Saturday, August 11, 2018

RoME 2018 03: Perfectionist Bads

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 03: Gwen Bradford
“Perfectionist Bads?”

Abstract: Pain, failure, and friendlessness, all make a life intrinsically worse. In spite of the obviousness of their badness, it is difficult to explain. There are many theories of wellbeing that give accounts of our good, but it is a challenge not just to name what is bad, but also to explain why it is bad and how it is related to what is good. Perfectionism has particular difficulty in accounting for bads. Otherwise, it is a theory that has quite a lot in its favour. This paper explores some ways that perfectionism can potentially account for bads. Ultimately, a new framework for perfectionism is proposed: tripartite perfectionism. In the end, perfectionism has more resources than previously acknowledged, and can explain bads in its own terms.

Perfectionism is a theory that states that there is a number of things that have intrinsic value such as knowledge, friends, health, and that the quality of life is determined by the accumulation of these ends. To explain these ends, the perfectionist looks at aspects of human nature. We are rational , knowing creatures, so knowledge is a perfectionist good. We are social creatures, so friendships are good.

Gwen Bradford notes that perfectionist theories have problems accounting for badness. Badness is more than just the absence of goodness. The badness of pain, for example, is not the absence of some good-making function.

Bradford examines and rejects a number of attempts to deal with this problem:

Option 1: Instrumental Bads. One way to attempt to account for badness in the perfectionist system is to say that, while there are no intrinsic bads, there are instrumental bads. Nothing is bad in itself - it is only bad in virtue of its consequences. Pain, for example, is bad because it prevents one from doing studying, or from getting around, or from doing many of the things that a person pursuing the things made good by her nature would pursue. However, it seems simply false to say the only thing wrong with pain is its instrumental badness. Besides, some pain is instrumentally good. In fact, we evolved to have pain precisely because it is useful - it directs the agency with a disposition to behave in ways that avoid pain, which helps it to avoid states that are detrimental to the being's success.

Option 2: Intrinsic Bads. This option adds a list of intrinsic bads to the list of intrinsic goods grounded on human nature. However, this option has problem coming up with a foundation for badness. All good things are thought to have a common type of foundation - a human capacity - for knowledge and understanding of the world, for friendships, for health. If one adds intrinsic badness to the list, then this must somehow find its foundation in some aspect of human capacity, or it seems arbitrary and ad-hoc.

Option 3: Inhibited capacities. In the attempt to link badness to capacities, this tries to link badness to states that inhibit the exercise of the capacities. (I find it difficult to see how this is distinguished from the instrumental bads option.) The inhibition of a capacity should not be confused with the absence of a capacity - the latter would have neutral or no value. A capacity is hindered or blocked by facing actual opposition. not like this option because, in part, some challenge is good. The person who overcomes a challenge to climb a mountain or to acquire an understanding of some difficult field of understanding in fact obtains more good by exercising that capacity in the face of difficulties.

Having rejected these options, Bradford offers her won proposal. She suggests a "Tripartite View." The exercise of a capacity can result in (1) success, (2) a null result, or (3) failure. For example, in exercising our capacity to acquire knowledge, we can either succeed (acquire knowledge), obtain a neutral result (no new knowledge), or fail (acquire a false belief). These negative results of exercising our capacities are the things that are bad. She calls this "malfillment" of a capacity.

The test case for perfectionist theories seems to be that of pain. Bradford seeks to argue that we can understand the badness of pain as a failure of exercising the capacity of practical rationality. An end of practical rationality includes the avoidance of pain. The malfilment of practical rationality is pain.

But, what is it that makes pain a failure of practical rationality? As I see it, we have to identify pain as bad - as something to be avoided - before we declare that one of the goals of practical rationality is to avoid pain. The experience of pain is not bad because it is a failure of the exercise of the capacity of practical rationality. The experience of pain is a failure of practical rationality because it is bad.

Furthermore, if we need an account of why pain is bad, this is sufficiently well understood in terms of our biological history - the theory of evolution. We evolved to have an aversion to pain because this aversion to pain causes us to live longer and have more and healthier children. Pain has further evolved to become a part of the learning system - pain is processed in a way that it creates dispositions for behavior so that agents avoid, for its own sake, those things that come to result in pain.

I am also going to object, of course, that a perfectionist cannot account for the goodness of exercising a capacity. In one sense, we can defend the goodness in virtue of the fact that the capacity serves some evolutionary purpose or we would not have acquired it. (A proper understanding of evolutionary theory implies that this is not strictly true - but it is true in general.) But, then, the ends of evolution are not good in themselves - they are the unintended side effects that have influenced natural selection. They are not intrinsic values.

I am going to stick with the desire fulfillment theory of goodness and badness. X is good = X is such as to fulfill the desires in question. X is bad = X is such as to thwart the desires in question. All else is neutral.

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