Wednesday, February 09, 2005

My Day Job

Sometimes I take a break from blogging and do philosophy. Currently my big research interest is preference--my agenda is defending a version of preferentism that I've contrived. I hold that a person's well-being is a function of his Sen-Capability of satisfying actual and nearby possible-preferences. I'm developing a little number on this. An agent's capabilty set and his preference set are both fuzzy sets: the extent to which an item is included in either corresponds to the "distance" of the possible worlds at which the agent gets it and wants it respectively where things are gotten and wanted to degrees between 0 and 1. Can get to the highest degree is what I actually get and can want to the highest degree is what I actually want so getting what I actually want, preference satisfaction, maxes out. However, being able to get what I might, but don't actually want, also contributes to my well-being. Every person has a two-dimensional transworld preference-satisfaction profile and his well-being at any world comes from values of that profile at the world in question.

That is the gist of what I'm working out but I won't say any more because it could turn out to be complete garbage. I'm not afraid someone will "steal my ideas." When I worked in publishing wannabe authors were always afraid of this, as if "ideas" were worth anything. They aren't. What matters is the technical details, the engineering--ideas are a dime a dozen.

But why preference for me as the fundamental ethical idea? I suppose because for me the moral universe revolves around being constrained, being chronically frustrated, fighting to get what I wanted and to avoid being forced into places I didn't want to be am I was constrained, accumulating security and bargaining chips to avoid being locked into a situation where I'm constrained, can't get what I want and am forced to do what I don't want. For me it's all about having possibilities, real options: being able to do what I want to do, go where I want to go and not being locked into a confined space, being forced to do drudge work or punch a clock and make the busy work last until it was time to punch out.

I have a visceral aversion to "virtue ethics" and all high-flown notions of the good life. Virtue ethics is fundamenally aristocratic: Athenian gentlemen living on the proceeds of their estates with slaves to do for them never worried about being constrained, getting stuck with drudge work or punching the clock: they could afford to concern themselves with cultivating virtue. What appalling, hypocritical snobbery--the elite cultivating a luxury good that only they could afford and then condemning the masses for not managing it. Deontological ethics aren't much better: when they aren't in the business of exhorting everyone to do the duties of the station to which God has called them they have nothing to say about the viciousness of constraint. Neither of them account for the full horribleness of the lives most people live or the injustice of it. Leave aside the worst cases, the people in the developing world who are sick and starving: in the US if you have the shitty luck to be born female and working class unless you fight for all you're worth you will be trapped for most of your day doing drudge work, punching the clock, being confined, and then you will go home and cook and clean and fall asleep.

Don't give me this crap about virtue or duty, all very well for the privileged few who don't have to worry about accumulating the bargaining chips to be safe from those lives of drudgery and constraint. I fought with all I had to get into a situation where I was safe from having to work at jobs like that and live that kind of life--don't give me that high-falluting crap.


Anonymous said...

Are you really safe from a life of "drudgery and constraint"?You "married very young and now married for 32 years",complain that "the constraints imposed by the students I have to deal with and the System in which we operate make teaching miserable". You feel held back because "In part it's because I'm female, physically unprepossessing and peculiar: if I don't work very hard to assert authority and display organization I will be treated as a buffoon--a funny fat little women, a figure of fun." And, " Other faculty can afford to be laid back but I can't: I have to exert myself to the fullest to act "professional" since I don't "look professional." My appearance is against me and I don't have the social skills to "facilitate" discussions or use any of the gimmicks we're encouraged to try, so I lecture, keep strictly on track, and do everything I can to avoid the appearance of "disorganization." You say that you are "fed up with the whole thing"...
So, you don't do "drudge
work"? "Punch the clock"? You aren't "confined"? "constrained"? Don't do "busy work"? Don't "go home" "cook and clean" or "fall asleep"? You admit to most of these things in your blog...

harry said...

Why preference satisfaction rather than straight happiness?

I've never really understood the appeal of virtue ethics (nor, if I'm honest, of utilitarian accounts of value, until recently). But I think you are being unfair to them: why not acknowledge that there are numerous external barriers to virtue (poverty, discrimination, other people's preferences) and say that the value of virtues gives us a reason to remove them?

H. E. said...

Why preference satisfaction rather than straight happiness?Here are some reasons why I think preference satisfaction is better account of welfare than strait happiness, including a discussion of Nozick's Experience Machine thought experiment.

why not acknowledge that there are numerous external barriers to virtue (poverty, discrimination, other people's preferences) and say that the value of virtues gives us a reason to remove them?Reasonable argument if you find virtue ethics intuitively plausible to begin with. I don't. I wasn't arguing against it so much as suggesting why some find it intuitively appealing, viz. that they rarely feel the shoe pinch and so don't worry about utilities and conflicts of interests in the way that most of us do, and because they have the security and leisure to concern themselves with self-cultivation.

Greek I think doesn't make sharp distinctions between moral virtue and other virtues like beauty, nobility, etc. and to my jaundiced eye it looks like the elite Greek males who had the time and opportunity for such things cultivated what we might think of as moral virtue in the same spirit that they worked out at the gymnasium to improve their bodies--all part of the ego project.

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