Friday, January 12, 2007

A dialogue between a philosopher and a unfaithful wife.

A dialogue between a philosopher and an unfaithful wife.

Philosopher: P

Wife: W.

W: Hi P, I’d like to talk with you about an ethical issue.

P: What do you want to talk about?

W: Do you remember the last discussion we had, on whether it could be ever morally justified to fake an orgasm?

P: Yes.

W: Do you still believe what you told me?

P: Yes. My point was that in certain circumstances faking an orgasm may be the most reasonable thing to do. Suppose a woman loves her husband and they have children. He is a wonderful as a dad and as life companion, and a very responsible partner. Sex had never been particularly intense, moreover its quality has decreased with the time, until a point when the woman cannot have orgasms. She talks to him about the problem, she tries to instruct him about how they may have a better sex. He tries, he makes the effort. But the results do not come. But the stability of the family is based upon another type of love and affection. She realizes that he would suffer from knowing his inability to satisfy her, and – knowing her husbands personality – justly fears that if he were to know this, it may eventually turn up in a divorce... so the welfare of the children may be affected... In a case like the one I described, I think, it may not be wrong for the woman to fake an orgasm.

W. I’ve been faking my orgasms for years. My situation is similar to the one of the woman you described in your example. Now that I know that you’re quite open minded about such issues – I feel comfortable to ask you to judge me about something I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been sexually unfaithful to my man, betraying him with another lover since a couple of months.

P: Oh no, oh no. I think now you’re doing something wrong.

W: Why? Look: my husband will never get to know this. I love him. He’s a wonderful man, but my situation in terms of sexual life was just like the one of the woman in the example.

P: Why is it so much better with your lover? Are you in love with him? Are you attracted by him more than you are by your man?

W: Not really. Believe me, I really really love my husband. But we have a problem over a certain sexual practice. I need to XXXXXXXXXXXXX in order to reach an orgasm, and this is something my husband just cannot force himself to do. The new sexual partner likes the practice. So with him, I can have an orgasm easily. With this extra ingredient, with those orgasms, I'm in peace with my self, and even my family life has gained from this. My husband is happy, we still make sex, and he's got no problem getting aroused and enjoying our sex, at least now that I also fake my orgasms. Why should I not preserve this delicate equilibrium?

P: I think that you can do something wrong to someone, without making him less happy or inflicting pain of some sort.

W: Sorry, I cannot understand. I am sure that he’s never going to know about this fact. My partner is absolutely reliable. Nobody else can discover this. I’m sure it cannot be known. So what’s the problem? How can I be acting wrongly, if I found the solution that does not to hurt anybody?

P: If there is some value in promises, and if breaking them can be wrong even when this cannot be discovered, you must recognize that you are doing him a wrong, even if he may never discover you. If you accept the general principle, you should be more careful in thinking that.

W: I cannot understand what you say. How can it be wrong to do something if it will do nobody a harm.

P: We have duties towards other people that go beyond the physical or psychological harm that we can inflict to them. So let me ask you a question: suppose that you promise to your best friend, who is soon going to die, that you are going to care after his child. It is not that, if you do not, the children will die or anything particularly unpleasant will befall him. He will only go to the orphanage, and after one or two years probably he will be adopted by another family. Our orphanages are not those terrible institutions that they used to be one centurty ago. Of course, I'm not denying that if you would take the child and raise him as if he were yours, you would be doing that child a favor. But still, if you would not do it, he would not end up worse than many other children. Imagine that you do not know the child, but you were the best friend of his father. What would you do?

W: I will maintain the promise. But look, that does not prove your point. I would maintain it because his child’s well-being is at stake. If my friend had asked me something silly, for example, that I’d listen to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, I may promise it indeed to him, but I would not feel bound to respect this promise after his death. It’s the well-being of the child that matters in this case.

P: This is not so simple. If all that matters is the sufferance of the child, why should you not feel a similar obligation towards other children who live in the orphanage, and would also be better off by being adopted by you? Whatever special duty you feel that you have towards this particular child, derives from your special relation with their father, and the promise you made to him. You do not regard yourself to have any similar obligation to other children in a similar situation.

W: Ok I grant your point, as a general one. But I still cannot see how it applies to the case we are discussing.

P: Well, I think that by betraying your man for another man you are doing him a wrong, even if he does not know – and will never know – about it. You are behaving unjustly to him by being unfaithful to him, and that's the sense in which you’re doing him a wrong. Try to think it in this way: there is a close relationship between the value of trust, intimacy and love. Doing sex with another man counts as a severe break in the relationship of trust and intimacy. And it affects love too. So you should be concerned about that if you think that love is an important part of your relationship, or that your partner feels in this way.

W: I still cannot see why. After all you admitted that it was ethically OK for a woman in my situation to fake her orgasm, if required by preserving the stability of the relationship and thereby the well-being of the children. And that is a case of lying, certainly a betrayal of trust and intimacy.

P: But there is lying and lying. Don’t you see that you are lying about something more important?

W: Why? You appealed to the values of trust and intimacy are values, which are connected to love. But why is sexual fidelity so important? I believe that, in the eyes of my man at least, the reason why it is important that I make sex with him, is that otherwise it will signify that he cannot satisfy me as a woman, and this is something he will not accept. Sexual satisfaction is the point that hurts most. Intimacy and trust, as you said, are important, so it is never ethical to fake an orgams. A woman should always tell the truth. By telling the truth, the man can struggle to try to satisfy her. When this is not possible, they should either split, or the man should find the way to live with this thought, and maybe allow her wife to have sex with other people. But this is a conclusion very few man, in our society, will accept.

P: But you must assume he’s a reasonable and mature man, and he cares for the well-being of your children as much as you do, and maybe you will both work out a solution. You respect your man only if you do not base your decisions on your own evaluations of how he shall react. You must assume that he can act freely, and that if you do not let him outside of your choices, you can all together make the choice that is best for all of you.

W: But then I should reason in the same way about the truth of my sexual gratification. I should not hide the truth to him, even if there is some concrete chance that this may endanger our stability as a couple.

P: Not necessarily. Your man would never tolerate the idea that you betray him for another man. This means that your fidelity is valuable to him. It is valuable intrinsically because it is connected to trust, and trust is connected to intimacy and the meaning of being a loving couple. And going to have sex with another man, hiding this from him, just deprives both of your lives from these values. Even faking your orgasms meant betraying these values, but to a lesser extent. It is hard to explain why to a lesser extent, but I think it has to do with the symbolic value that sexual fidelity has within our monogamous culture, over and above what it tells about the man's ability to satisfy a woman, even if that is an important aspect of it. Let me add that,by hiding this to him, you are also acting unfairly. You are granting yourself the possibility of getting sexual satisfaction from other people, while he may deprive himself of this satisfaction even when he may desire it. You are awarding you a right that you are not awarding to him.

W: But if I will tell him, we will split. So maybe this is what is most ethical to do. I shall just tell him about my problem, and what will come will come. I shall not regard any amount of well-being of my children as more important than my happiness, or the respect that is due to my husband.

P: I do not agree. It was justifiable to fake your orgasms for the sake of saving the children some pain. It is not ethical to be sexually unfaithful to your man. If you fake your orgasms, you can save your children some pain. That should be your main goal. But you should also respect your husband, since you say that you love him, and he seems to deserve your trust, if you want to regard yourself as moral. If you want to be moral, you should not tell him about his inability to satisfy you in bed, if you are pretty certain it will lead to separation, which will damage heavily the well-being of your children. You should continue to fake your orgasms if that is needed to make your husband happy, and stop seeing your lover. Sometimes being moral requires big sacrifices.

W: I’m sorry, but it seems to me that your view suffers from a wrong conception of woman and sex. You seem to view woman primarily in their function as bearer of children and as supporters of a family. You seem to recognize no woman the right to have a sexually rewarding life. You do not seem to understand the importance of sex in a relationship.

P: Why?

W: Because you are telling me that I should give up my sexual satisfaction. My children are 7 and 8 . How long should I wait? Shall I wait until they are 12 and 14? It may be even worse for them then. Or until they will be 20? Fifteen years without sexual satisfactions can be all - right for a woman? Is that what you think?

P: Morality requires that you sacrifice your sexual pleasure for this higher causes. Is your sexual pleasure as important as the sufferance of your children?

W. That does not look like morality to me, but rather like moralism. We agreed that my man did not deserve to be sacrificed for the sake of the welfare of my children. But then, neither shall I sacrifice my welfare for the same purpose. The welfare of my children is not all that matter: there is also my well-being. And that depends from how well my sexual life is going, to a great extent.

My reader, let me ask you a question: who do you think is right? Or maybe, none of them can be right , because the institution of monogamy and the symbolic meanings we attach to it has already ruined the couple's life, so that there is no ethical way out?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Scanlon: the idea of moral self-sacrifice and its justification

The possibility of distinguishing moral worth from well-being, as I have argued in the previous post, presupposes that the following principle or something like it is true:

M1: there can be cases in which morality requires from person p that she Fs, even when F-ing decreases p’s well-being or fail to maximize it, p desires to F (despite her awareness of well-being cost) and she is committed to respect values which justify the requirement in question.

We can see that this principle can be justified in terms of two principles that are - taken singularly, at least - more widely shared than M1 itself. The first being:

M: morality can require from p the performance of an act F that decreases p’s well-being or fails to maximize it

M, by itself, does not grant the possibility of self-sacrifice in the full, i.e. the voluntary, sense. M only says that some people, maybe very wicked people who would never do a moral act voluntarily, that is to say, people who could not be brought to desire - in the sense involving only the having of a pro-attitude - to act morally, would end up worse off if they were to do what they morally ought to. It leaves open the possibility that the rest of us, i.e. people who can choose do what is morally good do not loose any well-being by performing such acts.

M is therefore still compatible with a range of theories about well-being that have what is usually considered a vice: the vice of turning every action into a self-interested one, that is, the vice of turning self-sacrifice as a conceptual impossibility. Unrestricted desire theory may entail, for example, that if we decide to sacrifice our life in order to save the life of all other citizens in our country, because we love our country more than we love ourselves, we end up better off, since we get what we most wanted.

It is another relatively uncontroversial and widely shared claim about theories of well-being that they should allow us to talk consistently about self-sacrifice as a voluntary sacrifice of well-being. But once this much is allowed, it seems that those cases in which someone is committed to a higher goal than the maximization of her own well-being, and performs voluntarily an action that he knows being such as to involve a loss of well-being, are the ones to which we shall attribute the highest moral worth. So the most plausible rendering of Scanlon's idea that sacrifices of well-being can increase the moral worth of our lives is given by M1.

Scanlon and well-being - 2. Moral worth and self-sacrifice

Can we characterize more formally the idea Scanlon's distinction is meant to capture?
Certainly, Scanlon's idea presupposes two ideas:

1. the moral worth of a life (or of the choices that the agent makes when he lives) is one of the aspect of a life's "total" worth, or its "choiceworthiness all-things-considered"

2. the moral worth of a life can be augmented by a sacrifice of well-being.

Claim 1 could be regarded as true ex-costructo : it is part of the way the concept of choiceworthiness is introduced that it includes what we may call "the moral worth of a life". But the claim also follows from the meaning of "choiceworthiness" and our intuitions about what has"worth". Many philosophers (Nietzsche being a relevant example of the opposite) think that acting morally gives our life some sort of objective worth.

Claim 2, is, I believe, really fundamental. Saying that self-sacrifice can have moral worth, I believe, entails the truth of the following claim:
(that I shall call M1, because there is an even more basic principle that I shall call M)

M1: there can be cases in which morality requires from person p that she Fs, even when F-ing decreases p’s well-being or fail to maximize it, p desires to F (despite her awareness of well-being cost) and she is committed to respect values which justify the requirement in question

The axioms of "well-being" usage.

The axioms of "well-being" usage:

Griffin's point, Mill's clause and Scanlon's definition of the distinction between well-being and choiceworthiness are based upon the same - very un-Aristotelian - insight: the idea that acting morality can require a sacrifice of the well-being of the agent, even if acting morally is, and is recognized by the agent as being, the most rational thing to do all-things-considered.

My first aim, is therefore, to characterize a set of actioms that are true, by definition, of the concept of well-being as it appears in the discussions of a class of philosophers. I believe that a couple of actioms regards the independence between moral evaluations, and evaluations of rationality all-things-considered, and well-being evaluations, namely the principles M and (more controversially) M1, whoe importance I defend here and here.

Another feature is the idea that well-being evaluations differ from perfectionist evaluations. This thought is the cornerstone of Sumner's analysis of the concept. This is an idea that I have tried to criticize here, here and here. Instead of criticizing it directly, I will assume that it is correct, for the sake of the argument, and explain the difficulties that follow from attempting to respect it. A brief statement of the distinction, based upon quotes by Sumner, appears here.

Those philosophers that talk about “well-being” without assuming that M and M1 must be true, or that identify well-being with an ideal of perfection, are not the target of my criticism.

Once we have defined well-being evaluations as something different from evaluations of perfection, moral evaluations, narrower notions of well-being (pleasantness, good feeling, good material conditions, etc...), and any wider notion of a life’s value that excludes moral worth as an intrinsic component of well-being – in the sense that is spelled out by M and M1, we can ask: does the notion of well-being make sense, meaning, of course, does this notion - the notion of which the previous statements are assumed to be true?

I want to show that there is no way to grasp intellectually the sort of value that philosophers identify with well-being. This is the aim, roughly.

Let us look at the details:

T. Scanlon (What we owe to each other, ch. 3)

Scanlon assumes that the concept of well-being and the concept of choiceworthiness are not the same concept.

Scanlon has many reasons to distinguish the two concepts. Some of these reasons are peculiar to his views about the relation about value and reasons. For example, choiceworthiness can be understood as the life "one has most reasons -all things considered - to choose". Scanlon argues in a different place (ch. 2) that some of our reasons are not teleological (i.e. not reasons to produce some thing or some more thing of value). If one assumes that well-being is a teological value - i.e. its being valuable gives the agent a reason to bring about some of it - it follows trivially from the hypothesis that some of our reasons are non-teleological, that the concept of the most choiceworthy life cannot be identified with the concept of well-being, at least lacking an argument that all the reasons that apply to our choosing to live a certain life rather than another must be teleological.

But I believe that there is one reason, why Scanlon resists the identification between well-being and choiceworthiness, that is available also to those philosophers who reject Scanlon's view about the existence of non-teleological reasons. The reason why it is incorrect to identify choiceworthiness and well-being is that the connection between "picking up the most choiceworthy life" and "having a moral reason to act" is different from the connection between "aiming at maximizing personal well-being" and "having a moral reason to act".

This fact can be expressed roughly as follows: the fact that a certain life is made better, from the moral point of view, by containing act A, can make it more worthy to be chosen or desired; the same fact does not make it necessarily reacher in terms of well-being, even when in fact it does make it more choiceworthy or desirable - all things considered. This is, I think, the fundamental idea grounding the distinction.

For a more formal rendering of this principle, look here, and here.


In many of the previous posts, I analyzed the formulas used by Griffin in order to describe the object of his enquiry, which is, as the title of his book announces, "well-being". I found that well-being (or utility) is understood by Griffin as an aspect that make lives valuable. But lives can be valuable in different senses, as Griffin acknowledges.

Griffin does not identify the dichotomy "good life" vs. "well-being" with the "objective" vs. "subjective" dichotomy: we can be wrong about whether or not we have well-being, moreover well-being is constituted by states which are not a matter of perception, in the sense in which whether or not we are 1 m tall is not a matter of perception. (See this post.) Among such objective states there are accomplishments and authentic personal relationships, at least. The value of our life in terms of well-being is also determined by the fact that we have accomplished something or an authentic human relationship with someone else, taken as realities not as perceptions, i.e. as facts which we may not recognize or perceive distortedly. (This agrees with the view I try to argue for here and here)

If you look at the textual evidence I reported (here, here, and here), it seems that Griffin, like Scanlon, is able to distinguish the concept of well-being from other concepts of "the value of a life" by introducing in his conceptual framework the idea that we have reasons to behave morally, but even when we have such reasons, the fact that we do have such reasons does not make it necessarily in our interest to act morally, i.e. it does not necessarily increase our well-being. Stated with a Nozickian terminology, ethical pull "
(“the pull exerted on our action arising from the moral demands of others" (Griffin, Well-Being, 133) and ethical push “the push to our own action arising from our living a prudentially successful life" (ibid) do not necessarily coincide (see here).


Notice that the idea that well-being evaluations - evaluations of the good in human lives understood as an aim of action - must be independent from moral evaluations is a cornerstone of utilitarian thought. (Clearly, since utilitarians need an account of "good" as something prior to "right" since they want to define "right" in terms of "good".) For example Mill wrote, in Utilitarianism, that:

Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

Notice the "irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation" clause.

A strategy for denying the existence of the concept of well-being

How can we argue that the concept of well-being most philosophers talk about does not exist?
First of all: does such a project make sense? Consider Quine's argument in "two dogmas". He tried to show that the alleged distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments is untenable. How does he do it? he shows that every attempt to explicate what the supposed distinction means turns out to be meaningless or viciously circular.

Maybe something similar can be said about the concept of well-being, when it is identified with one of the two (or more) terms of a conceptual distinction, and that this distinction turns out to be empty in the same sense as the analytic-synthetic distinction is, according to Quine.

Clearly, it is impossible to say that the word well-being does not have a meaning. What I want to show is that it is impossible, or very difficult, to identify philosophically what well-being is, once the concept of well-being is identified with the concept satisfying certain criteria. And these criteria correspond to the existence of certain distinction.

One of these criteria is that by talking about well-being we are talking about a sense in which a life is good which is different from what Scanlon's call choiceworthiness, and to other concepts analogous to the concept of choiceworthiness in a certain respect? That is to say, I do not want to argue about the concept of well-being understood as choiceworthiness or in "similar ways".

What is this "certain respect"? What makes certain ways of talking about well-being "similar" and not the ones I am interested in criticizing? A certain relation between well-being and morality.

I made explicit reference to “the mongrel of intuitions that philosophers are trying to characterize by using the word “well-being”. But how can there be such intuitions, if the concept of well-being does not belong to our conceptual repertory? What we have is really a mongrel of ideas that do not cohere into a concept. But we can still characterize “what philosophers are trying to characterize by using the word ‘well-being’” by describing the peculiar goals such philosophers have in mind, the goals that motivate them to introduce the term, and the criteria they use to distinguish well-being from other concepts that may allegedly be confused with it.

If we can identify such goals and distinction, and these thoughts without a commitment to their truth and meaningfulness.

Therefore, first of all one needs to identify some salient feature about the concept of well-being that is the target of my criticism. In order to show that my statements about this concept of well-being have some importance, I shall also show that some influential accounts of well-being involve a commitment to ascribing such features to the concept of well-being.

I am clearly considering well-being as a technical word, a word that does not have necessarily anything to do with what the man or the woman in the street (or in the wellness centre) calls well-being. This assumption of mine is justified by scepticism about the idea that we could ground a theory of well-being upon the linguistic intuitions that surround the usage of that very term. (A suspicion shared by Griffin. See this post, quote 4.)

I do not want to claim that the concept of well-being does not make sense. I want to claim that if we understand the concept in a certain way, it becomes very difficult, almost impossible to relate our intuitions to it. This "certain way" is defined - see the next post - in terms of the supposed relations between the concept of well-being, the perfectionist concept of goodness, and the concept of morality.

My criticism does not regard those philosophical views according to which making the most reasonable choice means doing what is one’s interest, even in all those possible circumstances in which the most reasonable choice is also the morally good choice. My target is a certain philosophically widespread usage of well-being to mean something which can be sacrificed for the sake of morality, or for the sake of choosing the best life “all-things-considered”. That this usage is widespread can be shown by analyzing the way the concept is introduced by some famous philosophers.