Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Third-Person Wellbeing

Is it better to be mistakenly happy or mistakenly sad? Or, to put it another way, which matters more: subjective desire-satisfaction or objective desire-fulfillment? In a previous post, I argued for the latter, appealing to the following thought experiment:
Imagine a mad scientist kidnaps you and your family, and offers you the following two options:

(1) 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.

(2) 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.

I still agree that the first option seems preferable, from a first-person perspective (i.e. if you consider making the decision yourself). But what about the equivalent 'third-person' choice?

Suppose instead that it is Bob's family that is kidnapped, and Bob - rather than you - who has to make the decision. Now, I ask you, which result do you think would be better for Bob?

My intuitions here are far less clear. But I think that (probably) option #2 is better for Bob. Yet I know that if I was in Bob's position, I would choose #1, even for selfish rather than moral reasons - I really would prefer my family to be safe in fact. So judging from the third-person perspective, I have a different idea of Bob's wellbeing, than I do from the first-person perspective. Is that odd?

I'm quite confused by this case, and would very much appreciate hearing some other people's intuitions here. (I don't get a huge number of visitors to this site, so please do leave a quick comment if you can spare the time!)

Which result do you think is better for Bob?


  1. I think the heart of the difference between the first and third person perspectives is how you define what is "better for Bob," or what Bob's "wellbeing" means. Is it a matter of Bob's preference or self-concept, or is there some objective measure of wellbeing that we can impose on him?

    Without answering those questions, I will say that my thought is that Bob is in some way better off in scenario 1. I'll try to analyze why I think that. Also, in scenario 1, there remains the possiblity that Bob might one day discover that he has been deceived all this time; I'm not sure if that should count for anything in the thought experiment. 

    Posted by Andrew

  2. 'I think the heart of the difference... is how you define what is "better for Bob"'

    Yeah. I was originally using the scenario to clarify our intuitions on 'wellbeing', in the hope that this would then allow us to analyse the concept (i.e. find a definition to match it). But if different perspectives give rise to conflicting intuitions, then that seems problematic. Perhaps we (or at least I) have multiple concepts of 'wellbeing'?

    ' Also, in scenario 1, there remains the possiblity that Bob might one day discover that he has been deceived all this time'

    Ah yeah, I meant to exclude that possibility. It does pose a problem for our intuitions though, since such a stipulation does not reflect our epistemic reality. In reality, there's always a chance the truth will later be revealed. This might well influence our intuitions, despite the stipulation that later revelations will not occur. Unless we're very good at compartmentalising our thoughts, the intuitions elicted by such thought experiments might be suspect. (Rather like 'should we torture X to prevent a nuclear explosion?', and the trolley cases, etc.)

    A couple more things:

    My intuition in favour of #2 can also be elicited from the first person if I look at it more indirectly. E.g. asking "What would be best for me?" I feel like #2 is, even though I prefer #1 and would choose it.

    Lastly, the thought experiment could be improved by removing any moral aspects, which might (unconsciously) affect our intuitions. So we might instead prefer to consider the following:

    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.

    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.

    Here I think #1 is better for Molly, from any perspective.

    (That is, so long as the truth is later revealed, so Molly's work is properly appreciated by the mathematical community. If the mistake was never corrected, then that might thwart her desire for eternal academic fame. If we stipulated which end she cared about more, then that would clear up the problem.)

    So there appears to be a difference between self- and other-regarding desires in this respect.

    Argh, it's all so confusing! 

    Posted by Richard

  3. I've got a more rigorous arguement posted on my site, wherein I reverse my intuition and argue in favor of your original idea. 

    Posted by Andrew

  4. Thanks for the link. I'm a bit wary of your exclusive focus on internal mental states, however, as that seems to beg the question against the externalist. Your exposition ignores the possibility that objective facts (external to our mental states) might have an impact on our wellbeing.

    In your version of the scenario, A1 and B1 both have identical internal states, believing their families to have been killed, while B1's family is in fact safe. Given this situation, I very strongly feel that B1 is better off than A1.

    So the cases are not analagous: choosing between B1 and B2 is not the same as choosing between A1 and A2.

    But even if we grant your argument, how do we explain the perspective-difference in judgements? Does Bob just not realise what is best for himself? Or do we employ a different notion of wellbeing from each perspective? 

    Posted by Richard

  5. I think that when you see the pain bob would go through as a third person it would mke you say bob would be better off if he took the think family o.k. option. When in first person you are only seing the pain your family would go through and not your own. I have a question now. All my memories including remembering my dreams are in third person. I only have maybe a few memories where I am in first person. (seeing through my own eyes) This would mean all my memories are fiction because a real memory would have to be in first person perspective. What do think about this? What perspective is your recall of past events in and why?

  6. 1. I would choose 1.
    2. Being benevolent towards Bob, I think I would choose 1 for him.
    In 1, will I choose what is better for me?
    In 2, will I choose what is better for Bob?
    I think that those questions are very difficult. If you take it as a matter of definition that [if a benevolent third party would choose X for Y, the third party must see Y as what improves X's well-being] then of course you get an answer. But I think your diverting from the first-person to the thirdp person point of view was aimed to get clearer intuitions about what is well-being, so of course you cannot just rely on stipulation. My view is that it is just as difficult to say "what we would choose is always what would improve our well-being" as it is difficult to say "what we would choose for X, if we are benevolent, is always what would improve X well-being". My point is not a moral one, or of caring about what happens to family. You may just rephrase what I said by writing "what we would choose for us..." (Or if you want, we can stipulate that all of Bob family is made by very hateful criminal who just deserve to die... But Bob loves them) Even in the latter scenario, if I am Bob or if I am benevolent towards Bob, I would choose 1. Moreover, I would not even have the slightest doubt, provided I know Bob really loves them. (I m so suprized you could be puzzled: I guess you are in the grip of your own theory!).
    AS about well-being: as I told you in another post I left, I'm rather attracted to the conclusion that the concept of individual well-being is unapt to play any meaningful role in moral deliberation and moral theory. (I see you want to be an utilitiarian, so you may have problems with that. I never understood this: must a utilitarian be a welfarist? Because here is welfarism that creates the trouble). Of course this is not to say that the concept of "individual welfare" or "individual well-being" is a completely useful one. Probably it is necessary for certain sort of economic theories or political decisions. But such spheres of life are subject to very particular constraints and in any case do not reflect the natural stance we have towards our own life.

  7. I made a mistake in the latest comment:
    "In 1, will I choose what is better for me?
    In 2, will I choose what is better for Bob?"

    You should read:
    In 1, will I choose what improves my well-being?
    In 2, will I chosse what increases Bob well-being?"

    My point is that it is not clear whether what is better for Bob must necessarily be what improves his well-being most.

  8. Hi Michele,

    I'm not sure I understand your last comment. Wellbeing is typically defined as what's good for a person. So how could it not be "better for Bob" to improve his wellbeing most? That sounds analytic to me. (Sure, we might have moral or other reasons to pick an outcome that is better on independent grounds. But, by definition, it won't be better for Bob if it's detrimental to his wellbeing.)

  9. What I mean is: wE can either take it to be analytical or not that well-being=what is good for a person. So let us start from the assumption that it is.
    In this case, what I would say is that I'm increasingly getting the feeling that THIS NOTION ("what is better for Bob")is the search of a notion that is intrinsecally contradictory. What I mean to say is: if you take it to be SOMEONE'S good, it ceases to be GOOD. If you take it to be GOOD it ceases to be SOMEONE'S.

  10. To state my reply more clearly: there might be many things that are good for a person but do not contribute to his well-being. The fact that my son enters a prestigious university can be said to be good for me, because that is what I most wanted. But it may decrease my well-being because I'm going to be more lonely and miss him.

    Some people (Sumner) think that "good for" express a relation to a person's attitudes. But if this means that well-being is solely a function of what a person's actual desires are, we get a subjective theory of well-being. Such theories of well-being have today a very bad press, and I believe, for good reasons. (You seem to recognize their limits in other posts). Hence if well-being is good for a person, in this more specific sense, the concept loses its normative value. This is what I meant in the former post.

    It has been argued that we must consider only informed desires (Brandt, Griffin). But the most plausible theories that make well-being a function of informed desires are those - like Griffin's - which define "informed" in terms of objective values, i.e. in non- subject-relative terms.

  11. I would love to post a more in-depth response right now, but I am quite exhausted. Towards the end of reading the posts here I realized, maybe you are thinking of well-being in to rigid of a structure.

    Maybe what is "best" for Bob, or whoever, would not be either. Maybe both options have equal pros and cons. Maybe it would have to boil down to a personal preference. Or even then things you have exluded from the scenario.

    I also just realized that the last post here was three years ago and im assuming no one will see my response. ha.


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