Friday, February 25, 2005

Another Round With Ryan on the Reducibility of the Good

Jim Ryan maintains that the good is identifiable with the rationally desirable, where ‘rational’ means coherent and fully informed as to the facts. I presented the following as a possible counterexample. Suppose Jack is 18 yrs old and is such that his largest coherent set of desires at the time would be best fulfilled by marrying Jill. Suppose Jack has done his level best to inform himself of all relevant facts. Still, it may be that there are facts about himself, about Jill, and about the world at large that Jack’s father knows, but Jack is incapable of knowing due to immaturity, love-blindness, etc. I would not conclude that what 18 year old Jack rationally desires, or is rationally able to desire, is identical to the good for Jack. He may not know his true good!

Ryan responds: Now, your Jack is too immature to know that there are unknown unknowns that he needs to come to know. But he wants to be happy. The fact, due to his nature, is that he will not be happy if he marries Jill. Because it denies this important fact, Jack's formation of a preference to marry Jill is therefore ill-informed, and the definition survives your test. But your test is precisely where the game is played, unless you have a different theory of meaning from mine.

BV: We can leave meaning for later. For now I am pleased that Jim thinks that my kind of "test is precisely where the game is played. . . ." Jim made the kind of clarification I expected. It is not enough that Jack’s desires be (i) maximally coherent, (ii) such that they would be best satisfied by marrying Jill, and (iii) based on all the relevant facts available to Jack given the limitations of Jack’s situation and his level of intelligence and maturity, but ALSO (iv) based on what an ideal observer in Jack’s shoes would come to know about his situation. In other words, for Jack’s desire to be rational (in a sense that allows the identification of the good with the rationally desirable), the desire has to be based on ALL the facts pertaining to his happiness. Jack would have to know what his happiness would consist in, and what courses of action would lead to his realizing it.

It now looks as if Jim’s theory is that:

(JR) X is good for a person P =df X is what P would desire if (i) P desires to be happy, (ii) knows what his happiness consists in, and (iii) knows all the facts relevant to its attainment.

This can be rewritten as:

(JR*) X is good for a person P =df If P were to desire to be happy, know what his happiness consists in, and know all the facts relevant to its attianment, then P would desire X.

Note that the right-hand side is a counterfactual conditional. In my example, Jack does not know all the facts about himself, Jill, and the world at large. So the antecedent of the conditional is not true. How can the fact of X’s being good for P be identical to a counterfactual state of affairs?

Jim wants to say that the good is the rationally desirable. But then it turns out that the rationally desirable is what an ideal ‘desirer’ would desire, a desirer who knows all the facts. But Jack is not an ideal desirer. The actual fact of what is good for him cannot be identified with a mere possibility. How could that count as a naturalistic reduction of goodness?

Similar puzzle: How could the truth-maker of an actually true proposition be identified with its rational acceptability at the (Peircean) ideal limit of inquiry?