Monday, August 02, 2004

Desire Fulfillment

What is the good life? Where does value come from? What constitutes a harm?
In recent posts, Leiter argued that well-being cannot merely be preference-satisfaction.
Why can't well-being be equivalent to preference-satisfaction? Simple answer: there are lots of preferences whose satisfaction makes people worse off, and this happens all the time. Why? Because people are dumb or irrational or lacking in information or addicted, and so on.

But this then raises the question, how are they "worse off"? Presumably because their other preferences have been frustrated as a result. Due to some unintended consequences, their stated preference turned out to not be what would best realise their desires overall. There is no need to abandon preference-satisfaction here, we simply need to take a broader view of it, by assessing how well an event conforms with all of a person's preferences. Some of these may well conflict, but that is no great problem - they'd just cancel each other out, in a sense. We just want to maximise our preference satisfaction. If the maximum we can achieve is less than 100%, then so be it.

Consider Leiter's example:
Richard really wants Mexican food, and so goes to a neighborhood dive, to satisfy his preference; he does not know that sanitary conditions at the dive are so poor, that the salsa is full of salmonella, and he dies of food poisoning two days later

Now presumably Richard has a great many other desires/preferences, which require his being alive in order for them to be realised. So by the broader understanding of a preference-satisfaction view of well-being, he is clearly far better off not eating the Mexican food.

Similarly for addiction examples. Even though the addict wants to take the drugs, he also wants several (more) other things which he can only achieve if he overcomes his addiction. Long term, his overall preferences are best satisfied by not taking the drugs. Leiter's objections do not appear to apply to this broader preference theory of well-being.

But is mere subjective desire satisfaction (i.e. the pleasant feeling arising from our belief that our desires have been realised) enough, or does genuine wellbeing require that our desires are fulfilled in fact? Uriah at Desert Landscapes raises a similar question, to which Doug Portmore replies in the comments at PEA Soup:
Imagine... Doug doesn’t die believing that he’s loved and successful, for on his death bed Josh enlightens him to the fact it’s all been a charade. Josh convinces Doug of what is in fact the truth: his colleagues despise him, his business is in shambles, and his adulterous wife holds him in utter contempt. So I ask, what should Doug’s reaction be? Should he say “well, I’ve been really well off up until now” or should he say, “wow, I haven’t been nearly as well off as I had thought”? Intuitively, the latter seems much more plausible. Also, consider who Doug should be angry with? Should he be angry with his wife and colleagues who deceived him or should he be angry with Josh who enlightened him to the truth? If internalism is correct, he should be angry with Josh.

Another example I first heard from Alonzo Fyfe. Imagine a mad scientist kidnaps you and your family, and offers you the following two options:
  • He will let your family live in a pleasant but secluded captivity, but you will be made to believe (eg through hypnosis, or whatever) that they were all tortured and killed.

  • He will torture and kill your family, but you will be made to believe that they are safe and well in a pleasant but secluded captivity.

After making the choice, all recollection of the bargain will be erased from your memory. Which option would you choose? Most people say #1 - the desire fulfillment option. We want our families to be well in fact, and this is more important to us than whether we merely believe that all is well.

These thought experiments seem to recommend externalism over internalism; objective desire fulfillment over subjective satisfaction. But is desire fulfillment alone an adequate account of human flourishing? More on this later...

Update: For further reasons to reject normative hedonism, see Phluaria: Hurts So Good, and 'The Evaluative Worthlessness of Happiness' at The Fly Bottle.

See also the Matrix:
Most of us care about a lot of things independently of the experiences that those things provide for us. The realization that we value things other than pleasant conscious experience should lead us to at least wonder if the legitimacy of this kind of value hasn't been too hastily dismissed by Cypher and his ilk. After all, once we see how widespread and commonplace our other non-derivative concerns are, the insistence that conscious experience is the only thing that has value in itself can come to seem downright peculiar. If purchasing life insurance seems like a rational thing to do, why shouldn't the desire that I experience reality (rather than some illusory simulation) be similarly rational? Perhaps the best test of the rationality of our most basic values is actually whether they, taken together, form a consistent and coherent network of attachments and concerns. (Do they make sense in light of each other and in light of our beliefs about the world and ourselves?) It isn't obvious that valuing interaction with the real world fails this kind of test.

17 comments:

  1. [Copied from old comments thread]

    We need to be careful about how we use words like desire, preference, and choice, since they have both technical and nontechnical meanings. In the mad scientist example, for instance, a caring family man might say "I don't care what you do to me, just don't harm my family." Using common English we could say that he "prefers" the first option, but this is not a "desire" or a "preference" in the technical sense that you have used because it's not about promoting his well-being (and he would be offended if you claimed that it was) - it is an other-regarding preference.

    What is the definition of a "preference" or a "desire" in the technical sense? When we think about someone's preferences, we generally think of them as something that he knows about and something that he acts on. However, these two conditions do not always hold (even if we only look at self-regarding preferences). It should be clear to anyone familiar with psychology or advertising that people choose things that they don't really prefer and they believe that they prefer things even when they really don't. For instance, it would make sense if I claimed that, for years, I always thought I preferred Pepsi to Coke and I chose to drink Pepsi over Coke whenever possible, but when I took a taste test a few weeks ago I was surprised to discover that I actually prefer Coke.

    I don't know if there's a better definition of preference out there, but what I usually hear is that your preferences (in the technical sense) are what you would want if you were fully-informed and rationally self-interested. This sounds question-begging to me, since it seems to implicitly define a fully-informed, rationally self-interested person to be someone who always wants what is really best for himself. Instead of being a substantive definition of the good life, preferences seem to me more like a general and perhaps convenient way of talking about the good life.
    dan | Email | 5th Aug 04 - 8:23 pm | #

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    but this is not a "desire" or a "preference" in the technical sense that you have used because it's not about promoting his well-beingI disagree. I intended to use 'desire' in such a way as to leave open the possibility of other-regarding desires. Much of what I value is not directly concerned with myself. If any harm were to befall my family, that would also be detrimental to my wellbeing - because I desire that my family be well.

    Desires are not always selfish, so I think it would be a mistake to try to build selfishness into the definition (as you seem to be suggesting there?).

    Also, while I agree with you that an ideal agent view of wellbeing is probably question-begging, that doesn't really matter here. My talk of "desires" was exclusively about those desires that we actually have in fact, rather than those that we 'should' have. (Though in a future post I will discuss whether we need to consider the latter too.)

    But these disagreements are fairly minor, I think.

    Most importantly, I fully agree with you that people can be mistaken about what best fulfills their desires. Though you do need to be careful to separate contributing beliefs & desires, rather than calling the final resultant choice the 'desire' (or 'preference').

    In your example, you desire a tasty drink, and you believe Pepsi will fulfill that desire better than Coke. But you later discovered that the belief was mistaken. (I discussed some similar examples in my blog post.)
    Richard | Email | Homepage | 5th Aug 04 - 10:39 pm | #

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    I think that it is possible to have other-regarding desires that do not have any appreciable effect on your well-being, so an account of well-being as desire-fulfillment must find a definition of desire that does not include these cases. It is at least true that the magnitude of an other-regarding desire is often not proportional to the magnitude of its effect on your well-being.

    Suppose I have a desire that fewer people suffer from hunger and sickness. This desire may be strong enough for me to act on it (say, by giving to UNICEF or choosing who to vote for), but if the number of sick and hungry people in Africa were reduced by 10,000, I probably wouldn’t even find out about it, and if I did find out it wouldn’t make my life appreciably better.

    In the torture example, whether or not the harm to my family impacts my well-being, the main reason for me to oppose their torture is unrelated to my well-being.

    I agree with you about that the Cola example is a case of false beliefs about means to desire-fulfillment. But I think that there are also cases where a person does not know what he desires. Consider the businessman who wanted to become rich and successful. Yet the more successful and prosperous he became, the less satisfied he was. At the height of his success, he realized what he really wanted out of life, renounced his worldly goods, became a hermit, and was finally satisfied.

    You could try to handle this like the Cola case, and say that the businessman did not really want material success. Rather, he wanted something else, and mistakenly believed in material success as a means to that end. This approach, however, comes perilously close to the question-begging claim that the businessman really desired his well-being.

    If it's true that a person doesn't know what desires he actually has, it becomes unclear how we can define his well-being in terms of his desire-fulfillment.
    dan | Email | 7th Aug 04 - 9:20 am | #

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    Yeah, those are some interesting (and difficult) issues you raise. I might try to tackle them in my future post on 'flourishing' (coming soon...)
    Richard | Email | Homepage | 14th Aug 04 - 2:29 pm | #

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  2. The following is from an email sent to me by Conscious Robot, reproduced here with his permission.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The Alonzo Fyfe experiment: we select the well-being of our family because at the time of selection, we cannot really believe that our memory will be wiped. We've never experienced such a wiping, which is probably why it's almost impossible to behave in a way that takes 'wiping' into account. Hence we choose the solution that if our memory wasn't actually wiped, would give us the least pain. Knowing what I now know (ie that the only thing i care about is how i feel), I would choose the torturing of my family - but it would be a very difficult action actually to take and I'd have to know absolutely for sure that the memory wiping would really happen.

    I suggest you modify the experiment. The mad scientist gives you a lever: when you shift the lever to left, you're in scenario 1. Scenario 1 goes like this - the mad scientist has opened up your brain and re-wired your neural pathways so that you feel just great. it's like you're on a continuous, non-fading feeling of contentment, satisfaction, the sensation of being deeply loved. Nothing has ever felt better in your life. At the same time, he shows you the reality of your family being tortured. But although you can see the agony, you don't actually feel any of the agony yourself - you're having the most wonderful experience you've ever had because he's rewired
    your brain.

    Flick the lever to the right, and you're in Scenario 2 - it's the reverse. Your family are having a ball. But you're not. You're in hell. The mad scientist has wired you up to experience absolute fear, despair, lonelines, depression. Your feelings don't seem to connect to what's going on in front of your eyes, but nevertheless, you're in misery.

    Which side are you going to put that lever? Again, it's hard to imagine it, but when you're watching your family in agony, you're feeling contentment, satisfaction, the sensation of being deeply loved. You struggle to make the connection, but it appears that seeing your family in hell makes you feel fantastic. Flick the lever the other way... and you've never felt worse. How long can you sustain that personal hell? When the alternative is pure delight, and the only downside is this purely intellectual (but with no feelings attached) experience that you should really be feeling rather bad about this, even though it's actually the best day of your life. 

    Posted by From the Mailbag

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  3. "we select the well-being of our family because at the time of selection, we cannot really believe that our memory will be wiped."

    I don't find this attempted dodge at all plausible. We all know what it is to forget something; it isn't difficult to imagine our memories being manipulated in the way the scenario describes.

    In any case, we can easily come up with analogous thought-experiments which don't involve any science fiction. For example, consider an unsuccessful but passionate artist faced with the following two scenarios:

    1) They believe their work is, and will remain, unappreciated. But in fact they will achieve posthumous fame and acclaim.

    2) They believe they will achieve posthumous fame and acclaim. But in fact this is not the case, and their work remains unappreciated even after their death.

    Many people report prefering #1 to #2 (I know I would). This lends strong support to welfare externalism, as it is difficult to see how an internalist view of wellbeing could account for these results (other than an uncharitable dismissal along the lines of "oh, those people mustn't really know what they're talking about!").

    And then of course there's the case of Doug & Josh, quoted in the main post.

    "Knowing what I now know (ie that the only thing i care about is how i feel), I would choose the torturing of my family - but it would be a very difficult action actually to take and I'd have to know absolutely for sure that the memory wiping would really happen."

    You don't care about your family at all? You really don't care about anything except how you feel? That's rather sad! Fortunately, most people aren't like that.

    Lastly, your suggested thought-experiment is not as good because it has too many confounding variables. Perhaps one does genuinely care about the objective wellbeing of their family, but this is simply outweighed by the huge subjective factor. So even if we report preferring scenario (1), that doesn't really prove anything. It's still quite possible for external factors to have *some* importance. 

    Posted by Richard

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  4. (On second thought, 'confounding variables' isn't the problem here - CR's suggested experiment looks to have the same basic variables involved as the original one. The subjective aspect is just a bit extreme, is all, and so we run the risk of drowning out the 'objective' factor, as I said above.) 

    Posted by Richard

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  5. #"You don't care about your family at all? You really don't care about anything except how you feel? That's rather sad! Fortunately, most people aren't like that."

    The only knowledge I have of my family comes from three sources: light waves, sound waves and activation of pressure sensors in my skin.These light waves etc get converted into electrons passing down neurones, which arrive at my brain. At that point, something happens that makes me care about my family. For some reason (and we can debate why) a part of my brain over which i have no control converts those electronic impulses into feelings that I experience consciously. If I see images that i interpret as my mother suffering, then I too suffer - my non-conscious mind has converted the electronic impluses into unpleasant feelings. But it could equally have converted the images into pleasant ones, just as it does when I eat ice-cream. I don't decide whether it's a pleasant or unpleasant feeling, I just act accordingly.

    Let me stress the point that I don't choose to suffer. I don't choose that it should be pain rather than pleasure. Therefore I don't congratulate myself on the fact that I feel pain when my mother does. If Alzheimers or some such disease should strike me early, it could be quite possible that i wouldn't feel pain at the pain of my mother. It's all just neurones firing.

    So when you express surprise that I don't care about my family, only about my own feelings, I in turn express surprise that you care about light waves hitting your retina in a particular pattern.

    #"Science fiction"
    Any time a surgeon performs an operation, he uses a similar kind of 'science fiction' - he turns off the pain pathways using opiate drugs. Without such drugs, the patient would be powerfully motivated to get up and run away. Surely this helps us see that human motivation is all about neural pathways? You seem averse to stepping inside the biochemistry / physiology of the brain and trying to use that to understand human behaviour.

    #Your insistence that the reality of a situation is relevant:
    When you say that the reality of the situation is relevant and not just my perception, I just don't see it that way. I could go my whole life thinking that my Dad was a great, generous guy. Three minutes after I die, it gets revealed that he was in fact an adulterous mass-murderer. But that makes no difference to me, I've spent my whole life living in a delusion. That delusion was reality for me.




     

    Posted by consciousrobot

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  6. "So when you express surprise that I don't care about my family, only about my own feelings, I in turn express surprise that you care about light waves hitting your retina in a particular pattern."

    No, I don't care about mere mental images of my family (what a bizarre suggestion!), I care about the actual, real people. You are confusing the means by which we learn of reality with the reality itself - confusing vehicle with content - a monstrous conceptual confusion! For all your talk of "science", you seem to forget that there is an objective reality out there that our scientific methods are investigating!

    My "insistence" that external reality is relevant to wellbeing is supported by several thought-experiments, to which you haven't provided any satisfactory response. Do you really think Doug had lived a good/successful life right up until the point when Josh told him the truth? We can be mistaken about how well-off we are; this is something your theory cannot explain. And what about the fact that almost everybody reports caring about aspects of the external reality (such as their families), and not just their own internal feelings?

    Lastly, let me reassure you that I am not at all "averse" to science (or what it can tell us about the human condition) - quite the opposite in fact! What I am averse to, however, are pseudoscientific distortions, dogmatism, and simple-mindedness. 

    Posted by Richard

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  7. Heh, I sound a little grumpy in that previous comment - apologies for that. (To put the exchange in context, one should see my more recent posts discussing CR's views.) 

    Posted by Richard

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  8. "No, I don't care about mere mental images of my family (what a bizarre suggestion!), I care about the actual, real people. You are confusing the means by which we learn of reality with the reality itself"

    I think I need to make more of my point about reality. You say I’m confusing the reality with the means by which we learn about the reality. But I don’t see how we can know any more than ‘the means which we learn about the reality’… because I can never prove that there is a world outside my own head.

    Is it not possible that we live in a computer simulation? I don't believe we are, but I'm just asking if it's possible. It appears that this is a question worthy of serious scientific thought, as discussed in a paper by Nick Bostrom at Oxford Philosophy Dept.
    http://www.channel4.com/science/microsites/W/what_we_still_dont_know/textonly/to_arewereal.html.
    The whole possibility of the ‘computer simulation’ idea relies on us not having any ‘proof’ of the reality around us other than our own perception of it. If we had external proof, then the idea of us being in a computer simulation would not be being discussed at Oxford because it wouldn’t even be a theoretical possibility.

    This might seem like a picky point, but I believe it’s crucial. If it’s theoretically possible that we’re living in a computer simulation, then I think it follows that there cannot be a difference in our minds between what is the reality and what is our perception of the reality.

    Which is what the Alonzo Fyfe ‘mad scientist’ thought experiments rely on.

    “Most people say #1 - the desire fulfillment option. We want our families to be well in fact, and this is more important to us than whether we merely believe that all is well.”

    So my answer to your thought experiments is humans are simply not able to distinguish between their ‘belief’ that all is well and the reality ‘in fact’ – it’s a physically impossibility to know the difference because we only get knowledge of the world through light waves and neurones. There’s no way to verify what the truth really is. If I had a brain tumour that distorted the reality in a particular way, how could I ever know that I’m not Napolean?

    Most people that are asked Fyfe’s question haven’t thought this concept through and are thus unable to make the distinction. Of course we want the reality to be true – I myself want the reality to be true (and I could give you good evolutionary reasons why my brain is programmed that way). But that’s just my instinct/gut reaction. It’s only when I realise intellectually that there’s no difference FOR ME between my belief and the reality that I realise that it’s a trick question. Even then, I’m still tempted to go for reality in case one day I find out what the reality ‘really is’ – but that’s not the point of the thought experiment.

    Let me now try to tie this in to the idea of ‘desire fulfillment’. We now have to ask again what is desire fulfilment.

    There is a difference between "I desire to help others" and "I desire the pleasure I get from helping others". Either could motivate us.

    How do we know what desires we have and when our desires are fulfilled? Are you saying that you have desires that aren’t attached to any sort of feeling or emotion? Purely intellectual? Personally, if I have a desire, I think it’s because it makes me feel something – makes me want something, or fear something – feelings or emotions are always necessary.
    Is it possible for us to give a value to something without a feeling or emotion being attached to it? You seem to think it is – but let’s look at the thought experiments. The artist:

    1)They believe their work is, and will remain, unappreciated. But in fact they will achieve posthumous fame and acclaim.

    2) They believe they will achieve posthumous fame and acclaim. But in fact this is not the case, and their work remains unappreciated even after their death.


    Why would anyone desire to achieve posthumous fame and acclaim? At a very basic level, why would they desire that? That could be answered like this: ‘Because it vindicates my life’s work’ – but then I need to ask ‘Why do you desire that your life’s work is vindicated? How do you know that you desire to have your life’s work vindicated?’ I’m asking about what’s going on in your mind. For me, it’s a ‘feeling’. I imagine my works being sold in auction for more than Van Gogh, I imagine people talking about me in 200 years, and it makes me ‘feel good’. I’ve just done some imagining right now, and a little smile appeared on my face. I actually felt pleasure/satisfaction/well-being (I experienced a thing that I wanted to repeat) for a brief moment. When I imagined the opposite scenario, that after my death the ‘sham’ is revealed to the world (although of course the world was never aware of my brilliance in the first place) and it’s a bit disappointing. I’m a little down. I have an emotion of ‘deflation’ (I experience something that I want to stop and that I don’t want to repeat).

    It’s also important to see that I’m having that emotion now, at the time you’re asking me the question – not once I’m dead. So I choose the ‘life after death’ option. I cannot doubt that once I’m dead, I’m not going to know whether I’m appreciated or not, so my decision has to be based on some sort of imagining of what’s going to be happening after death – and that imagining has to be happening now, at the time I’m making the decision.

    Are you suggesting something else goes on in your mind? Something unconnected with a feeling?


     

    Posted by conscious robot

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  9. OK Richard,
    Do tell me why you found my post
    "I think your response to the thought-experiment is bizarre and somewhat atrocious."
    As far as i can tell I was saying the same things as CR above (who admittely you probably also think is atrocious).. in a less refined way.

    All I can imagine is that you misunderstand. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  10. Possibly. You wrote:
    "A person who made the decision to not have his family killed and then think that they were is making a decision similar to an overweight prson who cannot exercise. They desire to be fit but they cannot bring themselves to do it becaue the benefit is in the future but the pain is immediate. Anyway the person cannot properly internalize the concept of 'not knowing'."

    My response to CR above applies just as well to this. It's not very plausible to claim that we cannot truly understand what 'not knowing' is. I don't know all sorts of things - I can assure you I'm quite familiar with the concept :)

    The atrocious side of it is the implication that you don't really care about your (real) family at all, but instead care only about how they make you feel. I'm pretty sure most people, by contrast, care about both of these.

    CR - "there cannot be a difference in our minds between what is the reality and what is our perception of the reality"

    I never said there was a difference in our minds. I said there was a difference (period). You're still failing to take note of the distinction between what we think (or even 'know') and what actually is. This is the difference between epistemology and metaphysics. By failing to recognise the existence of an objective external world, you beg the question against the externalist. That makes productive discussion between us impossible.

    My claim is that well-being is not just something that happens in our minds. It partly depends upon the external world - a factor which may not be epistemically available to us. In other words, how well-off we are depends on more than just what we know. It also depends on how things really are

    Posted by Richard

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  11. > I don't know all sorts of things - I can assure you I'm quite familiar with the concept :)

    haha - yeah not exactly what I meant.

    > The atrocious side of it is the implication that you don't really care about your (real) family at all

    Well at its root one could say any scientific explination for the universe results in one being ablle to say 'caring" doesn't exits - but besides that sort of logic - that is not really what I mean. I am saying that human brain works in a certain way, when it works mot efficiently we should come up with people chosing the "fake family", at the same time it does not work efficiently and I am as much a "beneficiary" of that as you are) on a philosophical level we will thus chose the "real family".

    When you look at the problem you will imagine two future scenarios almost as if you were a god looking down on them and thus this failure to do exactly what the question is asking you to do changes your decision. This on a moral level is a good thing (of course as a fellow "beneficiary" I WOULD have to say that or I would have cognative dissonance)

    The question is doing the clasic "if you were him what would you do" paradox. the actual answer is EXACTLY WHAT HE DOES because it is impossible to both be that person and also to be you. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  12. Mike B. writes:

    "I tend to side with “Anonymous”. I agree that it is quite normal to talk about people’s “well-being” as independent of their experiences: in the “Doug and Josh” case, for example, it is quite reasonable to say that Doug has a “less successful life”, or had a life of “lower well-being”, than he would have had if his perceived successes were real; the OED certainly leaves this option open, in its definition of the word “well-being.” Nevertheless, if I were asked to choose between the two lives, I would see very little reason to choose one over the other; and if I was duped like Doug, but died before Josh told me about it, I think the choice would be a matter of indifference. Similarly for the “posthumous fame and acclaim” thought experiment.

    Further, I’m unconvinced by the “Hurts So Good” example, mainly because Phluria seems a bit unclear on the distinction between physical pain and non-physical pain. “I think a hedonist”, Phluria writes, “is committed to saying that this girl has had the best luck anyone could possibly have: she has been hard-wired not to experience the only bad thing in the world, pain”: I don’t think the hedonist is committed to saying anything at all, unless the other kinds of pain that result from physical painlessness (the pain of being laid up in a hospital bed for long periods of time, and so on) are taken into account. Only then can the hedonist commit to a position on the value or otherwise of physical painlessness, and having done so I think a hedonist would probably arrive at the same conclusion as Phluria: it is pleasant not to feel physical pain, but this pleasantness is outweighed by the undesirable consequences.
    "

    You're probably right about Phluaria, but I don't think you're understanding the full force of the Doug example. You haven't answered the question, who shoud Doug be angry with? Who made his life worse?. The hedonist must say "Josh". But it seems clear that the true answer is his wife & colleagues.

    Further, as a methodological point, notice that you say: "if I were asked to choose between the two lives, I would see very little reason to choose one over the other; and if I was duped like Doug, but died before Josh told me about it, I think the choice would be a matter of indifference. Similarly for the “posthumous fame and acclaim” thought experiment."

    This just shows that you don't really desire these worldly objects. Perhaps you merely desire pleasant mental states. In that case, desire theory will happen to yield the same result as hedonism in your case, since happiness is all you desire.

    But most of us have other desires. Many of us would prefer (thus, choose) the life without deceit. You seem to be implicitly conceding that it is our preferences about such things that determines what is really best for us. (Why else talk about your hypothetical choice?) In which case, you should accept the desire theory.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "You haven't answered the question, who shoud Doug be angry with? Who made his life worse?. The hedonist must say "Josh". But it seems clear that the true answer is his wife & colleagues."

    Yes, I agree that Doug would not have been harmed if his wife and colleagues had been less vicious, but it seems strange to suggest that he would have been "harmed" by their viciousness even if Josh had not informed him of their real opinions. That is a very odd use of the word "harmed."


    "This just shows that you don't really desire these worldly objects." In one sense, that's quite true; in another it's a bit offensive. Of course I desire to live a genuinely successful life, and to have a truly affectionate wife, and to make worthwhile art, and to be honestly praised for my acts and character, and to be honestly criticised, so that I can improve. I also make every effort to ensure that I am not living a life of deceit. However, if I know, as clearly as I can know, that I am not living a life of deceit, then I am satisfied. Most people probably share these sentiments; the problem, I think, is that we don't quite know what we mean when we talk about "objective well-being" and "subjective well-being", and so we disagree. Given those sentiments, am I a "subjective well-being" person or an "objective well-being" person?

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  14. One further point. Most people agree, I think, that it is sometimes a good thing to deceive a person so that the person's desires will be subjectively fulfilled. Suppose I abhor my flatmate's cooking, for example, but I know that he is very proud of his mashed potato and lamb's fry, and I also know that he desires that I express a genuine liking for it. Many people would agree, I think, that it is a good thing for me to suppress my loathing, eat as much as I can, and to vomit out of earshot, and that I would improve my flatmate's well-being by doing so. How can the desire fulfillment theory explain this, and any other such tact, if a desire P is fulfilled only if P is true?

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  15. "I agree that Doug would not have been harmed if his wife and colleagues had been less vicious"

    That's a rather weak concession. (It's also true that Doug would not have been harmed if he'd never been born. But that doesn't mean that his birth is what harmed him.) So, I ask again, who is it that actually did harm Doug? Was it Josh, or was it the others?

    "Of course I desire to live a genuinely successful life [etc.]"

    If you really desired the reality more than the appearance, then (by definition) you would choose the reality over the appearance when given the choice. Our strongest desire or preference just is what we would choose upon informed reflection.

    I also dispute your claim that "most people" would choose the blue pill (i.e. the life of pleasant appearances).

    I'm also puzzled by your suggestion that we "don't know" what the difference is here. The difference is simply between happily believing our desired have been fulfilled, on the one hand, versus those desires actually being fulfilled in fact. It's the familiar appearance/reality distinction. Surely we all know the differemce between really getting what we wanted, and merely thinking that we have?

    "How can the desire fulfillment theory explain this, and any other such tact, if a desire P is fulfilled only if P is true?"

    Having you like his food is not the only thing your flatmate desires. He also wants to be happy, confident, etc. -- desires which may be thwarted if you told him you didn't like his cooking.

    And note that sometimes [not always!] we simply desire the appearances themselves (as you seem to do in your earlier comments). In that case, the appearance is the reality. When we get the appearance, we get what we want.

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  16. Thanks for your patience, Richard!

    1) On "not knowing what we mean": I mean that the question that the thought experiment poses is ambiguous, and so when people respond to it they are sometimes answering different questions, so that even when their answers disagree, they may not have any substantive disagreement. When you ask "which life would you prefer?", you could be asking either

    a) "Which life would you rather experience?" In one sense of the verb “to live”, that question is the same as "which life would you prefer to live?", so it's quite a reasonable interpretation of the question "which life would you prefer?" I presume even you would answer this question like a "subjective well-being" person. When people say that they would rather have their family tortured and killed, and believe that they were not, rather than believe that their family has been tortured and killed, when they were not, I presume this is the question that they are answering, and not (hopefully) question c).

    or

    b) "Which life do you find most admirable, or regard as most successful", or "which life would you rather be remembered for". A person who answers the first question as a "subjective well-being" person may well answer this question as an "objective well-being" person.

    or

    c) which life would you choose to have, if you were given the choice?

    c) is the question we really want to ask, but I don’t think it is the question that everyone answers when they are asked “which life would you prefer?”, and because the same person can give different answers to the different questions, they disagree.

    2) Desires for genuine affection etc.: I now agree that, as you point out, my desires to be truly loved and admired etc. are only desires for pleasant experiences. I suppose I don’t understand how a person could feel otherwise. What I can understand, though, is desiring that the experiences of other people are good in fact: ie. for the “tortured and killed family” thought experiment, I would probably answer c) with “the life where my family were not tortured and killed.”


    3) Who made Doug’s life worse? If “worse” means “less admirable, less successful etc.”, then yes, his wife and colleagues made it worse. If “worse” means it made his experiences less enjoyable, then both Josh and the others made it worse, I guess. If I was in Doug’s position, I don’t think I would be angry at anyone, because it is not important to me that I be loved admired in fact; that is (to answer c)) I probably would not choose Doug’s life over a life without deceit, even though I would “prefer” the true life in the sense of “preference” embodied in b). I WOULD be angry if I had been deceived into thinking I had improved the life of someone else, when in fact I hadn’t (say if a charity diverted my donations), but I probably would not say that I had been harmed: I would say instead that the people who were deprived of my assistance were harmed.

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  17. Okay, thanks for the clarifications. I definitely meant (c). I thought that was clear, since (a) would clearly be a silly question to ask. If I understand you correctly, it's merely asking "which of these subjectively experiences would you prefer (ignoring the objective facts)?", for which the answer is trivial in this context. (b) is less clear, but possibly trivial in the other direction. (c) is the only question which has any real substance to it. This is surely the one that people are answering when they say that they wouldn't want to be secretly deceived, or live in the Matrix, or whatever.

    "I probably would not say that I had been harmed: I would say instead that the people who were deprived of my assistance were harmed."

    I think I agree that such other-regarding desires do not impact upon our wellbeing. Rather, what matters are the desires we have about the shape and goals of our own life. See my post on the 'good to'/'good for' distinction.

    To get at the core issue for wellbeing, suppose that someone has 'objective' desires, i.e. they care more about the reality than the appearances. A nice simple case, "Molly the mathematician", is described in the above link. Now, the crucial question is: what is good for this person? Is the happiness they find in mere appearances enough? Or are they better off if they succeed in actual fact, as they would have wanted? (Happiness is obviously something good, nobody denies that. The question is whether there is anything else.)

    By the way, in light of your skepticism towards unexperienced harms, you might be more sympathetic towards the 'compromise' theory I call veridical enjoyment.

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