Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well Being - Part 2 Supplemental - Self-Sacrifice

In the last post I argued that a desire fulfillment theory of a good life has a problem with actions of genuine self-sacrifice.

Desire fulfillment theory (a.k.a desire satisfaction theory) says that a good life is a life in which a person gets what he wants. In the case where an individual voluntarily chooses to sacrifice himself for the sake of another (or for the sake of a principle), the agent still gets what he wants. It just so happens that he wants that which benefits another person more than he wants that which benefits himself. However, he is still getting what he wants most and only giving up something that he values less. Thus, on desire fulfillment theory, he obtains an overall benefit and necessarily ends up better off as a result.

I applied this to the case of a parent making a sacrifice for his child, a soldier who is severely injured while serving her country, and the scientist who sacrifices her health in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Further research brought me to Heathwood's article, “Desire Fulfillment Theory” (forthcoming in G. Fletcher (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being, Routledge, 2016).

I am going to have to buy this book.

There, Heathwood discusses the problem of idealistic and self-sacrificial desires.

On the scheme that I am using, this would indicate a distinction between what I would call other-person-regarding desires and other-thing-regarding desires. More specifically, another-person-regarding desire is a desire that takes another person as its object. In other words, the proposition P that identifies the object of a “desire that P” is a proposition that refers to another person or other people. An example of this is that, “I hope that Jim does well in the bowling tournament this weekend.”

An other-thing-regarding desire is a desire where the proposition P for a “desire that P” refers to something other than a person. The scientist who sacrifices his or her own health in order to expose some hidden truth of the world would have an other-thing-regarding desire. The same would be true for the individual who sacrifices his welfare for the sake of a moral principle – because it is wrong to lie or because he had made a promise. The moral principle one serves is a thing, not a person. The principle might benefit other people, but that is not the motivation behind the action.

Heathwood mentions the option of excluding other-regarding desires by fiat – which is the option that I prefer.

I would not say that the reasons for this move are not merely “by fiat”. Language is an invention which can be made more or less useful. We have reasons to distinguish between “benefit to self” and “benefit to others” that provide reasons to adopt a language in which we have terms that recognize and respect these differences. Given that agents are always fulfilling their desires, a good dividing line for judging whether a person selfish or altruistic is on the line between that which fulfills the agent's self-regarding desires and that which fulfills other-regarding desires.

Writing against this move, Heathwood writes:

Plausibly devoted parents are sometimes benefitted when their intrinsic desires concerning their children’s welfare are satisfied; presumably some such desires are altruistic. Conversely, desires based on moral considerations should, intuitively, also sometimes count. People can become quite invested in justice, for example; if the just outcome is their heart’s desire, it doesn’t seem right to rule out all possibility of benefit.
However, other-regarding desire seldom, if ever, stand without the company of some self-regarding desire as well.

First, there is the case that it is “my child” that obtains the benefit or “my country” that is being served. There is a self-regarding element in each of these desires. While they are, at the same time, also other-regarding, the fulfillment of the self-regarding element will satisfy the criterion that what benefits a person is the fulfillment of a self-regarding desire.

Second, there are often, of not always, self-regarding desires that accompany an other-regarding desire. The person with an aversion to lying – a desire that not-P where P = “I tell a lie” has a self-regarding desire, the fulfillment of which would count as providing a benefit on this model. A soldier can find some value in fulfilling the desire “that I have served my country.” In fact, self-regarding desires are so common that many people suggest that every apparent act of altruism can ultimately be reduced to the “selfish” fulfillment of a self-regarding desire.

Heathwood argues elsewhere that the issue of self-sacrifice (for the sake of other persons or other things) can be handled using a “summative” account of welfare. Specifically, an act of self-sacrifice fulfills a desire, but it thwarts more desires than it fulfills, so the agent ends up being worse off.

Against this, I would like to know how or why a person can rationally choose an action that he has more and stronger reasons to choose not to perform.

I will not get into this issue in any great detail here. Instead, I want to discuss this issue more fully in another post.

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