Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A short question about reasons

Actually, two questions:

A. Is the following inference valid, according to your view on reasons?
B. Is the following inference valid, according to Scanlon's view on reasons?


1. X= Y

eg. talking to Maffettone = talking to the biggest expert on J. Rawls in Italy)


2. I have a reason to X

e.g I have a reason to talk to the biggest expert on J. Rawls in Italy. (Suppose I am writing a thesis on J.Rawls


3. I have a reason to Y

(I have a reason to talk to Maffettone)

even if I do not know, and I cannot possibly know that X = Y,

e.g. because I do not know whether Maffettone is the biggest expert on J.Rawls in Italy, and (let us suppose, even if it sounds odd) there is no way to know this.

Do people value their own well-being? 2

Some updates. I talked this morning with my friend Francesco Orsi about Scanlon's view about well-being and about whether he provides a buck-passing account of the value of well-being. Here is a brief summary of the discussion.

Francesco: First of all, it would be odd (prima facie) to buck-pass the concept of well-being. Well-being is "a" good, while the buck-passing account should be used for thin concepts like right or good.
Michele's answer: this may be true if we are dealing with a thik notion of well-being. But SCanlon defines well-being as "what makes a life a good life for the person who lives it" or as a concept at the same level of generality. This concept is quite thin, almost as thin as the concept of good.

Francesco: Second problem. Well-being is constituted or made of of other goods. This may be understood as an identity relation. For example, let us assume that hedonism is right, i.e. well-being is made of pleasure (and only of pleasure). In this case we might have :

property A (X non-derivatively contributes to well-being)
property B (X is pleasurable)
A = B

In the case of good, if a buck-passing account applies, we would have:
(let us assume pleasure is the only good thing)
Property B (X is pleasurable)
Property C (X is good)
Buck-passing (for properties)
C (X is good) = X has a property which gives us a reason to respond to it in a certain way
C not = to B

Francesco notices that the buck-passing view is sometimes understood as a claim about concepts, and sometimes as a claim about properties.

Michele: It sounds fine that the relation between pleasure and well-being need not be symmetric to the buck-passing relation between good and good things. Even if Scanlon does not provide a "buck-passing account" of the value of well-being, I want to know whether it follows from the buck-passing view and the fact that well-being is an inclusive and transparent good that well-being is valuable.

Michele: moreover I would like to understand if the facts that appear in reasons are intentional or extensional (I do not know really how to use these terms, but here is what I mean:)

"does the conjunction of the following two facts:
1. X=Y
2. I have a reason to desire X


3. I have a reason to desire Y

even if I do not know, and I cannot possibly know that X = Y,

(at least in so far as Scanlon's view of reasons is in question)?"

if the answer is "yes" , it seems that we might have something like the following:

(let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that:
0. A is pleasurable
0a. "X is pleasurable" entails "X constitutes my well-being", or equivalently "X is a part of my well-being")

1a. A = a part of my well-being (follows from 0 and 0a)
2a. I have a reason to desire A (because A is pleasurable)
3a. I have a reason to desire (a part of) my well-being

this holds even if I do not know that 0a, even if I never think about 0a, and even if there is no way in principle for me to know 0a.

Francesco notices that we must distinguish between non-derivative and derivative reasons for something. For example if

Y= the biggest Italian expert on Rawls

and I am writing a thesis on Rawls, I have a non-derivative reason to visit Y (the major Italian expert on Rawls) and a derivative reason to go to talk with Maffettone.

Michele replies that the buck-passing view seems to apply to non-derivative and derivative reasons as well. In fact, if I have a derivative reason to go to talk with Maffettone, I can say that Maffettone is valuable (has a property, that of being the biggest Italian expert on Rawls) which gives me a reason to respect his opinions about Rawls.

As Francesco notices, we do not have to interpret the claim that well-being is a transparent good as entailing the claim that we can apply the buck-passing view to well-being. Well-being can be said to be constituted by things that are good for me; or we may have something like (contingent? a-priori but non trivial?) identity among properties.

Michele agrees and adds that, given that Scanlon does not claim to provide a buck-passing account of well-being, we must take his silence at face value and suppose that the relation between well-being and the goods that make it up is one of constitution or something else.

Michele also notices that, if this is true, Scanlon's claim about the transparency of well-being should be read as claims about the uses of concepts in the first-person point of view, claims that may lead, but do not explicitly lead to metaphysical conclusions about properties. On the contrary the buck-passing view can be read as a claim about properties.

Michele also notices another Scanlon's oddity:

Why does Scanlon NOT analyze the relation between well-being and the goods that make it up IN THE SAME WAY as the relation between the good and good things?

After all, the intuition behind the thesis that well-being is a transparent good is very similar to the intuitions that motivate the buck-passing account of good.

In fact what justifies transparency is the idea that

the property "X is/constitutes/ my well-being" does not give me an (extra) reason to respond to X, beyond the reasons that derive from other properties of X.

and what justify the buck-passing account of the good is the idea that

the property "X is good" does not represent a reason to respond to X, beyond the reasons that derive from other properties of X.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Do people value their own well-being?

Scanlon never explicitly explains how the buck-passing account of value he develops in ch.2 of "what we owe to each other" applies to the value of well-being. Yet, it is almost irresistible to use the buck-passing view to understand his symultaneous defence of the claim that it would sound absurd to say that people are NOT concerned with their own well-being AND of the claim that well-being is a transparent good, (see beyond).

I am deeply puzzled by the question how to interpret the application of the buck-passing account of value to the claim that well-being is a transparent good. Here I try to give my own understanding of it. Please leave your own opinion or correction if you have one.

Scanlon's account of what it means for something to be valuable (the famous or infamous buck-passing account) is the following one:
“being good, or valuable, is not a property that itself provides a reason to respond to a thing in certain ways. Rather, to be good or valuable is to have other properties that constitute such reasons” (1998: 97)

Scanlon therefore should claim that well-being is something valuable, in so far as it has some properties that provide people with reasons to respond to it in certain ways. For example, my well-being has to property of being constituted by my playing tennis and my spending time with my girlfriend. Playing tennis and spending time with my girlfriend have the additional property of being enjoyable, which provides me with reasons to spend time with my girlfriend and to play tennis; since my well-being is constituted by these activities these count also as reasons to promote my well-being.“It is certainly true that we have reasons, in everyday decisions about what to do, to aim at things that contribute directly to our well-being intuitively understood”, as he writes (1998: 126). Hence well-being has the further property of “being constituted by states and activities which provide me with reasons to promote it”, and is therefore valuable.

What Scanlon denies is the “importance of the concept of well-being in [any] given mode of thinking” (1998:126). In the mode of thinking of an agent who is trying to decide how to live the concept of well-being is transparent [an idea I present in this post], i.e. the fact that something contributes to my well-being does not give me a reason to desire it or value it. In a more general formulation, the fact “that X results into an increase of p's well-being” cannot be considered in p's perspective as a reason to pursue X. Hence transparency entails well-being has no further properties, besides the properties of the goods that make it up, that can provide people with reasons to respond to it in certain ways. Transparency does not entail that well-being has no properties providing people with reasons to respond to it in certain ways. Well-being is therefore good and valuable, even if transparent.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Scanlon: Well-being as an inclusive and transparent good.

Scanlon argues the concept of well-being is that of a transparent and inclusive good. Well-being is an inclusive good because it

“is made up of other things that are good in their own right, not made good by their contribution to it” (1998: 127),

Well-being is made up, for example, by things that can be abstractly described as forms of enjoyments and accomplishments. Such things are valuable in their own right:

“If you ask me why I listen to music, I may reply that I do so because I enjoy it. [...] [In order to explain why I strive to succeed in philosophy] it would make [...] sense to say that I work hard at philosophy because I believe it is worthwhile, or because I enjoy it, or even because I long for the thrill of success.” (1998: 126-127)

(Notice that what is in question here is the notion of a reason, taken as the sort of thing that can make sense of a choice, an action, or a desire. A reason can make sense of an action by showing it to be called for; for some actions this can be done by showing that the action brings about a desirable consequence. The reason for an action is not a desire, unless the latter is supported by a correct “evaluation of the desired object as good – as, for example, pleasant, interesting, advantageous, stature-enhancing, decent, and the like” as Quinn (1998: 200) writes. The justification of an action or a choice requires facts belonging to the latter category, that is, facts such as that something is pleasant or interesting, not the facts about what a person desires. According to Scanlon, whenever a desire can be said to provide a reason, it does only as a further consequence of these other class of facts See this post.)

According to Scanlon, the concept of well-being is also evaluatively transparent, meaning that “the things that contribute to it are valued primarily for other reasons” (1998: 129). What Scanlon means is that, even if a valuable accomplishment (i.e. climbing the Himalaya) increases our well-being, that fact that it does cannot be the reason for which I took it up to do it.

Summing up. well-being is not only an inclusive good – meaning constituted by things that are good or choiceworthy in their own right – but also transparent, because, for agent p, knowing that some choiceworthy things constitute his or her own well-being does not make them more valuable in p's eyes.

In other words the transparency of well-being derives from the fact that facts.

A. “A life that includes enjoyment is a better life”


B. “My life will be more successful if I am successful in my main aims, insofar they are rational”

do not give the agent any further reason to play tennis or strive to succeed in philosophy;(in addition, that is, to the fact that playing tennis is enjoyable and that a job as a philosopher is prestigious, or that philosophy is intrinsically rewarding).

Scanlon: desires and reasons/ Justification.

Scanlon's discussion of the relation between desires and practical reason (in "What We Owe...) is complex and nuanced.Here I will sum up what I take to be its most important elements. Scanlon argues that our reasons derive, at the most fundamental level, from facts about the objects of our desires.

(Which facts? Typically, facts including some kind of evaluation of the desired object as, for example, pleasant, interesting, advantageous, stature-enhancing, decent, and the like.)

Sometimes those facts include our “subjective reactions”. For example, “a large part of the point of eating ice cream or taking a vacation is doing something that I will enjoy, so one's “subjective reactions” are obviously of prime significance to the reasons one has for doing these things one way rather than another.” (1998: 42). But notice that these subjective conditions are not facts about a person's desires but facts about what a person enjoys.

Other times subjective reactions have no importance and they should be corrected to fit the worth of their object; so for example the fact that I have a reason to prevent the destruction of some great building, it has nothing to do with how I feel about it. (1998: 42)

There might be cases in which it appears that desires provide additional reasons for actions. Scanlon argues that, appearances notwithstanding, this is mistaken. There are at least two roles that desire can play, which are worth mentioning (none of which corresponds to being an independent source of reasons for actions):
(1) desires provide evidence of future enjoyment (44-45);
(2) there are states - that we may vulgarly call “desire” - which involve, in addition to the recognition of a certain fact as a good reason, the agent's decision to take those facts as grounds for action. (p. 46)

The latter fact expresses a desire or intention, understood as a provisional adoption of a plan of action. Facts about the agent's intentions (understood in this way) make a difference to what the agent has most reasons to do, since at every moment there are many goals that are worth considering, and some plans of action must be selected. Following Bratman, Scanlon holds that there is a reason to carry out a plan that has been already adopted unless there is some reason to reconsider it. But such plans are not independent sources of reasons, since their adoption is justified, at the end of the chain of justifications only by reasons of the more usual kind (1998: 46).

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Scanlon: why well-being evaluations do not matter /1

In this and the following posts, I will reconstruct Scanlon's argument (in "What We Owe To Each Other, Harvard University Press, 1998) about why well-being evaluations do not matter. Scanlon addresses this issue in Ch.3 of the aforementioned book. I believe his reflections in this book are extremely profound, as they call into questions the main presuppositions of those philosophers that work within the boundaries of the utilitarian tradition. If you are interested in understanding the nature of well-being, from the philosophical point of view, then you just cannot afford to ignore his arguments.

Scanlon's arguments are such that, if you accept them, you will probably stop asking yourself questions as
  • "can the quality of my life be affected by an even which I cannot experience ?"
  • "is there such a things a posthumous harm?"
  • "Shall I count an altruist act as something which increases my well-being?"

Reading ch.3 of Scanlon's book is therefore strongly recommended to anybody who has been hounted by such questions. He calls into question the idea that such questions are even meaningful!

For me, the fist step of Scanlon's argument, consists in some apparently innocent claims: the conceptual distinctions about different conceptions of the "quality of life" that he asks his readers to accepts. I have dealt with the meaning of Scanlon's "conceptual topology" in this post, (also this, and this). If you accept his distinctions, you are assuming that well-being can be characterized as:
"an idea of the quality of a life for the person who lives it that is broader than material and social conditions, at least potentially broader than experiential quality, different from worthiness or value, and narrower than choiceworthiness all things considered". (112-113)
No philosophical distinction is trivial or evaluatively neutral. I have argued in the preceding posts that the cases in which it is less question-begging to say that picking up the most choiceworthy life entails “a sacrifice of well-being”” are those in which moral worth and moral reasons are called into question.

Let us now turn to a point in which there is more flesh.


His goal is to deny that well-being, conceived as a teleological value, is a “master” value, the ultimate moral value to which all other values can be reduced. In order to prove his point, Scanlon has to show that well-being is not a value, or that, if it is a value, it is either a non-teleological value or not a master value.

(We shall later see what Scanlon means by the concept of "teleological value".)

[See p. 108, op cit.]

Scanlon does not want to deny that that it is, in some sense, a valuable things that people have well-being. This is also because, in Scanlon's perspective, we can say that the well-being of an individual results from his or her achieving goals that he or she values. So he wants to leave room to our intuitions that the fact that people are well-off is valuable.

What Scanlon wants to do, is trying to show that, even if well-being is a value, in some sense, a conception of personal well-being does not appear as a source of reasons for the agent. In order to achieve this result, Scanlon offers an account of the concept of well-being as that of a transparent and inclusive good.

In the next post, I will explain Scanlon's idea that well-being is a transparent inclusive good.

The state, no-smoking policies, obesity, and the control of the body.

Apparently Blair "wants Britons off the sofa", as the news reported.
The author of this blog is quite near to positions of ethical perfectionism, and to the centrality of the idea of the good life for ethics. Still, the emerging "perfectionist" tendencies in society and politics, for example in its dealing with issues such as smoking and obesity worries me a bit.

What one notices is first of all a significant tendency of political institutions to deal with people's bodies and the issues concerning it. Recently, the Italian Ministry for Youth Policies, decreed that models can work only if they have a BMI (Body Mass Index) higher than 18. This policy is aimed at reducing anorexia both in young models and in younger and less young women that may be influenced by such models.

The body is therefore an "object" to be legislated upon. Laws both against anorexia and against obesity consider it as an object to be measured. It is striking that policies are concerned with both types of excess. The state, therefore, exert a pressures on either boundaries (against too much weight and against too little). This amounts, from the logical point of view, to endorsing a model of normality.

Should a government push the citizens to realize "healthy" life-styles? And does it not amount, also in view of the previous example, to imposing to its citizens a specific model of how their body should be? One almost gets the feeling that the body represents the new frontier of control by the state, after that the absorption by most democratic societies of liberal political ideas made the control of people's minds off-limit.

The most traditional forms of liberalism sees the role of the state described in the former paragraphas illegitimate. But the government may invoke different justifications for their policies, justifications in terms of political justice and economic efficiencies. For it is usually assumed that economic efficiency can be defined in value-neutral terms (in so far as people preferences are taken into account as they are , and not evaluated in terms of a pre-defined notion of the good), and that there are fairness-based laws which do not require substantial and controversial moral assumptions in order to be accepted by everybody.

One such justification starts from the existence, in most European democracies, of state-founded health care. It regards the issue of a fair distribution of its costs (fairness-based justification) or the issue of the minimization of its cost (efficiency-based justification).

The efficiency based justification first: states (that is, all of us, as taxpayers) have an interest in reducing avoidable health-care expenditure, in order to cut fiscal pressure or devote it to other social goals. Physically fitter citizens, it is often assumed, means reduced health expenditure. Or at least this is assumed to be true for what regards certain habits, like smoking, or the habits connected to obesity, for which extensive statistical research has been carried out.

Against this, it may be argued, does the state have an absolute obligation in favor of efficiency?

Because of the issue about financing health care, governments can justify policies apt to discourage the adoption of certain habits. The efficiency – based argument can ground a fairness-based argument: people who incur into “self-inflicted illnesses” represent a cost to the state that is more than what these people are entitled to receive.

Governments can therefore refuse the claim that are trying to push individuals to pursue what they see as “good” habits, in absolute terms. Certain eating habits, they can claim, are not good or bad in absolute terms, but only vis-a-vis the avoidable additional costs that smokers and people who eat in excess produce. The issue is an issue of justice: the state must prevent people who inflict harm to themselves to deprive others of otherwise available public resources. They can appeal to a liberal principle, the principle that social costs should be divided equally, or in a fair way. They must also appeal to intuitive notions about responsibility: the state should not pay (in the form of health care services) for solving every problem of which the individual can be held responsible.

In other words, the justification adduced by the state touches the big philosophical issue about the relation between responsibility, free will, and determinism. And this may represent a point of weakness, in so far as this issues are far from being well understood both philosophically and scientifically.

Another philosophical difficulty is the following. As we have seen, a liberal state professes not to be guided by value-judgments in its choice of behaviors or habits that ought to be penalized or promoted. The state penalize a certain habits, not because the majority finds it objectionable, or repellent, but because – so it is argued – they are linked – demonstrably, in statistical terms - to bad health and higher costs for the community. (Notice that the connection here is statistic.)

But is it really so? I'm not challenging the validity of statistical law. The point is that we have so many statistics about these two issues: smoking and eating habits, but there are other correlations between habits and health that are not as much studied, maybe because these habits are assumed to be legitimate. (Think about sports whose impact on health is more negative than positive, in statistical terms, at least when practiced above a certain age or for too many years. Or think about risky sports like free-climbing.)

The above referred attitude (what to study, which correlations to focus upon) must be understood in terms of commonly shared values. Western societies are – sociologically speaking – developing a perfectionist attitude towards the body. It is as if, having satisfied his or her needs as primate – food, family and house – human beings in the west need to set themselves higher goals. TV and other media present a very easy perfectionist goal: that of a beautiful, fit and healthy human body. This perfectionist ideal, more than any other, is apt to be picked up by the masses.

It requires only one instrument: the body that each of us has. It may require a bit of money for the gym, but basic physical exercise can be made at a little cost (jogging). And since the ideal is usually superficially presented (it is more an ideal of “beauty”, not of “health”), there is always the possibility to achieve it by not eating. Perfection in the body, as opposed to perfection in music or poetry, does not require musical instruments, libraries, and expensive teaching.

(This process may have occurred in history already. I'm thinking about Hegel's remarks in the “lectures on the history of philosophy”, about the ideal of the body and gymnastic in early Greek thought.)

Where am I going with this? It is in the nature of democratic governments to pick up societal tendencies, urges and values. Moreover, in the last 50 years we saw the fall of traditional ideologies. As an effect of this, of course, religious values came up on the scene. But religious values are not a viable option for our secularized societies.

Governments need to direct their actions through values that form consensus. In expressing policies directed to favor certain ideals of physical fitness and beauty, the government picks up and relates to a set of ideals which are, and are becoming increasingly popular. This of course creates a circle, a positive feed-back effect.

In conclusion, the regulation of “healthy” practices by the state may not be completely neutral in terms of values, because of the political pressure to adequate their conduct to the conceptions of the good that are widely shared. There is a legitimate suspicion that the government's action directed to deal with this issues is conditioned by widely shared value-judgments which escape the net of political values such as fairness and efficiency.

I'm not claiming that a state should be neutral, and avoid this sort of policies. But I think we should try to understand their meaning, and maybe complement them in some way. Recognizing them for what they are (or may be), namely, policies with a perfectionist background, may force us to open our eyes on their adequacy as the expression of a good perfectionist ideal.