Diagnosis precedes prescription

August 26, 2009

The title principle seems obvious enough. Which makes it all the more puzzling that most normative political theorists ignore it in practice. Why is this? What are the implications?

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Zombie Spouses

August 8, 2009

Would you be worse-off with respect to well-being if your spouse didn’t really love you, but only seemed to? Lots of people think you would be and are therefore persuaded that well-being/welfare must consist of something more than pleasure, happiness, or other mental states.

For example, Shelly Kagan’s “Deceived Businessman” believes he has a faithful, loving spouse but has an adulterous spouse who secretly despises him. Kagan argues that since the businessman is blissfully unaware of his spouse’s deceptions, mental state theories of well-being cannot distinguish between the deceived businessman and his doppelganger whose identical beliefs about his circumstances are true. Kagan concludes, “In thinking about this man’s life, it is difficult to believe that it is all a life could be, that this life has gone about as well as a life could go. Yet this seems to be the very conclusion mental state theories must reach! … So mental state theories must be wrong” (see Kagan’s Normative Ethics, p. 35).

OK, how about this: In 25%-Zombie world, every fourth person is a zombie, and every fourth spouse is a zombie. The non-zombie denizens of 25%-Zombie world know that every fourth person/spouse is a zombie who behaves exactly like (and is indistinguishable from) a normal person but feels nothing and doesn’t love anyone. (Never mind how they know this. It’s true, they believe it, et cetera.) I think the non-zombies would find it disconcerting that there were so many zombies around, but most would eventually get over it, marry someone, and assume that some other sucker had the zombie spouse. Many of the non-zombies would be wrong about this, but neither they (the non-zombies with zombie spouses) nor anyone else would ever know which spouses were zombies.

I don’t think the non-zombies with zombie spouses would, on average, be any worse off with respect to well-being than non-zombies with non-zombie spouses. (Of course, they’d all be worse off than average spouses in our world, since we don’t have to worry about whether our spouses might be zombies, but this worse-off-ness would apply to all married non-zombies in 25%-Zombie world, whether or not they were married to zombies.) What do you think? If you agree with me, do you think this constitutes a counter-example to thought experiments like Kagan’s Deceived Businessman? I sure do, but you might have guessed that.

I think that in our world, disloyal or unloving spouses usually are distinguishable from faithful, loving spouses because the former don’t feel and display the same respect and love for their spouses as do the latter. So deceived spouses typically suffer tangible, discernible harms to well-being that undeceived spouses typically do not suffer. However, if unloving spouses were completely indistinguishable from loving ones (e.g., because they were zombies or superb deceivers who never came out of character), I don’t think the unloved spouses would suffer any harms to well-being. Their situation might “look worse” to epistemically privileged readers of thought experiments since we know, e.g., that Donna’s husband is unfaithful or that Jack’s wife is a zombie, but that strikes me as a purely aesthetic matter — something that doesn’t look quite right from “the view from nowhere” — rather than anything to do with well-being.