Thursday, February 24, 2011

Personal Concern and Chains of Counterparts

In chapter 9 of his forthcoming book The Limits of Kindness (cited with permission), Caspar Hare offers an ingenious argument for the view that transitivity + minimal decency (i.e. preferring pareto-superior alternatives, whereby some people are better off and nobody is worse off) actually commits us to anonymous benevolence, i.e. preferring world A over world B whenever the inhabitants can be put into a 1:1 correspondence such that the person in A is sometimes better off, and never worse off, than their paired member of B. So, for example, it commits us to preferring (contra Taurek) that we save the many rather than the few in rescue cases, and that we bring into existence better-off rather than worse-off people in non-identity cases. Very roughly, it's an argument that moves us from personal to impartial concerns.

Here's the gist of the argument: We can construct a 'morphing sequence' from any one person into another, whereby each step in the sequence involves just a tiny tweak to the person's qualitative characteristics, and hence (assuming that essence is not 'perfectly fragile', as Hare puts it) each step contains a counterpart of the person in the previous step. (The argument can be restated without relying on counterpart theory, but I won't get into that here.) It is an 'upslope' sequence if each step also features an improvement in welfare. Hare illustrates:

"Each world contains a baby, and is succeeded by world in which a counterpart of that baby is better off." (p.172, Jan 2011 draft)

Since each world W_i+1 pareto dominates the previous world W_i, minimal decency requires us to have pairwise preferences for the latter of each such pair. Transitivity of rational preference then commits us to prefer the last world, W_Jill, over the first world, W_Jack, even though there's no particular individual who exists in both worlds that is better off in the latter.

It's a neat argument, but we can put pressure on it by observing that a similar argument would seem to imply that minimal decency commits us to preferring that more perfect people existed in place of our loved ones. Maybe we should prefer it, if impartial consequentialism is true, but it sure shouldn't be that easy to establish. So, what's gone wrong?

Suppose that Jack is your beloved disabled son. The natural place for the partialist to get off the boat is to draw our attention to the last world in the sequence that contains a counterpart of Jack -- call it W_j. The loving parent certainly prefers W_j to the actual world W_Jack, since Jack is better off there and all else is equal. But must they prefer W_j+1 to W_j, as Hare supposes? It's true that if W_j were actual, then we'd have to prefer W_j+1. But given that W_Jack is actual, our personal concern has latched onto this person, Jack, who has no counterpart in W_j+1. The loving parent of Jack could thus reasonably prefer the world W_j where Jack exists (albeit with significantly different characteristics from those he actually has) and is pretty well-off, over the world W_j+1 which instead contains an even better-off person who isn't their Jack (though they are a close counterpart of the person who would have "been Jack" had W_j been actual).

Similar objections can be raised in rescue cases: at some point in the morphing sequence, there will be an individual who is not a direct counterpart of any actual person, but merely a counterpart-of-a-counterpart of an actually existing person. The partialist might reasonably prefer that (counterparts of) actual people exist rather than better-off other people. They can thus break the chain of pairwise preferences that Hare relies on.

In short: if it's rationally permissible for us to be 'biased towards the actual', and prefer that the actually-existing people exist rather than slightly better-off different people, then Hare's morphing argument fails. Hare's "minimal decency" requirement is not so minimal as it sounds.


  1. Interesting! I'm almost convinced by your response to Hare, it strikes me as the right approach.

    Two perhaps minor worries/puzzles: (1) Hare's looks like a sorites argument where you cannot point to any sharp cutoff line just left of which is your W_j, and just to its right your W_j+1. (2) Why value the actual over the ideal, even in imaginary/counterfactual scenarios where preference floats free from choice?

    My thoughts on this: (1) Instead of relying on any controversial positions on vagueness/sorites (such as epistemicism), you can just rely on the intuitively more obvious fact that at some earlier point in the sequence is a clear case of Jack's counterpart (j), and at some later point in the sequence is a clear case of someone who's not Jack's counterpart (j+m), and that one could prefer W_j to W_j+m.

    As for (2), I like to think of our partiality for actual persons we are acquainted with in terms of the greater value we impute to shared experiences, arising from past history of sharing the same space and participating in joint activities. Humean sympathy strengthens our concern for our friends and family who are closely related to us through such shared experiences, and because this requires a past history of actual bonding, this actual history must be kept constant in one's evaluation of actual or counterfactual cases of improvement. (It also explains why we are especially partial to our own past and future selves: we share the same past history, arising from sharing the same body and participating in the same ongoing projects. This might explain why we are specially concerned for future selves who are psychophysically continuous with our present selves, but not as much concerned for future selves who are not psychophysically continuous, but happen to have exactly the same personal projects as ours. We have no history of actual bonding with such replicas.)

  2. [Posted on behalf of Caspar Hare...]

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for those interesting comments. Hmm… Let’s work with counterpart theory for the moment. What do we say about the preferences of the person you describe, the person whose attitudes are sensitive to which world she takes to be actual? It is not entirely straight-forward.

    Suppose she takes WJack to be actual, and that Jack is a counterpart of Baby 1, but not a counterpart of Baby 2.

    Here is something that might incline us to say that she prefers W1 to W2:

    -- She wishes that W1 were actual, but she does not wish that W2 were actual.

    Here are some things that might incline us to say that she prefers W2 to W1:

    -- If she were unsure about whether W1 or W2 were actual, then she would be pleased to discover that W2 was actual.

    -- If she were unsure about whether W1 or W2 were actual, then she would be sad to discover that W1 was actual.

    -- If she were wondering about whether to bring about W1 or W2, then she would bring about W2.

    Now, in circumstances like this, let’s just say that she wishfully favors W1 over W2, while she actively favors W2 over W1, and let’s set aside the question of whether preferring goes with active favoring or wishful favoring (I doubt whether there is a correct answer to this question).

    Because your person actively favors W1 over WJack, W2 over W1, …etc., what we need for the morphing argument to go through is this principle:

    Transitivity of Active Favoring
    If she is rational then her active favoring is transitive – for any worlds A, B, C, if she actively favors A over B, B over C, then she actively favors A over C.

    It seems right to me. Briefly: because I take it that our reasons to actualize a maximal state of affairs do not depend on what maximal states of affairs we think might be actual.

    It follows that if she is rational then she will actively favor WJill over WJack. If she is knowingly in a position to bring about just WJill or WJack, then she will bring about WJill.

    Note that it does not follow that she will wishfully favor WJill over WJack. Her actively favoring WJill over WJack is consistent with her wishfully favoring WJack over WJill. So (happily) we do not get the result that there is something wrong with her if, later, she celebrates the birthday of little Jack, is glad that did not listen to her doctor’s advice… etc.


  3. Thanks for this response, Caspar!

    I'm a little suspicious of your notion of 'active favoring' (and especially claims like, "If she were wondering about whether to bring about W1 or W2, then she would bring about W2"), insofar as this seems to abstract away an important set of the agent's preferences, namely those that she possesses in virtue of anchoring her location in modal space. Given her actual preferences, I'd say she'd rather bring about W1 than W2 -- after all, that way she's bringing about a world with (a counterpart of) her Jack in it!

    Of course, things get a little slippery when talking about preferences about the past. If we hold fixed that WJack is actual (hence holding fixed the qualitative nature of her actual child), then it's metaphysically impossible that she bring about some other world (where she gave birth to a child with more or less different qualities). So maybe you're thinking that to coherently describe this choice situation, we must abstract away from her knowledge about her actual child. But must we also abstract away the actual preferences she formed due to these contingent facts? That's less obvious to me. (It's not like it's a mere instrumental desire -- a means to fulfilling the deeper, but more generic, intrinsic desire that whatever child she has be as well off as possible. I assume that her intrinsic desires instead make essential reference to Jack himself.)

    In other words: asking what she would have chosen prior to having Jack, does not strike me as capturing any real facts about her current preferences ('active' or otherwise).

    Now, you might secure the result that she must actively favor W2 to W1 if you take as a premise that "our reasons to actualize a maximal state of affairs do not depend on what maximal states of affairs we think might be actual." But, at this point in the dialectic, that just begs the question against the kind of 'bias towards the actual' partialist view I'm imagining here.

    You do have other arguments though, especially based on the principle that preferences should be 'ratifiable' or stably self-endorsing, which I hope to examine in a future post...

  4. Hi Richard,

    Okay. Much of this depends on what precisely is going on with the person you are thinking of. I will try to be as clear as possible. I was thinking that this was true of her:

    If she ceased to believe that WJack was actual, and came to believe: 'one of W1 or W2 is actual, I don't know which', then
    - she would be pleased to discover that W2 was actual
    - she would be sad to discover that W1 was actual
    - she would bring about W2, given the choice

    As a shorthand, when all this is true of her, say that she actively favors W2 over W1. It doesn't matter for these purposes what relation active favoring bears to preferring.

    Furthermore I was supposing, more generally, that she actively favors each world in the morphing sequence over its predecessor. It then follows from the Transitivity of Active Favoring that if she is rational then she will actively favor WJill over WJack -- which is just to say:

    If she came to believe: 'one of WJack or WJill is actual, I don't know which', then
    - she would be pleased to discover that WJill was actual
    - she would be sad to discover that WJack was actual
    - she would bring about WJill, given the choice

    And that's all we need.

    Now, I supposed that she actively favors W2 over W1 because I supposed that her pro-attitude for W1 over W2 is based on, and hostage to, her belief that WJack is actual. If she ceased to believe that WJack was actual then it would disappear. But, as you point out, it need not be like that. Maybe her pro-attitude, originally based on her belief that WJack is actual, would survive her ceasing to believe that WJack was actual. So, to be clear:

    If she ceased to believe that WJack was actual, and came to believe: 'one of W1 or W2 is actual, I don't know which', then
    - she would be pleased to discover that W1 was actual
    - she would be sad to discover that W2 was actual
    - she would bring about W1, given the choice

    Fair enough, but I think that if she were like this then she would be less than minimally benevolent towards her children. She would be in a position where she knows that she has/will have (depending on whether we are thinking about attitudes before or after conception) a child, and she knows that her child is/will be better off if things are one way rather than another, but she does not want things to be that way.

    So, yes, if she is minimally benevolent towards her children then she will actively favor W2 over W1.


  5. Thanks, that helps clear things up. I'll have to think some more about how our actuality-anchored preferences should respond in case of changing beliefs about what's actual, but your case for stepwise "active favoring" of (e.g.) W2 over W1 is pretty convincing. So the remaining big question is whether active favoring, like preferences, is transitive.

    It's at least not obvious to me that active favoring (as you define it) is transitive. Here's the agent's situation:
    - Between WJack and W1, she actively favors W1 (for Jack's sake, as Baby1 is a counterpart)
    - Between W1 and W2, she actively favors W2 (for Baby1's sake, as Baby2 is a counterpart)

    Does it follow that, given a choice between WJack and W2, she must actively favor W2? (I'd agree that she must favor W2 if choosing between all three options of WJack, W1 or W2, but that is not the case under consideration here.)

    I think this is where the partialist would push back against your argument. Rejecting transitivity of active favoring at least doesn't seem as crazy as rejecting transitivity of preference. It's instead just to say that what preferences we have may depend on what we take to be actual (or a candidate for becoming actual). And that seems pretty central to the partialist's view.

  6. I think the problem with Hare's argument is that it doesn't recognize the central element that one's personal identity plays in one's utility. When Hare is arguing that each morph has a "better life" I imagine that translates into something like "is happier, or has more positive experiences."

    The problem with this is that many people consider their personal identity, "who they are," to be a very important value. To use myself as an example; imagine some crazy brain surgeon offered to modify my brain so that I would stop enjoying reading philosophy, and instead enjoy bodice-ripper romance novels. If I submit to the operation the surgeon will give me a lot of money, so I can spend much less time working and more time reading than I could before.

    I would refuse this offer, and I imagine many other people would too (including people who started off enjoying romance novels and were offered to be modified to like philosophy instead). To someone who only considers happiness or positive experiences when determining someone's level of wellbeing this is confusing, how could I gain by refusing to have more positive experiences? The answer is that I don't just care about maximizing positive experiences, I also care about my identity, what sort of person I am, and what sort of experiences I consider positive. I would gladly give up many positive experiences in order to stay who I am. I would not prefer morphed me to current me.

    This neatly blocks Hare's argument. I would probably not prefer W2 to WJack because I would not consider W2 to be "better." The disutility from his being morphed into a slightly different person would more than make up for any small amount of additional positive experiences he might gain.

    Hare's argument also reminds me of an article I read (, that offers up a scenario where Gandhi is offered money in exchange for taking a pill that reduces his reluctance to murder by 1% (of his current level of reluctance), and he can take the deal as many times as he wants. This seems like a good deal at first, he can use the money to help people, and Gandhi is already so nonviolent that reducing his inhibitions against murder by 1% isn't a big deal. The problem is, since the pill reduces his inhibition against murder, it also reduces his inhibition against accepting money to take another pill. 100% nonviolent Gandhi might not prefer 85% nonviolent Gandhi to his current self, but 87% nonviolent Gandhi does, and so on... If Gandhi accepts money to take the first pill he'll keep doing the deal over and over until he turns into a killer. It seems insane to argue that, through transitivity, Gandhi prefers to be a killer. The best option is to conclude that Gandhi prefers 100% noviolent Gandhi, or maybe 95% nonviolent RichGandhi, to MurderGandhi.

    I am taking an increasingly dim view of these "transitivity trap" arguments. I think they only appear reasonable because they leave out important values that were not salient in the first two scenarios they compare, but are salient in the comparison between the first and last scenarios. I have never been convinced of anything by this type of argument, generally when I change my moral views it is because someone points out some important value that I have overlooked when considering a scenario, not because someone plays logic games.

  7. I think the right answer to this worry is to distinguish personal desire (want, prefer etc..) from judgements about what world is morally preferable.

    After all, I don't see in what way simply (selfishly) having a preference for one state of the world over another can ever be irrational even if I am not compelled by praeto dominance or blatantly prefer a world that is clearly worse off to another.

    I think a more worrying concern is the fact that any theory that always judges that world_1 is preferable to world_2 if there is a bijection f from the people in world_1 at time t to those in world_2 at time t so that the image of each individual in world_1 is just as well off or worse off at time t (and at least one individual is not exactly the same) than that theory won't be consistent with relativity.


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