Friday, October 28, 2022

Choices on a spectrum

My usual story about how to reconcile libertarianism with the Principle of Sufficient Reason is that when we choose, we choose on the basis of incommensurable reasons, some of which favor the choice we made and others favor other choices. Moreover, this is a kind of constrastive explanation.

This story, though it has some difficulties, is designed for choices between options that promote significantly different goods—say, whether to read a book or go for a walk or write a paper.

But a different kind of situation comes up for choices of a point on a spectrum. For instance, suppose I am deciding how much homework to assign, how hard a question to ask on an exam, or how long a walk to go for. What is going on there?

Well, here is a model that applies to a number of cases. There are two incommensurable goods one better served as one goes in one direction in the spectrum and the other better served as one goes in the other direction in the spectrum. Let’s say that we can quantify the spectrum as one from less to more with respect to some quantity Q (amount of homework, difficulty of a question or length of a walk), and good A is promoted by less of Q and incommensurable good B is promoted by more of Q. For instance, with homework, A is the student’s having time for other classes and for non-academic pursuits and B is the student’s learning more about the subject at hand. With exam difficulty, A may be avoiding frustration and B is giving a worthy challenge. With a walk, A is reducing fatigue and B is increasing health benefits. (Note that the claim that A is promoted by less Q and B is promoted by more Q may only be correct within a certain range of Q. A walk that is too long leads to injury rather than health.)

So, now, suppose we choose Q = Q1. Why did one choose that? It is odd to say that one chose Q on account of reasons A and B that are opposed to each other—that sounds inconsistent.

Here is one suggestion. Take the choice to make Q equal to Q1 to be the conjunction of two (implicit?) choices:

  1. Make Q at most Q1

  2. Make Q at least Q1.

Now, we can explain choice (a) in terms of (a) serving good A better than the alternative, which would be to make Q be bigger than Q1. And we can explain (b) in terms of (b) serving good B better than the alternative of making Q be smaller.

Here is a variant suggestion. Partition the set of options into two ranges R1, consisting of options where Q < Q1 and R2, where Q > Q1. Why did I choose Q = Q1? Well, I chose Q over all the choices in R1 because Q better promotes B than anything in R1, and I chose Q over all the choices in R2 because Q better promotes A than anything in R1.

On both approaches, the apparent inconsistency of citing opposed goods disappears because they are cited to explain different contrasts.

Note that nothing in the above explanatory stories requires any commitment to there being some sort of third good, a good of balance or compromise between A and B. There is no commitment to Q1 being the best way to position Q.

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