Thursday, April 12, 2007

The necessary-condition interpretation of the subjectivity of welfare: a counterargument.

Wayne Sumner believes thatwell-being evaluations as opposed to other value judgments are subject-relative: well-being states are good for the individual whose well-being is in question. He argues that a theory of well-being can account for the fact that well-being sources are good for the person whose well-being is in question, only if it is subjective.

A theory is subjective, according to Sumner, only if contains or implies the principle:

NC: for all X, X increases my well-being (directly or immediately) only if I have a pro-attitude towards X.

Is NC true? We have no good reasons to believe it. Here is the argument:

Definition of pro attitude:

“my attitude [towards something] is positive (what philosophers used to call a pro-attitude) if I favour the thing or am favourably disposed towards it, negative (a con-attitude) if I view it unfavourably.” (Sumner 1996: 36)

Further explanation of what is meant by pro-attitude:

Generally speaking, we may say that I have an attitude toward something when the thing matters to me, or I care about it, or it is an object of concern to me, or I mind it, or (in the more formal psychological terminology) it is valenced for me. (1996: 36)


Prima-facie objection: It is conceptually possible – as many people think – for morality to require from p to do F, when F-ing entails a loss of well-being, and it is possible for p to act as morality requires. Many people think this is not only conceptually possible, but a real possibility: people do act contrary to their interests, for moral reasons. In all such cases, p is not favorably disposed towards her well-being in an evident manner, as p views the acquisition of more of it unfavorably in the circumstances.

One may argue that even if p does not have the pro-attitude “viewing the acquisition of more well-being favorably” p must have some other pro-attitude towards what would constitute her well-being. But why should we be persuaded into thinking this? In at least some of such cases, I believe, it is at least arguable that p does not have any pro-attitude towards the good that would supposedly increment her well-being.

Virtuous agent objection: Suppose that the agent in the previous example is a very virtuous agent. It is not absurd to think that when this agent becomes aware of the existence of a moral reason not to F, awareness of this reason inhibits any attitude towards the tangible good that failing to F would bring about. Something similar may even apply to an ascetic, when he ceases to look for things that would increase his or her well-being in order to practice an ascetic way of life.

Some people may object that we can admit the possibility of acting morally against one's interest without falsifying NC. There are cases in which one acts against what is in one's interest: cases in which people choose not to pursue something which IS a source of well-being, because they have a moral reason not to. We may admit that this is a possibility, and even that it happens. But we may also suppose that all the cases of "moral self-sacrifice" are cases in which a person has some pro-attitude towards the source of well-being.

This objection is correct: the concrete possibility that an agent fails to do what would maximize her well-being, because she ought morally not to, does not, in fact, entail the falsity of NC. But the real question is whether NC is plausible, or whether we have good reasons to doubt it. The idea that people can voluntary renounce to a gain of well-being gives plausibility to the idea that people can suppress all their pro-attitudes towards it. The intuition here is that in certain human types, the awareness of a moral reason can inhibit the existence of many pro-attitudes, including things that are usually considered sources of well-being. The other intuition is that if something is a source of well-being, the mere fact that someone ceases to have a pro-attitudes towards it cannot turn it into no such source. This idea can be reinforced by looking at the following example:

Conscious suppression objection: suppose that you find your boss's girlfriend very, very, very sexually attractive. You certainly think it would be enjoyable to have sex with her. But you fear that this desire of yours would cause you to misbehave in the presence of your boss and his girlfriend, which may have dreadful consequences upon your career. For this reason, you decide to work upon yourself to suppress the pro-attitude in question. At a certain point you still believe that it would be enjoyable to have sex with that woman (meaning: since you have rational knowledge of the fact that none of woman's properties has changed, you would still answer, if asked, that her skin looks delicious, her curves are dangerous: you can infer that's how they must be); yet, you do not have any pro-attitude towards having sex with her. We could have evidence of this fact in terms of your behavior and your mental life, (e.g. certain thoughts would not pop up spontaneously in your head, etc.). It is at least arguable that, despite the change in your attitudes, having sex with this woman would still be enjoyable, and a source of well-being (provided that it would have been such before.)

Maybe this thesis could be made true by adopting a more precise definition of “pro-attitude” or of the relevant “circumstances”. For example, one may think that NC can never fail to hold relative the attitudes one has at the moment of the fruition of a good. But this is not what NC says.

1 comment:

unenlightened said...

I've just stopped smoking (again!)so on the one hand, I have a pro-attitude - I'm gagging for a cigarette, and on the other, I have a con-attitude, that 'giving in' will only serve to continue my cravings. Seems to me this kind of conflict/contradiction is of the essense of all ethical situations - there is no 'virtue' in doing what I unequivocally want, or in not doing what I don't. I have a pro-attitude to both X and notX. This may not be very logical, but knowing that does not alieviate the situation. I am not 'singleminded' about X, so my 'subjective welfare' cannot be even clearly identified.
I think I'm agreeing with you for a different reason?
Cheers, bob.