Thursday, May 19, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well-Being - Part 3 - The Desire to Be Worse Off

It is time to get back to Dr. Chris Heathwood's desire-satisfaction theory of personal well-being.

Heathwood is defending a thesis he calls Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism - a thesis that says that the quality of a life depends on the satisfaction of what he ultimately desires (desires as an end, rather than as a means) when the agent wants it.

But what happens when a person desires not to be well-off?

Heathwood illustrates this type of case as follows:

Imagine a man who, ridden with guilt for past crimes, wants (intrinsically) to be badly off. In order to satisfy this desire, the man takes an arduous, boring, and insignificant job. He’s pretty miserable. "Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism" (Philosophical Studies, 2006, 128:539-563

The problem is that this agent is getting what he wants (to be miserable) when he wants. Consequently, Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism would say that this "getting what he wants (being miserable) when he wants it" is making for a good life.

So, the agent is having a good life by making himself miserable.

This sounds a bit odd.

Heathwood's proposed solution is to say that, yes, this agent is getting one of the things that he wants when he wants it. However, we have to weigh this against all of the things that make his life miserable.

It it is impossible (conceptually, metaphysically) to experience things like misery, boredom, arduousness, etc. without having desires frustrated.

However, Heathwood also claims that the satisfaction of the desire to be miserable must be outweighed by all of the frustrations of those desires that are being thwarted.

But the satisfaction of this desire to be badly off must, of necessity, count for less, in terms of welfare, than all the daily frustrations he racks up. If it were otherwise, then the man wouldn’t be badly off, and the desire to be badly off would no longer be satisfied. So Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism implies, correctly, that the man is not well off, that he has succeeded in becoming badly off.

For me, this raises another question. How is it that the agent chooses to make himself badly off?

If the desire to be badly off is so weak, and all of the frustrated desires combine to something so much greater, then it would have to be the case that the agent has far more reason to ignore and set aside this weak desire to be badly off than he has to act on it.

I am assuming that the amount of desire satisfaction we get from a desire depends substantially on its strength. The satisfaction of a weak desire counts less towards well-being than the satisfaction of a strong desire.

If this agent's desire to be badly off counts so little towards welfare, then it must be weak. If it counts for significantly less than the desires that are being frustrated, then it must be significantly weaker than the desires that are being frustrated. However, if it is significantly weaker than all of the other desires, then why (or how) is it the case that it can overpower all of those other desires?

The only way in which this desire to be badly off can overpower the other desires and be the desire the agent acts on is if it is stronger than the combined force of the other desires. However, if this is the case, then it seems we must give up the claim that this desire to be badly off counts for less (provides less desire satisfaction) than the desires being thwarted.

This is as much of a problem with the account of well-being I tend to defend as it is for Heathwood's. I argue that well-being depends on the objective fulfillment of self-regarding desires. The desire to be badly off is a self-regarding desire. Consequently, its fulfillment would contribute to the well-being of the agent. And, just as against Heathwood's theory, the strength of the desire (and, thus, its contribution to well-being) has to outweigh the combined strengths of the desires being thwarted in order for the agent to act on it. Otherwise, the other desires would overpower it and prevent the agent from acting to make himself badly off.

It would seem that an agent cannot - or, at least, cannot rationally - will himself to be worse off. It will always result in fulfilling a stronger desire than those that were thwarted.

However, there is a way in which a person can choose to make their life worse off. This method exploits the fact that desires do not have backwards causation. Consequently, future desires, no matter how strong they are, have no influence on current decision making. This is what makes addictions possible and explains part of the reason why diets are difficult. The agent knows that her actions will thwart future desires, but those future desires cannot weigh against the force of the current desire to eat, smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, and the like. Consequently, the current desire causes the agent to act in ways that she knows will ultimately make her worse off.

An agent with a current desire to be worse off would be able to intentionally act in ways that would end up thwarting more and stronger future desires. When the future arrives, then the agent would experience the frustration of those desires when she had them, which would diminish the quality of the person's life. This type of case would fit in with Heathwood's Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism.

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