Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Two versions of the guise of the good thesis

According to the guise of the good thesis, one always acts for the sake of an apparent good. There is a weaker and a stronger version of this:

  • Weak: Whenever you act, you act for an end that you perceive is good.

  • Strong: Whenever you act, you act for an end, and every end you act for you perceive as good.

For the strong version to have any plausibility, “good” must include cases of purely instrumental goodness.

I think there is still reason to be sceptical of the strong version.

Case 1: There is some device which does something useful when you trigger it. It is triggered by electrical activity. You strap it on to your arm, and raise your arm, so that the electrical activity in your muscles triggers the device. Your raising your arm has the arm going up as an end, but that end is not perceived as good, but merely neutral. All you care about is the electrical activity in your muscles.

Case 2: Back when they were dating in high school, Bob promised to try his best to bake a nine-layer chocolate cake for Alice’s 40th birthday. Since then, Bob and Alice have had a falling out, and hate each other’s guts. Moreover, Alice and all her guests hate chocolate. But Alice doesn’t release Bob from his promise. Bob tries his best to bake the cake in order to fulfill his promise, and happens to succeed. In trying to bake the cake, Bob acted for the end of producing a cake. But producing the cake was worthless, since no one would eat it. The only value was in the trying, since that was the fulfillment of his promise.

In both cases, it is still true that the agent acts for a good end—the useful triggering of the device and the production of the cake. But in both cases it seems they are also acting for a worthless end. Thus the cases seem to fit with the weak but not the strong guise of the good thesis.

I was going to leave it at this. But then I thought of a way to save the strong guise of the good thesis. Success is valuable as such. When I try to do something, succeeding at it has value. So the arm going up or the cake being produced are valuable as necessary parts of the success of one’s action. So perhaps every end of your action is trivially good, because it is good for your action to succeed, and the end is a (constitutive, not causal) means to success.

This isn’t quite enough for a defense of the strong thesis. For even if the success is good, it does not follow that you perceive the success as good. You might subscribe to an axiological theory on which success is not good in general, but only success at something good.

But perhaps we can say this. We have a normative power to endow some neutral things with value by making them our ends. And in fact the only way to act for an end that does not have any independent value is by exercising that normative power. And exercising that normative power involves your seeing the thing you’re endowing with value as valuable. And maybe the only way to raise your arm or for Bob to bake the cake in the examples is by exercising the normative power, and doing so involves seeing the end as good. Maybe. This has some phenomenological plausibility and it would be nice if it were true, because the strong guise of the good thesis is pretty plausible to me.

If this story is right, it adds a nuance to the ideas here.

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