Stephen Darwall has advanced the rational care theory of welfare, a metaethical thesis about the meaning of welfare judgments. Somewhat informally, here’s the view:
RCTW: to say that some state of affairs x would be good for someone is to say that anyone who cares for that person should desire that x occur for his sake; to say that some state of affairs x would be bad for someone is to say that anyone who cares for that person should desire that x not occur for his sake.
On this view, it’s not that you should desire what’s good for those you care about because it’s good for them; rather, it’s good for them in virtue of the fact that you should desire it. The ‘should’ here is the ‘should’ of rationality, as in “appropriateness.” To say you should desire the thing is to say that it is appropriate for you to do so, that the thing merits, or calls for, your desiring it.
Here’s an argument against RCTW, based on Parfit’s case My Past or Future Operations.
Here’s Parfit’s case (Reasons and Persons, p. 165):
I am in some hospital, to have some kind of surgery. Since this is completely safe, and always successful, I have no fears about the effects. The surgery may be brief, or it may instead take a long time. Because I have to co-operate with the surgeon, I cannot have anaesthetics. I have had this surgery once before, and I can remember how painful it is. Under a new policy, because the operation is so painful, patients are now afterwards made to forget it. Some drug removes their memories of the last few hours.
I have just woken up. I cannot remember going to sleep. I ask my nurse if it has been decided when my operation is to be, and how long it must take. She says that she knows the facts about both me and another patient, but that she cannot remember which facts apply to whom. She can tell me only that the following is true. I may be the patient who had his operation yesterday. In that case, my operation was the longest ever performed, lasting ten hours. I may instead be the patient who is to have a short operation later today. It is either true that I did suffer for ten hours, or true that I shall suffer for one hour.
I ask the nurse to find out which is true. While she is away, it is clear to me which I prefer to be true. If I learn that the first is true, I shall be greatly relieved.
Suppose in fact the first is true: Parfit had his operation yesterday and suffered for ten hours. Consider the state of affairs of Parfit suffering for ten hours yesterday and call it ‘S’. Clearly,
(1) S was bad for Parfit.
Suppose (but just for simplicity’s sake) that Parfit’s bias towards the future is extreme: that is, it is such that, for past pains that are absolutely certain to have no effect on the future, Parfit now has no desire that they didn’t occur. He wouldn’t sacrifice any amount of future pleasure, however small, to relieve any amount of past pain, however big, so long as the past pain will have no bad effects.
We all have the bias towards the future, and my view is that our bias is not irrational. I don’t claim to be able to explain why the bias towards the future is not irrational. I think we just have to take it as a brute fact about rationality and time.
I think even Parfit’s extreme bias is rational. If a pain is genuinely behind us and will have no after effects, it no longer demands any negative attitude towards it on behalf of the person who underwent it.
Since Parfit’s failure to desire that S didn’t occur is not irrational, it follows that
(2) It is false that Parfit should now desire that S did not occur.
This is because if someone is rationally permitted to fail to F, then it is false that he is rationally obligated to F. In other words, it is false that he rationally should F.
Finally, suppose Parfit cares for himself. That fact, combined with (1) and (2), gives us a case in which some state of affairs is bad for someone even though not everyone who cares for that person should desire its non-occurrence. So RCTW is false.