Monday, August 10, 2009

Must harms be temporally located?

Ben Bradley's main argument for hedonism (in his recent diavlog with Roy Sorensen) seemed to be that other theories run into "difficulties" when it comes to specifying when certain alleged harms occurred. For example, most non-hedonists think that achieving your goals makes your life better. But suppose that you work hard to preserve a great work of art, only to have some vandal come along and destroy it after you die -- making it so that all your hard work was in vain. I think it's clear that this is bad for you, but Bradley asks, when is it bad for you? Roughly: "It can't be bad for you when you're alive, since your desire isn't thwarted yet, but nor can it be bad for you once you're dead, since you no longer exist to suffer harms. So it can't be bad for you at all."

I find pretty much every step of that argument dubious. Note that the first premise is technically false. Time-indexed propositions (e.g. "that the artwork survives beyond time t1") have their truth-values timelessly, so if you currently desire that the artwork survive beyond future time t1, and it doesn't so survive, then technically the desire is ("already") thwarted, in virtue of this future state of affairs.

The second premise is also dubious in light of 4-dimensionalism, as Bradley himself acknowledges and relies upon in explaining why death itself is bad for you. (Even after you die, you nonetheless exist in the past, and so the fact that your life wasn't longer can be bad for that past entity. And I doubt much really hangs on the metaphysics; presumably even presentists would want some way of saying things like this.)

Most importantly, it isn't at all clear why we should think that harms must have a temporal location at all. A harm is just whatever makes your life worse (less desirable). There doesn't have to be a particular time at which it is worse. Bradley's conclusion would only follow given the additional assumption of welfare atomism, i.e. the view that the welfare value of a life is simply the sum of the values of each individual moment. But there's no good reason to grant this assumption (especially for non-hedonists). We should instead be value holists, as I argue here. (See also Parfit on Global Preferences.)

(It's odd; in the discussion of the "James Dean paradox", Bradley effectively notes that the vast majority of people are in fact implicitly committed to value holism. We think that the overall 'shape' of the life matters, rather than only caring about the sum total of happiness contained therein. Bradley just dismisses this as "irrational", without argument.)

Indeed, even if we're hedonists, it seems that negative facts -- like the fact that you didn't get to live longer or experience more in the time that you had -- can be undesirable for your sake, and hence qualify as 'harms' in the broad sense of the term, even though these are 'global', atemporal features of your life. And on every plausible view, we can be harmed by events that take place before we're born. It doesn't seem that much of a stretch to acknowledge a similar phenomenon in the opposite direction.


  1. maybe the worry is like this. harms are things that are bad for you. it is natural to think that a harm's being bad for you is an event; it at least has the appropriate surface grammar. it is also natural to think that part of what individuates events is the time at which they occur. so the question "when is it bad for you
    ?" boils down to the question "what is the temporal location of the event that is its being bad for you?"

  2. I think this works if you are committed, as it seems you are, to defining harm as something that in some sense is not necessary which makes your life worse than it otherwise would have been. It seems reasonable, however, to say that a person must experience an event before she can be harmed by it. After all, if you spent your life attempting to preserve a work of art and it is destroyed, what precisely do we think the harm to you is? I would assume the harm is the negative emotions you would feel upon learning your work was in vain. If you don't feel the emotions, then I have a difficult time identifying what it means to say you've been harmed. It seems like a strange position to have to defend. On the other hand, I suppose my alternative commits me to believing that if I were to die suddenly I would not be harmed by that event, which also seems intuitively strange.

  3. Eric -- see my previous post.

    Jeremy -- 'being bad...' strikes me as a property rather than an event. Harmful events (e.g. the vandal destroying the artwork, and hence nullifying your life's work) may have this property. You might then say that this event's possession of this property constitutes a state of affairs, rather than a second event.

    The event in question does occur at some time, of course. But none of this requires that the harm be "received" by the person at any particular time. (It is a conceptual error to think that some second event along these lines is required -- see my criticisms here of the 'transmission' model of harm.)

    Concrete cases make this more vivid. Again, it's perfectly coherent to say that the vandalism was undesirable for your sake, or that it made your life less desirable to live. It doesn't seem like this commits us to specifying some particular time when it was undesirable for you.

    So I think this is another case where looking at the substantial implications of welfare claims is a better philosophical guide than linguistic intuitions (or 'surface grammar').

  4. I think I more or less agree with you. I'd maybe put thinks slightly differently (or maybe this is in fact your proposal).

    Assume you are an artist A and die at t=0. At t=1 a punk P vandalizes your sculpture S. Let H be the event of P's vandalizing S at t=1. I want to say that H is a harm for A (or at least for the time-slices TS of A that desire that S never be vandalized) at ALL times. That is, at all times it is true that H stands in the harming relation to TS.

  5. Yep, that sounds fine to me. (I think the fact that H harms A is a timeless fact; but timeless facts are true at all times, so this entails your claim.)

  6. right, i guess i just have trouble understanding what "timeless facts" are supposed to be if not merely facts that are true at all times.

  7. Hi Richard, thanks for listening. I am amazed you made it through the whole thing. Given the format and audience, I didn't think it was a good idea to give any detailed arguments for anything. The arguments, such as they are, are in my book. But let me just mention a couple of things.

    I think when you have a future-directed desire, it is wrong to say that it has already been thwarted, even if it can be thought to have as its content a proposition that has its truth-value timelessly. What is relevant is not the time the proposition is true, but the time the truth-making event (if any) occurs. (I talk about this a lot more in the book.)

    My argument against posthumous harm is not based on metaphysics, but on axiological intuition. I don't think that dead people's well-being continues to rise and fall after they die. As far as I know, nobody who believes in posthumous harm thinks so either. They (Pitcher, Luper, Feinberg etc) think that posthumous events retroactively make your life intrinsically better or worse. (Again, I argue against that view in the book if you're interested.) I do think dead people can have a well-being level of zero, by failing to get any pleasures or pains. (I think it helps to be a 4-dimensionalist to be able to say that; I doubt presentists have a *convincing* story to tell.) The axiological intuition is just that if you don't exist at a time, you can't have a positive or negative well-being level at that time.

    As for why harms must have a temporal location: I don't have as good an argument for that. Maybe there are timeless harms. I think, however, that the timeless harms are not sufficient to explain the *extent* of death's badness. And I think most apparently timeless harms can be understood as timeful harms. There are theoretical advantages to treating harms similarly if possible. (Book again.)

    In the diavlog, I didn't give an argument that people are irrational for holding the beliefs they do about James Dean. Again, the argument is in the book, but the gist of it is that people also, I imagine, think Dean's death was harmful to him. At least, they *should* think so. And you can't believe his death was bad, but also that his life would have been worse if he had survived. Of course it is possible to deny that his death was bad for him.

    Anyway, thanks again for the comments, and sorry if this comment turned into an advertisement.

  8. Hi Ben, I wonder about the distinction you're trying to draw here: "I don't think that dead people's well-being continues to rise and fall after they die. [Others instead] think that posthumous events retroactively make your life intrinsically better or worse."

    If we're buck-passers about value, understanding it as a kind of desirability, then the distinction you're drawing here may start to look artificial.

    Start with the idea that an agent's welfare is just what is desirable for her sake. (If that's not what you mean by 'welfare' then we're probably just talking past each other.) Now the question of posthumous harm is just the question whether posthumous events can be desirable or undesirable for an individual's sake. It's not clear to me that there's any further genuine question we can ask that would correspond to pre-theoretic talk of when the subject's welfare is affected. So I'm inclined to consider the latter kind of question simply confused.

    Maybe one could understand the question as asking "for the sake of which particular timeslices of the individual is the event undesirable?" This assumes that anything undesirable for a person is more fundamentally undesirable for the sake of some particular timeslice of his. (I take it that this is what you are claiming when you call harms "timeful".) But that strikes me as a very dubious claim. At least, I'm not aware of any good reason for taking mere timeslices, as opposed to whole people, as normatively fundamental in this way. (Unless you're in the mood to expand further here, I guess I'll just have to check out your book sometime!)


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