Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Good To & Good For

Regular readers will know that my theory of welfare is that our individual good consists in objective desire fulfillment. What matters is whether the world really is the way we desire it to be, not whether we merely believe it (and so are happy). The linked post supports this claim by appeal to thought experiments where we would prefer to be mistakenly sad rather than mistakenly happy.

Over on the NZPhilosophy blog, Patrick argues that these thought experiments are irrelevant:
There are things I value more than my happiness. Perhaps, however, it would make sense to say that even though I prefer [mistaken sadness], I would be much better off [if mistakenly happy].

The basic claim is that we may simply care more about things other than our own wellbeing. What we value -- what is good to us -- may not be what is good for us. This sounds plausible. If it is true, then the fact that we care more about things other than our happiness does nothing to refute welfare hedonism. It could still be true that wellbeing simply consists in happiness, even if we value other things more.

This could explain an oddity I wrote about last year: my intuitions about welfare vary depending on whether I judge a case from the first person or the third person. In the third person I am much more inclined towards hedonism than I otherwise would be, at least in cases of other-regarding desires, e.g. about the health of loved ones.

But I think other-regarding desires complicate things. Plausibly, what is good to us is the fulfillment of all our desires, but other-regarding ones may not contribute to our welfare (what is good for us). This could explain my intuitions without recourse to hedonism. So let's consider a case involving self-regarding desires that may resolve this question:
Molly the Mathematician
Suppose Molly spent her whole life trying to prove a fiendishly difficult theorem. She finally thinks she's achieved it, and has some other mathematicians check her proof. Molly receives their answer, believes it wholeheartedly, then dies the next day. It is later discovered that she was told the wrong answer.

Which of the following scenarios is better for Molly?
1) The mathematicians (mistakenly) tell her the proof is flawed, when in fact it is correct.

2) The mathematicians (mistakenly) tell her the proof is correct, when in fact it is flawed.

Now, it seems to me that (1) is better for Molly, even from the third-person perspective. (There is little question that Molly herself would prefer (1) to be the case, as would I if I was in her position.) I'd be interested to hear what others think. If my intuition is accurate, it follows that welfare hedonism is false. We should instead adopt some (perhaps restricted) version of the desire fulfillment theory. Needless to say, I would be happy with that result. (Question for hedonists: if I'm wrong about this, should you inform me?)


  1. "objective desire fulfillment"? I seem to prefer subjective desire fulfillment, we shouldn't choose whether (1) or (2) is better objectively, but rather which is better from Molly's point of view. She will have a preference towards either (1) or (2), this is the metric that we should use. If Molly likes to be deceived, let it be.

    We can measure Molly's utility using (2), measure yours using (1), and can still try to maximise utility (though others-regarding values can be chucked)

    Note- this is not to say that there are no limits on the hedonistic choice. We don't have to go out of our way to deceive.

    Just a thought, but hey, I am not a utilitarian and I am a value subjectivist, so who would pay attention to me.

    "if I'm wrong about this, should you inform me?" By my reading, since you chose (1), yes.

    "Regular readers" - optimistic?

  2. There is a simple, although faintly arbitrary-sounding solution to this.

    "I am better off being mistakenly happy than purposefully miserable, according to my own mistaked beliefs about my desires, if the happiness of the new situation outweighs the unhappiness brought about by being in a situation other than that towards which I was working".


  3. '"Regular readers" - optimistic?'

    Ha, perhaps, but I like to acknowledge both of my readers every now and then ;)

    "She will have a preference towards either (1) or (2), this is the metric that we should use."

    Sure, that's precisely what objective desire fulfillment is all about (follow the link for more detail). If Molly desired to feel good or be happy more than she desires to solve the proof, then clearly (2) would be better for her. But I meant to stipulate as part of the scenario that she does not. Her strongest desire is to solve the proof. Even so, the hedonist would claim (2) is better for her because it would make her happier. I think, given the stipulations, that (1) is clearly better for her, which shows that welfare hedonism is mistaken!

    MP - I don't quite follow. You seem to be assuming a hedonistic account (by appealing only to 'happiness'), but that's precisely what's at issue here. Don't you agree that Molly is better off in (1), even though she would be happier in (2)?

  4. Well, I wasn't really talking about the mathemeticians, because I don't think that example reflect anything about what you are trying to say. I was addressing the basic claim "...that we may simply care more about things other than our own wellbeing. What we value -- what is good to us -- may not be what is good for us. This sounds plausible. If it is true, then the fact that we care more about things other than our happiness does nothing to refute welfare hedonism. It could still be true that wellbeing simply consists in happiness, even if we value other things more."

    Now, presumably we might also be mistaken about the things we value more. The value of (state X) is its happiness minus its opportunity cost with respect to (state Y).

    If we are "happier" in (state X) but would "rather" be in (state Y), this can be mathematically represented in a hedonistic system by the "unhappiness" or at least "discontentedness" or "rather-not-ness" of that relationship.

    Whether we should stay happy, or move to the other position, depends on how mistaken we are, effectively. We might mistakenly be a *lot* happier, and the fact we would "rather" be in some other state is only a minor irritation. Conversely, we may be only slightly happier in (state X), and the fact that we are not in (state Y) is a major source of unhappiness, or rather-not-ness.

    The mathemetician's example doesn't capture that statement at all. However, I would say that a good mathemetician will never be wrong about a logical proof. Without being wrong about the laws of logic themselves, it is hard to see how this could occur short of mere human fallibility, which is not what the discussion is about.

    I would far rather be in position(1), because I have recourse to rationality and logic to correct the problem, whereas (2) will leave you only with the potential for failure.

  5. I really don't understand what you're getting at here. Hedonists cannot account for the value of (1), because the value of (1) rests not our mental states or subjective happiness, but rather in the objective state of the world that matches our desire. You can't call the problem with (2) "unhappiness", because Molly is unaware that there is any problem at all (so she cannot be unhappy about it!).

    Your final paragraph seems to suggest that you'd prefer to be in (1) because you might later find out the truth. But of course that is irrelevant in Molly's case, since we have stipulated that she dies before finding out the truth. This allows us to get at the heart of the problem (i.e. whether more than subjective happiness matters for wellbeing), without such confounding factors getting in the way.

  6. I'm not sure that limiting it to only self-regarding desires changes anything for me, intuitively. If I was Molly I would probably prefer to be in situation 1, although that wouldn't be what was best for me. However, I guess that makes it 1-1 votes-wise at this point? :)

  7. I think 1 is better for Molly. If I were Molly, I would like it more to be true (apart from the bad consequence in 2, that it would not push me to search for the true theorem).

    But of course, 1 is not the best. Also: the example is a bit complicated because in mathematics it is not clear whether the aim you should get at can be defined independently of the reactions of your academic community. (For example, one may think that a successful demonstration is one that is able to convince other matemathicians). So maybe you should add that those mathematicians know it to be true, but agree to tell her it is false because they are invidious.

  8. I took some time to think Molly case more deeply, and I must admit I give two different sort of answer depending on a variable. You write that "it was later discovered that the answer she was told was wrong." In case 1. this means that the rightness of her proof eventually gets recognized and becomes part of human kind's body of knowledge. In this case if I were Molly, I would choose 1. Notice: this makes the example not fit your purpose, because your purpose was to have an example in which "other-regarding desires" don't "complicate things." Now the proof of a math theorem contributes to general knowledge and therefore this case qualifies as one in which "other-regarding desires complicate things".

    So I took some time thinking about the example that should have been the one you meant to use (an example in which I could be sure that "other-regarding desire don't complicate things). This is just an example identical to the example you wrote, erasing the claim "It is later discovered that she was told the wrong answer.".
    Let us assume this is a case in which her discovery does not make a contribution to maths, to knowledge, to future generation. The mathematicians regard (wrongly) her proof as not valid, and this proof gets forgotten, and it fails to be the source of inspirations for other, and it is not the case that 2 years later they realize it was a valid proof, etc. Ok?
    My intuitions about such a case are differerent. In such a case I think that that what Molly gets in 1 is nothing "valuable" for her. So I and II are indifferent good for Molly.
    From this I guess you conclude that it is of no value for Molly, because something cannot be "good for" if it does not enter someone's experience (a la Kagan). I rather think that it is because the achievement in question, namely, finding a mathematical truth that is going to be be forgotten by everybody and hence will fail to contribute to human knowledge is of no value, even impersonally.

    I will discuss this case further in my philosophical blog. I'll also discuss with some friend the "experience requirement and be glad to get a contribution from you"


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