Ethics Discussions at PEA Soup: Mikhail (Mike) Valdman’s “Outsourcing Self-Government,” with commentary by Steve Wall

We are pleased to present the fourth installment of PEA Soup's collaboration with Ethics, in which we host a discussion of one article from an issue of the journal. The article selected from Volume 120, Issue 4 is Mikhail (Mike) Valdman's "Outsourcing Self-Government" (open access copy here). We are very grateful that Steve Wall has agreed to provide the critical precis of Mike's article, and his commentary begins below the fold.

Thanks to the editors of Pea Soup for inviting me to comment on Mikhail Valdman’s excellent paper, and thanks to Dan Boisvert for posting these comments for me.  I am not an active blogger myself, but I am an admirer of the high level of discussion regularly found on Pea Soup.

Mikhail Valdman’s paper advances a provocative thesis.  The thesis is that there is no intrinsic value in being autonomous – that is, there is no intrinsic value in running one’s own life and making one’s own decisions.  As he explains, the value in question is prudential.  His thesis is that the goodness of our lives need not be set back in any way if our decisions about how to lead our lives were turned over to an appropriate individual or committee.  Among other things, an appropriate individual or committee would need to be one that respected our deepest commitments.  What we want, Valdman claims, is not just to fare well, but to fare well on our own terms.  The upshot is that it is not autonomous self-government that has intrinsic value, but rather the leading of a life that reflects one’s deepest commitments and values.

Even if autonomy has intrinsic value, Valdman may be on to something important.  It may be true that a large part of why we value self-government is that we want to lead lives that reflect and give expression to our deepest commitments.  It also may be true that in discussing the value of self-government many writers overstate the importance of being a decider in relation to the importance of leading a life that is acceptable to us.  These more modest claims could be true, even if Valdman’s thesis were false.

Let’s call someone who believes autonomy has at least some intrinsic prudential value an autonomy proponent.  Valdman suggests that autonomy proponents must see at least some cost in outsourcing self-government.  I am not sure about this.  What exactly is involved in outsourcing self-government?  Valdman mentions two ideas.  We outsource self-government when we cede final decision-making authority over our lives to others and we outsource self-government when we cease to exercise managerial control over our lives.  Valdman’s discussion suggests that the first of these ideas is the more fundamental one.  But an autonomy proponent need not think that a life in which a person had ceded final decision-making authority to others is worse in any respect.  Suppose you cede decision-making authority over your life to a committee.  The members of the committee might think autonomy has intrinsic value.  If so, then they may decide, on this or that occasion, to let you make a less good decision when they could have effively intervened.  The committee retains the final authority to make decisions of this kind.  As far as I can see, the autonomy proponent can allow that committees that do this job well – committees that give proper weight to autonomy – need not impose any prudential cost on those over whom they rule.

Turn next to the second idea.  When we outsource self-government, we cease to exercise managerial control over our lives.  We no longer make decisions about how to lead our lives.  Others make these decisions for us.  Does the exercise of this kind of control have intrinsic value?  Valdman says ‘no;’ but his discussion at points suggests otherwise.  In responding to the objection that if we outsource self-government we will not really be living our own lives, Valdman reassures us that his favored outsourcing agency – the Personal Expert Committee (PC) – need not be especially interventionist.  If the committee intervened extensively in many aspects of your life, he says, then you wouldn’t be leading your life.  The PC, then, is designed to respect the decisions of those over whom it rules when their decisions are not mistaken.  But this suggests that there may be value in letting people making their own decisions.  So long as their decisions are not mistaken, people should be left free to make them.

Consider now the decisions we each face for which there is a range of options that reason does not rank as better or worse.  To borrow some terminology from Joseph Raz, call these eligible options.  The autonomy proponent can say at least this much is true.  It is valuable for people to make their own decisions about which eligible options to take up, particularly if the options in question are not trivial.  In doing so, they determine, or help to determine, who they are and what matters to them.  At one point, Valdman suggests that choices between options of this kind are arbitrary and so it should not be important that we make them.   But this is a little misleading.  They are arbitrary in the sense that reason does not require that we make them.  But they need not be arbitrary in the sense that there is no good reason to make them.  (Notice that the same is true of the deep commitments that Valdman highlights.  I might know that my deep commitments are not required by reason and I might know that if I cared about very different things my life would go just as well, but it would not follow that I have no reason to care that my life is one that reflects my deep commitments.)

Suppose it is indeed important for us to make our own decisions about which eligible options to take up.  This would require explanation.  It is well explained by the fact that autonomy has some intrinsic prudential value.  Now it is possible that autonomy has only conditional intrinsic value.  It contributes to the goodness of a person’s life only if it is not misused.  And it is misused whenever a person makes decisions for himself that are not optimal.  I find this difficult to believe, however.  If autonomy has some value in cases in which a person confronts a choice between two eligible options, then it likely has some value in cases in which a person confronts a choice between two good options where one option is only slightly better than the other.  Valdman’s PC, having already committed itself to respecting the decisions of people when they don’t make mistakes, might well have reason to let them make their own decisions when they do make mistakes, at least when the mistakes are not too egregious.

Valdman’s case for PC government, in any event, does not establish his thesis.  The autonomy proponent can accept PC government without reservation.  Still, Valdman is surely correct in claiming that many who value autonomy will think, special cases aside, it would be a serious mistake for a person to turn his life over to a committee that never allowed him to make a mistake.  Can more be said on behalf of autonomy?  Valdman distinguishes the PC from an expert committee (EC) that would impose values on you when it judges that this would improve your welfare.  Unlike the PC, this latter committee is not concerned with allowing you to have a life that is acceptable to you (one that reflects your deep commitments).

We need to ask what explains the evaluative difference between submitting to these two committees.  To appreciate this difference, we need to know more about how people come to have the deep commitments that the PC must honor. (I assume that deep commitments are actual commitments that people have.)  If a child submits to PC rule, then in all likelihood the PC will not govern in a way that differs substantially from the EC.  The conditions for the child’s well-being remain substantially undetermined.  By contrast, if a 30 year old submits to PC government, then it will be significantly constrained to govern in ways that reflect her deep commitments.  Yet I imagine that this would amount to an important difference between PC and EC government only if the person had come to have her deep commitments in the right way.  I won’t try to say anything precise about this.  I take it that if her deep commitments were the product of hypnosis or tampering with her brain, then PC government for her would not be preferable to EC government.  Here, then, is a suspicion: to explain the evaluative difference between submitting to the two types of government we need to appeal to the value of people being governed by deep commitments that have not been imposed on them – deep commitments that are, in some sense, their own.  And to explain the process by which people come to have commitments of this kind we need to appeal to past decisions they have been allowed to make for themselves.  Some of these decisions may be ones that involve identifying with certain aspects of one’s psychology, but others will involve making choices, such as what goals to pursue or what relationships to enter into, that shape the kind of person one will become.  These are the kinds of decisions the autonomy proponent believes it is valuable for us to make for ourselves.  If this is right, then an adequate defense of PC over EC government will need to appeal to the value of autonomy.  Moreover, the process by which we come to have deep commitments that are our own is, at least for most of us, an on-going process.  So, if there is a value to making decisions that play a role in determining one’s deep commitments, then there will be a cost to PC government.  The cost will diminish as one’s deep commitments become more fixed as a result of past autonomous decisions.

Two final comments can be made briefly.  Valdman often characterizes outsourcing self-government as a decision we make.  We empower others to make our decisions for us.  This raises a familiar puzzle about autonomy.  Can we autonomously surrender our autonomy?  Some autonomy proponents will answer ‘yes’.  They will think that a decision to cede authority over one’s decisions would be one of the most important, if not the most important, decisions a person could make.  And they will insist that it is vital that this decision be an autonomous one.  I don’t mean to endorse this view, but only to point out that it is one that is consistent with the claim that autonomy has intrinsic value.  Valdman’s case against self-government is cleaner if we imagine that we do not get to decide for ourselves whether to outsource our decision making.  Second, Valdman points out that many autonomy proponents hold that self-government has intrinsic value, irrespective of a person’s desires.  This is true, but the autonomy proponent need not be an objectivist about well-being.  She might think that to the extent that you care about not only faring well, but faring well on your own terms, then you have reason to value autonomy.  Valdman thinks that you can fare well on your own terms without making autonomous decisions.  An acceptable life will do the trick.  The autonomy proponent, who is also a subjectivist about well-being, can claim that that it is not so.

25 Replies to “Ethics Discussions at PEA Soup: Mikhail (Mike) Valdman’s “Outsourcing Self-Government,” with commentary by Steve Wall

  1. Mike: I love this paper, first of all. Very clever and fascinating. (And thanks to Steve Wall as well for some great comments to kick off discussion.) My question is about the section on responsibility (big shock!). Your main point is that losing control over one’s deliberative mechanism (DM) involves no prudential loss. The objection is that such a loss actually renders the DM not one’s own, and so if this is the source of responsibility, responsibility is lost, and insofar as this is a necessary part of being virtuous, and virtue is (at least) a prudential good, loss of the DM in fact does involve loss of a prudential good.
    Your first reply is that it’s hard to see why losing one’s DM could be any different w/r/t responsibility than losing one’s capacity to recognize faces, say. But insofar as the objection is about the loss of responsibility w/r/t virtue, there clearly seems a difference: the DM is intimately connected with agency, whereas facial recognition isn’t. We can see this in the sorts of aretaic (responsibility) appraisals we actually make: “cowardly,” “cruel,” “generous,” and the like attach to decision-making, and there aren’t such appraisals made w/r/t to facial recognition. These aretaic appraisals implicate agency. Further, you say that the defender of this objection has to show that “being responsible for one’s decisions is a virtue, while being responsible for recognizing faces is not” (785). But that’s not the relevant issue, I think. The defender has to show instead that being a virtuous (responsible) agent stems from one’s decisions being one’s own; being “responsible for” recognizing faces involves a very different sense of responsibility (one I’m not sure how to make sense of, frankly), one that surely isn’t connected up to virtue.
    Your second reply appeals to an analogy to drunken actions: we hold people responsible for what they do when drunk, despite not being “in their right mind,” as long as their not being in their right mind was something for which they were responsible. So too, the abdication of one’s DM by a choice that was clearly one’s own does not mean the abdication of responsibility for what one does under the rubric of the outsourced government. This is tricky, though. For one thing, you’re running together being responsible with holding responsible. One may well be responsible for X without it being appropriate to hold one responsible for X in the sense of being blamed or sanctioned. Nevertheless, being responsible for X may well ground various aretaic predications (“cruel,” etc.) when X reflects one’s character and commitments. So if what you do when drunk does indeed reflect your character, we may make certain responsibility judgments about you without holding you responsible for those things; instead, we may reserve holding you responsible only for decisions that are yours. That would apply only, then, to the decision to drink. So it may well be w/r/t to the PC: we may judge you responsible for your actions under their guidance insofar as they reflect your character and commitments, but we may think holding you responsible (in the sense of blaming or sanctions) is appropriate only to the extent that the decision made was your own, in which case, the decisions the committee makes for you don’t get you any credit because they don’t belong to you.
    Ownership is difficult to get a handle on in this context. But at the least I think I’m inclined to say that, not only do I own my character traits and commitments, but I also own my flaws as a practical reasoner. That is, not only do I have faults of character, but I also have faults of deliberation. When these last are replaced by the committee, then the action that flows from those “decisions” aren’t mine, it seems to me, given that they don’t reflect my deliberative traits. And insofar as these traits are also relevant to virtue, losing them could well involve a loss of prudential good.

  2. Thanks to both Mike and Steve for participating. I enjoyed both Mike’s paper and Steve’s comments. Since I’m rather sympathetic to Mike’s thesis and to his interesting arguments, I want to try to understand one of Steve’s criticisms better. Mike says that choices between options “that reason does not rank as better or worse” (call them eligible options, as Steve does) are unimportant. Steve thinks, however, that “It is valuable for people to make their own decisions about which eligible options to take up.” Mike disagrees, saying that such decisions are arbitrary from the standpoint of reason and “so it should not be important that we make them” (I’m actually quoting Steve’s interpretation of Mike here). But Steve says that “this is a little misleading. They are arbitrary in the sense that reason does not require that we make them. But they need not be arbitrary in the sense that there is no good reason to make them.” But if reason does not rank these options as better or worse (overall) than the other eligible options, then in what sense is there a good reason to choose one these eligible options over the others? Suppose A and B are the eligible options. There may be a good reason to choose A over B, but if there is another different and equally good reason to choose B over A, then, overall, reason may not rank A as better or worse than B. In that case, it does seem to me that the decision is arbitrary from the standpoint of reason, and so I don’t see the importance of making the decision between A and B. Why does Steve say that there may be a good reason (overall?) to make a choice regarding options that reason does not rank as better or worse overall?
    If reason does not rank some set of options as better or worse, it seems to follow that not only does reason not require that we choose one of them over the others (as Steve notes), but furthermore that there is no good reason (at least, not overall) to choose one over the others.

  3. On reading this interesting paper I was left wondering what you think of the exchange between Regan and Sussman in Ethics a couple of years back.
    Crudely put, Sussman brings out two Kantian claims about autonomous rational agency being a source of law, not just value:
    (Self-blind) When we exercise autonomous rational choice, we *bind* ourselves – we make it not just reasonable for us to do other things, but make it practically necessary for us to do so.
    (Other-bind) When we exercise autonomous rational choice, we *bind* others to morally respect our chosen ends, projects, etc. – they undermine these projects, ends, etc., not just at the price of kindness or benevolence, but of respect for persons.
    I can imagine someone trying to respond to your view by appeal to these points, esp the second one: some would hold that we are better off choosing our ends, because in so doing we imbue them with a special normative significance, which is reflected in the fact that morality, and not just kindness or benevolence, calls on others to allow (or enable) us to effectively pursue those ends. The assumption, roughly, would be that *outsourced* decisions would give rise to demands of kindness or benevolence, but not moral respect.
    In general, would you argue, against this, that the projects we choose and those that are chosen for us by a PC have the same normative standing in regard to others (and if you like this line, what about EC cases)?
    Or would you agree that there is a difference in normative standing, but deny that this grounds any conclusion about prudential value?

  4. Let me begin by thanking PEA Soup for hosting this discussion and by acknowledging my debt to it. Some of you will recall that, a few years back, there was a discussion on PEA Soup on the question of whether one should allow some “more qualified” committee to run one’s life (initiated, I believe, by Jussi Suikkanen). At the time I had been thinking a lot about the nature of autonomy, but that discussion got me thinking more about its value.
    In this post, I’ll respond to Steve’s very thoughtful and provocative comments.
    Steve argues that an autonomy proponent (i.e. someone who thinks that autonomy has intrinsic prudential value) need not think that a life in which a person has ceded final decision-making authority to others is worse in any respect. I’m inclined to agree. There are many theories of autonomy in the literature and not all of them insist that autonomous agents must have such authority. Indeed, for some autonomy consists merely in a kind of motivational coherence. Defenders of such views do not require autonomous agents to be deciders in any meaningful sense.
    Steve’s claim, then, that my thesis is that there is no intrinsic value in being autonomous is a bit misleading. My concern is not really with autonomy’s value but with the value of being a decider – of having final decision-making authority over the direction and shape of one’s life. Naturally, I think these issues are related. But I think that questions about the value of autonomy should be distinguished from questions about the value of having final decision-making authority.
    Of course, I’m not opposed to debating the question of autonomy’s value provided that we are clear about what an autonomy proponent is committed to. Steve says that the autonomy proponent is committed to the following: “It is valuable for people to make their own decisions about which eligible options to take up, particularly if the options in question are not trivial. In doing so, they determine, or help to determine, who they are and what matters to them.” If the autonomy proponent is committed to this, then we genuinely disagree. Let’s, then, consider this issue.
    Why is it valuable for people to make their own decisions about which eligible options to take up? Steve, I take it, thinks it is because, by doing so, a person determines, or helps to determine, who he is and what matters to him. But this seems problematic. If there is no fact of the matter about who he is and what matters to him, then any decision he makes among options will be arbitrary (setting aside external reasons). He might as well flip a coin. And if there is a fact of the matter about who he is and what matters to him, it would seem that what matters is that these facts be reflected in whatever option is selected, and not that he be the chooser (Steve seems to grant this toward the end of his comments). If the value of being a decider consists in determining one’s identity, then, presumably, being a decider lacks value in cases where the person in question already has an identity. Being a decider would have value only in cases where one lacks an identity. But in these cases the intrinsic value of deciding is mysterious for, lacking an identity, it is hard to see how one can be the author of one’s choices (as opposed to merely being their selector, so to speak). Of course, making such choices may result in one’s acquiring an identity, but one can just as easily acquire an identity by having someone else choose for you.
    Steve, I trust, will insist that it is valuable for one to form one’s own identity by making one’s own choices – that having someone else choose for you would undermine your identity’s authenticity, perhaps. But consider two people, Jim and Bill. Early in life, both had the option of joining either the red team or the blue team. Neither had more reason for choosing the one than the other. Jim arbitrarily chose the blue team. That choice, say, established his identity as a “blue guy”. From then on, blueness became a crucial element of his identity (fill in the details as you please). Bill also selected the blue team, but his “choice” was actually the result of the EC tinkering with his neurons. This too established his identity as a “blue guy”. From then on, blueness became a crucial element of his identity. Now, assuming all else is equal, is Jim’s life prudentially superior to Bill’s? I have a hard time believing that it is. Is Jim more authentically blue than Bill? Even on this question I am not so sure.
    Steve, to be sure, objects to my classifying choices among eligible options as arbitrary. As he puts it, “they might be arbitrary in the sense that reason does not require that we make them. But they need not be arbitrary in the sense that there is no good reason to make them.” I agree that, when confronted with eligible options, there is often good reason that a choice be made. Jim might have good reason for choosing either the red team or the blue team. But I do not see why there is good reason that he makes the choice for himself. It is important for Buridan’s ass to move in the direction of a bale of hay, but I don’t see why it is important for it to choose which to move toward, even if its choice will play a role in establishing its identity as a “left-baler”.
    Finally, let me say that I am very intrigued by Steve’s idea of the committee that gives proper weight to autonomy. Perhaps limiting one’s choices to the PC, the EC, or self-government was a mistake. At one point in the paper I discuss an intermediate between the PC and EC. Perhaps there is also an intermediate between the PC and self-government (one that occasionally allows you to make non-optimal decisions). I’ll have to think about this some more.

  5. David,
    You’ve given me a lot to think about. I think you might be right that my first reply to the responsibility objection is not very impressive (for the reasons you give). Let me try to defend my second reply a bit, though, by asking you to comment on a version of a thought experiment I describe in the paper. Suppose that I buy a rationality enhancement pill. Under its influence, I can see my own values and commitments more clearly, I can better work out their implications, and so forth. Now, under this pill’s influence, it occurs to me that it is in my interest to do something untoward (say, betray a friend), which I go ahead and do. Let us suppose that, had I not taken the pill, it would not have occurred to me that my interests would be best served by betrayal. Now, what should we say about my responsibility for the betrayal? Am I responsible for it? Should I be held responsible for it? Intuitively, I’m inclined to answer both questions in the affirmative. In part, I take this view because rationality seems to be a prerequisite for responsibility. All else being equal, more rationality implies more responsibility (I think). Adults, by and large, are more responsible than children, largely because of their superior rationality. How they achieved that additional rationality, whether naturally or artificially, seems of little consequence.
    My next move would be to argue that the PC is not substantially different from the rationality enhancement pill, or at least that there is no difference between them that would justify different responsibility attributions.
    Now you might disagree that I am responsible for the betrayal, perhaps because I own my faults of deliberation in a way that makes my deliberation while under the pill’s influence inauthentic. But then I worry about the case of the caffeinated academic that I describe in the paper. If caffeine really helps me think more clearly, and if I write my papers while under its influence, would we then have to say that these papers are not, in the relevant sense, my own? Or consider a teenager who, in five years time, will have much improved reasoning skills. Suppose that he can accelerate this process with the appropriate pills. Would you still say that, if he took the pills, his actions would lack authenticity, and that he would thus not be responsible for them?

  6. Brad,
    That’s very interesting. As you note, I could say that there is a difference in normative standing between PC-governed choices and self-governed choices, but that this difference has no bearing on a life’s prudential value. That position, though, would be a tad suspicious. After all, one might worry that the very thing that accounts for the difference in normative standing also bears on prudential value (or at least on some kind of value that is relevant for the assessment of lives).
    Alternatively, I could say that there is a difference in normative standing but that it goes in the opposite direction – that PC-governed choices are more worthy of respect than self-governed choices! The argument for this would be that, fundamentally, morality demands that we respect persons, and that respecting persons requires, first and foremost, that we respect their deepest commitments. And a PC-governed person’s choices, of course, would better reflect his deepest commitments than would a self-governed person’s choices. The objection from some Kantians, of course, will be that this is not the right way to interpret what it means to respect persons.
    I have other options as well, I think, but to work them out I’ll need a clearer idea of what you take the benevolence/morality distinction to consist in. What does it mean for a decision to give rise to demands of kindness and benevolence but not respect? Kindness and benevolence, after all, seem like forms of respect. I’d have to know a bit more about what’s at stake in these distinctions before I can decide which view to settle on.

  7. Mike: Good, you’re pressing me in the right direction, I think, by bringing up the rationality pill and caffeine cases. And incidentally, there’s an interesting resonance here with a post instigated by Dan Boisvert several years back evaluating the arguments against steroid use in sports (http://peasoup.typepad.com/peasoup/2005/04/is_steroid_use_.html). And there are apparently lots of teenagers who are taking pills designed for ADHD sufferers in order to enhance their thinking. There’s a clear sense in which people like this are cheating, but it’s very hard to put your finger on precisely why, especially when we consider the gradualist considerations you raise (e.g., the coffeee drinker).
    I confess to having asymmetrical intuitions here: when what the agent does under the influence of the rationality pill is positive, I feel she deserves no or less credit than if she hadn’t taken it; when what she does is negative, I feel she deserves no less blame than if she hadn’t taken the pill. Part of this may have to do with the different functions of blame and its opposite (which I don’t think is praise). But it also has to do with what the relevant target of ownership is and what virtue consists in with respect to being responsible itself. Let me try to explain a bit (these thoughts are very embryonic, so forgive the floundering).
    In the cases you discuss, what’s attributable to the agent (what she owns) are actions (a betrayal, the production of an academic paper), where the attribution is to the agent’s will. In other words, she’s responsible for the execution of some decision. So the fact that her rationality was enhanced (by either pill or caffeine) and contributed to the production of the decision is less important than that she was able to execute that decision.
    Considerations of virtue, however, typically incorporate the quality of the decision-making into the attribution target. For some action to be virtuous, it must flow from virtuous motives and be the product of the agent’s practical wisdom in deliberation. Consequently, we may view virtuous-seeming actions as less than virtuous–insofar as they are less attributable to the agent–were they to be the product of a PC, or a rationality pill, or perhaps even caffeine. Perhaps this gives more substance to the thought that there’s cheating involved here: compare the person who studies with Aristotle for years and years, working his way up to practical wisdom, to the person who skips all that by popping the rationality pill. The latter didn’t engage in the kind of hard work necessary to train his deliberative mechanism in the right way to get (full?) credit for his virtuous activities.
    One last thought that might illustrate the point. Consider a professional basketball player who gives over his decision-making authority on the court to the PC. Suppose we (the fans) know this and suppose, further, that when the PC makes a decision for him, a red glow appears around his head. Now there are generally two types of positive assessments given to players on offense: good shot/pass, and good decision. The latter goes to those who pass up a shot, say, because it would have been blocked or was out of their range. Good shots are a matter of execution, pure athletic skill. My hunch is that, while we fans would still attribute good shots to the player, we would no longer utter “good decision” when we saw the red glow.

  8. Doug is a little perplexed about my remarks on choosing between eligible options. And in a way he is right to be perplexed. The phenomenon is genuinely puzzling. But here is the idea I was trying to convey. Let’s say A and B are eligible options. This means that reason does not rank one over the other. It does not follow, I wanted to say, that there is no reason to choose A or no reason to choose B. They are not wholly arbitrary options. There are, after all, good reasons to choose A and good reasons to choose B. Suppose you are inclined to choose A, then your choice is not arbitrary in the sense that it is not responsive to reason. You are guided by the reasons to choose A. Your choice also does not flout the demands of reason. It is not as if there is stronger or more compelling reason to choose B. Now, if you ask, but what reason do I have to choose A over B?, then the answer is there is no reason. That is what makes the choice between A and B a choice between eligible options.
    If choosing between eligible options were always choosing between qualitatively identical items (e.g. choosing between two identical pieces of candy), then it does seem hard to see the value in letting people make these choices. But if the eligible options concern significant and qualitatively different options (e.g. choosing one career rather than another), then it is easier for me to understand why it might be important to let people make these choices themselves – particularly, if one is already committed to the thought that what matters is not just faring well, but faring well on one’s own terms.
    I raised the issue of choice between eligible options against the background of a certain dialectic. I took Mike to be committed to the view that the PC (his favored characterization of an outsourcing committee) is designed not to interfere when its subjects do not make mistakes. I also took him to hold the view that if it did so, then we would have reason not to submit to it. People could object that they would not really be living their own lives under that kind of government. But this requires explanation. And I was suggesting that one explanation is that autonomy has conditional intrinsic value. It is valuable when it is not misused. The notion of eligible options helps us make sense of that thought.
    I also suggested that the same issue can come up when we think about a person’s deep commitments – an issue that Mike does not say too much about. I assume my deep commitments can diverge from the commitments I would have if I were fully reasonable. Suppose they do. We might then wonder why it is (prudentially) important for me to be governed by my deep commitments rather than these fully reasonable commitments. But if I have come to have my deep commitments over time as a result of making various choices between eligible options, then it becomes easier, I think, to explain why PC government is superior (at least in some respects) to EC government (a committee that just imposes commitments on me for my own good.) And I took it that both Mike and the autonomy proponent are in agreement in rejecting EC government.
    Suppose, however, that I learn my deep commitments have been implanted in me. I learn that there is a chip in my brain that makes me care about political philosophy and men’s Duke basketball. You point out that my life would go better, other things being equal, if a new chip were implanted in my brain – one that makes me care about poetry and women’s UNC basketball. In this predicament, I don’t think it would make sense for me to say no to the new chip on the grounds that I want to lead a life on my own terms – one that is acceptable to me. Mike’s remarks on Jim and Bill’s identity in his post suggest that he might think otherwise. Or maybe he is more sympathetic to EC government than I had realized.

  9. Hi Mike,
    I am not a Kantian, just wondering what you make of the Sussman response to Regan.
    Any way, here is another thought, to which I would like to hear your response.
    When I imagine giving control to a PC, I get worried about the quality of my relationships going down.
    Imagine that you give up control of your personal relationships to a PC. You think your current relationship is going great, and want it to continue, but the PC overrides you and makes you decide to break up. The other person asks why, but since the PC’s reasoning is beyond your ken, you say “I know there are good reasons for breaking up, but I can’t share them with you because I have no idea what they are”. Now even if that claim is true, I think is is problematic.
    In general, I think we want to be in relationships with people who can and will share their reasons with us – reasons that will rationalize, or make intelligible, their decisions and actions and show that their actions are intelligible to them as well. In the background there is probably some thought like this: there is a special value to being in relationships with self-conscious creatures whose behavior towards us is reason-responsive in some hard to explicate but “internal” sense – it goes beyond just reliably tracking reasons.
    This suggests that we are tempted to think that making our own decisions is valuable because it normally coincides with our ability to grasp and communicate (purported) reasons for deciding and acting. Of course a PC could, in principle, make our decisions and provide us with reasons too, but that stipulation seems important.
    I have not had time to re-read the paper, but do not remember this being a point you made. If you do accept it, I think it also entails that the PC might be limited by a person’s ability to grasp reasons for decisions (when they are presented to him). What do you think?

  10. David,
    It sounds odd (to me) to say that the disadvantage of signing up with the PC is that you risk losing your responsibility for the good things you do but not for the bad things you do. And while your explanation for this is quite intriguing, there is one part that concerns me. You say that in order for an act to be virtuous it must flow from virtuous motives and be the product of the agent’s practical wisdom in deliberation. I worry that this requirement might be too demanding. Suppose I want to help the poor out of beneficence and generosity, but I do not know how best to go about doing it. And so I leave the actual deliberating to you, promising that I will abide by your conclusions. You weigh the costs and benefits and decide that I ought to provide mosquito nets to potential malaria victims, which I promptly do. I would think that I acted virtuously in providing these nets even though my act did not flow from my deliberations. And if we eliminate that clause from your account of virtuous action, then PC-governed people remain capable of virtuous action (since they are capable of acting from virtuous motives).
    I love your basketball case. I think you’re right that seeing that blinking red light would make us think twice before complementing a player for a good decision. But I suspect that anything that revealed the computational complexity of a player’s decision-making might have that effect. Imagine that, during a Phoenix Sun’s game, a sophisticated scan of Steve Nash’s brain was put on display. And imagine that, instead of showing the key plays in slow motion, the announcers instead showed Nash’s brain in slow motion leading up to a decision. So we would see some neurons firing, then other neurons firing, one module lighting up, then another, blood rushing around, and so forth, all culminating in him passing up a shot for an even better pass. Or imagine a version of my DM case – we remove the chunk of Nash’s brain responsible for decision making and let it sit on the scorer’s table while the rest of his body plays the game (like in my DM case, this chunk would communicate wirelessly with the rest of Nash’s body). We then projected on the screen the complex calculations his brain was making in judging distance, speed, etc. This too, I think, would dampen our enthusiasm for praise. In general, my suspicion is that we are tempted to praise people like Nash because their split-second decisions seem like magic tricks. They happen in a flash, and we don’t see all of the intermediate steps leading up to them. If we could slow all that down, I think we’d be less impressed and less inclined to praise (just like you’d be less impressed if you watched a magic trick in slow motion).

  11. Steve,
    I would describe my view slightly differently from the way you described it. I am indeed committed to the view that the PC is not designed to interfere when its clients reason well. But I do not think I am committed to the view that, if the PC did so interfere, we would have reason not to submit to it. That’s close but not exactly right. Rather, I am committed to the view that if the PC interfered in a way that imposed upon me some new deep commitment (or changed my commitments), we would have (some) reason not to submit to it. And the explanation for this, I think, is grounded in our wish to have acceptable lives.
    Let me try to sort this out. The PC, let us say, does not interfere except when it detects flawed internal reasoning. The EC interferes whenever it thinks you are about to do something prudentially disadvantageous. Now imagine a third committee – a kind of intermediary – which we can call the PEC. The PEC works just like the PC except when its clients are deciding between eligible options. In those cases it often intervenes; it chooses for its clients the option it thinks is prudentially best, even if its clients are not reasoning poorly. Now, my view is that we have no reason to resist either the PC or the PEC, but we have reason to resist the EC, and that what explains this is the value we attach to living an acceptable life. This is the view I eventually end up with (late in the paper), though I certainly could have made all this clearer.
    Now, you raise a very important question about the role of deep commitments in my theory. On my view, why is it prudentially important for people to be governed by their deep commitments, especially if these diverge from the commitments they would have had if they had been fully rational? I’m not sure. Part of me wants to say that it isn’t important for people to be governed by their deep commitments. To say this, of course, I’d have to embrace EC government, my paper be damned. Another part of me wants to say that it is important for people to be governed by their commitments because otherwise their personal identity would be threatened – that making me care more about poetry than political philosophy, say, would result in my death and replacement by another person (regardless of how I acquired my infatuation with political philosophy). Yet another part of me wants to say that there is no deep explanation for why being governed by one’s deep commitments is prudentially important; we have a deep interest in being governed by our deep commitments in a way that we don’t have a deep interest in being deciders (once it is clear what being a decider involves and the alternatives to it), and that is all there is to say. And yet another part of me wants to say that while we might have a deep interest both in being governed by our commitments and in being deciders, upon further analysis the latter interest seems incoherent or at least commits us to some rather weird views about ownership and rationality (this is the point of the DM thought experiment), and thus we can eliminate this interest from contention. Fertile ground for further research, I should think!

  12. Brad,
    The PC would not compromise your ability to grasp or communicate your reasons for deciding and acting. The way it works is that, when it detects a flaw in your reasoning, it subtly and imperceptibly manipulates your reasoning process, bringing certain facts to your attention, suggesting to you certain distinctions and inferences, and making certain considerations more salient. Indeed, in the process of deliberation you feel no different from how you felt prior to signing up for the PC’s services. It works below the level of consciousness, but your reasons for action remain just as introspectively available as they were before. As I note in the paper, PC governed people don’t know that they are PC governed, even if they signed up for the PC. So I don’t think there is any reason to worry about your ability to communicate your reasons.

  13. I am one of those annoying people trying to keep up with the discussion and willing to ask questions to help me do so without having yet read the paper.
    I wonder about how we are to think about the PC and the EC committees. Here is one way. Each committee has as their goal to make our lives go prudentially best. And each team is to be imagined to in fact always act in ways that achieve their goal. If this is how we think of things, then I would think that insofar as we care about our own interests we should be indifferent between these two committees. So I am guessing I am not thinking of the committees in the way I should be.
    Maybe another way to think of things is that the EC committee advances our well-being by the lights of the best account of well-being that does not ensure that what is good for us advances our committments? Crudely we could think the EC promotes the best objectivist account of well-being and the PC promotes the best subjectivist account. Now at least I could see why someone might have a prudence based preference between the two. Is that more like what you had in mind?
    If this latter proposal is closer to what you had in mind, then I would have said you need not have replied to Steve by saying that in going with procedurally rational deep committments as the key thing to promote (even when they come apart from what the agent is deeply committed to without being procedurally rational) you must abandon your hostility to the EC committee. For the EC committee (on the above view) is not committed to furthering one’s contingent concerns no matter how procedurally rationally held they are.
    In short, the best subjectivist accounts of well-being might require that the relevant concerns be informed or considered or something that makes them not necessarily actual. The subjectivist committee need not give the agent what she actually wants but rather what she would be deeply committed to if she had, for example, more information.

  14. Hi mike,
    Thanks. I am a bit unclear how this is supposed to work in practice. I have the impression from the article that the PC might correct if my reasoning is based on false empirical beliefs or ignorance. If this is right, I am unclear how the PC will do what you say. Imagine I want a family of children, but unbeknownst to me or my partner she cannot have kids do to a genetic fluke. I am reasoning about staying together with her. How will the committee shape my reasoning in an imperceptible way & one that will allow me to convey my reasons for breaking up?
    I am imagining this:
    ” I have to break up with you”
    “why?!”
    “you can’t have children”
    “huh? What makes you think that?”
    “ummm…I just find myself thinking that.”
    The point is that when people who interact with the PC controlled person start asking for reasons, and grounds for those reasons, I do not see how things will go in a way that will not start to seem odd to them and the people who are controlled.
    Is there some restriction on PC interventions to avoid this? Or some other solution?

  15. I have enjoyed the paper and discussion and while most of it is beyond my expertise, I have a question; how is it possible to have PC or EC impose values on a person, S without his or her consent? It would seem that S must consent to having these values define him or her and it is this consent that indicates that S is autonomous. Autonomous people can knowingly and freely decide to do things that can turn out to harm them in some way or help them in some way. The basic idea is that being autonomous requires that we must knowingly and freely decide to accept (or reject) the dictates of PC or EC. It seems that S can never give up this feature of decision-making, but must reassert it, even if through actions alone, every time that he or she consents to the dictates of the experts. Therefore it seems to be the case that one cannot give up one self-governance. This is, if I remember correctly, Sartre’s conception of human freedom and decision-making – it is his idea that we are ‘condemned to be free.’
    Furthermore, in the paper and this discussion the choice regarding keeping or surrendering one’s self-governance seems to be to either turn over all one’s self-governance to PC or EC or retaining all of one’s self-governance. I am wondering if this is a false dichotomy. It seems that in practice we sometimes turn over partial decision-making to experts when their expertise is greater then ours and has a direct impact on the direction we knowingly and freely want our lives to take. We rely on the expertise of doctors, lawyers, even family and friends, when we make decisions that are within the areas of their expertise. In the case of family/friends it has to do with utilizing their life experiences in situations similar to those we face in helping us decide how best to proceed. But, even in situation were we turn to the expertise of others we must 1) knowingly and freely decide to make that turn and 2) knowingly and freely decide to accept and follow their advice. Their expertise helps us make us our minds as to how best to proceed. It seems that we cannot escape Sartre’s description of our human condition.

  16. David,
    That’s helpful. I am indeed thinking about the PC and the EC roughly along the lines of your second proposal. The PC is designed to give you a life that best reflects your actual commitments while the EC is designed simply to give you the prudentially best life, where this may involve you having entirely different commitments (and unrelated to those you have now). Some of the confusion, I think, is stemming from the fact there are at least three ways to understand what the PC is up to. It could be designed to give you a life that best reflects:
    (a) your commitments as you see them.
    (b) your actual commitments, where these can differ from your commitments as you see them.
    (c) the commitments you would have if you were fully rational.
    In the paper I acknowledge some of this complexity but I don’t dwell on it, thinking, at the time of writing, that it wasn’t relevant to my thesis. I’m not so sure anymore. I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the paper, I’m appealing to different versions at different times.
    My inclination, in any case, would be to defend outsourcing to version (b) of the PC. Indeed, I would defend such outsourcing even if we added that version (b) will act like the EC when its clients confront eligible options.

  17. Brad,
    I’m not sure the PC can correct for false beliefs directly, but, if it looks like a client is about to act on false beliefs (to her detriment), the PC might be able to employ indirect strategies, say, by lowering her level of confidence in the belief in question.
    In any case, it might help to think of the PC along the lines of a rationality enhancement pill. You take this pill, and suddenly you make fewer reasoning errors, spot subtle distinctions, see your own values more clearly, and so on. That’s how I’m imagining the PC.

  18. John,
    You seem to be advancing one of the following two claims, but I’m not sure which:
    (1) It is impossible to impose values on someone without his consent.
    (2) If is impossible to impose values on someone without his consent and have him retain his autonomy.
    If you are advancing (1), I’d be inclined to question (1)’s truth. Isn’t it at least possible for people to be brainwashed, manipulated, etc.? It seems possible to implant a value in someone by circumventing their usual rational screening process, so to speak. If you are advancing (2), you might be right but I don’t think that point is relevant to my thesis. I’m not concerned with whether someone who outsources self-government to the PC retains his autonomy. I’m concerned only with whether such a move must negatively affect his life’s prudential value in at least one respect. In other words, I’m trying to see whether anything of prudential value need be lost by such outsourcing. And I think that at least some evidence for the claim that nothing of such value need be lost is that we don’t think anything of such value need be lost when, as you suggest, the outsourcing is not wholesale. As I argue in the paper, even if I were to enter into an irrevocable contract, say, with a financial planner, and even if we set it up so that I had no choice but to comply with his suggestions, it is not clear I must have lost anything of value.

  19. Mike,
    You write: the EC is designed simply to give you the prudentially best life, where this may involve you having entirely different commitments (and unrelated to those you have now).
    I find this characterization of what the EC folks are up to confusing. If that is their aim, and if we are to think they are going to succeed in their aim, then what prudent person would prefer the PC committee to actually getting what is prudentially best, under that description? Surely every prudent person can agree that the committee that actually makes their own life go well is at least as good as the committee that ensures that their own concerns are furthered. Surely if a prudent person had to choose between fulfilling her committments and getting what is good for her (under that description), the prudent person would choose that which is actually good for her, right?
    But you said you were ok with my second characterization in my first post so maybe what you wrote above is shorthand for saying that the EC folks make one’s life go best by the lights of the best theory that does not require one’s good to pass a resonance test with the agent.

  20. Mike: Magic tricks in slow motion impress me even more!
    Talk of virtue–Aristotelian virtue in particular–quickly makes my head hurt, but I guess matters would depend here on what it would be to deliberate and decide as the person of practical wisdom would. Not being virtuous myself, I don’t know whether or not this would be compatible with handing over decision-making to the PC.
    As for the basketball case, you’re right that, sometimes, seeing what goes on behind the curtain may dampen our credit-giving for what goes on before it. But I have in mind less easily swayed, sophisticated basketball fans who ostensibly already know what’s going on in Nash’s brain when he decides to pull up from here, or pass at the last second to there. This doesn’t debunk the thought that he’s creditworthy for making such decisions. If we put the picture of his brain side by side with a picture of the deciding committee, and it showed when they each made the relevant decision, he would likely seem to these fans less like a credit-worthy agent when the PC is making the decision, and more like an avatar. Whether or not this is reasonable, however, I should probably think about some more.

  21. Mike
    Thank you for your response. I guess we are not at cross purposes here. I do not mean 1, but I would reword 2 to read, (2a)It is impossible to impose values on an autonomous agents without their consent. I agree that we loss nothing of prudential value because, outside of extenuating circumstances like brainwashing, we must knowingly and freely confirm or deny what the PC or EC decides is in our best interest and we must do so in order to follow their recommendations/dictates. Where we might have a small area of disagreement is that I do not think we can ever completely give up decision-making to others (all things being equal); the outsourcing can never be complete. Even if we always want the EC or PC to formulate a course of action, we must ultimately agree, or disagree, to follow this course of action and it is this that retains the final decision-making feature to follow the course of action to the autonomous agent. At most, the EC or PC simply recommends courses of action even if it comes across as a dictate. EC’s or PC’s cannot impose courses of actions, etc. on autonomous agents and in situations without extenuating circumstances (like brainwashing) we are always autonomous.

  22. David (Sobel),
    I should have stated my view more clearly. The EC is designed to give you the prudentially best life than an external decision-making committee could give you. It is a further question whether this would be the prudentially best life you could possibly have. For purposes of this paper, I am committed to the view that it would not be – that if you outsourced self-government to the EC, something of prudential value would be lost even if, on the whole, you’d be better off. On my view, the EC could not give you the best possible life, even though it might give you the best life of all those that are practically available to you.
    To put it another way, I’m committed to the view that outsourcing self-government to the EC would make your life worse in at least one respect, even if, on the whole, it would make it better. The idea is that there are many aspects to well-being, and that the EC might be quite good for you with respect to some of them but that it would be bad for you with respect to one of them.
    I’m a bit leery of your formulation of the EC’s mission. Suppose that part of what makes a person P’s life go well is P’s approval of his life. In that case, the EC would make sure to instill in its clients such an attitude, so the resonance test you mention may be satisfied. Of course, you might have a different resonance test in mind.

  23. John,
    That’s helpful, but I’m still unsure how to understand 2a. Here are two versions:
    2a-1: It is impossible to impose values on autonomous agents without their consent.
    2a-2: It is impossible to impose values on autonomous agents without their consent without compromising their autonomy.
    I suspect that you endorse 2a-1. But I guess I don’t see why imposing values on an autonomous agent (Fred) is impossible. At least in principle, couldn’t we tinker with Fred’s decision-making so that he always decides the way we want him to? Consider a Manchurian Candidate scenario – we hypnotize Fred and make him into an assassin. I don’t know how feasible this is, but it seems at least conceptually possible, and in so doing it seems that we would have imposed values on Fred without his consent.
    I suppose you might say that, even if we did this, Fred is still deciding for himself; ultimately, he has to pull the trigger, so to speak. But his pulling the trigger, I take it, requires a judgment on his part, and that judgment seems open to manipulation. This is the kind of manipulation the PC might be able to engage in. Fred might think that he and he alone is pulling the trigger, but the PC could be working behind the scenes to lead him to make certain judgments that he otherwise wouldn’t make. To my mind, this would make Fred no longer self-governing.

  24. David (Shoemaker),
    So if the PC were a supercomputer and not a committee of people, would you have a different view of a PC-governed person’s responsibility for his actions? Initially, I took you to be suggesting that there’s something problematic about holding PC-governed people responsible for their good deeds regardless of whether the PC was composed of people or microchips.

  25. Thank you Mike for responding to my comment.
    I agree with your description of what happens with Fred, but I do think that there would be extenuating circumstances that would explain why Fred was susceptible to what happened to him that would allow us to maintain that when Fred became the Manchurian candidate he was not acting autonomously, but that his autonomy had previously been compromised. It seems to me this type of scenario leads to skepticism because it wouldn’t be possible for any of us to determine whether or not we have been brainwashed as Fred has been if the person doing the brainwashing (Descartes Evil Demon for example, or the Matrix), was competent in what he or she was doing. But you are certainly not advocating for moral skepticism in your paper, but are making the normative claim that there is no inherent (intrinsic) value in being autonomous, or prudential value in being autonomous for that matter.
    I take it your main interest in your paper is to explain how one can autonomously give up ones’ decision-making to either a PC or an EC. It seems that your argument is consequentialist in nature: If S determines that a PC or an EC will make better decisions that more positively affects the direction S’s life will take then S can do without the PC or EC, then it is in S’s interest to submit to the dictates of the PC or EC. We should do what is in our best interest (all other things being equal), Therefore….
    It is a very interesting claim that we give up nothing of intrinsic or prudential value if we autonomously give up our decision-making to someone else’s expertise. I guess that I have an issue with the word ‘impose.’ Is there a difference between the expert imposing their will on S and S accepting the dictates of the expert. I suggest that there is. If I accept the doctor’s recommendation to pursue a certain course of action, this does not seem like an imposition on the part of the doctor of her will over mine. Even if I say beforehand to the doctor that will do whatever the she thinks is in my best interest, I must still agree to follow that direction once it is presented to me. All things being equal, if I am autonomous I cannot give this up. We have to take into account new information and the recommendation of the PC or EC is new information.

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