Intuitions about the value of mere possibilities

My most compelling intuition is that the effective freedom to achieve a state I could want, even if I don't actually want it, makes me better off so that even if I don't actually want something I'm still worse off for not being able to get it. Others find this completely counterintuitive.

In the spirit of experimental philosophy, I'd like to know if there's any data on the pervasiveness of this intuition. Or, if not, whether there's any convenient way of getting data–like a list of willing subjects who would be amenable to a Survey Monkey query.

I would also be interested in the demographics of who shares this intuition. My guess is that having or not having this intuition depends on the extent to which one is, or believes oneself to be, constrained and so would track differences in social and economic privilege. My conjecture is that if you have few options, in making decisions you <i>first</i> identify what's feasible, surveying the relatively narrow range of realistic options and the boundary that marks them off from the vast range of merely logical possibilities that aren't feasible for you. So you're always aware of constraint and perceive it as a burden even when your actual desires aren't frustrated.

By contrast, if you're relatively privileged (judging from my student advisees at least) you don't typically begin the decision-making process by determining what's feasible. You only recognize the constraints after you've formed a desire and that desire has been frustrated. So you're only aware of constraints when they block the satisfaction of actual desires.

This seems like a reasonable armchair explanation, but I'd be interested in whether there's any empirical data.

21 Replies to “Intuitions about the value of mere possibilities

  1. I think there’s something to this intuition, FWIW.
    It has certain affinities with Pettit’s “republican” idea of freedom, namely that not only are you free from constraint/interference but free from the possibility of constraint/interference.

  2. I think there’s something to this intuition, FWIW.
    It has certain affinities with Pettit’s “republican” idea of freedom, namely that not only are you free from constraint/interference but free from the possibility of constraint/interference.

  3. I think there’s something to this intuition, FWIW.
    It has certain affinities with Pettit’s “republican” idea of freedom, namely that not only are you free from constraint/interference but free from the possibility of constraint/interference.

  4. I’m working on Sen’s Capability Approach in fact and follow this literature, including Pettit’s work. The remarkable thing is that while amongst the camp followers the intuition is generally accepted, others find it completely outre. It would be especially interesting to get data on naive subjects who have no axes to grind.

  5. What exactly is the intuition? Is it the following?
    (I1) For any two subjects, S1 and S2, if S1, but not S2, has the ability to ensure that p and everything else with respect to S1 and S2 is equal, then S1 is better off than S2.
    Is (I1) supposed to be true regardless of whether p is something it is rational to want? Suppose, for instance, that p = ‘that I am in more pain than anyone has ever experienced’. Is (I1) supposed to be true even if there’s no chance that I’ll ever desire that p? Is (I1) supposed to be true even if I don’t want the ability/freedom to ensure that p, and even if I want not to have the ability/freedom to ensure that p?
    If not (1), then what, more precisely, is the claim that you find intuitive? Perhaps, you could explain what you mean by ‘effective freedom’ and ‘achieve a state’ above.
    In any case, I find (I1) counter-intuitive.

  6. (1) Yes. And I find it absolutely intuitive.
    Consider Simone Weil who took a factory job in order to share the experience of the oppressed masses. One of her biographers notes that she couldn’t because the mere possibility that she could quit (without starving) made her immeasurably better off. Hedonic considerations don’t fly here–the recognition that she could walk whenever she chose didn’t make her feel any better and all evidence suggests that, given her temperament, clumsiness, poor health and feverish neuroticism she was probably much more miserable than any of her proletarian co-workers.
    (2) Following Sen, “bad, awful and gruesome” possibilities don’t make me better off–only those that are of some value (and let’s leave it open what makes them of value). My take, with which Sen would likely disagree, is that what makes them of value is their being fairly high on my preference ranking. So, even though I hit the utility jackpot by getting an academic job, the mere possibility that I could have been a lawyer or computer programmer makes me better off whereas the mere possibility that I could have been a Walmart cashier or waitress doesn’t make me better off.
    (3) By “effective freedom” I take it Sen et. al. mean feasibility.

  7. So if, unbeknownst to you, you couldn’t have become a lawyer, because Black, the counterfactual intervener, was monitoring your brain activity and would have prevented you from choosing to go to law school had you been about to choose to go to law school, then you think that this would entail that you weren’t as well off as you otherwise would have been. And this is so even though Black never did in fact intervene, you were better off for having chosen to become a philosopher, and you’ll die always having thought that you had the option of becoming a lawyer. Isn’t that right?
    We just have very different intuitions, it seems.

  8. Yes, but I’m not thinking of the tricky free-will cases because I’m quite happy with determinism. The relevant cases concern straight-forward external constraints.
    I never seriously wanted to be anything but a philosophy professor and got what I wanted (tenured, and no regrets). But I still stew over the fact that as a woman there is a whole range of blue-collar guy jobs I couldn’t get: the absence of those possibilities makes me worse off. That, I think, is the core issue of feminism: the extent to which sex roles, particularly as they figure in the labor market, restrict the options of both men and women and, if I’m correct, make both worse off.
    Comparable to your case, suppose I’ve never wanted to be anything but a kindergarten teacher for a few years and then a housewife. I get that and am happy. I don’t know that there are a great many jobs I couldn’t get: I believe the pious tommyrot about how I “could be anything.” It still seems to me clear that ceteris paribus I would have been better off if I had more options.
    Or, if you don’t like feminism, consider a mute inglorious Milton raised in a “traditional society” where sons follow their fathers’ occupations, have their marriages to cousins arranged by relatives and never travel more than 20 miles from their native villages. My father’s occupation suits me, I love my cousin and have no interest in travel. It has never even occurred to me that there are lots of other options that aren’t available to me. I’m happy as a clam but ceteris paribus I would still be better off if I had a wider range of options. “Traditional societies” are lousy.
    This I recall was also Engles’ intuition (cited by Elster) regarding the Industrial Revolution and migration from “cozy” rural villages to cities where, however miserable and frustrating life was, the range of possibilities benefitted migrants.

  9. I don’t really know this literature at all, but I think there have been some pretty interesting studies on how an increase in options can actually lead to a decrease in well-being. Basically, if we’re given too many options, we experience an inability to choose, we’re more likely to experience regret, we’re less likely to take reasonable risks, etc. (Some people suspect that this might explain why people don’t opt-in to 401(k)s and the like, I think.) Again, I haven’t really dug into the literature, but a brief overview from a few years ago is here:
    http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/toomany.html
    Hope that helps.

  10. Thanks for the link. I do know this literature–Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice is a nice introduction. What the results of this research show however is that the salience of many options, particularly for individuals who adopt maximizing rather than satisficing strategies, creates difficulties and undermines well-being. It isn’t having lots of choices but having them in your face.

  11. In your kindergarten teacher case, I believe that it would be better if the world was such that you had more options. And I believe that it would be better for you to be brought up in such a fashion that you come to want more than just what society expects from you given your gender and that you want what would in fact be the most fulfilling career for you whether or not society tends to steer people of your gender to want something else. But I deny that if (1) you believe that you can become whatever you want to become, (2) you were raised so as to transcend societal expectations and form preferences autonomously, and (3) you in fact form the autonomous preference to become a kindergarten teacher, which you succeed in doing and which brings you more fulfillment than any other career would, then you are worse off just because unbeknownst to you some other less valuable career option that you believed to be available was not in fact available, as in the case of their being some counterfactual intervener (and this example is not about free will — I’m just importing a feature of Frankfurt’s example for my own purposes). So I’m not seeing how a concern about “the extent to which sex roles, particularly as they figure in the labor market, restrict the options of both men and women” has to be predicated on what I take to be the implausible assumption that the availability of options is intrinsically good for the person who has the options as opposed to instrumentally good or just plain intrinsically good in the sense that justice is intrinsically good.

  12. Josh, that’s a trap: I would in fact like to have more options even if I weren’t aware of having them but I’m taking the hard line that what makes them valuable isn’t that I actually want to have them. Any preferentist would say.
    The stories anyway are a side-show: I have independent theoretical reasons for arguing that we should recognize the value of mere possibilities. And feminism isn’t driving the project so I readily grant that there are other reasons to want a wider range of career options open to both men and women. I’m mainly interested in brute intuitions here.
    It’s easy enough to explain away the intuition that mere possibilities contribute to well-being. In most cases it could be explained as risk-aversion: I don’t now want S but I want the possibility of getting S as insurance against changes in my circumstances or preferences. It’s reasonable to buy insurance but it doesn’t benefit one unless it pays off on this account. What puzzles me is that a significant number of people don’t seem to have the intuition in the first place–while others do.
    But there does seem to be a clash of brute intuitions. I’ve never been a fan of justice, “autonomy” or rights and my brute intuition is that even if (1) – (3) are met I’d still be worse off than if I in fact had more options. Arguably states of affairs that don’t enter into experience can harm or benefit us–that seems to be the most compelling reason to be a preferentist rather than a hedonist.
    BTW many thanks for this discussion–I’m in the middle of doing the dread “major revisions” on a paper and they’ve been very helpful.

  13. I’m not sure I follow, H.E. I wasn’t trying to trap you, and I’m not pushing on you a want-based theory of value. I’m just trying to make sense of your position. It seems like you are committed to saying that more options are better than less, but in order to adequately address the aforementioned empirical studies, you either have to give up that commitment, or say that the more options you deem preferable should be hidden to the agent for whom they are preferable, which is itself a bit puzzling. Does this miss something about your view?

  14. Sorry I was, um, joshing about entrapment. I do claim that ceteris paribus more options are better. To deal with the “paradox of choice” a common recommendation is to adopt a satisficing strategy with a stopping rule: “when I find an option that’s good enough, that’s where I stop.” Another common strategy is to limit the number of options that are salient. Stock case: the options with M$Word are almost endless, but the menus only show a small subset. Nevertheless consumers buy Word because they value those almost endless options–including also the option of restricting the menus and toolbars so that the options aren’t all in their face.
    Here is a real case. I went with a friend to a rug place where there were perhaps 2000 oriental rugs on display in piles sorted by size. The guy who ran it wasn’t getting much business so, in desperation, he and his assistant spent almost 3 hours turning up heavy rugs from the relevant piles for us while we, in the grip of the paradox of choice, deliberated. Classic case.
    After we’d become quite friendly (and after my friend finally bought a rug) I offered the Wisdom of Behavioral Economics. Here’s how you improve sales. Build a partition. Put most of the rugs in the back room and a manageable number of of representative rugs on display. Empirical studies show this works. The guy said, what if they don’t want any of those rugs. Well, I said, then you tell them there are more in the back room. Granted this just pushes the problem back but this is the Micro$oft strategy and it works because it in effect forces most consumers to satisfice.
    Cutting to the chase, the pragmatic issue of coping with bounded rationality, recognizing the costs of search and deliberation, and the tendency of consumers to be flumoxed by too many options, isn’t at issue here I’d argue.

  15. Right, it’s the second strategy I was asking about. If you go down that road, as I understand it (and again correct me if I’m wrong), you think that it is better for us to have more options, but also that it is better for us to not know about or otherwise attend to those extra options. That’s a bit puzzling, I think. (Which doesn’t say anything about the strategy of confronting all of the options and then satisficing, of course.)

  16. It’s a challenge to traditional economists’ assumptions about rational decision-making rather than to any account of well-being as such. If we had perfect information AND the ability to process all that information instantaneously we’d be better off knowing about all our options (and having as many as possible).
    The second strategy (suppressing information) is a response to information overload and weakness of will. Faced with all those rugs we get confused and need a mechanism for filtering out noise. Moreover, satisficing takes self-discipline if we aren’t lucky enough to be slobs who just don’t care: there’s always the temptation to flout the stopping rule and look at one more rug.
    I think the puzzle is weakness of will, but that puzzle isn’t peculiar to the account of well-being I’m suggesting. We intentionally restrict our options, or depend on others to do so, for the same reason we check into fat-farms.
    Also I think puzzlement comes from the hedonistic tug: what good are all those options doing me if I don’t know about them, experience pleasure at having them? But preferentists already hold that states that don’t figure in experience can harm or benefit us so this isn’t a big jump.

  17. I have not read all of the above carefully, but just wanted to say that one might think having options one thinks one might later want should be thought to increase one’s expected utility even on a standard desire-satisfaction story. So in some ways the purest test of whether adding options itself, independently of whether one thinks one has any real chance of later wanting such options, are the sort of cases you discuss with Portmore. Given this way of thinking about it,your Weil reply is not perfectly on point. Anyway, my intuitions are that if the option is something one rightly thinks one has no reason to choose and will have no reason to choose in the future, then adding it to the list of options does very little or nothing for one’s well-being.

  18. I grant that. In general pumping intuitions in puzzle cases is never decisive. One man’s body-exchange miracle is another’s amnesia-cum-radical-character-revision story. Intuition-fitting is a sideshow, though it’s a sideshow in which I’m now interested.
    On the standard account, as you suggest, having options is insurance against future desire-frustration. It’s reasonable to buy insurance because our tastes and circumstances might change. But if insurance doesn’t pay off it doesn’t benefit us. On kind of account, the intuition that having options make us better off is just a special case of risk-aversion.
    For my purposes the Weil case is exactly on point because because it seems to me absolutely intuitive that she was better off than her co-workers in virtue of having options they didn’t have, and not just because she knew she had those options but solely in virtue of having them.
    Asking around, in the spirit of experimental philosophy, some like me had this response but others thought it was off the wall. Which is intriguing. My arm chair conjecture is that it depends on how one views life and approaches decision-making. If you’re in a strong position I think you’re less likely to consider constraints before deciding on a course of action: it’s only if and when it doesn’t pan out that you experience frustration. If you’re less well off you see the world as a system of constraints and before deciding on a course of action map out the narrow range of options that are feasible. Constraint is always in your face and you perceive it, the dearth of possibilities, in and of itself as a source of frustration. Just empirical conjecture.

  19. I worry that the Weil case is not the best if you are going to do an experimental philosophy poll, because few respondents will share Weil’s preference ranking. It seems problematic to count on their empathizing with her preference ranking and I am not sure asking them to do that will solve the problem either.
    Perhaps a better case would be one like this?
    (Death) Imagine that in a movie the grim reaper appears to saintly Jane and says the following: “Saintly Jane, I came to you today to end your time on earth. But having seen your great virtue, I have decided to give you one last day to live, know it is your last. Because I know your greatest wish would be to spend the day with your husband Sven, I have arranged for you to be together.”
    Jane is glad, but she does wish she could also spend further days with her friends and other family members. But the Reaper will only give her one extra day and only allow her to spend it with one person; and the reaper is right about her wanting most to spend it with Sven.
    (Twist) Imagine, as a new twist, that the reaper will allow Jane to spend her (one and only) day with someone else, if she asks. He does not mention this option because he knows she most wants to spend the day with Sven – but the option is there to spend the day with a friend instead.
    Question: Is Jane better off in this new twist scenario, than she was before the twist?

  20. I agree that Weil was a nutcase and that that muddies the waters. The problem with this case is that it’s so fantastical. Moreover it’s corrupted by intuitions about the Reaper’s paternalism by the Reaper.

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