THEORIES THAT ARE INDIRECTLY SELF-DEFEATING – Reasons and Persons – Derek Parfit
Trigger warnings: – il problema dello specchio – inefficienza del mercato competitivo (vedi Sen) – rational irrational – teoria dell’autonganno – irrazionalità strategica – quando è bene agire male non significa che si sta agendo bene –
WHAT do we have most reason to do? Several theories answer this question. Some of these are moral theories; others are theories about rationality.
It claims that a theory fails even in its own terms, and thus condemns itself.
all of the best known theories are in certain ways self-defeating. What does this show? In some cases, nothing. In other cases, what is shown is that a theory must be developed further, or extended. And in other cases what is shown is that a theory must be either rejected or revised.
Note:VALE PER TUTTI
1. THE SELF-INTEREST THEORY
According to all moral theories, we ought to try to act morally. According to all theories about rationality, we ought to try to act rationally.
Self-interest Theory, or S.
This is a theory about rationality. S gives to each person this aim: the outcomes that would be best for himself,
Note:OBBIETTIVO DI S
On the Hedonistic Theory, what would be best for someone is what would give him most happiness.
On the Desire-Fulfilment Theory, what would be best for someone is what would best fulfil his desires throughout his life.
All these theories also claim that, in deciding what would be best for someone, we should give equal weight to all the parts of this person’s future.
Note:UNIFORMI NEL TEMPO
It will help to call some aims ultimate. Other aims are instrumental…being rich is not an ultimate aim. ..
HOW S CAN BE INDIRECTLY SELF-DEFEATING
My S-given aim is that my life go, for me, as well as possible. It can be true that, if I try to do whatever will be best for me, this will be worse for me.
Note:PROBLEMA DELLO SPECCHIO
Suppose that I steal whenever I believe that I will not be caught. I may be often caught, and punished. Even in self-interested terms, honesty may therefore be the best policy for me. These cases are not worth discussing.
Note:IL LADRO INCOMPETENTE
The cases worth discussing are of kind (b). In these cases it will be worse for me if I am purely self-interested,
Note:IL CASO INTERESSANTE
What does this fact involve? I could be purely self-interested without being purely selfish. Suppose that I love my family and friends. …Much of my happiness comes from knowing about, and helping to cause, the happiness of those I love. …
Hedonists have long known that happiness, when aimed at, is harder to achieve.
I have described two ways in which it would be worse for someone if he was never self-denying.
Note:SOLO L’AUTOINGANNO SALVA
DOES S TELL US TO BE NEVER SELF-DENYING?
It may seem obvious that S tells everyone to be never self-denying. But, as described so far, S claims only that, for each person, there is one supremely rational ultimate aim: that his life go, for him, as well as possible.
Note:S NON CI CHIEDE DI AUTOINGANNARCI
This misinterprets S. When S claims that one disposition is supremely rational, it does not tell us to have this disposition.
Note:AUTOINGANNARSI È COERENTE CON S?
Does this imply that, for S, being rational is a mere means? This depends on what is the best theory about self-interest. On the Hedonistic Theory, S gives to each person this substantive aim: the greatest possible happiness for himself. Being rational is not an essential part of this aim. It is a mere means.
Note:LA RAZIONALITÀ È UN MEZZO?
WHY S DOES NOT FAIL IN ITS OWN TERMS
Does this make S fail in its own terms? Does S condemn itself? The answer is No. S is indirectly self-defeating because it would be worse for these people if they were never self-denying. But S does not tell these people to be never self-denying, and it tells them, if they can, not to be.
Note:INDEBOLIMENTO… NON CONFUTAZIONE
COULD IT BE RATIONAL TO CAUSE ONESELF TO ACT IRRATIONALLY?
Since it would be worse for him if he was never self-denying, it would be better for him if he was sometimes self-denying. It would be better for him if he was sometimes disposed to do what he believes will be worse for him. S claims that acting in this way is irrational. If such a person believes S, it tells him to cause himself to be disposed to act in a way that S claims to be irrational.
Note:QUANDO È RAZIONALE AGIRE IRRAZIONALMENTE
Schelling’s Answer to Armed Robbery. A man breaks into my house. He hears me calling the police. But, since the nearest town is far away, the police cannot arrive in less then fifteen minutes. The man orders me to open the safe in which I hoard my gold. He threatens that, unless he gets the gold in the next five minutes, he will start shooting my children, one by one. What is it rational for me to do? I need the answer fast. I realize that it would not be rational to give this man the gold. The man knows that, if he simply takes the gold, either I or my children could tell the police the make and number of the car in which he drives away. So there is a great risk that, if he gets the gold, he will kill me and my children before he drives away. Since it would be irrational to give this man the gold, should I ignore his threat? This would also be irrational. There is a great risk that he will kill one of my children, to make me believe his threat that, unless he gets the gold, he will kill my other children. What should I do? It is very likely that, whether or not I give this man the gold, he will kill us all. I am in a desperate position. Fortunately, I remember reading Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict.3 I also have a special drug, conveniently at hand. This drug causes one to be, for a brief period, very irrational. Before the man can stop me, I reach for the bottle and drink. Within a few seconds, it becomes apparent that I am crazy. Reeling about the room, I say to the man: ‘Go ahead. I love my children. So please kill them.’ The man tries to get the gold by torturing me. I cry out: ‘This is agony. So please go on.’ Given the state that I am in, the man is now powerless. He can do nothing that will induce me to open the safe.
It may be objected, to these claims, that they falsely assume Psychological Determinism.
Note:POSSIAMO DECIDERE DI ESSERE IRRAZIONALI?
AN ARGUMENT FOR REJECTING S WHEN IT CONFLICTS WITH MORALITY
It has been argued that the Self-interest Theory might tell us to believe, not itself, but some other theory. This is clearly possible. According to S, it would be rational for each of us to cause himself to believe some other theory, if this would be better for him.
Note:QUANDO ESSERE MORALI CI RENDE FELICI
It may be best for me if I appear to be trustworthy but remain really never self-denying.
Note:IL CASO AMBIGUO DEL SEGNALE
If we were all transparent, it would be better for each of us if he became trustworthy:
Note:SINCERITÀ CHE CONVIENE
Assume next that, to become trustworthy, we would have to change our beliefs about rationality. We would have to make ourselves believe that it is rational for each of us to keep his promises,
Note:MUTAMENTO DELLA RAZIONALITÀ
It is hard to change our beliefs when our reason for doing so is merely that this change will be in our interests.
S would tell us to believe, not itself, but a revised form of S. …If S told us to believe this revised theory, would this be an objection to S? …
It would show that, in many kinds of case, it is rational to act morally, even when we believe that this will be worse for us.
Note:RAZIONALE ESSERE MORALI ANCHE CONTRO I NOSTRI INTERESSI
WHY THIS ARGUMENT FAILS
There is a simple objection to this argument. The argument appeals to the fact that S would tell us to make ourselves believe that it is rational to keep our promises, even when we know that this will be worse for us. Call this belief B. B is incompatible with S,
Note:CONFUTAZIONE DELL’ARGOMENTO DELLA MORALITA’ RAZIONALE
My Slavery. You and I share a desert island. We are both transparent, and never self-denying. You now bring about one change in your dispositions, becoming a threat-fulfiller. And you have a bomb that could blow the island up. By regularly threatening to explode this bomb, you force me to toil on your behalf. The only limit on your power is that you must leave my life worth living. If my life became worse than that, it would cease to be better for me to give in to your threats. How can I end my slavery? It would be no good killing you, since your bomb will automatically explode unless you regularly dial some secret number. But suppose that I could make myself transparently a threat-ignorer. Foolishly, you have not threatened that you would ignore this change in my dispositions. So this change would end my slavery.
Note:ALTRO ESEMPIO DIIRRAZIONALITÁ RAZIONALE
Is my act rational? It is not. …I am rationally irrational. But what I am doing is not rational. It is irrational to ignore some threat …
Note:SIAMO FUORI DALLA RAZIONALITÁ
HOW S MIGHT BE SELF-EFFACING
If S told us to believe some other theory, this would not support this other theory. But would it be an objection to S?
S would not be failing in its own terms. S is a theory about practical not theoretical rationality. S may tell us to make ourselves have false beliefs.
Note:NON CONFUTANTE MA AUTORIMUOVENTE
Suppose that S told everyone to cause himself to believe some other theory. S would then be self-effacing. If we all believed S, but could also change our beliefs, S would remove itself from the scene.
HOW CONSEQUENTIALISM IS INDIRECTLY SELF-DEFEATING
Most of my claims could, with little change, cover one group of moral theories. These are the different versions of Consequentialism, or C. C’s central claim is (C1) There is one ultimate moral aim: that outcomes be as good as possible.
Note:IL CONSEGUENZIALISMO COME TEORIA AUTORIMUOVENTE
To apply C, we must ask what makes outcomes better or worse. The simplest answer is given by Utilitarianism. This theory combines C with the following claim: the best outcome is the one that gives to people the greatest net sum of benefits minus burdens, or, on the Hedonistic version of this claim, the greatest net sum of happiness minus misery.
Consequentialism appeals to many different principles, it ceases to be a distinctive theory, since it can be made to cover all moral theories. This is a mistake. C appeals only to principles about what makes outcomes better or worse.
I shall now describe a different way in which some theory T might be self-defeating. Call T indirectly collectively self-defeating when it is true that, if several people try to achieve their T-given aims, these aims will be worse achieved.
Note:IL MODO CLASSICO DI AUTOCONFUTARSI
THE ETHICS OF FANTASY
I have assumed that C is indirectly collectively self-defeating. I have assumed that, if we were all pure do-gooders, the outcome would be worse than it would be if we had certain other sets of motives. If this claim is true, C tells us that we should try to have one of these other sets of motives.
Note:RIASSUNTINO SU C
I also believe that, even if we became convinced that Consequentialism was the best moral theory, most of us would not in fact become pure do-gooders. Because he makes a similar assumption, Mackie calls Act Utilitarianism ‘the ethics of fantasy’.11 Like several other writers, he assumes that we should reject a moral theory if it is in this sense unrealistically demanding: if it is true that, even if we all accepted this theory, most of us would in fact seldom do what this theory claims that we ought to do.
Note:UTILITARISMO TOO DEMANDING
It is worth distinguishing C from another form of Consequentialism. As stated so far, C is individualistic and concerned with actual effects. According to C, each of us should try to do what would make the outcome best, given what others will actually do.
Note:C COLLETTIVO E INDIVIDUALE
On this theory, each of us should try to have one of the sets of desires and dispositions which is such that, if everyone had one of these sets, this would make the outcome better than if everyone had other sets.
CC does not differ from C only in its claims about our desires and dispositions. The two theories disagree about what we ought to do.
Note:DIFFERENZE TRA C E CC
Collective Consequentialism is much less demanding. It does not tell me to give the amount that would in fact make the outcome best.
Case One. Clare could either give her child some benefit, or give much greater benefits to some unfortunate stranger. Because she loves her child, she benefits him rather than the stranger. …She may therefore believe that she is acting wrongly. …
Note:ESEMPIO DEL TOO DEMANDING
If someone freely does what she believes to be wrong, she is usually open to serious moral criticism.
Case Two. Clare could either save her child’s life, or save the lives of several strangers. Because she loves her child, she saves him, and the strangers all die.
My Moral Corruption. Suppose that I have some public career that would be wrecked if I was involved in a scandal. I have an enemy, a criminal whom I exposed. This enemy, now released, wants revenge. Rather than simply injuring me, he decides to force me to corrupt myself, knowing that I shall think this worse than most injuries. He threatens that either he or some member of his gang will kill all my children, unless I act in some obscene way, that he will film. If he later sent this film to some journalist, my career would be wrecked. He will thus be able later, by threatening to wreck my career, to cause me to choose to act wrongly. He will cause me to choose to help him commit various minor crimes. …Knowing my enemy, I have good reason to believe what he says. Since it is the only way to save my children’s lives, I ought to let him make his film. I ought to make myself disposed to help him commit his minor crimes. And it would be wrong for me to cause myself to lose this disposition, since, if I do, my children will be killed. …
Note:QUANDO E’ BENE AGIRE MALE
I shall now state together four similar mistakes. Some people claim that, if it is rational for me to cause myself to have some disposition, it cannot be irrational to act upon this disposition. This was shown to be false by the case I called Schelling’s Answer to Armed Robbery. A second claim is that, if it is rational for me to cause myself to believe that some act is rational, this act is rational. This was shown to be false by the case that I called My Slavery. A third claim is that, if there is some disposition that I ought to cause myself to have, and that it would be wrong for me to cause myself to lose, it cannot be wrong for me to act upon this disposition. The case just given shows this to be false.