I just finished reading Simon Keller’s “Welfare and the Achievement of Goals” for the second time. I had read it earlier when it was just a draft, but I decided that I should read it again now that it appears in the October 2004 issue of Philosophical Studies. This is an excellent paper that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic of welfare.
In the paper, Keller argues for the “Unrestricted View: An individual’s achieving her goals in itself contributes to her welfare regardless of what those goals are” (28). “The greater the quantity of productive effort that an individual successfully devotes to the achievement of a particular goal, the more that achievement contributes to her welfare” (36). And Keller clarifies the notions of “goal” and “achievement” as follows. “Taking something as a goal involves intending to put some effort into its achievement. Having a mere desire does not” (32). “[T]he Unrestricted View is concerned with the achieving, not the mere attaining, of goals…. To achieve a goal is to have its attainment be due in part to your own efforts” (33).
I find the Unrestricted View and Keller’s argument for it extremely plausible. The Unrestricted view explains why “not every desire is such that its satisfaction contributes to its holder’s welfare” (32). Take Parfit’s famous example. “You meet a stranger who tells you that he has a disease, and you form a desire that the stranger recover. You never see or hear of him again, but he does recover. Your desire, then, is satisfied, but that – surely – doesn’t make things better for you” (32). Why not? The plausible answer is that it’s not something in which you have anything invested and so its fulfillment doesn’t benefit you. Of course, had you taken this person’s recovery as a goal and gone to some effort to achieve it, we would consider your achievement of the goal to be a benefit to you.
The Unrestricted View also explains our intuition that a person’s life goes better for her if she achieves her goals. Those interested should see section II of Keller’s paper, where he tries to bring out this intuition with a number of examples.
Now I do have some concerns/questions about the details of Keller’s view. In particular, I’m skeptical about whether the extent to which the achievement of a particular goal constitutes a benefit is purely a function of “the quantity of productive effort that an individual successfully devotes to the achievement that goal.” Imagine two Olympic athletes: Bill and Ted. Let’s suppose that Bill and Ted both put the same amount of effort into achieving their goals of winning gold medals and that both are equally successful as a result. Both spend the same amount of time training. Both exert themselves just as much in their workouts. But suppose that whereas Bill is a loner who has little else to do besides workout, Ted is a husband and a father. So Ted has to sacrifice more to achieve his goals. In particular, he laments the fact that he has to spend so much time away from his family. Had Ted not been striving to achieve a gold medal, he would have been able to enjoy more time with his family. Bill, by contrast, has nothing better to do than train.
In this case, I would argue that Ted’s achieving his goal benefits him more than Bill’s achieving his goal does, despite the fact that both have put the same amount of effort into achieving their goals and despite the fact that their respective efforts were equally productive/efficacious in bringing about their respective goals. After all, if Ted fails, all his sacrifices will have been in vain. But, if Bill fails, his “sacrifices” haven’t been in vain because he hasn’t made any “sacrifices.” He wouldn’t have enjoyed himself more had he done something other than train for the Olympics — I’m just stipulating that this is the case.
So here’s my own proposal for determining how much the achievement of a particular goal contributes to an individual’s welfare: it is a function of the following: (1) the extent to which one’s efforts have been efficacious in achieving one’s goal and (2) the extent to which one has had to sacrifice in order to achieve one’s goal. Both should be assessed counterfactually. Thus, to determine (1), we ask, “In the nearest possible world where one did not try to achieve the goal in question, to what extent would that goal still have been attained?” And, to determine (2), we ask, “In the nearest possible world where one did not try to achieve the goal in question, how much more pleasurable/enjoyable would one’s life have been?” This proposal would account for the fact that Ted benefits more by achieving his goal than Bill would by achieving his, for Ted sacrificed more. I consider this a friendly proposal, one that is in the spirit of Keller’s view.
Another thing that I wonder about Keller’s view is whether one must still have the goal when it is achieved in order for its achievement to count as a benefit. For instance, if one devotes a big part of one’s life to discovering a cure for cancer and one’s efforts do eventually lead to the discovery of a cure, does one benefit from the discovery even if, when the discovery is made, one no longer wants a discovery to be found? (Perhaps, one has decided that cancer is necessary for population control.) I want to say that this person does benefit from the discovery in that it prevents all his efforts from being a waste, but I’m curious what Keller and others think.
Lastly, I wonder, if someone undermines the achievement of your goal, when does the harm occur? For example, suppose I destroy the only copy of your manuscript and thereby prevent you from achieving your goal of publishing it. Does the harm occur when I destroy your book, or does it occur all the while you were pointlessly working on the manuscript? Given what Keller says in the following, I must assume that it’s the latter. He says, “the Unrestricted View may bear upon the debate over whether and how an individual’s interests can be affected by posthumous events; if you form goals whose fate will not be decided within your own lifetime, then there’s an aspect of your welfare whose advancement depends on what happens after you die” (39). Surely, as a number of philosophers have pointed out, if posthumous events are responsible for harming us, the direct harm must take place ante-mortem, not postmortem, for postmortem there is no subject to be harmed. But if the harm takes place all the while you are pointlessly working and sacrificing for the sake of a goal that will never be achieved, then shouldn’t we say that pointless sacrificing is what constitutes the harm, not the goal-undermining event; the destruction of the manuscript is the harmful event that is responsible for your previously being in the harmful state of toiling/sacrificing pointlessly — for more on this distinction between harmful events and harmful states, see my earlier post entitled “Desires, Harmful States, and Posthumous Events.” Likewise, we should say that the achievement of a goal is only what’s responsible for the benefit of toiling/sacrificing efficaciously. The achievement of a goal is not what constitutes the benefit; it’s what is responsible for the benefit. I wonder if Keller would agree with this description of the harmful/beneficial state. If we don’t go with this sort of description, then I have some serious worries about the timing of the harm/benefit.