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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.