Friday, May 10, 2013

The Value of Possible Worlds

As a follow up to yesterday’s post, I have been asked

[B]etween the following [pair] of worlds, which would desirism recommend ("neutral" or "toss a coin" is also an option)?
(A-life = almost all desires fulfilled; B-life = hardly any desires fulfilled)

• World_1: one billion B-lives, three billion A-lives
• World_2: one billion B-lives, six billion A-lives

Desirism cannot answer the question because an important piece of information has been left out.

Who are you asking?

Let's ask the people of World_1. "Assume you had the capacity to decide today which world will exist tomorrow. Your world, pretty much as it is now. Or a different world made up one billion B-lives, six billion A-lives?"

I bet you would have a hard time coming up with any argument providing the population of World_1 with any type of motivating reason to choose World_2. There might be some in the population who would say, "I'll give up my life so that more people can live happy lives." Yet, they would be few and far between. For the most part, they would choose World_1. They have more and stronger reasons to choose World_1. They would not be neutral, nor would they be inclined to toss a coin. "World_1" would be their choice.

Correspondingly, if you ask the population of World_2, they would almost certainly choose World_2. The question would be like asking the population of World_2 if they have many and strong reason to have 3 billion people with A-lives disappear overnight. Again, it seems most likely that the population of World_2 have many and strong reasons to prevent such an event. They, too, would not answer with a shrug, nor would they choose to flip a coin. "World_2" would be their answer.

You can ask which world an impartial observer would prefer. However, if he was truly impartial, he would be neutral as to which world exists. In order to get this observer to make a choice, the observer has to have some interests or "partialities" on which to base that decision. His decision will be grounded on those partialities.

If the observer has a desire that 4 billion people exists, then the observer would choose World_1. If the observer desires that 7 billion people exists, it will choose World_2. If the observer only cares that people exist and does not care how many, this observer would likely choose "flip a coin" assuming that the coin flip was a precipitating event that would bring the winning world into existence from nothing.

The idea that there is a right answer independent of the question, "Who do you ask?" is a false assumption.

Asking this question is very much like asking, "Which is closest; Baghdad or Osaka?"

Closest . . . to what?

Closest to Tokyo? Closest to Tehran?

Until you give me a reference point, I cannot answer the question. However, after you give me a reference point, there is an objective right answer to that question. It is simply not the same answer as you would get if you selected a different reference point.

In fact, the reason why people who ask questions like, "Which world is better" without talking about a reference point never find an answer that they like is precisely because it is like asking the question, "Which is closest" without answering the question, "Closest to what?" There simply is no answer to that question.

This analogy can goes even further.

Note that, when we talk about location, there is no privileged reference point. There is no one right reference point that reference questions must refer to. "Tokyo" is not in any absolute way a more correct reference point than "Tehran".

However, in spite of this fact nobody argues that statements about location are subjective, or that location represents an area of knowledge outside of science. Instead, we build into our scientific and objective understanding of location that we can only talk about location relative to something else and that there is no intrinsically privileged or correct reference point.

The same is true about questions of value. Questions of value need a reference point. No reference point is privileged. However, given a reference point (a set of desires), now we can talk about the value of states of affairs as they stand in relation to that reference point.

The objection is sometimes raised that I give a special status to the reference point "people generally". I hold that moral claims are ultimately claims about malleable desires that "people generally" have the most and strongest reason to promote using rewards (such as praise) and condemnation (such as punishment).

However, the only fact I note about these desires is that they are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. I do not draw any implications that are not sound implications that follow from this fact alone. The only privilege I give these malleable desires is the privilege that they draw from being, in fact, desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote.


Evan said...

What I am interested in is how desirism would approach the issue the got all this population ethics stuff started in the first place: The Nonidentity Problem.

The Nonidentity Problem postulates a woman who is considering becoming pregnant, but has some sort of temporary illness that somehow injures a baby in utero so that its life would be more difficult (but not so horrible that it would prefer to have never been born). The question is; would it be morally good for the woman to wait until she recovers from the illness before becoming pregnant?

The thing to keep in mind when considering this problem is that if the woman waits until she recovers a different sperm will hit a different egg when she does conceive. So she does not actually benefit her future baby by waiting. Instead she prevents it from existing and causes another baby to exist instead.

Most people seem to instinctively believe that the woman should delay her pregnancy. But it is hard to see how desirism would respond to this problem. If the woman chooses to conceive before she recovers the child she produces, even if it has a hard life, will not have good reason to praise or condemn her, because its life, while hard, is still worth living. If she had delayed her pregnancy the injured child would not have existed at all, some other child would have been born instead. So does anyone have good reason to praise or condemn the woman?

I can think of a couple possible answers desirism might have to this problem:

1. Our moral intuitions about this case are wrong. The woman has not done anything bad by choosing not to delay her pregnancy.

2. Most people would feel sorry for the injured baby and feel a desire to help it. They have good reason to praise and condemn the woman for her actions. This sounds workable at first, but it implies that if the woman was alone on another planet or something she would have done nothing wrong.

I am curious as to how you think desirism answers this problem. I personally find both 1 and 2 unsatisfying. But I also find most of the answers other ethical systems produce just as unsatisfying, if not more (the repugnant conclusion, for instance).

This is a big problem to deal with, because it has big implication for our future actions. For instance, if we destroy the environment so that future people live harder lives, one could argue that future people have no good reason to condemn us. This is because if we had chosen to conserve the environment instead it probably would have affected people's lives in such a way so that they would have had sex at different times, resulting in different eggs hitting different sperm. So if we conserve the environment we are not helping future people, we are causing them to not exist and replacing them with different people.

Roll the Bones said...

I think part of the way desirism would look at this is that a fetus, or possible future people, or anyone that doesn't actually have desires, don't need to be considered in the equation. We don't know the desires or what the "baby in utero" life might be like because it has no desires. The rest is conjecture and the only desires to consider are the women's choice. It is a good desire to leave people to their own choices as long as they aren't inhibiting the good desires of others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I will be answering the Nonidentity Problem on 5/24.