Avoiding Future Agony: Survey Says

I disagree with one of my fellow PEA Brains about something. Part of what our disagreement hinges upon is our differing intuitions about the following sort of case. Although it's clear that we have differing intuitions about this case, it's not clear whose intuitions are more widely shared. Of course, I don't think that because an intuition is widely shared that means that it must be true, but I do think how widely an intuition is shared among fellow philosophers does affect how persuasive certain arguments that rely on those intuitions will be. So here's a survey that tests people's intuitions.

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QGF6XDD

If you have the time, please take the survey. In a few days (after there have been several responses), I'll explain what the disagreement is and what of philosophical interests hangs on it. I post below the fold the set up for the survey in case people want to ask questions about it.

It is now t1. I will experience agonizing pain in my right pinky at t10 unless I take at t5 either the anesthetizing pill or the amputating pill. If I take the anesthetizing pill at t5, I’ll be anesthetized at t10. If I take the amputating pill at t5, I’ll be missing my right pinky at t10. Either way, I’ll avoid experiencing agonizing pain in my right pinky at t10. Assume that my obtaining the anesthetizing pill is costless, but that it is only be obtained now. Assume that my obtaining the amputating pill will be costly; I can obtain it only at t4 and only by either purchasing it for $20,000 or by trading ITEM in for it. Lastly, assume that I can purchase ITEM only at t1 at a cost of $10,000. There are then five salient states of affairs:

  1. I obtain the anesthetizing pill now and take it at t5, thereby avoiding agony at t10 without incurring any costs.
  2. I purchase ITEM now for $10,000, trade it in for the amputating pill at t4, and take the amputating pill at t5, thereby avoiding agony at t10 at the cost of $10,000 and my right pinky.
  3. I purchase the amputating pill at t4 for $20,000 and take it at t5, thereby avoiding agony at t10 at the cost of $20,000 and my right pinky.
  4. I take neither pill at t5 and suffer agony at t10.
  5. I take both pills at t5 in which case I immediately die.

 Assume that the states of affairs rank in the order given. Thus assume that the agony is so great that (2) and (3) are both better than (4). Assume that ITEM is only potentially good as a means to obtaining the amputating pill at t4. Otherwise, it’s completely valueless. Assume that everything else is equal.

Now suppose that, as a matter of fact, I’m presently forming both the intention to refrain from obtaining the anesthetizing pill and the intention to instead purchase ITEM, trade it in for the amputating pill, and take the amputating pill at t5. And, assume that as matter of fact, I will follow through with whatever intention I now form and that, therefore, I will not obtain the anesthetizing pill. It’s not that I couldn’t now respond appropriately to my reasons and form the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill and thereby obtain it; it’s just that, as a matter fact, I’m not responding appropriately to my reasons and so I’m not forming the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill and so I’m not going to obtain the anesthetizing pill.    

THE QUESTION: Do I now have a reason, indeed most reason, to purchase ITEM? Is purchasing ITEM what I ought to do?

ARGUMENT FOR YES: Given that I will, as a matter of fact, not obtain the anesthetizing pill, I will later on have a reason, indeed most reason, to obtain the amputating pill. After all, if I don’t obtain the anesthetizing pill (and I won’t), then, later on, taking the amputating pill will be the only way for me to avoid agonizing pain in my right pinky at t10. And I can facilitate my later obtaining that amputating pill by purchasing ITEM. Therefore, in virtue of the fact that I will have a reason later on to obtain the amputating pill, I now have a reason, indeed most reason, to facilitate my later obtaining the amputating pill by presently purchasing ITEM.  

THE ARGUMENT FOR NO: We should not hold fixed the fact that I will not obtain the anesthetizing pill when deciding what my present reasons and obligations are, for whether or not I will obtain the anesthetizing pill depends on whether I presently respond appropriately to my reasons. If I were now to respond appropriately to my reasons, as we’re assuming that I’m capable of, I would now be forming the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill. The fact that I’m not forming the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill doesn’t mean that my forming this intention isn’t an option for me, nor does it mean that I shouldn’t form the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill. Indeed, I should form the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill. So I have no reason to purchase ITEM, because I should just form the intention to obtain the anesthetizing pill, obtain the anesthetizing pill, and take it at t5, thereby avoiding agony at t10 without incurring any costs.

From both (1) the fact that I have a conditional obligation to obtain the amputating pill if I’m not going to obtain the anesthetizing pill and (2) the fact that I’m not going to obtain the anesthetizing pill, it doesn’t follow that (3) I have an unconditional obligation to obtain the amputating pill.

2 Replies to “Avoiding Future Agony: Survey Says

  1. Dear Doug,
    I am but an occasional visitor to these pages, but there is one thing I wanted to ask you about the long story with the two kinds of pills.
    You say, after introducing all the alternatives, that if you form the intention to refrain from acquiring the anesthesia and instead get the amputating pill, you will not obtain the anesthesia — and that this is a fact. And it is a fact, therefore, I better believe it and this should play a crucial role in my deliberations about what reasons I have. Correct?
    There is an awful lot going on in this story about the relation between intentions and future acts; about intentions and reasons; and about the relation between future-oriented intentions and beliefs. It is about this latter relation that you seem to take something for granted that I am unsure about. You assume that ceteris paribus you will do what you intend to do and that, therefore, if at t1 you intend to do A at t5, you should believe at t1 (or maybe t2, right after having formed the intention) that you will do A at t5. But surely, that is unclear at best? There are all kinds of situations and circumstances where intending to do A does not come with the requirement to believe that you will A?
    It seems to me that this is one little building blick that needs to be firmly in place, before you can start pumping (at least my) intuitions about this scenario.

  2. Hi Bruno,
    Yes, there is an awful lot going on this example. I’m afraid that I’m not very good at constructing these sorts of examples.
    “You say, after introducing all the alternatives, that if you form the intention to refrain from acquiring the anesthesia and instead get the amputating pill, you will not obtain the anesthesia — and that this is a fact. And it is a fact, therefore, I better believe it and this should play a crucial role in my deliberations about what reasons I have. Correct?”
    Whether I (qua subject of the example) should believe it and have it play a crucial role in my deliberations depends on my evidence. What I said was that *we* should not hold fixed the fact that I will not obtain the anesthetizing pill when deciding (I should have said ‘figuring out’) what my present reasons and obligations are.
    You write: “You assume that ceteris paribus you will do what you intend to do and that, therefore, if at t1 you intend to do A at t5, you should believe at t1 (or maybe t2, right after having formed the intention) that you will do A at t5. But surely, that is unclear at best? There are all kinds of situations and circumstances where intending to do A does not come with the requirement to believe that you will A?”
    I don’t assume that I (qua subject of the example) will do what I will intend to do. It’s just a stipulation of the case.

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