Campbell Brown and I, along with some BGSU graduate students, are currently reading through John Broome’s most recent book, Weighing Lives. In our most recent meeting, we discussed Broome’s latest attempt to solve the problem of interpersonal comparisons of wellbeing (it differs from his previous attempts). Here’s my rough reconstruction of his argument:
Defn: a person’s “wellbeing” = how good things are for that person.
1. A person’s life (i.e., how things are for that person) contains “all the features of the world that can affect her wellbeing” (p. 94).
2. Given 1, for any two people X and Y, if it’s possible that there’s a life such that X could have lived it and also that Y could have lived it, then “a person who lives a particular life has exactly the same wellbeing as any other person would have if she lived that life,” (p. 94), i.e., the goodness of lives is independent of who lives them.
3. It is (conceptually and metaphysically) possible that, for any two people X and Y, there’s a life such that X could have lived it and also that Y could have lived it (there are a few technical details here I’m glossing that don’t affect the points made below).
4. Thus, the goodness of lives is independent of who lives them.
6. Thus, the universal scale is cardinal (i.e., it provides interpersonal comparisons of wellbeing).
This is a fascinating and clever argument. The heavy lifting in the argument is obviously being done by premise 3, which Broome simply assumes to be the case, i.e., he assumes “that a person’s identity is not a part of what I call her life, or of how things are for the person. I assume a person’s identity does not show up from her personal perspective” (p. 95). Nevertheless, this is actually quite a controversial metaphysical assumption, viz., that selves are abstract bare particulars, that I could be abstracted away from all of my various individual physical and psychological properties (or at least those properties relevant to my personal good) and then be instantiated in the world with someone else’s individual properties (or, more precisely, I could be instantiated into a life with some specified set of properties that someone else could also be instantiated into as well).
The problem is that it’s difficult to make sense of the notion of a personal good, or personal wellbeing, on such a view, because it becomes difficult to make sense of the notion of the person conceived in this way. On most contemporary accounts of agency, for instance, the self is simply identified with some sort of evaluational or noncognitive affective framework. So on Gary Watson’s early account, the self is located in its valuational system, and while one can be dissociated from a certain set of ends and principles, this can only be done from the standpoint of another set: “In short, one cannot dissociate oneself from all normative judgements without forfeiting all standpoints and therewith one’s identity as an agent” (“Free Agency,” in Gary Watson, ed., Free Will, p. 347). And on a Frankfurtian picture, one’s identity as an agent is located in certain decisive higher-order volitions, or (as I would have it) in one’s nexus of cares. On these views, then, who I am is inextricably bound up in a certain subset of my psychological properties.
There’s a very plausible thought, then, that relates these accounts to goodness: something counts as good for me only if “for me” is short for “for me from my standpoint as _______,” where the blank is filled in with one of the above accounts, i.e., “for me in my standpoint as a judger of the value of X,” or “for me in my standpoint as a carer about X,” and so forth. (Of course, there could be some objective goods, but surely not all goods are objective, i.e., are utterly independent of things I contingently value, desire, or care about. And as along as some goods are subjective in this way, that’s all that’s needed to make the point about the connection between goodness and agency.) Absent some specified standpoint, a standpoint with which the agent is identified, it’s hard to conceive of how something might be good for that agent.
But then if we strip the agent of all such standpoints, of all such filters through which things can even count as good, as Broome seems to do, we lose the capacity for even having a personal cardinal scale. So there’s a nested dilemma: either we are abstract selves, in which case the notion of personal betterness is incoherent, or we aren’t, in which case we have a subdilemma: either the person who could have lived my life would have, in so doing, been me or he would not have been me. If he would have been me (given that he took on my evaluative framework, say), then what we have is still just a personal cardinal scale of goodness (mine), and it’s not yet universal. If he would have remained him, then any goods accrued would have been filtered through his evaluative framework, so we would still just have a personal cardinal scale of goodness (his). In any case, though, Broome fails to get interpersonal comparisons of wellbeing.
Now Broome’s much smarter than me, so what have I missed?