A New Utterly Decisive Argument Against the Person Affecting View
The person-affecting view has no objection to decreasing future people's pleasure for the sake of arbitrarily small benefits
It’s good to make people happy, not to make happy people. We know this is true because it sounds vaguely catchy.
The person-affecting view says that it’s good to make people happy but not happy people. It says that there’s actually nothing good about creating a person with a good life—but there is something bad about creating a person with a terrible life. This view, while it sort of sounds vaguely correct at first, ends up producing crazy, terrible, horrible, wildly unintuitive conclusions. In this article, I’ll present one more such conclusion.
Now, there’s a straightforward knockdown argument against the simplest version of the person-affecting view. Suppose you think that future people’s well-being doesn’t matter at all—it will only start mattering when they exist. Well, if this is true, it would be morally neutral to press a button that would make future people experience just as much misery but never be happy. This is clearly immoral.
To avoid this, people adopt a more narrow view. This view says that when a future person is definitely going to exist, you should value their well-being. Thus, given that the future people are guaranteed to exist, you shouldn’t make them less happy. Of course, this has the crazy result that a button that caused people to have sex one second earlier—thus changing the identity of all future people—and also made future people never happy would be neutral to press, but it has an even more appalling implication.
Suppose that there are two people you can create; Alice, and Mary. Alice (10) is Alice with 10 units of pleasure, Mary (10) is Mary with 10 units of pleasure, and Alice (5) is Alice with 5 units of pleasure. Suppose that the average pleasure of a life is 7.5. Now, suppose someone offers you one penny to switch from creating Alice (10) to Mary (10). You should take that deal—gaining one cent is good, and switching Alice to Mary isn’t bad. Then, someone offers you to switch from Mary (10) to Alice (5). On this account, you should take the deal—after all, switching from creating one person to a different person isn’t bad. Thus, two actions neither of which are bad result in you making a person much worse off for the sake of extremely meager benefits.
The following principle is plausible and has been defended here.
The Principle of Rational Decomposition If an agent, whose credences and preferences are not rationally prohibited, makes a sequence of choices which violates a requirement of rationality, then some of those choices are rationally prohibited.
The same reasons justify the following judgment.
If one takes two acts that they ought to take, the end result cannot be an impermissible sequence of acts
But which one can be immoral? Well, it can’t be either act, for reasons I explain here. The first act can’t be immoral, because it ordinarily wouldn’t be immoral to switch from Alice (10) to Mary (10)—and the fact that some act opens up other future acts doesn’t count against it; so the second act doesn’t make the first act become impermissible. And it can’t be the second act because, on this view, it ordinarily wouldn’t be wrong to switch Mary (10) for Alice (5), and when making a choice, you should only look at the future things you can get from that choice, rather than what’s happened in the past; in other words, you shouldn’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.
Now suppose that one claim that creating a happy person is incomparable with creating no one. Thus, switching Alice (10) for Mary (10) even with a payment of a few cents is neither right nor wrong and switching Mary (10) for Alice (5) is also not wrong. Well, we have reason to accept the following.
Principle of impermissible decomposition: If one takes an impermissible sequence of decisions, and they will take the ones later in the sequence only if they take the first decision, at least one of their decisions must be impermissible.
This means that, given that the sequence of actions is immoral, at least one of them has to be. But neither of them can be, for the reasons described above. Thus, the person-affecting view is doomed.
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