Sunday, August 01, 2021

Parsimony in Theories of Welfare

[I ended up cutting the 'simplicity' section from the introductory essay on 'Theories of Welfare' that I'm working on.  But I rather like the following little argument, so thought I'd share it here...]

It's an interesting question which kinds of simplicity have epistemic significance. Should hedonists think it more likely that there are fewer pleasures in the world, since that would entail fewer items of value?  Presumably not. Alternatively, once we have admitted a certain type of thing into our ontology, we may not need to worry too much about how many instances (or “tokens”) of that type exist.

If this latter understanding is correct, then pluralists could likewise argue that we have already admitted the property of being a welfare value into our ontology, so whether we attribute it to just one type of thing or to many types does not ultimately change our ontological commitments. Whatever our theory of welfare, we are all committed to the exact same array of natural and normative properties. We just dispute which natural properties the normative ones are attached to.

8 comments:

  1. I'm a bit puzzled. What conclusion are you arguing for and to what does "this latter understanding" in the final paragraph refer?

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    1. Conclusion: ontological parsimony gives no reason to favour monist theories of welfare (such as hedonism) over pluralism (objective list theories).

      "This latter understanding" = "once we have admitted a certain type of thing into our ontology, we may not need to worry too much about how many instances of that type exist."

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    2. Ah, I see. I didn't realize that ontological parsimony was an angle in this debate. (I'm not very familiar with the literature - evidently!)

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    3. I confess I have limited familiarity with it myself! But sometimes I hear folks suggest that hedonism (say) has the advantage of "simplicity", so this is at least one possible interpretation of what that would involve. (But perhaps there are other kinds of simplicity they may have in mind, to which my reply wouldn't work?)

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    4. Yeah, it seems a bit like a strange angle. If I think that accomplishment and knowledge improve a person's life regardless of whether they make her happy, that my theory is more complex than hedonism doesn't seem to count against it. But perhaps that's not the charge.

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  2. Interesting! I never really thought the issue was supposed to be about one's ontology. That indeed strikes me as a strange concern in this debate since surely first-order theories of well-being are ontologically neutral?

    I thought the parsimony concern with any form of normative or evaluative pluralism had more to do with the explanations involved. So suppose you thought both pleasure and having desires satisfied made a person's life go well, but that knowledge didn't make someone's life go well. What does pleasure and desire-satisfaction have in common such that they are the good-making features of a life and knowledge is not? So you have to explain not only why pleasure is good (or accept it as brute) and explain why desire-satisfaction is good (or accept it as brute), but also provide an explanation of why those two things and nothing else is good for people despite intuitions that some things make a life good.

    Perhaps in this example, accepting a few extra facts as brute seems not so bad. But if you accept that everything that is intuitively good for people is in fact intuitively good for people, you'll likely get a long, rather heterogenous list of what's good for people: pleasure, desire-satisfaction, knowledge, friends, family, artistic achievement, and so on. Why is it that all of these seemingly radically different natural properties all have the property of making one's life go better? We could say, "They just do and there's nothing more to be said about it." But now I get that intuition that there's a lot more - a suspicious amount of - explanatory bruteness I have to swallow here. If instead I say, look friends are good for us because we want friendships, artistic achievement is good because we want it, and pleasure is good because we want it, I have a more satisfying explanation of why everything that is good for me is good for me. Such natural properties, like pleasure, bear the property of making my life go well because of some further fact about my desires.

    Now, I'm not saying I buy this line. But I think it's something like a pluralist theory of what grounds or explains token instances of well-being properties that seems to raise parsimony concerns.

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    1. That does make more sense, thanks! (Interestingly, when combined with the comments on my earlier 'spookiness' post, it may be that both the 'simplicity' and 'spookiness' objections to pluralism are best understood as actually expressing the same objection, i.e. to explanatory bruteness.)

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    2. Whoops! Yeah, I think I was making more or less the same point as Andreas and RC.

      Another interesting question is how much this explanatory worry really differs from others. To get anything approximating the extension of a pluralist theory on, say, a desire-satisfaction theory, I suspect you'll have to appeal to what one's ideal desires would be under some set of conditions X, Y, and Z. But why, exactly, is it conditions X, Y, and Z that matter rather than conditions A, B, and C, etc.? I often find it hard to see a satisfying explanation for that sort of thing. And it's not clear to me that this explanatory worry is all that different than the explanatory bruteness worry about a pluralistic view.

      Thanks for the food for thought!

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