By Steven M. Cahn
In the final pages of Reason and Persons, Derek Parfit asks, “What would be best for someone, or would be most in this person’s interests, or would make this person’s life go, for him, as well as possible?” Like Parfit I shall take these three questions as interchangeable, but unlike him I view them not as significant but as misguided.
Consider this pair of examples taken from Christine Vitrano’s and my book Happiness and Goodness.
Pat received a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious college and a Ph.D. in philosophy from a leading university, then was awarded an academic position at a first-rate school, and eventually earned tenure there. Pat is the author of numerous books, articles, and reviews, is widely regarded as a leading scholar and teacher, and is admired by colleagues and friends for fairness and helpfulness. Pat is happily married, has two children, enjoys playing bridge and the cello, and vacations each summer in a modest house on Cape Cod. Physically and mentally healthy, Pat is in good spirits, looking forward to years of happiness.
Lee, on the other hand, did not attend college. After high school Lee moved to a beach community in California and is devoted to sunbathing, swimming, and surfing. Having inherited wealth from deceased parents, Lee has no financial needs but, while donating generously to worthy causes, spends money freely on magnificent homes, luxury cars, designer clothes, fine dining, golfing holidays, and extensive travel. Lee has many friends and is admired for honesty and kindness. Physically and mentally healthy, Lee is in good spirits, looking forward to years of happiness.
Now for Parfit’s question: What would be best for Pat and Lee? I presume the answer would be different in each case, because they have few, if any, interests in common.
Suppose Pat were named President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, became a Grand Life Master in bridge, or was invited to play the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Which one of these accomplishments would be best for Pat? The question is hard to understand. Undoubtedly Pat would take pride in any of these successes, but even Pat might not know which would work out for the best. After all, any of them might prove unfortunate. Perhaps Pat might not be able to complete a satisfactory Presidential address, or might suffer a devastating loss at a bridge tournament, or might have a severe memory lapse while playing the Elgar Concerto. How would these negative events affect a judgment regarding what is best for Pat? And who is to judge, Pat or others?
Now consider what would be best for Lee. Would it be additional surfing challenges, an even larger home, or travel to an especially exotic location?
Granted, none of these activities is apt to appeal to Parfit, because the underlying assumption of his discussion is that lives can be judged in accord with certain criteria dear to the hearts of philosophers, including, in Parfit’s words, “to have knowledge, to be engaged in rational activity, to experience mutual love, and to be aware of beauty.”
But why adopt these criteria? Of course, most philosophers find philosophy to be worthwhile, just as most rugby players find rugby to be worthwhile. But why is engaging in rational speculation better than engaging in athletic competition? Why is acquiring knowledge of the history of philosophy better than acquiring vast financial resources? Why is mutual love better than independence and self-esteem? Why is awareness of beauty better than awareness of the amazing variety in the animal kingdom? In sum, as Robert B. Talisse has written, “The determination among academic philosophers to support conceptions of happiness that in effect condemn most people to lives of inescapable despondency is difficult to understand.”
The key point is that both Pat and Lee are happy. They have a favorable impression of their lives and do not suffer excessively from anxiety, alienation, frustration, disappointment, or depression. They may face problems but overall see more positives than negatives. In short, both are satisfied with their lot.
Furthermore, both are living virtuously, caring about others, treating them with respect, and seeking to minimize their suffering. Pat shows concern for colleagues and friends, while Lee is kind to others and donates generously to worthy causes. Thus regardless of the normative theory you choose, we can assume that both Pat and Lee act morally.
As to what would be best for them, be most in their interest, or make their lives go, for them, as well as possible, I suspect they wouldn’t even understand the question. Nor do I.