Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Benefitting a Person - Part 1 - Dr. Heathwood Responds

Back in May, I wrote a letter to Dr. Chris Heathwood (Univ. of Colorado - Boulder) providing a possible answer to an objection that Derek Parfit raised to desire satisfaction theories of value.

I posted a copy of that email here.

Basically, Dr. Parfit said against a desire satisfaction theory of value:

I am about to make your life go better. I shall inject you with an addictive drug. From now on, you will wake each morning with an extremely strong desire to have another injection of this drug. … This is no cause for concern, since I shall give you ample supplies of this drug. Every morning, you will be able at once to fulfill this desire.

I responded by arguing that there is a difference between seeking as much desire satisfaction as possible and seeking the fulfillment of the most and strongest of one's desires. An agent with a desire that P, desire that Q, and desire that R would have no reason to choose to become an addict as Parfit describes it unless becoming an addict served an existing desire.

A few days ago, Dr. Heathwood responded to my email.

The good news is that Dr. Heathwood reported that, "Your response to Parfit’s case is interesting, and it does seem to help the desire-fulfillment theorist avoid having to say that Parfit would be benefitting you by turning you into an addict."

Take that, Derek Parfit! Ha!

Then, Dr. Heathwood suggested that my proposed answer to Parfit had its own problems.

Consider a toddler. He currently has no desire to be able to read. But we can be confident that in the future he will desire to be able read (if the future comes and he can’t read, while all of his classmates can, he will wish he could read; if the future comes and he can read, he will be glad that he can read). The theory that you are suggesting seems to imply that we would not benefit the toddler if we now do things to see to it that he will be able to read in the future. Am I right that your theory has this implication?

A more extreme case is that of a person in a coma. Let’s stipulate that this person has no desires (since he is in a coma). Does your theory imply that we would not benefit him if we were to cause him to have desires, which he will satisfy, as we cause him to wake from his coma — that this would be no more benefit to him than to let him remain in the coma? But that doesn’t seem right.

With respect to the first proposed problem, I saw two possible interpretations. One interpretation said that we provide a toddler with a benefit by teaching it to read. The other interpretation suggests that the benefit is found in giving the toddler a desire to read.

Over the past few days I have been considering my possible answers to these (potentially) three proposed counter-examples. I will be posting my suggested answers in the next few posts.

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