We should distinguish between a harmful state and a harmful event. A harmful state (sometimes called a harmed condition) is a state that it is prudentially bad to be in. A harmful event is an event that causes a person to be in a harmful state that she would not otherwise have been in. To illustrate, in the case where an explosion causes Ted to suffer a number of painful injuries, the explosion is the harmful event that causes Ted to be in a harmful state, that of being in pain.

Different theories of welfare will presumably give different accounts of what constitutes a harmful state. Clearly, on hedonism, being in pain constitutes a harmful state. What’s less clear is what constitutes a harmful state on the desire-fulfillment theory of welfare. The most obvious candidate is the state of desiring that P where P is false. Call this the Simple View: S is in a harmful state if S desires that P and P is false. But if we allow that P might not be in the present tense, then the Simple View seems implausible. Am I in a harmful state now if I currently desire that I will be a Democrat when I retire, where the truth is that I will turn more and more conservative as I age and will retire a Republican? Was Parfit in a harmful state back when he was young and desired that he would become a poet, where the truth is that he became a philosopher, not a poet? The intuitive answer in both cases is “no.” And I can’t think of a single case where it is intuitively plausible to suppose that the non-fulfillment of a desire for P constitutes are harmful state, except where P is best expressed in the present tense. I admit some intuitive pull to the idea that desiring P, where P is best expressed in the present tense and P is false, constitutes a harmful state to be in. For instance, there is some intuitive pull to the idea that I’m in a harmful state if I desire that my wife loves me and my wife doesn’t, and this would seem to constitute a harmed condition even if I don’t know that my wife doesn’t love me. So, perhaps, the desire-fulfillment theorist should adopt the Sophisticated View: desiring P, where P is false, constitutes a harmful state if and only if P is best expressed in the present tense.

Now if this is right, then the desire-fulfillment theorist cannot hold that posthumous events are ever harmful, for a posthumous event cannot be responsible for the ante-mortem person being in a harmful state, a state where one desires P, P is false, and P is best expressed in the present tense.

8 Replies to “Desires, Harmful States, and Posthumous Events

  1. I like your argument. But I’m rather worried by your framing the sophisticated desire theory in terms of the best way to express certain propositions.
    Suppose young Parfit utters the sentence
    (1) I will be a poet when I grow up.
    and thereby expresses a certain proposition P. He could, I take it, have expressed the same proposition by uttering instead
    (2) I am going to be a poet when I grow up,
    Now, I’m no linguist, but (2) is in the present tense, right? So why is P “better expressed” by (1) than by (2)? (For what it’s worth, my impression is that sentences with the form of (2) are more commonly used than those with the form of (1).)

  2. Campbell,
    I share your worry. I’m not clear on how best to articulate the idea behind the Sophisticated View. Clearly, my first stab at doing so is inadequate. Maybe I should have instead said, “desiring P, where P is false, constitutes a harmful state if and only if P needn’t make mention of any past or future state of affairs.” Both your (1) and (2) make mention of the future (future with respect to his past desire) state of affairs where Parfit is a poet when he is grown up. Does this work? I would aprreciate suggestions from you and other readers about how best to formulate the Sophisticated View.

  3. On reflection, I probably should have said, “a harmful event is an event that is responsible for a person being in a more harmful state or a less beneficial state than she would have otherwise been in.”
    Thus, on hedonism, being in pain is a harmful state and being in a state of pleasure is a beneficial state. The extent to which such states are harmful/beneficial depends on how painful/pleasurable they are.
    On the desirefulfillment theory, being in a state of desiring what is not the case is a harmful state and being in a state of desiring what is the case is a beneficial state. The extent to which these states are harmful/beneficial is a function of the intensity of one’s desire. The question remains, though, whether desiring what is not the case constitutes a harm where the desire makes essential reference to some future (or past) state of affairs — although I’m not sure that it’s even conceptually possible to desire that the past be a certain way.

  4. Interesting idea. This is a bit off the cuff, but how about the Unsimple View (not quite sophisticated, but superior to simple…): What constitutes a harmful state is a state of desire-frustration. A harmful event is then an event that bring about the frustration of one of the agent’s desires – or a nuanced version of what I just wrote. One disadvantage with the Unsimple View is that it won’t work for all versions of the desire-fulfillment theory. One advantage is that it may work for some versions.

  5. As regards the formulation of the Sophisticated View, you might try something like the following. Say that a proposition P is future independent relative to a time t iff, for any possible worlds w and w’, if w and w’ are qualitatively identical at t and every time prior to t, then P has the same truth value at w and w’. Now, the Sophisticated View might be defined thusly: a person is in a harmful state at time t iff there exists some proposition P such that (a) the person desires, at t, that P, (b) P is false, and (c) P is future independent relative to t. (You might also want to require that P be past independent, in an analogous way.)

  6. Campbell: Thanks, that’s helpful.
    Uriah: It’s not clear to me what you have in mind by “a state of desire-frustration,” and whether this helps the desire-fulfillment theorist avoid the counter-intuitive implications that I discuss.

  7. Here’s a worry about the Sophisticated View.
    Suppose that Vince kills Jules. To keep things simple imagine that the killing is done unexpectedly (Jules doesn’t see it coming) and painlessly: say, Vince pushes a button on the Kill-O-Matic machine, and Jules dies instantaneously. Intuitively, Vince harms Jules by killing him. But it’s consistent with the Sophisicated View that Jules is never in a harmful state.
    To see this, let t be the precise time of Jules’s death, and let P be the propostion that Jules is alive at t. Clearly, on the Sophisticated View, Jules cannot be in a harmful state at t or any time after t (because he can’t desire anything when he’s dead). So, if Jules is ever in a harmful state, it must be at a time prior to t. But, at any such time, if Jules has a desire that P, it will be a future-regarding desire (as we might call it). Hence, on the Sophisticated View, even though P is false, Jules’s desiring that P cannot constitute his being in a harmful state at any time prior to t.
    Now, the question arises: is it possible that Jules is harmed by Vince’s killing him even if he Jules is never in a harmful state? If the answer is “yes,” then the Sophisticated View seems implausible; for then it would imply that Jules is not harmed. But, if the answer is “no,” then the Sophisticated View does not exclude the possibility of harming the dead.

  8. Campbell,
    Good question. You ask, “is it possible that Jules is harmed by Vince’s killing him even if he Jules is never in a harmful state? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the Sophisticated View seems implausible; for then it would imply that Jules is not harmed.”
    The answer to your question is surely “yes.” If death is a harmful event, it is not so in virtue of its causing the deceased to be in a harmful state, for non-existence is not a harmful state to be in. Rather, if death is a harmful event, it is so in virtue of its depriving the deceased of beneficial states.
    Now I don’t think that this is a problem for the Sophisticated View, for it is a view only about what constitutes a harmful state, not a view about what constitutes a harmful event. The problem, then, lies with my statement of what a harmful event is. That needs to be revised, as your example illustrates. So the revised version should go something like this (and this is just off the cuff): a harmful event is an event that is responsible for a person having a smaller aggregate total of beneficial states over harmful states than she would have otherwise. When this principle is combined with the Sophisticated View, we get the right result: that Vince’s killing of Jules is an event that harms Jules, provided that it deprives Jules of some beneficial states.
    Of course, I want to remind everyone that my claim is not that the Sophisticated View is correct, but only that it is the most plausible view for a desire-fulfillment theorist to adopt.

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