Sometimes philosophy can be even fun. One way to make it fun
is to come up with absurd consequences of otherwise plausible views. This time
I don’t mean blatantly false consequences but more just funny ones. The other
day I was talking with Antti about a prima facie plausible view about
well-being. We came up with a consequence it has that has entertained me for
few days now. I know it’s sad.

Here’s a brief sketch of the familiar view. Start from the
Aristotelian idea that equates well-being with flourishing (or with the ‘happy
zone’ as one of my friends calls it). The idea is that someone’s well off if
they flourish and something improves their well-being or is good for them if it
is conducive to their flourishing. However, we might not be happy with the idea
that the flourishing being is some kind of an ideal in the platonic realm of
ideas. Rather, we might want to naturalise flourishing. The way to do this is
to refer to the notion of species. We could say that for a being to flourish is
for it to live a life that is normal for the members of the species it belongs
to. Of course, we want to naturalise the ‘normality’ too and give it a
statistical reading. The conclusions would be that someone lives a good life if
it lives the kind of life that most members of the species live, something is
good for the being if it makes the life of that being typical for the members
of its species, and so on. I’m not sure if anyone has ever held exactly held
this view but traces of it can be found from many places.


To see the funny consequence of this view we can introduce
an Evil Genetic Engineer Black. Black is so evil that his main project in life
is to come up with new ways of making the life of various beings go really
badly. However, he thinks that all the traditional beings are pretty well
covered – there are lots of ways of making humans and animals suffer we know
about. So, Black wants to be more inventive. He engineers new beings by
manipulating the genes of normal animals. In this way he can create beings with
different kinds of nerves, brains, organs, and so on. He is excited about all
the new kinds of pains, sufferings and hardship he can create for these beings
and how badly off he can make them in new, inventive ways. And, so he goes on
making the evil experiments. Right? Well, wrong.


The funny bit is that, whatever Black does to these beings,
if the view about well-being I introduced is correct, then he can only make
them flourish. Everything he could ever do to them is good for them. This is a
bit of a disappointment for him. I think it is also quite funny. It’s quite
clear how this consequence comes about. The concept of species is a tricky one
and much debated over. I’m using the one I learned at school – a potentially
interbreeding population. On this criterion, the new beings do not belong to
the species they are manipulations of – they couldn’t interbreed with them. But,
they can be one and only individuals of many new species. They could
potentially have fertile offspring. Of course, Black does not necessarily
create members of the opposite sex for them so they might not actually breed
but they do have the required potentiality of there were others around.


If that’s true, then, by necessity, statistically they are
living the normal life of their species. This must be the case because they are
the only members of their species. If flourishing is defined by statistically
normal life, then by necessity they are also flourishing. And, anything Black
does to them helps them to live the kind of life they live. Thus, everything
Black does to them is good for them. Everything, no matter how much he burns,
cuts, or hits them. Nothing can make them worse off than flourishing. That is
pretty funny.


On a more serious note, this also has consequences for
human-like entities. Black could make a one and only member of a new species by
slightly modifying human genes so that the new being could not interbreed with
humans but only with the beings with the same modification. Otherwise, this
being could be exactly alike humans. It too would necessarily flourish. Any
form of torture would only be good for him. The modalities get a bit tricky but
this could also apply to me. It could be that my genes mutated when I was
conceived. In this case, I could not have children with other humans but only
with beings with the same mutation. In that case, I would be of a new species.
And, everything would make me flourish. So, if this possibility exists,
anything could be good for me. 

7 Replies to “Necessary Well-Being

  1. 2 points.
    1. “Of course, we want to naturalise the ‘normality’ too and give it a statistical reading.”
    We do not want to give normality a statistical reading. We can validly infer from the claims “Human beings have two legs” and “Human beings have two eyes” the conclusion that “Human beings have two legs and two eyes.” But such an inference is not valid if each of these claims is merely a statistical generalization.
    2. “The concept of species is a tricky one and much debated over. I’m using the one I learned at school – a potentially interbreeding population.”
    The concept of species (or life-form) as used by Aristotle and others need not be identical to this one. As others have argued, there is good reason for thinking that any adequate definition of the concept of species is going to be unhelpfully circular.

  2. Eric,
    that inference looks formally valid to me under any reading of the claims. Isn’t it just an introduction of a conjunction – from A and from B we can validly infer A&B? I don’t see how the reading of normality enters to that inference. But, you are right. Not everyone wants to be a naturalist. Many people do though. At least under that reading of normatility we would get a non-empty and non-circular account of well-being. The other option is to use evaluative terms in describing the normal life of the species. But, if we are allowed to do that, then there is a temptation to cut corners, and say that these are the things that objectively constitute the well-being of the species. If we do this, then the account collapses into objective list view.
    If Aristotelians are using some other notion of species, I would like to hear what it is. Also, I’m not sure how that would help against the argument. Whatever the other notion of species is, it looks like Black is creating new species with genetic manipulation.

  3. Statistical generalizations don’t work that way. This is clear if you make the fact that they are statistical explicit. Here’s an example. From the two premises
    (Most) Americans are female.
    (Most) Americans are white.
    you are not permitted to conclude that
    (Most) Americans are female and white.
    But when talking about species, such conclusions are permitted. Ergo, the:
    The Tetrablemma has four eyes.
    The Tetrablemma has eight legs.
    we may indeed conclude that
    The Tetrablemma has four eyes and eight legs. (even if brutal schoolboys in one way or another successfully maim most of them, which is also why it counts as “maiming”).
    Once we have enough premises going, it may be possible to infer a quite lengthy statement about the Tetrablemma (“The Tetrablemma is F, G, H, I, J, …., Z) that _no_ single particular spider lives up to.
    Credit for this observation goes to Michael Thompson; see his “The Representation of Life” in the Foot Festschrift.

  4. Eric,
    I’m still not sure about that. The fallacy you point to is possible only when the par for statistical normality is put to simple majority. I’m not sure why we should do so. But, say we require 90% of the population to have some quality for it to be normal in the relevant sense. In that case you can conclude from the premises ‘normal Fs are Gs’ and ‘normal Fs are Hs’ that ‘normal Fs are Gs and Hs’.

  5. Hi Jussi,
    I don’t know why you say this. Suppose we have a population of 10 people. Let the people be represented by the numbers 1-10, and let F and G be properties.
    1 F
    2 F G
    3 F G
    4 F G
    5 F G
    6 F G
    7 F G
    8 F G
    9 F G
    10 G
    As you can see, 90% of the population is F. So normal people of the population are F (on the suggested analysis). And 90& of the population is G. So normal people in the population are G. But only 80% of the population is F&G. So it is not the case that normal members of the population are F&G.

  6. Kris,
    that’s very helpful. Maybe what I had in mind was that if you have a higher par for the normality of having individual features in the population, then a significant majority would still have the aggregate of normal features and would thus count as normal. Of course, this would require different criterion for normality of individual features and what sort of aggregate of features a normal person would have. Something like this would also fit Eric’s characterisation of the non-statistical normality. It could still be that if by the normality standards certain features are normal in the population, there are no individuals who are normal in the way that they have all those features. I’m quite uncomfortable with normal creatures of the kind that do not exist though.

  7. You write:
    “The funny bit is that, whatever Black does to these beings, if the view about well-being I introduced is correct, then he can only make them flourish. Everything he could ever do to them is good for them.”
    whether or not you adopt a “naturalistic” undersding of species, there is a problem with your usage of “these beings” in the previous quote. I assume that “these beings” refers to the members of the new species, (let us call it Z) not the the members of the older, i.e. the natural “prototype”, (let us call it N).
    Now, you find it is absurd to say that what the evil genetist does benefits the member of species Z. But why shall this be? After all, the only thing that the evil genetist does to members of species Z is to bring them to existence and this can be hardly seen as an instance of “harming”.
    It seems that in order to claim that the genetists harms individuals of species Z, you must judge Zs well-being with criteria derived from an evaluation of Ns. This I regard as a fallacy. If the genetic constitution of Zs is such that the population can establish itself and find a place in the world, and if the lives of Zs is not made the object of systematic tinkering by the genetist, with the aim of provoking more pain in them than they would naturally feel, – that is to say – if this population does not become of mere means to the genetist’s sadists goals and a mere toy in the genetist’s hands, I would say that Z’s can fluorish and their life can go well.
    There is an air of absurdity in saying that what the evil genetist does benefits (or at least does not harm) members of Z. (After all, he is evil.) But there is nothing more absurd here, than what many people with severe handicap claim, namely, that the fact that they were born was good for them. And I suspect that the vast majority of handicapped people, who does not regard their life as one that was not worth living, tends to view things in this way, and to have an pro-attitude towards their existence and a con-attitude towards their counterfactual non-existence.

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