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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.

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By In Uncategorized Comments (22)

The Value of Mere Possibilities

I'm watching a riveting movie. I have no desire to get up or do anything else. Good thing that because I'm on a transatlantic flight.

Intuitively, I think I would be better off if I were watching that movie at home and could get up, walk around or stop the movie and take it up again later even if I didn't want to do any of those things. Factor out typical differences in the comfort and legroom of economy class seating and easy chairs in the average living room–put me in business class if you'd like. It still seems that the mere possibilities I enjoy in the comfort of my home contribute to well-being.

And it doesn't seem to me that I just want possibilities as a hedge against future contingencies. I have (really) on some occasions paid (around $20) for an aisle seat on a plane so that I could have the mere possibility of getting up without a hassle. And when, on those occasions, I didn't in fact want to get up but cheerfully sat through the entire flight I still deplaned satisfied that it was money well spent.

Mere possibilities don't figure in experience so hedonists have a quick answer. But if we understand well-being as preference satisfaction we note that we can be made better off by states that don't figure in experience. So…why not by states that obtain at other possible worlds?

Intuitions wanted!

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By In Uncategorized Comments (1)

Equity in New Job Programs

This petition, available at, asks President-Elect Obama to:

1. Revive and enforce the Labor Department regulations that require government contractors to institute affirmative action plans that provide a share of the jobs for women and minorities. Closely monitor the contractors for compliance.

2. In connection with the infrastructure projects, institute apprenticeships, and ensure that at least one third of the positions go to women.

3. Add projects in health, child care, education, social service that will both provide jobs to women, and also provide needed services to them.

Please consider signing!

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