"no harm, no foul"
Thursday, July 28, 2005
A Simple Objection to Welfarism?
I have been reading quite a bit about welfarism lately, and have been having trouble accepting it as a plausible thesis about ethics, since it strikes me as rather fundamentally and obviously wrong. But as these things often go, I am not therefore inclined to think that it really is obviously wrong, but rather that I have misunderstood it in some critical way. Accordingly, I offer these criticisms in the hope the someone will tell me how I'm mistaken.

Criticism #1: the definition

The basic idea of welfarism should be familiar enough: some have argued that the ultimate value for ethics is perfection, others have argued that it is freedom or agency. Welfarists, by contrast, argue that it is welfare or well-being.

I actually think that describing welfarism in this way (as one sort of objection to perfectionism and agency-based theories) is more helpful than any definition I have seen so far. For example, Wayne Sumner (who seems to be a rather typical exponent) defines it as the view that “nothing but welfare matters, basically or ultimately, for ethics.” Surely any welfarist would admit that there is at least one other thing that ultimately “matters” for ethics: namely, distribution. After all, we can’t rest content just knowing that we want welfare, we also need to specify whom we want it for, and how much we want for them. Sumner seems to think that welfarism provides its own internal answer to the first sort of question, instructing us to seek welfare for welfare subjects – those capable (in some sense) of being well-off (this is supposed to be an advantage over perfectionism, which requires a rather elaborate secondary science to explain why we should only worry about the perfection of a fairly narrow range of things, such as human beings and not mushrooms). But Sumner also seems to think that welfarism is neutral with regard to the second sort of question (“how much for each?”), being compatible with aggregationist or egalitarian views, for example. This already seems to me to be a concession that Sumner’s own definition doesn’t adequately capture what he really means by welfarism, since it grants that some other independent value is in play after all.

Criticism #2: the Helen Caldicott scenario

Now we get the objection which really strikes me as devastating (but I’m very eager to hear why it’s not). If, as Sumner says, welfarism is the view that we should ultimately want the well-being of welfare subjects, then to what sorts of norms do we appeal when deciding whether or not it is a good thing to have welfare subjects in the first place?

Let us say, for example, that we are presented with the opportunity to make all presently living welfare subjects live very good lives without having children. I once heard the environmentalist and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott propose (only half in jest) that we steep the world’s water supply with a combination of aphrodisiacs and prophylactic drugs, so that, as she said, “we all have a really great time as the human race gradually fades away.” She asked us, her audience, to imagine how the forests and wetlands would reclaim the cities. Wouldn’t that, she asked, really be the best thing in the end? Even if we were to get a handle on the overpopulation problem for now, we could never really trust our progeny to maintain it in perpetuity. So long as the earth is under the stewardship of human beings it is in profound danger of total destruction, just by virtue of our insatiable curiosity and competitiveness. So why aren’t we better off just seeing to the happiness of the people we have, while putting an end to the human race for good?

So put, I think it is a philosophically rich question to ask. But for now the point is, simply, that I don’t see how the welfarist could begin to answer it. Assuming that we could make actual, living welfare subjects very well off, but that we also have the option of either continuing the human race, or letting it (gradually) end, which course of action should we choose?

Sumner, as I hinted above, is an actualist about welfare ascriptions. In determining what counts as a contribution to well-being, we are not allowed to attribute it to potential or hypothetical subjects. Of course, it might turn out that some decision I make now (e.g., to drink while pregnant) affects the well-being of some future subject at some future time. But we cannot intelligibly talk about something hurting or harming someone before knowing whether she exists or is likely to exist. We cannot say that it is somehow an injury to my would-be great-great grandson Xavier that he doesn't have a chance to live. Neither, then, would it be an injury to entire future generations.

It seems to me that the welfarist might invoke some other sort of value – aesthetic or perfectionist – to say that the existence of human civilization really is (or isn’t) more conducive to the beauty or perfection of the world. But I take this sort of argument to be made in bad faith. If we are allowed to appeal to aesthetic or perfectionist reasons in deciding whether or not to put the prophylactics in the water, then I am no longer entirely clear on what ethics is in the first place. What is it, if not the system of values to which we appeal in when faced with precisely this sort of decision?

So there it is. Now, what exactly have I misunderstood about welfarism?

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