by Joel Van Fossen, PhD Candidate

The BU Ethics Seminar is an opportunity for prominent moral philosophers from around the world to present works in progress to attendees, who include BU faculty and students, academics from around the Boston area, and now because of Zoom, from around the world. It has become a well-known venue for cutting-edge research in ethics.

This year marks the 100th speaker to present at the Seminar—a wonderful talk on voting and political power given by Daniel Wodak (University of Pennsylvania). This semester alone has included five speakers with three more to come in the Spring. While the Seminar invites speakers to discuss any topic regarding their recent research, there have been several interesting talks this year on value theory, especially on the topic of well-being. Unfortunately, given the brief nature of this report, I can only discuss a few of these. The three topics that I will not cover are those by Keshav Singh (University of Alabama, Birmingham), Gwen Bradford (Rice), and Daniel Wodak. I encourage anyone reading this to check out Singh’s work on normative achievement, Bradford’s work on irreplaceable value, and Wodak’s work on political power.

For the first talk of the semester, Roger Crisp (Oxford) revisited some central themes from Derek Parfit’s classic book, Reasons and Persons. Parfit famously defends a “psychological view” of personhood, which is roughly the idea that what it means to be the same person over time is to maintain similar continuous mental states (like memories and intentions). Parfit argues that there are no “deeper facts” about personal identity beyond this mental content—you are the mere collection of your memories and other mental things in a continued succession over time. Parfit takes this view to have profound implications within ethics. He argues that given this view of personal identity, it ends up that personal identity is not really what matters. As it turns out, what matters is not that you will be the same person in the future or in the past, but rather that the world will be occupied at any given time by persons who can fare well or suffer. Whether they exist now, in the past, or in the future, or whether they exist here or elsewhere, is for the most part morally irrelevant. This supports a classic view that impartial beneficence (in other words, concern for well-being) has central ethical importance: it does not matter whether a certain benefit or burden is mine or yours. What matters is that it is a benefit or burden, full-stop.

But what does it mean to fare well or suffer? Parfit lays out a few distinct views of well-being: hedonism, which is the view that well-being is a matter of increases in pleasure and decreases in pain; desire-satisfaction, which is the view that a life goes well just in case one’s desires are satisfied, and it goes better the more desires one satisfies; and the objective list theory, which states that there are certain goods that benefit independently of a person’s awareness of such benefits—for example, knowledge seems good for a person independent of their enjoyment of it or desire for it. (A fourth option involves some hybrid of two or more of the preceding views.)

These theories of well-being have become standard for philosophers to refer to today. Crisp argued in his talk that well-being ought to play an even more crucial role in ethics than Parfit had originally intended it to play. In fact, Parfit may have been wrong to focus so centrally on personal identity. Crisp argues that well-being (and not personal identity) ought to take center stage within ethical theory. To see why this is, consider that the theory of well-being we adopt will affect how persons ought to care about themselves in the future. Take the objective list theory, for example. Let’s say that we count achievement as one of the objective goods on our list. Many instances of achievement will require that the same person who started the achievement also completes it. For instance, if I set out to write a novel, then for the novel to be something that I achieve, I must be the one to start and finish it, and this takes time. Given the nature of achievement, for a person’s life to go well they would need to be the same person over time—it must be me who starts and finishes the novel for it to be my achievement. So, on this theory of well-being, being the same person who starts and completes the project matters. However, if we instead adopt hedonism as a theory of well-being, such a requirement need not be in place. Pleasure is good for whomever has the pleasure. If 10 years from now I lose all of my memories and my body is occupied by a different person, the pleasure I experience now is good for me no matter what happens later. The pleasure still contributes to my well-being and whether I am the same person over time does not affect whether it so contributes. On this view of well-being, personal identity matters less than on the objective list view. As it turns out, Crisp argues, whether personal identity matters depends on which theory of well-being we adopt. In other words, diverging views of well-being will diverge on whether personal identity matters. If Crisp is correct, then within ethical theory much rides on which theory of well-being is correct.

One of these theories of well-being played a central role in Valerie Tiberius‘s (Minnesota) talk. Tiberius defends a version of the desire-satisfaction theory, which she calls the “value-fulfillment” theory. This is the view that a person’s life goes best when their values are (1) well-integrated with other values and (2) when all their values are jointly realizable. For example, if I value both making cruel jokes at another person’s expense and being kind, I am inconsistent with myself. I cannot realize both values at the same time, so my values are not well integrated. Concerning joint realizability, consider another example: I may value being a parent and a world traveler. These values are consistent, but they are not jointly realizable (most of the time)—if I choose to be a parent, it is likely that I need to give up being a world traveler, at least for the time being. A person’s life goes best on Tiberius’s value-fulfillment view just in case their values are consistent, jointly realizable, and actually realized.

The problem with this view is at least two-fold: First, it seems as if certain values are not worth having. For example, it would be not be valuable for me to spend my life counting blades of grass, no matter how badly I want to. Even if I were the best grass counter, it seems intuitive enough to say that I would be missing something from my life if I spent my days compiling the lawn. Second, there are extreme cases in which a person may undergo what Tiberius calls “complete conative collapse.” This problem takes some explanation: First, consider that one important feature of settling on a theory of well-being is that it explains what constitutes a harm. Harm is conventionally defined as making someone worse off than they otherwise would have been. But what do we mean by “worse off”? According to the value-fulfillment theory, I have harmed you if I have prevented you from realizing some value of yours. However, some people—Tiberius focuses on victims of crimes against humanity like the holocaust—may fall into conative collapse. This is a state in which they lack any articulable desires or values at all. If this is true, then according to the value-fulfillment view there seems to be no standard by which their lives could go better or worse, and “harming” them becomes an impossibility. This seems to be an absurd conclusion resulting from the value-fulfillment view; therefore, it is a problem for that view.

To answer these objections and defend the value-fulfillment view, Tiberius appeals to a notion of “unconscious goals.” These are goals which a person does not represent in language; they are not stated as goals when asked; and they have a motivational and emotional valence. Tiberius uses tools from psychology to establish a number of these unconscious goals that are universal within human nature, including but not limited to valuing novelty, exploration, and socialization with others. We all value these things, Tiberius argues, even though we may not be fully aware that we do.

This appeal to unconscious values and goals addresses the first problem. Grass counting does not fulfill the value of novel experience (it is monotonous), nor does it count as a kind of exploration, and it is isolating. If a person’s life revolved around counting grass, they would not be living a worthwhile life. This is because they are ignoring the realization of other values—those established by their unconscious goals. Second, this view also addresses the conative collapse problem, and it does so by maintaining that total conative collapse never really happens. Even those persons who have been the subject of grotesque cruelty and have lost any articulable desires or values still have unconscious goals. These are goals that are deeply ingrained within human psychology. (It is worth emphasizing that Tiberius is working alongside psychologists, so her claims here about psychology are empirically well-founded. This makes her project admirably interdisciplinary.) These goals explain why harming someone in this state is still possible. Their lives can still go better or worse given what they value unconsciously. Therefore, by adopting the notion of unconscious goals within the value-fulfillment view, Tiberius maintains that the view can withstand a series of problems that have been traditionally difficult for this view to overcome.

As I mentioned above, this report is only a glimpse into the exciting discussions that have occurred throughout the semester. But I hope it serves as evidence for exciting topics discussed in the Ethics Seminar. There will also be plenty to enjoy in the Spring semester, as well. Presenters to come include Nathan Howard (Texas A&M), Anthony Kelley (Coe College), and Pamela Hieronymi (UCLA). I highly encourage anyone reading this to attend in the future.