Wednesday, July 26, 2006

good for/for the sake of

What is the relationship between the two expressions?
When a welfarist talks about welfare he talks about things that are good "for" a person or a certain kind of creature, as opposed to good sempliciter or from the point of view of the universe:
"In the case of human beings the idea that we should promote their good surely owes at least part of its appeal to the fact that we can do so for their sake or on their behalf. In doing good for someone we are therefore not merely making the world a better place but also doing something for that particular person." Sumner "Welfare, Happiness and Ethics p. 211".
Sumner is using "good for" and "for the sake of", to express different but related ideas:
  1. "individuation": when promoting people's good involves the virtue of benevolence, we are doing something for a specific individual, not for the sake of a more perfect universe.
  2. "benefit": the particular individual in question must be intended to benefit from my action; he must be intended to be made better off by it; (and maybe) this is to say that we must intend to augment his well-being
  3. "sake": the action must be done for the sake of the individual or something regarding him; not with a view to some further end.
What is the relation between those different ideas? It seems that it is part of the nature of a benevolent action towards a specific person that the agent is moved by a reason, as Scanlon writes "to do it because that person will benefit". Since our focus is on the individual person, it follows that a benevolent action is done for someone else or for the sake of someone else. But does the reverse holds? Is it always true that doing something "for someone", or "for the sake of somebody" means "doing something because that person will benefit?"; and must one think this benefit as improvement of well-being? What about "doing something for the sake of somebody else?".

Some people argue as if they presuppose that doing something for the sake of someone else implies doing something that is in that person's interests. I don't believe that this can be seen as an uncontroversial grammatical fact. The expression "for the sake of X" can cover different meaning; what it entails is a focus on a fact about X as the source of the reasons for this action, nothing further than that. Since very often, possibly always, when we value a person's life intrinsically we take that person's interests into account, we end up using the expression "doing somthing for the sake of X", where X is a person, to mean doing something that furthers his interests, doing something with a view to that person's good or to her advantage. Of course, folk theory regarding the grammar of "for the sake of" reflects common usage. So we shouldn't think of our intuitions about the "grammar" of "for the sake of" as carrying a special value.

Some people argue as if doing something for somebody's else sake (or for him) implies doing it with a view to improve their well-being. (This claim is different from the former since it is controversial that a person's best interest coincides with what furthers his well-being most.) But this must not be so. Doing something for the sake of someone else means doing something in function of someone else, that is, recognizing that person or a state of that person as the final value providing reasons for the action in question. (This also appears from the use of expressions such as "for the sake of the argument".) If one sticks to so-called "grammatical intuitions" doing something for the sake of another person is fully compatible with doing it with the aim of improving his level of perfection. (Notice that I do not believe that there are such things as "conceptual" or "grammatical intuitions", detached by what I prefer to call "normative claims.")

Of course, if you improve a person's level of perfection "for her" you must not see your action (simply) as a way to contribute to the perfection of the universe. This claim, that improving a person's level of perfection (as opposed to his well-being) does entail treating that person as a means (to improve the perfeection of the universe) is, even on the face of it, a substantive ethical claim about treating people as ends. This is the claim that welfarists shoud refuse, not a conceptual claim about the meaning of "doing something for the sake of someone else" or about the meaning of "good for."

Monday, July 03, 2006

Welfare, the only ethical value?/3

The value of mountains, artworks, and plants.

For what regards the intrinsic value of non-sentient organisms, welfarism denies it exists or is part of the ethical realm. The only ethical reason one has for protecting and preserving non-sentient organisms (or things), are welfarist reasons, that is to say, reasons that derive from the impact of such organisms and things on sentient organisms.

I find this view unattractive. It implies that we should assent to the following propositions:

A. the value of the historical remainings of Rome is a function of their contribution to the well-being (say, by being sources of enjoyment, or aesthetical contemplation) of the actual or future individuals that will visit it.
B. the value of holocaust memorials is a function of the contribution they make to human well-being (say, by preventing similar tragedies to happen again.)
C. the value of the tomb of a famous person, or of a rest, is a function of the well-being of other people
D. the value of all non sentients living beings (say plants and certain animals) - assuming, as some welfarist do, that they don't count as welfare subjects in their own - is a function the attitudes towards them of real welfare subjects (say people and other animals.)
E. the value of non sentients beings, say mountains or rivers, is completely exhausted by their contribution to the well-being of welfare subjects.
F. that the value of a work of art derives from its contribution to human well-being
G. that the value of our memories derives from their contribution to our well-being

I don't agree with any of these statements; I am afraid that it is difficult to argue for such intuitions, and that at this point one has reached bedrock. I just find it impossible to deny the value of an ancient rest, of a memorial place, of an artistic creation, derives from its contribution to the well-being of others.

One could argue that one should not deny that such things have value, but only that they have ethical value. Picasso's "Guernica" obviously has aesthetic value, but in so far as we have ethical reasons to preserve this work, it only derives from the aesthetic enjoyment that it produces in people that value aesthetics.

Among other things, this entails that if there is nobody who values Picasso's art, and if it can be know for certain that Picasso's art will never be the source of aesthetic enjoyment for some future individual, or that its existence cannot give any contribution, say, to the lives of historian of arts, etc..., there would be no ethical reason not to destroy the painting. I do not think that this is the case.

I think this point can be proved with some example of everyday life, in which it is clear that we have doubts of an ethical nature, on whether we should preserve or protect things that are valuable apart from their contribution to people's well-being. In Rome, for example, people would not agree to be taxed in order to extract from the ground further Roman rests of no significant interest (it is known that, by drilling a bit in the Roman soil, one can find ancient Roman rests, among which rests of ancient craftwork, most of which of no special historical or aesthetic value. By "special" historical or aesthetic value, I mean that the discovery of this stuff will very likely not change our knowledge of ancient Roman art and craftwork. They may be rests of the same type as the ones that are already in our museums. Yet, I think, these things have some value. I do not see any reason to deny that they have at least as much intrinsic value as analogous pieces that we can already admire in museums.)

But people agree to be taxed in order to build a new subway line. This can be taken to show that the Roman people's prospective enjoyment in having the possibility to use a new subway line is greater than their prospective enjoyment in admiring new ancient Roman rests. (I assume the preference for the subway relative to the Roman rests does not reflect the urgency of the former, because people do not just intend to postpone the extraction of further Roman rests. Roman people just feel that they do not need to uncover more ancient rests, as the community possesses enough of this stuff, so they will not really enjoy having more of it. )

If welfarism was correct, there should be no doubt that, given the assumptions, the ethically right thing to do would be to build the new subway line, even if this implied the destruction of the ancient rests. On the contrary, it is an open question whether the subway line should be build, when this implies the distruction of some ancient rests. This shows that we recognize that there is more that matters, beyond people's well-being. (I assume that the point here has nothing to do with future generations, in the sense that future generations can also be assumed to benefit more from the building of a new subway line, than from the other alternative. I also take the preference for the subway line to be informed, that is to say, based upon a correct evaluation of the impact of this good on anybody's well-being. So I take this preference to reveal future enjoyment accurately.)

These are just my intuitions, what do you think about it?