, Kant’s categorical imperative seems to entail that the impact of our actions on the welfare of others is morally irrelevant; this is implausible.)

This second conception has the advantage of being simpler and more theoretically unified than the first. It is also easier to integrate into the sort of overall ethical system I prefer (in the manner of Feldman and Portmore). But it seems to me that its biggest selling point is that there are possible cases in which utility and justice conflict, but in which the injustice is so insignificant and the gain in utility is large enough that it would be permissible–or even obligatory–to perform the unjust act.

For example, suppose that a group of friends has gone out to dinner and is now considering how to divvy up the bill. Suppose that everyone is in the same ballpark—it’s not as though everybody had the lobster and washed it down with hundred-year-old champagne while one guy had ice water with his salad, but it’s also not as though everyone had the same thing. Not everyone’s meal costs the same. The most fair way to settle up would be for everyone to pay exactly the price of his or her food and drink plus tip. That way everyone would pay exactly what he or she owes and no more and no less. But it is possible, if there were enough people, and if there were enough different items on the bill, and if the bill were disorganized enough, that this would not be the best way to settle it. It is possible that the all-things-considered best way to settle the bill would be to divide it evenly so that everyone pays the same amount, even though this would not be the most fair. And I don’t mean just the easiest way; I mean the best way. I mean that the easiness of doing it this way could outweigh the unfairness involved, and that this is why it is okay to settle the bill this way. And I think it would be permissible to divide the bill this way even if not everyone agreed. I think you could be outvoted on a decision like this, although this would not be true if the unfairness outweighed the easiness.

This makes it seem like the second conception of justice is the right one; that justice is an object of value in itself, and that although it ordinarily outweighs considerations of utility, it does not automatically trump them. But I also think it’s telling that the injustice involved in the above example is highly trivial. Minor but nontrivial injustices generally outweigh significant potential gains in utility.

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The Possibility of Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being

There is a long-standing and persistent problem concerning interpersonal comparisons of well-being. In its strongest versions, the allegation is that it is literally not possible to make useful comparisons of the happiness or well-being of different persons (or, even the same person at different times). An interpersonal comparison of value would be “useful” if we could know, for example, that Smith is happier than Jones, or that, taken together, the Smiths are happier than the Joneses. This kind of comparison crucially involves quantitative comparison in terms of better than, worse than, or equally good, or the sort of aggregation we employ when we add Mr. Smith’s well-being to that of Mrs. Smith and compare the sum to that of Mr. and Mrs. Jones.

On some interpretations, the problem is fundamentally epistemological in nature—it arises because facts about how other people are doing are closed off to us and unknowable in an important way. But on another interpretation, the problem arises because meaningful quantitative comparisons can be made only if the comparison is made relative to a single degree-admitting feature, such as height, or mass, temperature, or some such thing. This is why it does not make sense to claim that 2 grams is greater than 1 meter, or to add these quantities together—the numbers are being used to represent inherently different degree-admitting features of objects. 2 grams plus 1 meter does not equal 3 of anything.

Another instance of this sort of problem came up a couple of years ago, when Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee track-and-field athlete who runs using prosthetic carbon fiber blades in lieu of feet, was trying to get permission to run in the Beijing Olympics. He was not allowed to compete because, it was said, his blades confer an unfair advantage over people who run the old-fashioned way. The root of the problem is that it is unclear whether these modes of transportation are comparable, in the sense that they are the same thing, and so it is unclear whether it is possible to (directly) compare the results of the two modes of sprinting. If they are not the same thing then the blades should not be allowed in footraces for the same reason (though to a lesser extent) that bicycles are not allowed in footraces—running and cycling are too different, and so it is not possible to compare the results of those two modes of transportation. And so the question as to whether the blades confer an unfair competitive advantage is the question as to whether what Pistorius is doing is similar enough to what the other racers are doing to license a comparison.

This is relevant to the problem of interpersonal comparisons because, given the inherent and essential perspective-dependence of a person’s well-being, Smith’s well-being is not the same thing as Jones’s well being, and Mr. Smith’s well-being is not the same thing as Mrs. Smith’s well-being, in exactly the same way that being good for making cheesecake and being good for making coffee are not the same thing. And in a way that is similar to the way that running and running using carbon fiber prosthetic blades are not the same thing (if they’re not). And this is supposed to explain why attempting to compare or aggregate the well-being of different people is impossible: the alleged comparisons inherently involve what can only be described as different features, in violation of a clear necessary condition for the making of a legitimate, coherent comparison.

But it seems to me that this is not right. It is possible to compare “goodnesses” even if the goodnesses that are objects of comparison are not precisely the same kind of goodness. It makes sense to claim that I am a better guitar player than a drummer, even though good at guitar and good at the drums are not the same way of being good. It is possible to make comparisons with respect to different dimensions as long as the dimensions are relevantly similar, and it is impossible to make comparisons when the dimensions are insufficiently similar. So, for example, being good at guitar and being good at the drums are similar enough to license comparison, but being good at guitar and being one meter long are not. While not identical, being good for Smith and being good for Jones are much more similar than are being good at guitar and being good at the drums. And they are close enough that it makes sense to compare their instances with respect to goodness.

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Against Geach and Thomson on Goodness

Peter Geach has a well-known argument that there are no legitimate predicative uses of ‘is good,’ and that this suggests that there is no impersonal, perspective-neutral sort of value of the kind regarded as important by e.g. utilitarians and Moorean consequentialists. The argument is based on the premise that sentences of the form ‘x is good’ do not describe x. Geach claims that all uses of ‘good’ are attributive, as ‘small’ in ‘x is a small elephant,’ rather than predicative, as ‘red’ in ‘x is a red car.’ The use of ‘good’ in ‘x is a good car’ clearly conforms to this pattern, but, according to Geach, the pattern extends even to uses of ‘good’ that appear to involve predication, not attribution. Geach argues that all uses of ‘good’ whose surface grammar is predicative are either logically attributive uses in disguise, or illegitimate. Geach’s main reason for thinking so appears to be that ‘good’ cannot be used to describe the objects to which it is applied in a direct way.

Judith Jarvis Thomson makes the related point that all goodness is goodness “in a way.” Thomson argues that when we are asked, for example, whether it is good that Albert (e.g.) rings the doorbell, our information is insufficient to warrant a judgment. We don’t know what ‘is good’ means–we can’t determine what is being asked. Similarly, although St. Francis was good, and chocolate is good, there is no single scale of evaluation on which chocolate and St. Francis can both be placed in virtue of their respective goodnesses. Although they are both good, they are not good in the same way. St. Francis was morally good, that is, virtuous; chocolate is good tasting, which is an utterly different thing. According to Thomson there is no goodness simpliciter. Something might be good in one of various ways of being an instrument; good for making cheesecake; good at games such as chess or Boggle, or at sports such as baseball; good as a person–possessing some important virtues or lacking some important vices; but all goodness is relativized. The brandy might be good tasting but not a good remedy for the common cold. All goodness is goodness “in a way,” and there is no fact of the matter about whether the brandy is good, for that word does not express any single genuinely perspective-neutral evaluative property. This explains why the question about the goodness of Albert’s ringing the doorbell is impossible to answer: we need to know which particular way of being good is the way in question. We can’t know whether something is good without knowing which particular way of being good is the way in question.

There are, of course, lots of objections to these arguments in the literature. It has been pointed out, for example, that when God created heaven and earth and saw that it was good, or when Martha Stewart appraises a mouse carved out of a mango simmered in a raspberry reduction sauce as a good thing, these seem to be straightforwardly predicative uses of ‘good’ with no clear attributive paraphrase. But the mere existence of these counterexamples does not reveal the mistake the Geach/Thomson view makes, or explain why they might have been tempted to make it.

Here’s my diagnosis. There are many predicates that seem to satisfy the general pattern of use established by ‘good,’ but which are logically predicative, not attributive. The predicate ‘is impressive’ has a logically predicative use, but is not particularly descriptive. Some predicates are more specific than others, and the more general and less specific a predicate is, the less “descriptive” it is. It would be a mistake to conclude that an alleged predicate was merely logically attributive on the basis of its generality or non-specificity. Uses of ‘is good,’ whether logically attributive or predicative, are often not descriptive in themselves. If, for example, I say that this is a good car, it is not clear that I have described it in any way. I might think it’s good because it has good gas mileage, or because it has a powerful engine, or because it is fast, or because it is reliable, or because it has a lot of passenger space, or because it has a high safety rating. Although any of these attributes might serve as the basis for and entail the truth of my evaluative judgment, each of them is descriptive in a way the evaluative judgment as such is not. This is, in part, because there are myriad kinds of goodness (including goodness as an instrument, goodness as a sign, logical goodness, aesthetic goodness, good-tastingness, intrinsic ethical goodness if there is any such thing, etc), and for each kind of goodness, there are myriad possible supervenience bases for that kind and level of goodness. Knowing that something is “good,” even knowing what particular sort of goodness the speaker has in mind, does not carry much in the way of descriptive content. But this is because it is not specific; it is because of its logical properties, and not specifically because ‘good’ is always logically attributive and is never logically predicative. So part of the problem is that Geach has conflated descriptiveness with logical predication.

This sheds light on Thomson’s complaint that we don’t know what sentences such as ‘Albert’s ringing the doorbell was good’ are supposed to assert or express. There are, as Thomson points out, a variety of ways of being good, and (arguably) no single way in which both chocolate and St. Francis are good–since the primary manner in which chocolate is good has to do with flavor and the primary manner in which St. Francis was good has to do with virtue–goodness as a person. (Note also that the manner in which St. Francis was good is distinctively ethical in character, whereas the manner in which chocolate is good is not.) That we have trouble knowing whether Albert’s ringing the doorbell was good, given just that information, is not evidence that all “goodness” is “goodness in a way” and that perspective-neutral intrinsic ethical value is not among the ways; it is evidence that the term ‘good’ can be use to express a variety of intrinsic and relational evaluative properties, and without further context, it is impossible to know which property is the one expressed and why the relevant alleged object of value has been so evaluated. If the goodness in question is “goodness-to-eat,” as chocolate is good, then the answer is a clear “no.” Albert’s ringing the doorbell is not good in this way. If the goodness in question is ”goodness as a means to some further end,” then it depends on what the end is. If the end is to compel the occupant of the house to answer the door, then it is easy to imagine that Albert’s ringing the doorbell was good in this way. If the end was to compel the occupant to continue her nap, then it was probably not good in this way. If the goodness is non-derivative perspective neutral ethical value, then, again, Albert’s ringing the doorbell is probably not good in this way (though it may have been instrumentally good with respect to this kind of value). In any case, Thomson’s examples do not provide evidence against perspective-neutral value.

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An Objection to the Formulation of the Universal Law Based on Overfishing

I think I thought of a new objection to Kantianism in normative ethics. I looked around a little, and I couldn’t find anyone making this point, although I found a number of instances of the preliminary objection that leads up to my real objection.

Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative says that

FUL: I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law. [Groundwork, p 4:402]

There is a well-known objection to this principle based on the idea there are certain things that it is logistically impossible for everyone to do. Suppose, for example, that I get up early to go fishing out on lake Tuscaloosa. Suppose my maxim is, when it is a pleasantly cool morning here in Tuscaloosa and I am hungry for bass, go fishing at Lake Tuscaloosa. But if everyone did that, the lake would run out of fish and then nobody could go fishing.There are too many people in Tuscaloosa for the lake’s bass population to survive if everyone acted on that maxim. I cannot consistently will that my maxim should become a universal law.

It is easy to think of similar examples. Going to the grocery store tonight. Calling your parents on November 7th at 6:00 Central Daylight Time. Drinking the last beer. If everyone tried to do these things, they couldn’t be done.

But it seems to me that the Kantian has a reply. Thinking again about the fishing example, a conscientious angler would never act on so crude a maxim. A conscientious angler would intend to carefully act in such a way that her activities could be coordinated with those of the rest of the angling community, so as to ensure that overfishing does not take place. Or won’t as long as everyone else acts in a similar manner. One way to do this is for there to exist a bureaucracy that sets and enforces rules about how many people can fish in Lake Tuscaloosa at a time, and how many fish they can take in a day, and then ensure that one’s maxims are in accordance with those rules. This is what most people do and this is why Lake Tuscaloosa still has fish in it.

The interesting thing is that the bureaucracy is a practical but not theoretical necessity. A conscientious angler could act on a maxim according to which she will take only a small amount of fish per day, so that there will always be fish left to sustain the population. And there is no contradiction involved in willing that such a maxim become a universal law of nature.

And this creates a further problem for the Kantian. This is the objection I’d like to pursue. Recall the example of the lying promise. The “conscientious” liar can act on a sophisticated maxim designed to ensure that “overlying” would not take place, just as the conscientious angler can. The liar can intend to perform only a small number of lies, so that there will always be enough suckers trusting people left to sustain the practice of lying. And there is no contradiction involved in willing that such a maxim become a universal law of nature.

Although I don’t think that the formula of humanity is vulnerable to this sort of objection, I don’t see how FUL can avoid it. And since they’re supposed to be equivalent, I don’t know what the import of this fact is.

But I have some questions. Am I overestimating the significance of this objection? Is this as interesting an objection as I think it is? If so, is it new? If so, does the Kantian have a response? If so, what?

Thanks, y’all.

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A Dispute Between Kraut and Moore Regarding Welfare and “Impersonal” Value

In this paper I’m writing about perspective-neutral value I address a dispute between Moore and Kraut concerning the relationship between welfare value–that is, the kind of goodness that relates to how well a person is doing–and impersonal, perspective-neutral value. And perhaps this is relevant to something that came up in the comments to my previous post. According to Moore, roughly, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as welfare value, in conjunction with some auxiliary premises about who has reason to do what, generates a contradiction; therefore, all value is neutral in perspective. But according to Kraut, the hypothesis that exists perspective-neutral value makes value and its reason-giving properties mysterious. It seems to me that they’re both wrong.

Kraut argues that if pain, for example, were bad, but not bad for anyone in particular, then it would be impossible to explain why pain is bad, what is so bad about it, or why we (thereby) have reason to avoid or prevent it. It is only on the hypothesis that pain is bad for the person who undergoes it that its badness makes sense, and that we can see why we have an obligation to minimize it. (See Kraut, What is Good and Why, p. 75.) Goodness, therefore, is tied to interests, and since interests are tied to some particular perspective—that of the person or thing whose interests they are–so is goodness.

Pace Kraut, Moore claims that not only is welfare value not of central moral importance, it is not coherent. His argument is that if something were good (say) for me in particular, then that must mean that it is good in an absolute sense that I have it. (See Moore, Principia Ethica, §59, p. 150.) But if that were right, then everyone else would have as much reason to bring it about that I have what is good for me as I do. And if it is true that my sole fundamental obligation is to pursue my own good, then everyone else must also be so obligated–for it is good in an absolute sense that I attain my good. And the same would be true of everyone’s good: if something is good for you, then it is good in an absolute sense that you have it, and I have no less a reason than you to bring about that it is yours. But that entails a contradiction. It entails that my good and your good are each the sole good. And that cannot possibly be right.

Kraut argues that this leaves a gaping hole in our evaluative practices. Without the concept of welfare value, there is no way to express the idea that, for example, something is in someone’s interests, or not in someone else’s interests, or that someone is doing well, or that someone else is doing poorly. (See Kraut, p. 71.) This sort of evaluation is clearly a sort of evaluation, clearly makes sense, and is clearly morally relevant.

But it seems to me that Kraut’s criticism does not revealthe deeper mistake behind Moore’s argument. First, one could hold that it is good for me to get (say) pleasure while denying that it is good in an absolute sense that I get pleasure. One could also maintain that welfare value is legitimate without maintaining that each person’s sole obligation is to advance her own welfare. Additionally, one could also hold that facts about what is good for me yield reasons for me to act without thereby creating corresponding reasons for others. Moore denies that there is any value-related reason for action where the fact that P obtains is good from the point of view of S1 entails that S2 has a reason to bring P about, and where this depends on S1 being identical to S2; this is clearly false. We have prudential reasons to act in ways promote our own interests, and whether an action would promote our own interests are not makes ineliminable reference to a perspective-dependent welfare value. So Kraut’s hypothesis makes a mystery of the fact that S1’s pain creates reasons for S2, and the hypothesis that there exists a perpective-neutral kind of value explains how this works. Perspective-independent value generates perspective-independent reasons to promote or maximize value, but perspective-dependent value cannot.

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An Old-Fashioned Argument for An Unpopular View

I’m working on a paper about whether or not all values are perspective dependent. People like Geach, Foot, Thomson, and Kraut have argued that all values inherently involve someone or something’s perspective, and so there is no such thing as perspective-neutral value. Something might be good for me, or good for the environment, or good for the poor, or good for the Democratic Party, but it makes no sense to say that something is just plain good.

I disagree. I think there is a type of goodness that does not make any essential reference to any particular perspective. One reason why I think so is modeled on G. E. Moore’s  Open Question Argument. Consider the following pair of questions about Ted Bundy:

Q1: is good for Bundy that Bundy gets what is good for him?

Q2: is it good that Bundy gets what is good for him?

Q1 is a fairly trivial question about the impact on Bundy’s welfare of an increase in Bundy’s welfare; Q2 is a much more difficult question about the overall, perspective-neutral value of an increase in Bundy’s welfare. The two questions are not equivalent in meaning; the answer to one does not settle the answer to the other.

Is it good that Bundy gets what is good for him? It is easy to imagine that it is not, for Ted is a serial killer. The question ‘is it good that Bundy is doing well?’ is not equivalent to or settled by any question about Bundy’s welfare or flourishing in particular, or any particular person’s welfare, or the general welfare of everyone involved. It is not question about goodness from any particular person’s perspective; it is a further question that crucially involves a form of goodness that does not take any particular person’s point of view or perspective as its own. The fact that it would have been good from Bundy’s perspective for him to get away with his crimes is why it would have been so bad for that to have happened. If Bundy’s getting away were not good for Bundy himself, it would not be bad in a perspective-neutral way.

Richard Kraut argues that the hypothesis that value is perspective-neutral makes a mystery of the reason-giving and motivating properties of goodness. He argues that if pain were bad, but not bad for anyone in particular, we could have no clear reason for opposing it, nor would we be motivated to minimize it. (See Kraut, What is Good and Why, p. 75) This argument is reminiscent of J. L. Mackie’s “queerness” argument in favor of error-theoretic moral nihilism. That pain is bad seems to entail that it has “to-be-avoidedness,” which would have to be a very strange property. Why should the mere fact that pain is bad–but not necessarily bad for the person whose pain it is–give us such a reason to avoid pain for ourselves and alleviate it in others? Kraut argues that this “to-be-avoidedness” is comprehensible only if pain is understood to be bad for the person whose pain it is.

But it is not clear why simply appending “for the person who undergoes it” to the sentence ‘pain is bad’ solves the problem, as Kraut suggests it does. The mere fact that something has a negative impact on someone’s welfare does not, by itself, give us a reason to oppose or avoid it. The fact that Diazinon is bad for cockroaches, or for some particular cockroach, for example, does not constitute a reason to oppose or avoid Diazinon.

Nor does the fact that the pain is bad for Bundy give reason, by itself, to alleviate the pain. If justice requires it, we the badness of the pain might  play an important role in a moral justification for our bringing it about, rather than opposing it. But if we shift the discussion to a more virtuous person, who we stipulate does not deserve any pain, then that fact (in conjunction with the fact that pain is bad for the person who undergoes it) entails that the pain is (perspective-neutral) bad, and that we (thereby) have good moral reason to oppose it. Although this is somewhat mysterious, this mysteriousness is a problem for everyone, and so it does not tell against perspective-neutral value in particular.

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