Thursday, June 08, 2006

The perfect theory of individual welfare

I think that the perfect theory of welfare must satisfy the following two desiderata:

1. it must deny that future facts can make a person better off retroactively. That is: what happens after my death cannot make me no harm, no good.
2. it must avoid the Experience Machine objection.

I take the denial of 1 to go against common sense. In the philosophical literature there is no consensus on whether posthumous harm (or benefit) is possible, but when I try to ask people outside philosophy if they think they can be harmed by something that happens after they are dead, they look at me as if I was talking non-sense.

And I believe that their reaction makes a lot of sense. Given that backward causation is impossible, how can I be made worse off by an event taking place after my death? How can that event cause my life to change in any way? And isn't "becoming better" (or worse) a way for something to change? The intuition that is driving our doubts is that what makes a subject's life go bad must do it in virtue of causing a change in that life. But what do we mean by "a life"? It is difficult to define what qualifes as a change in one's life, because it is difficult to define what is truly part of one's life, and what is only superficially so. Sumner writes:
"... it will be difficult ... to delimit the states of the world which are (also) states of me. It seems intuitively obvious that my age, gender, physical health, place of residence, and so on, are all states of me. But is it a state of me that my children fare well? Is it a state of me that I live in a crime-free nightborhood? That I am alive when human beings first reach the moon? That the world I inhabit also includes the Rocky Mountains?" (The Subjectivity of Welfare, 778, n.)
On a certain view of the self as the physical individual one is, it is reasonable to think that what makes one's life go worse must cause a change in "an intrinsic physical property of the individual"; notice that I use the expression "an intrinsic physical property of the individual" as a shorthand for "an intrinsic property of a physical state of the physical individual one is". (Note 1)

But in this case, clearly, no event that is taking place after one's death can be what makes one life go worse, because no such event can cause a change in one's "intrinsic physical properties" (in the sense above.) This view of the self makes sense of the intuition of the man in the street.

It may be more appropriate to call what I called "a certain view of the self" a theory about the substance of individual lives. On this view, someone's life contains only those events that are changes in one's "intrinsic physical properties" or changes in those properties that supervene narrowly on the latter.

One may refuse the latter view of what lives are. But we need some sort of limiting principle of what sort of state and events count truly as "about one's life", because failing to be so would imply that any change in the world can count as a change in our life, and hence may count as a a change in one's welfare. This has many counter-intuitive consequences, as we shall see.

For example, the fact that grammar does not provide a criterion for delimiting what belongs to my life and what doesn't represents a problem for desire-fulfillment theories (people who hold that what welfare is a function of the fulfilment of the desires one has, or would have under special circumstances.) The simplest form of such theories is what has been called an "unrestricted" desire-fulfilment theory. This theory faces a fundamental objection, nicely described by the following example by Parfit:

suppose I meet a stranger on the bus, who tells me about his illness, and I form the sudden desire that he recovers. Suppose that I leave this stranger and don't hear about him anymore. The unrestricted theory implies that when the stranger recovers from his illness some year later, my life is made better by this fact.

One way to avoid this conclusion is to consider only the fulfilment of those desires that are about one's life. But then we face the previous problem, that any state of the world can be described as a state of one's life. Parfit, pp.494-5, for example, argues that we should exclude desires that are only superficially about one’s own life – e.g. the desire to be someone whose children’s lives go well (independently of your own efforts) – whilst including similar ones such as the desire to be a good parent and so have given one’s children a good start in life. But is there a single valid criterion to distinguish which desires are really about one's life, and which are only superficially so? I am deeply skeptical that any such clear cut formal criterion can be produced.

In particular, I hold that any descriptive criterion that includes more states of the world than the physical one does, will be hopelessly expansive. By this I mean that, if we choose a criterion that is less restrictive than the physical one, I think we will be unable to limit it in such a way that it picks up only states that it is reasonable to consider as belonging to our lives. (Note 2)

So, in the absence of any meaningful wide theory of what "lives" are, the position of the man in the street, that events taking place after one's death cannot do one harm or good, seems very reasonable, for it is implied by the most liberal "non-expansive" criteria of what one's life consists in. (note 3)

Secondly, as pointed out by Kagan ("The limits of well-being") among others, the concept of welfare is the concept of what is good "for a" subject. What is good for a subject cannot simply be what is good in an impersonal way. A theory of welfare has to explain what it means for some state of affairs to be good for that subject, and not absolutely. So the state of affairs in question must relate in a deep way to the subject whose good it constitutes, but in what way? If we don't want to have a view that is hopelessy expansive, it seems we must adopt the physical criterion or something even stricter. (Kagan himself considers only mental states to "belong to subject" in the relevant sense.)

As for 2, we don't want our theory of welfare to have the consequence that the best life for you could be a life connected to something like Nozick's Experience Machine (also known as "The Matrix".) Most people's intuition is that they want their desires to be fulfilled, and not simply to have the experience as of the fulfilment of their desires. And most people's intuition is that a life hooked up to the Matrix would be of very little value for the person who lives it (in the sense that no one would choose to live such a life forever.)

In particular, most people want their actions to succeed; they want to accomplish things, and not merely to get the pleasing illusion that they have accomplished something. To say that the only thing that matter in one's life are one's experiences (states of the mind-with no a-priori connection to something external), amounts to say that success cannot be intrinsically valuable.
(The reason for this is that most of the times we aim to produce states of the world, not of states of our own consciousness.)

A moral theory that gives no place at all to success, except as cause of certain types of experience, is a theory that goes deeply against common sense. But a theory according to which the only things that matter are one's experience is exactly such a theory. Thus the perfect theory of welfare cannot say that one's experiences are all that matter.

(Notice that a theory that confines well-being to "one's intrinsic physical properties"(in the above defined sense) and to narrowly supervening properties faces similar problems with respect to the value of success. Thus, these two requirements push us in two opposite directions, and probably cannot be meet by any valid theory of welfare, as I will try to show in some other post.)

1. I use "physical states" in a way that is roughly equivalent to "physical configuration" or "structure" . "Being 1ooo miles away from Tokyo" is not an intrinsic property of the "bodily state", at a time t, of that physical individual that (at the time t) is Mark. On the contrary, a certain extension and a certain mass are intrinsic properties of this bodily state. Now, a property can be an intrinsic property of a physical state of a (physical) individual even if it is not an intrinsic property of that individual.
For example "having a mass of 80 kg" is an intrinsic property of a physical state of Marco's body (or better, of that physical body that at time t is Marco), but it is not an intrinsic property of Marco, as it is contingent that Marco's mass is 80 kg (or better, that the mass of that physical body that at time t is Marco is 80 kg.)
2. The criterion that can be extrapolated by Parfit's examples is that a state of the world is part of one's life if one had an active role in bringing it about (think about the desire to give one children a good start in life.) But there are so many causal paths that can be traced back to our actions, that this criterion also seems hopelessly expansive. One could prevent the criterion to expand in this way by including only the intentional consequences of one actions, but this has the following problem:

suppose that I desire to give my children a good start in life, but I actually end up producing just the opposite state of affairs: my children become psychologically fragile and as a result end up as drug addicts and serial killers. It would make no sense, in this case, to consider their psychological fragility and their social role as an intended consequence of my actions. Yet it would be absurd to say that these facts cannot make my life worse, if on the other hand my success as an educator can make my life better.

3.Another non-expansive descriptive criterion is that which identifies a life, a self or a subject with his or her own experience. And this criterion entails that posthumous harm or benefit is impossible, as well. The states of the world that count as making up an individual life, under the experiential criterion, are a subset of the latter set. (If experience supervenes on the physical properties of the individual.) Thus the experiential criterion is less liberal than the former. Any other non-hopelessly expansive descriptive criterion will be, if I am right, less liberal than the physical criterion.

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