"no harm, no foul"
Saturday, June 11, 2005
If there is an odd duck among the current accounts of the nature of welfare or well-being, Stephen Darwall's rational care theory has got to be it. For Darwall, to say that something -- e.g., befriending Huang -- is "part of my welfare" is not to say that it fulfills my (fully informed) desires, nor that it gives me more pleasure and less pain than otherwise. Rather, it is to say that befriending Huang is "something that it would be rational to want for [me] for [my] sake" (2002). If this were merely a corollary to the claim that the friendship would be good for me, then it would be relatively uncontroversial: many, I think, would accept that the phrases "what you rationally want for me insofar as you care about me" and "my good" are coextensive. But of course, Darwall presents rational care not as a corollary, but as an analysis of the concept of welfare itself. We explain what it means for X to be good for me by saying that it is what another would rationally want for me for my sake. And this is precisely what makes Darwall's theory so odd, for it seems to have the order of explanation reversed. Normally, we tend to think, another caring person would want me to befriend Huang because it is good for me. But for Darwall, it is only good for me because a caring person would want it (rationally, and for my sake). Is his view defensible? For my own reasons, I am going to jump headlong into the tiny Euthyphro faction in welfare ethics, and argue that it is. We don't care because it's good. Rather, it's good because we care.

Darwall himself has something to say about this problem, but much to the chagrin of his reviewers (e.g., Brad Hooker, Christopher Heathwood), his discussion of it seems cursory in light of the fundamental importance of the problem. For starters, he makes the compelling point that "caring for Jane" cannot possibly be so straight forward a matter as desiring Jane's good, even intrinsically. I might well have an intrinsic desire for her good and yet fail to have the right attitudinal stance toward her. To truly qualify as someone who "cares for Jane," I should not just want her good, but I should also have an intrinsic concern for Jane herself. This helps us to see the difference between wanting X for Jane, and wanting X for Jane for her sake. Accordingly, we don't care for Jane simply because we want her to acquire her good -- we must also have the proper appreciation for her as a person, appreciation which serves as a reason for our care.

Of course, this only shows what's wrong with the claim that we who care about Jane want X for her solely because it is good for her. It could still nevertheless be the case that X's being good for her is a necessary condition -- one among others -- for its being worthy of rational care. And if this is the case, then the concept of rational care still presupposes the concept of welfare, and not the other way around. Darwall's answer (again, easy to miss) is to suggest that care is "something like a psychological natural kind," and therefore that it is not necessary to provide it with a definition: "Just as we can use a term like 'water’ without a prior definition to refer to the natural stuff in the rivers and lakes for purposes of an empirical theory, so likewise might we refer to care for purposes of a metaethical theory of welfare if it is a natural kind."

I suspect this strikes most readers as slippery, especially when we consider Darwall's paradigmatic case of the care as a psychological natural kind: sympathetic concern. When we sympathize with the victim of some kind of tragedy, surely we are responding to reasons for considering the tragedy bad for the person in question. If she has lost her family, we know that her life will always seem somewhat emptier to her, that she won't be able to take as much comfort in the happy illusion of unconditional love as the rest of us do, and that she is likely to undergo years of grief. If she has lost her livelihood, then we know that she will be deprived of a way of life in which she was deeply invested, and will have to reconcile herself to another. These aren't just reasons for sympathizing with her, these are reasons to think that her life has gone poorly for her. What, then, does sympathetic concern add to our concept of welfare?

I would like to suggest that we in the Euthyphro faction could, despite appearances, have it both ways here. We could concede the point that care is responsive to reasons for thinking something good or bad for a person, and yet still maintain that it adds something to our concept of welfare to think of it in his way. And we could do this, I believe, if we are pluralists about the sorts of reasons for thinking something good or bad for someone. That is, we might insist that welfare is a property shared by states of affairs of very different kinds, so that their worthiness for rational sympathy is the only consistent explanation we can offer.

This view is lent some initial plausibility, at the very least, by the intractable sorts of problems that tend to plague more traditional accounts of the nature of welfare. If we are hedonists about welfare, for example, then we are likely to have to bite the bullet on experience machine scenarios, and we will have a difficult time accounting for the sense that a person can be made better or worse when her plans for her children succeed posthumously (my intuitions about these examples are close to Chad's, in his June 1st entry below). On the other hand, if we are proponents of the informed desire view, we are going to have trouble accounting for goods that we do not desire, even rationally and with full information, or informed desires for things (such as world peace in the distant future, etc.) that do not make significant contributions to our well-being. What best captures the common feature of the diverse constituents of well-being -- whether they be posthumous goods, happiness goods, goods of which the benefactor is aware, or goods of which she is not -- is that they are all what a sympathetic observer would rationally want for her. But this is not to deny the view that our caring or sympathizing should be responsive to features that we normally understand as being constituents of well-being. In fact, it is to embrace it.

To defend the rational care theory in this way is to take a page from the unlikely playbook of Thomas Scanlon -- not because he upholds the rational care theory of welfare (he certain doesn't), but because he employs a strategy like this one against a similar "order of explanation" problem in moral contractualism. But to take this line is also to nudge our Euthyphro faction a bit closer to the Confucian philosopher Dai Zhen, who thought that we could never entirely capture what it is that makes something good for us without reference to human deliberation, and a certain kind of sympathetic deliberation in particular. The informed desire theorists already allow that welfare terms contain an ineliminable reference to human deliberation, insofar as they maintain that a person's good is what she would rationally want for herself if she were fully informed about the probability of satisfaction, opportunity costs, etc. The next question for welfare theory, then, is why the deliberation in question must be self-reflective. There are good, intuitive reasons, I believe, to think otherwise.
Monday, June 06, 2005
THE QUESTION(S) OF ETHICS: Read recently, but lost the reference.: “the key question of ethics is not ‘what ought I to do?’ but ‘what’s going on’?” I like this, at least when I first read it, because it appears to shift the focus of the ethical question from what I need to do to correctly assessing the question. It puts a priority on perception, as opposed to action. That’s probably a healthy corrective. The first ethical duty one may have in any given situation is not to do anything, but to perceive correctly.

But it is only a corrective. For one has to do something in response to a situation, even if that something is not to do anything at all, or to disengage (wisdom may be realizing those situations where one can actually do something and distinguishing them from those situations where perhaps someone could help, but not you).

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that there is another ethical question we should be asking, which goes along the lines of, “how can I make this bad thing I did better?” That’s a rough way of phrasing it. We could also ask, “what are my duties of repair to this person or in this situation?” What I mean to be getting at by these questions is the fact that much of our moral lives isn’t in figuring out the right thing to do, but fixing things when we’ve done the wrong thing, as we will invariably do most of the time (in ethics, as Aristotle famously said, there are more ways to miss the target than to hit it).

Now, the question of duties of repair can’t be the primary question, for we have to know what counts as a wrong to know that we’ve done it. Of course, there is a great importance to getting things right the first time. But practically speaking, duties of repair figure much more prominently in ethical life than ethical theory would suggest. We have to apologize for the things we have done, or in other ways try to make “good” on a bad we have done. Things go wrong and situations are complicated, as Strawson said. But we will not have an excuse or justification when things go wrong. So we will have to say we are sorry.

And it is not merely saying one is sorry, there is an art to it, saying that one is sorry in the right way and at the right time. One can easily spot insincere apologies, which only make things worse and lead one to incur additional duties of repair.
WHY STUDY CRIMINAL LAW? Is this a question with an obvious answer? Perhaps there are too many obvious answers to it: one studies it because one wants to help those convicted of a crime, one studies it because one is fascinated with the evil men do, or about broader philosophical problems having to do with punishment, action, or coercion. So I guess I should rephrase my question, what makes criminal law not just interesting, but personally gripping?

I have a hard time answering this. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever commit a crime myself, nor do I think that many of my friends have or will. At least not a major crime. If I did commit a crime, I probably wouldn’t recognize myself; I would have changed so much as to be a different person. I may be speaking too soon, but I don’t see it now. This is important because it limits the ability of the study of criminal law to illuminate things about myself. Now, it may be that I see in criminal behavior in extremis some things I see in myself. Maybe. But even here it is still a stretch; we are reasoning by analogy. We are not saying that I am such that, deep down, I may be a criminal. The bad things I do don’t raise to the level of criminal liability.

Compare this with the study of tort law, which has as its focus the things we do by mistake, negligently, without meaning to. It is about the harm we cause without intending to, or even how we are responsible for harms we cause without even be so much as negligent. Now here is something that seems to relate to the things I cause in my own life: most of the bad we do is inadvertent badness. We are preoccupied with our own pain, so we don’t attend well enough to the pain of others, for example. Or we are careless, in a hurry, and get into an accident. It seems that most people’s moral lives, or at least people like me, involve wrestling with these issues: how responsible am I for those things I accidentally cause? How should I feel about them? To what extent are they about me and my life’s story? To what extent can I separate them from myself? When studying tort law these are the questions I find myself asking, and they are questions about myself and my moral life as I mostly conceive of it.

So the tort/crime law distinction for me has more than analytic meaning. It is more than just separating distinct parts of the law. For me, the distinction divides those parts of the law which grip me personally, and those parts of the law that might be necessary to learn and even philosophically fascinate me, but which leave me personally cold.
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
IS WELL BEING OBJECTIVE OR SUBJECTIVE? There are a number of things we need to get clear on in answer this question, one of which is whether the subjective feeling/perception/awareness of one's well-being is a necessary condition of being well off. Note that Robert Nozick's famous "experience machine" hypothetical, in which we a placed in to a box and have all the (subjective) experiences we would have if we were living a full and rich life, but are not actually living one, only suggests that subjective awareness isn't a sufficient condition for being well off. That is, we could feel all the things we would be feeling if we were well off, but we aren't really well off. Nozick's point in this seems to be true, though I'm surprised at the resistance it gets when I talk it over with friends. They are not sure, exactly, why one wouldn't opt for the experience machine, if one felt exactly the same as if one were living and full and rich real life. To be sure, why living the experience machine life would be awful is hard to articulate. We have to talk in terms of "being out of touch with the real" and "not making an actual impact on the world." These things are hard to make sense of in the abstract, they are slippery. But at the same time, I do think that they actually refer to something. Now, I brought up Nozick because even if his intution is right, the subjectivists still may have a point: they may say that awareness of one's well-being is a necessary condition of being well off. If one does not know that one is well off, then one is not ipso facto well off. (A side note, I have been using "awareness' of being well off rather than something like "feeling pleasure" to avoid attacking a simple pleasure based view of subjective welfarism). But I want to suggest that subjective awareness of one's being well-off isn't even a necessary condition of being well off, at least in some respects. That is to say, while it may be the case that many elements of well-being do require subjective awareness, that is not the case will all of them. One can be benefitted, one can be made better off, without one being aware of it.

Consider two cases. 1) The first is inspired by Thomas Nagel, in a passing remark in his essay on "Death." He says that surely we are worse off if all our friendships turned out to be not really friendships, even though they appeared to be friendships. In fact, all of our friends behind our back said terrible things about us and laughed at us. It is clear that we would not have friends in this case. Nor are we benefitted by having such "friends." In fact, we are made worse off (I would argue) even though we appear to have friends. A life with such friends is a poorer life. One is worse off. This may be the case even if one never learns that one's friends were false friends, and is sort of ignorantly happy throughout one's life.

One may wonder if this is just the experience machine case transposed to the arena of friendship. It may only show that subjective awareness is a condition, but not a sufficient condition of well being. But I'm not sure. Might one also be beneffited from having friends one doesn't know one has? Can one have friends this way (friends, objectively speaking)? And if one can have friends this way, can they benefit you just by being your friend, or do they have to benefit you in some tangible way? I don't think so. Perhaps it is enough that another person thinks well off you, even if he doesn't directly benefit you. This may be the case in forgotten friendships, or friendships one thought have ended. The other person, in fact, still thinks of you and thinks well of you, and you think well of the other person. But neither of you is aware of the other's care and good feeling. Are you thereby benefitted by it? Is it absurd to say that you could be benefitted from it?

2) And consider the fact, which I think is obvious, that one's well being can improve after one's death. For one's life consists of a number of projects and plans, not all of which can be complete during one's alloted time of life. One could have children and wishes for them, for instance, and they only can fulfil those wishes after you have died. Nonetheless, there seems to me a clear sense in which you can say: that person's life is made better by the fact that his plans worked out, that he got what he wanted, even though he wasn't around to enjoy them. And certainly there is no subjective awareness when one is dead. Yet, one's well-being can be changed and improved (or degraded) after one's death. Owen Flanagan once gave a lecture where he told of how is dog loved to play fetch and to roll around in the sun in Flanagan's front yard. When the dog died, Flanagan buried him in the front yard. I like to think that the dog was made better off by this act, that his well-being was increased by being buried in a certain way, in a certain place.

This idea of one's well being improving after death has two aspects worth noticing. First, I think it is intimately connected to the idea of one's life as a story. The only thing I emphasize here is that the end of one's story is not co-terminus with the end of one's life. There is no fixed length to one's story (consider how the story of Flanagan's dog goes even up until where the dog was buried). Indeed, one's story could even begin before one's birth. Is it a subjective matter how we date the beginning and end of one's story? My objectivist side wants to say that it isn't, that there are better and worse ways of placinging the beginning and end points of one's life. Does this become absurd at certain points? Does the fact that a play by Shakespeare has changed one's life make it the case that this is an event in Shakespeare's life, that it's part of Shakespeare's story? Surely Shakespeare's story has to end sometime, but when? (One thinks about the lives of the saints, and how their stories continue on in the miracles that they perform after they die: but does one necessarily have to believe in this kind of thing to believe that one's story goes on after one's death?)

Further, believeing that one's story can go on even after one dies may lead one to take a different view towards death. Perhaps one reason we are sad about death is that it means we will never finish all our projects, and will thereby not be benefitted by seeing them come to completion. But if we instead see our well-being as extending beyond our death, then we may be more open to letting others complete what we have started, because our story is implicated in the project, and the success of that project is our success. I wonder if the idea of subjective well-being is linked to an idea of being in control: that we are the ultimate arbiters of when we are happy or when we are made better off (only things that I have chosen or done can make me happy). One might see the idea of objective well being as showing that this is not the case, that many contingencies can make us happy or not, because one's life plan is broader than those things one controls or subjectively experiences.

Again, I enter the caveat I mentioned above. All I am saying is that welfare can't be purely a subjective concept; it can't be the case that we are only made better off if we are aware of being better off (or even could potentially be aware of being better off). There are things that make our life better even if we don't know about them, and could never learn about them.

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