Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is Death Bad or Just Less Good? (Part 3)

(Part One, Part Two)

This brief series of posts is looking at the supposed badness of death. The series is working off Aaron Smuts’s article “Less Good but not Bad: In Defence of Epicureanism About Death”. In the article, Smuts defends a position he calls innocuousism. This is a specific version of the Epicurean position that death is not bad for the one who dies.

Smuts uses the Dead End Argument (DEA) to support innocuousism. According to the DEA, death is not bad because it is an experiential blank, and only experiential states can be good or bad. The centrepiece of the DEA is the so-called causal hypothesis:

(4) Causal Hypothesis: An event is extrinsically bad if and only if it leads to intrinsically bad states of affairs.

This hypothesis allows Smuts to reach the conclusion that death is neither intrinsically nor extrinsically bad for the one who dies. But this thesis is challenged by defenders of the Deprivation Account (DA) of the badness of death. According to the DA, death is bad because it deprives you of good experiences that you might otherwise have had.

In the previous post, we looked at a variety of thought experiments and arguments that are used by defenders of the DA. These thought experiments were designed to pump the intuition that counterfactual assessments of goodness — that is, comparative assessments of the value of different possible worlds close to our own — are relevant when determining whether what happens is actually good or bad. This was summed up in the OVT (overall value thesis), which read:

OVT: The overall value of a state of affairs P for a subject S at a time T in a world W is equal to the intrinsic value of T for S at W, minus the intrinsic value of T for S at the nearest world to W at which P does not obtain. 

In this post, we’ll look at how Smuts responds to defenders of the OVT. In essence his argument boils down to the following: the OVT is wrong because it leads to absurd conclusions. To be more precise, the OVT is wrong because it conflates a state of affairs’ being less good with its being bad (all things considered).

1. Counterfactual Thought Experiments and Less Goodness
Recall from part two, the Joe College thought experiment. In this thought experiment we are invited to imagine the choices facing Joe before he goes to college. He can choose between college A and college B. If he goes to A, he will study accounting, become a reasonably successful accountant, and live a generally happy life. If he goes to B, he will study philosophy, discover a deep passion for the subject, become a world-renowned philosopher at a top university, and live a much happier life.

According to proponents of OVT, if Joe chooses to go to A his life will be bad, all things considered. This is because his state of well-being in that world will be less than his state of well-being in the world in which he chooses to go to B. And since the OVT forces us to determine overall value by a comparison between these two worlds, it follows that A is bad because B is better.

But is this really credible? Consider a structurally similar example where the differences between college A and college B are rather more trivial.

Joe Coffee: Joe has a choice between two colleges, A and B. If he goes to A, he will major in math, go to graduate school and land a great job at a research university. There he will live out a comfortable and intellectually stimulating existence. If he goes to B, he will major in philosophy, go to graduate school and land a great job at a university. There he will live out a comfortable and intellectually stimulating existence. Joe would find philosophy equally as fulfilling as mathematics, and his general life circumstances would be equivalent. However, if he became a math professor he would be in a department with a great cappuccino machine, whereas the philosophy department would have a lousy coffee machine. (taken from p. 208)

Now suppose Joe went ahead and chose college B, would his life be bad, all things considered? Surely not. Surely the mere fact that he chose a rewarding career in philosophy (+ bad coffee) over a rewarding career in mathematics (+ good coffee) does not make his life bad. It might make it (very marginally) less good but that’s a different matter.

Here is where the absurdity of the OVT reveals itself. If the OVT is true, then the conclusion that Joe’s life in college B would be bad (all things considered), merely due to the absence of the cappuccino machine, would seem to follow. After all, OVT enjoins us to determine value based on the comparative assessment of worlds. Since the value of the world in which Joe goes to B subtracted from the value of the world in which he goes to A is negative, it follows that his life in that world is bad. But this cannot be right since nothing bad actually happens to him in that world. In fact, most of what happens to him is very good.

This gives us the following argument against OVT (and its ilk):

  • (13) Suppose: Joe has a choice between going to college A and college B. His life after choosing college B would roughly be equivalent in value to his life after choosing A, with the sole exception being that his life in A would come with better coffee. Joe chooses college B and misses out on the good coffee. 
  • (14) If OVT is true, then Joe’s life is bad, all things considered. 
  • (15) In no sense could Joe’s life be deemed bad (all things considered) after going to college B (he has a successful and rewarding career and a comfortable, well-heeled existence after all). 
  • (16) Therefore, OVT must be false.

At this point, I should say that Smuts’ supports this criticism of OVT (and the deprivation thesis more generally) with several other thought experiments. These, while structurally similar to Joe Coffee, might be more persuasive to you so I urge you to check them out. I chose Joe Coffee because I thought it was the starkest and most ridiculous of them all; the one that brings into clearest relief the problems with OVT. The above argument could be tweaked to incorporate your preferred thought experiment.

2. Whither then the Deprivation Thesis?
One could legitimately wonder why the OVT goes off the rails like this. After all, when we looked at some of the thought experiments in the previous post the OVT looked pretty compelling. Two reasons might account for this.

The first is that the comparativism at the heart of the OVT is an intrinsically fuzzy and problematic way of assessing value. The actual world will turn out in some particular way. We could compare the value of that actual world to any number of possible worlds. Depending on how we do this, the actual world may look very bad or very good. After all, every outcome is bad measured against some set of alternative outcomes and good measured against another set of alternative outcomes. If there are no real restrictions on which set of alternative outcomes can be included — and the OVT provides no such restrictions beyond the fact that the comparator world must not be one in which the event under consideration in the actual world occurred — the comparison is meaningless. One could tweak the conditions of the thought experiment however one liked to pump the desired intuition. This is not a good way to reach philosophical conclusions.

The other explanation for why the OVT seems compelling is that it might work quite well for guiding decision-making, but not for assessing overall value. When we are reasoning about what we ought to do, consideration of relevant counterfactuals is important. We want to make the best possible decision, and so we rule out possible choices on the grounds that they lead to worse outcomes. We deem these decisions “bad” as a result. But this does not mean that our lives are bad if we make the wrong decision. Our lives could still be quite good, even if our decision were “bad”.

So the OVT is wild of the mark when it comes to the assessment of the overall value of a state of affairs. What implications does this have? Does the causal hypothesis win simply because the OVT does not? Not exactly. Smuts’s argument reveals that the OVT misses an important distinction, namely: the distinction between a bad state of affairs and one that is less good. The positive argument in favour of the causal hypothesis is that it properly tracks this distinction.

We can see this if we apply the causal hypothesis to the Joe Coffee example. According to the causal hypothesis, Joe’s life after choosing college B cannot be deemed bad because it neither leads to, nor consists in, an intrinsically bad state of affairs. In fact, quite the opposite: the states of affairs in that world look to be intrinsically and extrinsically good. At the same time, the causal hypothesis respects the fact that Joe’s life after choosing college A would be have been (however marginally) better. Thus, the causal hypothesis avoids conflating less good with bad.

3. What Next?
So things are looking up for the DEA. The causal hypothesis was the crucial link in the chain and, now that the deprivation thesis has been knocked down, it looks to be solid. But this does not mean the DEA is out of the woods.

As we saw in part two, the causal hypothesis looks like it too leads to an absurd conclusion — viz. it suggests that denying anaesthetic to someone undergoing an operation is not bad. Furthermore, it looks like the conclusion of the DEA might have some counterintuitive implications of its own. In particular, it looks like it might warrant a more lacklustre prohibition (if any) against gratuitous killing and a less anxious attitude toward one’s demise. We’ll see how Smuts deals with these three problems in the final part of the series.

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