Thursday, October 26, 2006

Can the worst life be the one I have most reasons to desire?

The good life is different from the life X has most reasons to desire.

A general argument.

If Bernard Williams's “internal reasons” claim is right, and if the good life is the life that virtuous people typically desire, then a life can be the life that X has most reason to desire, and yet not be a good life, because X's reasons depend from X's desires, and X desires may be different from the desires of the virtuous. So if the good life is by definition the life that the virtuous desires, then X, having different desires from the virtuous, X has also reasons to desire a different life than the good life.

(I take Williams' claim that all reasons are internal as a claim about what reasons we have. This is perfectly compatible with a Nagelian, Dancyian or Scanlonian view of what reasons are)

Williams' internalism is highly controversial (but I am becoming increasingly convinced that he is right.) So an argument with Williams' internalism as its premise does not provide a stringent argument.
Let us consider examples and intuitions.


1. Frank

Frank's virtue is not that strong. Frank is a decent person, but is not the kind of guy that would be able to resist certain temptations. If Frank becomes an important politician, Frank will be offered bribes so tempting that he would not be able to forgo them. He will take the bribes and regret it afterwards. And Frank does not desire that kind of life.

It is not incoherent to think that a life in which one has important political responsibility is a better life objectively than a life in which one does not, and that the latter, not the former is the life Frank has most reason to choose.

2. John.

John is sexually incontinent. He is unable to live a loving relation with a stable partner. What John desires most, is to have sex with as many beautiful women as possible. John has also tried his best to live a stable monogamous relation but he could not help feeling depressed and finally cheating his wife. John has most reasons not to form a stable monogamous relation. John has most reasons to have sex with as many beautiful women as he can, and to provide himself with the means that can help him achieve this goal. John has reasons to live a life in which he buys expensive clothes, that make him more successful in his conquers. So John has reasons to work some extra hours to buy more expensive clothes. There is clearly conceptual room to claim that marring and avoiding the extra working hours necessary to buy the expensive playboy outfit is the best life, between the two, and that the life as a single with the extra working hours necessary to buy the expensive playboy outfit is the life John has most reason to live.


Addition: that is to say, the life a virtuous person would choose for John to live, assuming the virtuous person puts himself in John's shoes. Ok, what I had discovered was nothing but the difference between the advisor and the example model of idealization. (Used for example by Michael Smith.)

Can I prove the further claim, that someone can have reasons to choose a life, among the ones he can choose to live, that a virtuous person would not choose, even if placed in analogous circumstances? (that it to say, can John have a reason to choose a life that does not correspond to the life he would choose under the ideally virtuous advisor model?)



Benjamin is an amoralist, and he is sadic. Benjamin's view of morality is the one of Trasimachus. He has no conscience, no pang of remorse. Benjamin finds himself in the situation in which he can either stab a colleague in the back and get a promotion, or not do it and let his colleague get a promotion.

I tend to think that Benjamin has most reasons to choose the life in which he stabs a colleague in the back and gets the promotion. This is clearly not the life that the virtuous would choose for him, if he could choose between the two cases. And this is also, I think, what would make Ben's life a better life.

How does Williams defend this claim? He says that a reason must be able in principle to explain action. And since desires are required to explain action, a reason must have some connection with a person's desires. What kind of connection? Something is a person's reason, says Williams, only if that person would arrive at the conclusion that he had that reason by reasoning upon his desires, their entailments, their nature, their fundation.

The crucial point is that it is that person that must do the reasoning.

As McDowell writes, this rules out something like conversion. Something would not count as a reason for Benjamin, if it woud require a conversion for Benjamin to recognize it as such.

The idea of a conversion seems important to me. Not because William's claim about motivation is right, which gives priority to desires, but because we want to say that a person's reasons are his reasons. And if someone would need a conversion in order to recognize something as a reason, and therefore, in order to offer it as an explanation of his action, there is a sense in which we are allowed to aks ourselves: are we still speaking about what would be a reason in that person's perspective? Conversion seems to be a sort of limiting parameter for personal identity.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is a very weird thing and difficult to define. [If you want to read a good introduction of virtue ethics, I suggest you "virtue ethics" by Rosalind Horsthouse. I'm giving my own thoughts about it.]
In its most extreme form it would be the thesis that every moral and evaluative concept can be reduced to the concept of a good human being, or a good character. I think no real philosopher held something so implausible except maybe Nietzsche, and some contemporary analytical philosophers who thinks themselves as Aristotelians: Geach and Foot.. Do not quote! (Here is why I classify Nietzsche as a virtue ethicist in this sense: a possible interpretation of the first essay of the Genealogy is that the concept of "good" and "bad" person is prior (genetically prior) to both the concept of "good" and "evil" character, and to the concept of the moral good. "Good" is to be understood an attribute of "good people"; that it, the term that people belonging to ruling class - the good, the noble, the strong, the powerful - started to use to refer to themselves. Everything else is said to be good as in relation to this: good acts are those acts that emanate from noble people, good tastes are tastes of noble people, etc...) (If I am right, Geach and Foot's view, which denies that there is a meaning of good different from the attributive sense, seem to imply something like Nietzsche's view. This is all a very personal theory; while what I'm going to say from now on is much less controversial.)

There is a more moderate view of what virtue ethics is, which I think it makes little sense to see in opposition to deontology or consequentialism, even if it differs from the two, especially in terms of approach. The model of this sort of virtue ethics is especially Aristotle. According to this view, the central concept of virtue ethics are the concepts of a good human being, of a virtue, and of eudaimonia or fulfillment, that is, the good life. Virtue ethics differs from the other two approaches primarily (I would say exclusively) in that for virtue ethics the focus of moral theory should not be the evaluation of norms of conduct and actions (taken as atoms of behavior) but the three aforementioned concepts. The difference, therefore, is in what virtue ethics, against both consequentialism and deontology, sees as the business of moral theory and as having a proper understanding of morality.
Let's make an example. It is crucial for the success of both a consequentialist and deontological morality, that they provide some philosophical method to discriminate good and bad actions (or right and wrong, if you prefer), usually (I would say exclusively) conceived as a general rule.
, in fact, is nothing but a class of formally analogous general rules, in the sense above. A rule is consequentialist if it has the following form: action F is good iff its outcome (which may even coincide with the action itself!!!) is good (or better than any other possible outcome, in some versions.) So if you want to ascertain whether a certain action is good your consequentialist instruction manual tells you the following: look at the consequences of the action (which may include the action itself), evaluate their goodness, and if you produced more good than bad, well, boy, you did a good thing. (In some versions, if you did what produced more good than bad than any other action you could have done you did the right thing, otherwise you did the wrong thing.)
Deontology is also a class of formally analogous general rules. A deontological morality may even contain some consequentialist principle, but, on a whole, it will be different from a consequentialist one because it will contain rules forbidding you to do certain actions whatever the consequences in terms of the goodness produced. (So for example, you may not break a promise even if you know that, if you don't, 1000 promises will be broken.) But fundamentally it also consists in providing you with an instruction manual: if you want to ascertain whether a certain action is good or bad (or better, right or wrong) you take your deontological instruction manual, which will contain some list of actions you are not allowed to do, whatever the circumstances. (Some manuals are just a set of rules, like the 10 Commandments. Other, like Kant's cathegorical imperative, consist of one rules from which all other rules can be deduced.)
Now, notice that virtue ethics presents itself as something really different. The virtue ethicist would argue that the proper business of ethics is not to produce instruction manuals. The basic tenet of this sort of virtue ethics are:
1. the Aristotelian idea that rules in ethics obtain only "for the most part"; and that you need experience and a good upbringing to be able to judge the goodness of an action
2. the idea that it is more reasonable to start by evaluating a person's character, and judge her action only on the background of the character it came from.
A virtuous agent will certainly have in mind something like a list of actions that are standardly wrong. I will see the fact that a certain action the breaking of a promise as a good reason not to do it. But the morality of the virtuous agent is far from exhausted by sticking to the rules that forbid breaking a promise, or lying, and we may also conceive of situations in which he will assess the consequence of maintaining a promise or telling the truth and decide that he has reasons not to do it.
A virtuous action therefore takes consequences in great account. But he is not concerned, first and foremost, with the production of the highest quantity of good. A virtuous person is supposed to be able to perceive the moral quality of an act, for example, it's being corageous, charitable, sensitive act, as a reason to do it, and this of course is connected to its consequences (a corageous act is an act done in the presence of danger, in view of a greater good), but there is nothing like a calculation of the overall goodness of the outcome. The attitudes of a virtuous agent could be more similar to those of the adherent to deontology: he will not make an uncharitable act for the sake of increasing the moral perfection of that person's life.

[Consider the difference between the two definitions, or if you want, between Aristotle and Nietzsche. I think so. Aristotle, for example, would have never dreamed of assuming "a good person" as the primitive and only authentic sense of moral goodness. And, in opposition to Nietzsche (in the Genealogy) he has never think of it as a mere (unconscious) reflection of positions into a social hierarchy ("the good" as the best, the noble, the powerful, the ruling class). It is true that he uses the understanding of a good man, that is to say, of a man of his social class, as a method to define the good, or choiceworthy life. But the focus here is on what makes a life choiceworthy. It is true that, for Aristotle, we can discover what is a choiceworthy life only by looking at what sort of life the nobles prefer to live. But I think we can infer from his writings that his reason for doing that is that he is sincerely convinced that such people are better than other men (and of course, incomparably better than woman and slaves) at perceiving the real value of things. In other words, the concept of a good man plays and epistemic, not an ontologically constitutive role.
Notice the difference with Nietzsche. Nietzsche can be read as arguing in the Genealogy that there are no real values, or at least no real moral values (moral values are no values at all); and that moral language should be understood along lines different from the promotion of moral goodness, or happiness. For Nietzsche, when the Greek called an act, or a life, "good", all that they meant by the word "good" as that it was an act that it was typical for a noble man to perform, or the life that it was typical for a noble man to live, or simply that it was an act of a noble person, and the life of a noble man. After the "slave revolt in morality" things changed a bit; which is to say, the noble started to look at themselves, and at their most typical actions, with a sense of guilt. (Which was a psychological reflection of the hate they received from the people of the inferior class.) So "good" - that is, "noble" - was turned into "evil"; and "bad", that is "slavish", was turned into (morally) good.]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Can one have no reason to choose to live a better life?
(The strike of Dostoevskiy)
Some preliminary points:

  • Geach and Foot: good is only descriptive. A good life is like a good knife.
  • All others: there is another sense of good. Some things can be simply good (Moore: books are good.)
  • Buck-passers: x is good = "X has the properties that make it reasonable to have a certain (pro)attitude towards it" (Pro-attitude:= admiring it, respecting it, desiring it.)

  • A good life: a life that is good as a life. A good specimen of its kind. (Like a good knife)
  • The choiceworthy life: life L is the most choiceworthy life for person S. It means that life L is the life that person S has most reasons to choose (to live)
  • Agent-relativity: notice that, if there are agent-relative reasons, then, L1 can be more choiceworhty that L2 from S's point of view, and at the same time L2 can be more choiceworthy than L1 from S' 's point of of view. A life in which one sees John becoming the best student in his class can be the most choiceworthy life for Peter, who is John's father, but not for Frank, who is not.
  • LIFE-tokens and LIFE-types: in the former claim L1 and L2 represent life "types," not tokens. The subject-relativity of choiceworhiness depends from the way life-types are described. So if L1 is described as "the life in which one sees his son becoming the best student in his class", then L1 turns out to be more choiceworthy then L2 for both Peter and Frank.
  • If we use L1 and L2 to refer to life-tokens, than everytime we talk about a life being choiceworthy, we talk about its being choiceworthy from the perspective of the person whose life it is.
"A good life is a life that it is choiceworthy; that is, a life that is reasonable to choose/prefer": what is the status of this assertion ?
  • according to buck-passers it is a conceptual(?) or metaphysical (?) necessity.
  • this entails that we do not have an independent standard to measure the goodness of lives apart from our finding reasonable to desire them
  • if so, then we may only say that a good life is a life having whatever properties a virtuous person would desires it to have
  • On the contrary, what if we have an indipendent (naturalistic?) criterion to describe the goodness of lives? If this is so, then the claim "the good life is the life that it is most reasonable to desire to live" is substantive ethical claim, one that could turn out to be wrong.
Is it wrong?
  • Maybe it makes no sense to speak about what is most reasonable for anybody. Maybe we should think that choosing the best life is reasonable only for virtues people.
  • The latter can be explained in virtue of the following: Maybe virtuous people are those people who desire and manage to live good lives. What makes it reasonable for a virtuous person to choose a good life is his desire to live a good life. And it is a mark of virtue to have this desire (but also to be capable to accomplish it, at least in not particularly adverse circumstances.)
  • even so: the claim that the virtuous always desire or choose to live a good life is a substantive ethical claim and it may turn out to be false, or alternatively:
  • The virtuous are necessarily those who desire to live good lives, but by having this desire they can fail to be reasonable.
  • I shall consider the second question: can it be unreasonable to choose the best life, and reasonable to choose the worst life?
Let us see if we can find an example of a life that can be better as a life than another one, but that one would have less reason to choose. Of course we need to presuppose that we have some intuition about "the good life" independent from the life one has most reason to choose.

One class of examples may be derived from the more usual examples of the "wrong type of reason" problem (see the examples provided by "the strike of the demon," (Rabinowic - Rasmussen) "the moralistic fallacy" -D'arms and Jacobson etc...)
In "the strike of the demon" what gives one a reason to have the attitudue A is that one would be killed otherwise. I must admit I cannot produce any analogous counterexample for human lives. Suppose that the demon tells me that he will kill me at the age of 21 if I start to live a life in which I will realize my full artistic potentialities. This gives me a reason to choose a life in which I will not realize them.

It seems to me that by making a life the most reasonable to choose, the Demon makes it automatically the best life. The wrong reason problem cannot arise with this kind of goodness.
In this case L1= the life in which I live until age 21 and start to realize my artistic abilities
L2= a life in which I live until my natural age (say 80) and I don't realize my artistic abilities
in this case, it seems that, provided that L2 is really the life I have most reason to choose, then L2 , that is, a life that is longer but contains no artistic development, is really a better life than the short life L1. (What makes it better, as a life, is that it last longers, and contains other sorts of goods.)
Something similar applies if the demon threatens to kill me if I do not betray a friend . Here
L1: betray a friend and live
L2: do not betray a friend and die now
here as well, people may think either that the "strike of the demon" makes it more reasonable to choose L1 or to choose L2. But those who think it would be more reasonable to choose L1, it seems to me, should also think that L1 (a life in which one betrays a friend but does not die) is a better life than L2 (a life in which one dies early but with a clean conscience)

One could argue that claiming that L2 is a better life than L1 involves some sort of "moralistic fallacy": the fact that we have moral reasons to choose L2 over L1 makes us say that L2 is more valuable (as a life) than L1. This would be as wrong as claiming a joke less valuable as a joke (that is to say, less funny) because it would be immoral to make it or think it.

But notice how little convincing the accusation of moralistic fallacy is for lives than for jokes. I think the reason can be easily told: in the case of jokes we have an independent standard to judge whether a joke is "good as a joke" (that is: funny , assuming a "functional/descriptive" reading of "good", and that the function of jokes is to be funny, not to edify). But in the case of
lives we have no clear intuition about what makes a life good, apart from its being a life one has reasons to live.

The failure to produce a "wrong sort of reasons" problem for lives suggests that we lack an independent intution of what makes lives "good", independent, that is to say, from the judgment of what makes it reasonable to desire to live it. So the buck-passing view of good may be false in general, but true for human lives.

But we shall consider a second type of examples, Dostoevskijan examples.
In the "notes from the underground" Dostoevskiy argues that there is something that all people desire in life, which obviously does not make their life better: this is simply the absolutely arbitrary act of the will, of making something against their interest. What Dostoevskiy means by "interest" is some sort of "objective idea" of what makes a person's life good: namely wealth, power, affections, morality. Dostoevskiy argues not that people do not do what is in their best interest, because they ignore it, but that even if people knew perfectly what was in their interest they would still desire to act otherwise, because they do not want to reduce their life to a mathematical object! In other words, people want to be unforeseeable, which entails being irrational, and unreasonable.

Dostoevskji's claim about motivation can be easily turned into a claim about "romantic goodness". It can be claimed that a life can be made better "in the romantic sense" by containing something unforeseeable and unreasonable. Now, an interesting claim about "romantic goodness" is that it seems to be - intuitively - the kind of goodness that can contribute to the goodness of an individual life, but not the kind of goodness that can give a reason to choose that life to the person whose life that is. Therefore: romantic goodness can make a life better than another without making it more choiceworthy for the person whose life that is.

Consider two lives in which a subject loses a lot of goods. In one life, it is because he is unlucky. In the other, it is because he does a Dostoevskjian act. The second life is better than the first (it contains more romantic goodness.) But is there anything in the second life that gives a person more reason to choose it or want it? It seems that there cannot be. For if agent S has a reason to choose the first life, this makes it reasonable for him to do a Dostoevskjian act. But becoming reasonable, the act ceases to become Dostoevskjian and to contribute to the romantic goodness of a life. (This applies even retrospectively. If the agent is in the position to see, retrospectively, his life as being made better by the Dostoevskjian act, he will see his act as reasonable and destroy its romantic value. The romantic goodness of a life must be thought as inacessible in the agential perspective.)

In conclusion: it may be claimed that the agent has no reason to choose a life containing romantic goodness, but has reasons to admire it. This can also be doubted. The equivalence between the good life and the choiceworthy life does not obtain, but a buck-passing account referring to an attitude of the spectator (not of the agent) may still be available.