Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Time and sacrifice

Suppose that I am now undergoing suffering S on account of a greater good G. If there was no way of gaining G or something comparable without S or something comparable, and if G obtains, then I would rationally say: "It was worth it."

Notice that for the "It was worth it" judgments, it does not matter whether G is past, present or future. All that matters is that G be actual. You may wonder briefly how one can undergo suffering on account of a greater good. Time travel is the exotic case—I can get a tetanus shot in order to avoid getting tetanus in the Cretaceous. But the humdrum case is where S is a cost of the good G: perhaps I worked really hard to gain G yesterday, and today I am suffering exhaustion.

Suppose, on the other hand, I now undergo suffering S in account of a greater good G that occurs in some other possible world. For instance, I endure penury because I have spent my money building a robot that digs in my backyard looking for diamonds. I fully know that there are no diamonds in Texas, but there is a possible, though I am quite sure non-actual, situation where tomorrow someone will bury a treasure trove of diamonds in my backyard. In that possible situation, I will get very rich. But it is silly to endure actual penury for the sake of merely possible riches.

So for a good G to make a sacrifice S worthwhile, it matters a great deal that the good occur in the actual world. But it does not matter whether G occurs in the past, present or future.

This is unsurprising to eternalists. But it should be puzzling to presentists and growing blockers who think that present goods really exist while future ones do not.


Luis G. Oliveira said...

Hi Alex,

The example you give lends itself too easily to your conclusion. Perhaps there are less obvious cases. Harry Wilbourne comes to mind, from Faulkner's "The Wild Palms." After suffering the devastating end of a love affair, he says: "between grief and nothing I will take grief." Perhaps this is an instance of a more general case.

Say I endure many sufferings S's while working very hard for some good G, which is something that I think is quite valuable to have or achieve. Unfortunately, say I fail to get or achieve G. Perhaps I spent many years preparing for a competition and lost by a hair; perhaps I spent all my money and strength attempting to get my dying daughter an organ that she needed; perhaps, like Harry, I committed and gave all I had to a relationship (perhaps through infidelity) that, in the end, dissolved.

We can imagine, in these and similar cases, someone looking back at their suffering, looking at what they could have but failed to achieve through it, and saying "it was worth it," or "I would do it again if I had another shot at G," or "between having suffered for G and not have suffered at all I would take the suffering."

I think these kinds of cases are less obvious than the case you considered. Here G is not actual, though it seems to outweigh or justify or vitiate S. (Of course, this is just one explanation of what's going on in them.)

What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe in that case I'd say: "It was worth trying." In any case, I wouldn't say "G made it worth it" when G didn't occur.