Monday, September 28, 2009

Smith on Parfit 3 of 15: Agony

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

I have highlighted the following phrase:

Parfit consider(s) two practical claims in the early chapters. One is a claim that he takes to be a datum, namely, that we all have reasons to want to avoid future agony and thus to try to avoid it if we can.

In Part 1 I scribbled in the margin that desires must be reasons to realize states that are the consequence of one’s intentional actions. In Part 2 I scribbled that a person can lack a current desire that P and still be motivated by a current aversion to agony to act towards the fulfillment of a future desire that P.

In these scribbling, I ask:

Is it even possible for a being with desires to have an aversion to agony?

I ask this because agony seems to be defined as sensations towards which a person has particularly strong aversions. As such, the lack of an aversion to agony would be a lack of an aversion to sensations to which one has a strong aversion.

We can sensibly ask whether a person likes or does not like cranberry juice. It is quite reasonable to ask whether or not somebody likes cranberry juice. Some will say that they do like it, while others do not.

Yet, it is not as sensible to ask whether a person likes agony. If he likes a particular sensation, it is not agony. While it is not the case that if he likes a particular taste, then it is not cranberry juice

On this account, imaging that a person has no reason to avoid future agony is much like imagining that a person has no aversion to agony, which is like imaging a person has no strong aversion to those sensations for which he has a particularly strong aversion.

The question itself does not make a great deal of sense, and perhaps does not even require an answer.

1 comment:

Doug S. said...

People with a certain kind of brain injury are aware of pain sensation but lack the normal aversion to it.

So, if "agony" simply means "the experience of strong pain sensation" then one could experience agony and not mind. If agony means "strong pain sensation that one has an aversion to" then, if one has no aversion to pain, one is also incapable of experiencing agony.

In general, arguing from definitions tends to be stupid.

Anyone who has ever tried to do philosophy, ever, needs to read this linked post on how language goes wrong.