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Chapter 14, entitled ‘Moral Intuitions, Cognitive Psychology, and the Harming/Not-Aiding Distinction’, engages with well-known empirical studies by Kahneman and Tversky that are thought to cast doubt on the reliability of our judgments about what ought to be done in particular cases. Kahneman and Tversky argue that such judgments are unreliable because they are susceptible to ‘framing effects’. A person’s judgments are subject to a framing effect if he comes to a different conclusion about what ought to be done in a given set of circumstances when presented with a different true description (i.e., framing) of the available options. One and the same policy can, for example, be described as protecting against losses or as yielding gains. According to Kahneman and Tversky, people tend to regard the sacrifice that is justifiable for the sake of preventing losses as greater than the sacrifice that is justifiable for the sake of securing equivalent gains. Hence their judgments shift if one and the same policy is (accurately) described (a) as protecting from losses or (b) as yielding gains:

For example, experimental subjects give different responses about the necessity of a health-care policy to deal with a coming Asian flu, depending on whether we say either that (a) without the policy, 400 of 600 people will lose their lives, or (b) without the policy, we can only save 200 of 600 people. In description (a), the baseline suggested by the phrasing is a state in which people are now well but face getting worse; the baseline suggested by the phrasing in description (b) is the near-death state people will be in if there is no intervention, but from which there can be improvement. Subjects think that it is worse if people lose their lives than if they do not gain them, and they are more averse to a policy in which people lose their lives than one in which the same number are not saved. Hence they would prefer the policy in (a) to having it in (b), though it is the same situation described differently. (pp. 424-5)

Kamm points out that the reliability of our intuitive judgements regarding what ought to be done in a given set of circumstances is not undermined by the mere fact that these judgments change under the influence of different true descriptions of these circumstances. We might, for example, have reason to think the one judgment is more reliable than another insofar as it is influenced by a description that draws attention to morally relevant factors that the other description omits:

What we should not do is look for extensionally equivalent descriptions, one of which eliminates from our awareness factors that are morally relevant differences, and then condemn the different responses induced by the description that has morally relevant features. For example, we might describe an event as “maximizing utility” or as “killing one to save five.” The former description, of the two that could be extensionally equivalent, eliminates a morally relevant characteristic that is only observed in the latter description. (p. 439)

A shift in judgment induced by framing is problematic, however, when a different description introduces ‘what is seen, at least on reflection, to be a difference that should be irrelevant to different responses’ (p. 439).

Through a series of arguments, Kamm reaches the conclusion that ‘Kahneman and Tversky’s experimental data do not help to undermine the possible moral importance of the harming/not-aiding distinction’ (p. 435). They do not serve to undermine this for the following two reasons:

First, this is because their data do not support [the] substitution [of the harming/not-aiding distinction] with a loss/no-gain distinction in the account of people’s intuitions. …Second, the data do not support the susceptibility of the harming/not-aiding distinction to framing effects of the sort associated with the loss/no-gain distinction. (pp. 435-6)

Kamm’s defence of her first point struck me as decisive and unanswerable and her defence of the second point as pretty persuasive.

The following is a sample of the arguments that Kamm marshals on behalf of the first point:

Those who affirm the moral significance of the harming/not-aiding distinction appeal to pairs of cases such as the following:

In Car Case 1, it is permissible for you to drive past a dying person on the side of the road rather than pull over to administer lifesaving aid if this would prevent you from getting five dying individuals in the back of your car to the hospital in time to receive lifesaving treatment.

In Car Case 2, by contrast, it is impermissible for you to run over a pedestrian crossing the road to the hospital even if this is necessary if you are to deliver five dying individuals in the back of your car to the hospital in time to receive lifesaving treatment.

The standard explanation of this difference in our judgments regarding permissibility is that you will merely fail to aid the one in Car Case 1, whereas you will harm (kill) the one in Car Case 2. Yet Tamara Horowitz has argued that it is, in fact, the loss/no-gain rather than the harming/not-aiding distinction that explains the difference in our judgments: the pedestrian in Car Case 2 is a healthy person who would suffer a loss of life if you run her over, whereas the one on the side of the road in Car Case 1 is someone who is dying who will fail to gain her life if you drive past her. Kamm replies to Horowitz as follows:

I believe that Horowitz’s proposed explanation of our judgments of permissibility and impermissibility does not succeed. Suppose that we frame things so that the one person beside the road in Car Case 1 is in good shape but will be fatally attacked by a wild animal unless we stay with her. The case then involves a choice between preventing loss of life to the one – if the model of the Asian Flu cases is correct – and providing a gain to the dying five. Yet, we still should save the five. …This suggests that it is the harming/not-aiding distinction rather than the loss/no-gain distinction that is morally significant. (p. 434)

At the end of the chapter, Kamm turns to a consideration of ‘whether in certain cases in which Kahneman and Tversky claim that people’s intuitions lead them astray, they really do, and, if so, why’ (p. 438). She attempts to show how people’s intuitions might be justified rather than irrational in these cases. I shall discuss two such attempts:

(1) Thomas Schelling’s Tax Case. It strikes people as unfair if the child exemption from taxation of the rich is greater than that of the poor – i.e., if the tax owed by a rich family is reduced by a greater amount per child than the tax owed by a poor family. But

Schelling now points out to his students that the child exemption assumes that the default case … is a childless family and that special adjustments are required for families with children. Of course, the existing tax schedule could be rewritten in which a family with two children would be the default case. A tax surcharge for childless families would presumably be imposed. Should this surcharge be as large for the poor as for the rich? Of course not. In this example and in other framing effects, a strong preference can be overturned by altering a superficial feature of presentation. (Kahneman quoted by Kamm on p. 439)

Since a greater exemption for the rich for having more children is, in effect, the same as a greater surcharge on the rich for having fewer children, Kahneman describes the above pair of responses regarding exemptions and surcharges as ‘incoherent’.

Kamm, however, attempts to vindicate this pair of responses by noting that the ‘term exemption suggests that we first determine what the government may by right take from a citizen’s income for various purposes and then consider exempting people from that’, whereas the ‘term surcharge suggests a penalty, that is, it suggests that the government has first taken all it has a right to from citizens, and then, if they do not have children, more is taken from them’ (p. 440). She goes on to argue that such an implicit variation in the baseline of what the government has a right to take can provide a justification of a preference for both a greater exemption for the poor and a greater surcharge on the rich: ‘[I]f a surcharge (as I have defined it) is to be imposed on anyone, it should be imposed on the rich, who can afford it. On the other hand, if the government will give back a portion of that to which it has a right, it should give to the poor, who need it’ (pp. 440-1).

Even if Kamm thereby succeeds in justify people’s differing reactions induced by Schelling’s different framings of the tax policy, I think it is nevertheless possible to generate a genuine incoherence by dispensing with his talk of exemptions and surcharges altogether. We can simply describe things in the language of ‘adjustments’ that reflect differences in numbers of dependent children, where such adjustments are represented as that which is alleged to be necessary in order to end up at a level of taxation that the government has a right to impose on a particular family, given its composition. Under the one framing, we take the pre-adjustment level of taxation as one that assumes a childless family, and we then adjust that figure downward for a two-child family. Under the other framing, we take the pre-adjustment level of taxation as one that assumes a family with two children, and we then adjust that figure upward for a childless family. The downward and upward adjustments would, under both framings, be greater for the richer family. I’m fairly certain that people will continue to find it indefensible, under the first way of framing things, that the downward adjustment for the rich is greater than for the poor, while finding it defensible, under the second way of framing things, that the upward adjustment is greater for the rich than for the poor. Such attitudes cannot be rendered coherent in the manner that Kamm has proposed.

(2) Kahneman’s Peak-End Rule regarding experiences. According to Kahneman’s Peak-End Rule, a ‘simple average of the peak instant … disutility reported during an [unpleasant] episode and of the … disutility reported at its end’ provides an accurate prediction of how unpleasant an experimental subject will rate a painful experience afterwards. (Here I quote from Charles Schreiber and Daniel Kahneman, ‘Determinants of the Remembered Utility of Aversive Sounds’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 129 (2000): 27-42, at p. 27.) The Peak-End Rule accurately predicts the following paradoxical feature of people’s evaluations:

[A]dding a period of diminished discomfort to an unpleasant episode must yield a more favorable global evaluation of the episode, because the average of peak-end disutility is reduced if the new end is less aversive. This prediction was tested in a study by Kahneman et al. (1993), in which participants had two experiences of immersing one hand in painfully cold water. The short trial lasted 60 s [i.e., seconds], with water temperature at 14 °C. The long trial lasted 90 s; the temperature was 14 °C for the first 60 s, then rose gradually to 15 °C over the next 30 s—still unpleasant, but a distinct improvement for most participants. When they were later given a choice of which trial to repeat, a significant majority of participants chose to repeat the long trial. This preference violates logic, because adding pain to an aversive episode cannot make it better. [Schreiber and Kahneman, op. cit., p. 28]

Kamm maintains, however, that it might be possible, as follows, to justify this ‘seemingly irrational focus on the peak and end of an experience, which can lead to the preference for more overall pain’ (p. 442):

Intuitively, inclines (representing increasing goods or decreasing bads) are preferable to declines (representing increasing bads or decreasing goods); it is preferable for events to conform to an incline rather than a decline, even when total utility is held constant. One would rather start as a clerk and move up to be president than the reverse, even with total utility held constant….
…[S]uppose a parsed event, such as a medical examination, is conceived as being over when all pain ends. Then that event within one’s life would end on an incline (less bad, more good) only if the pain peters out rather than if it ends abruptly. The state of absence of pain would be conceived as a new event or situation, and if pain ceases abruptly, the previous event does not end in an incline; rather, the previous event is seen as merely intense pain. (p. 442)

Here are two sceptical comments on Kamm’s attempt to make sense of people’s preferences in the case under discussion:

(a) Strictly speaking, the Peak-End Rule is insensitive to whether or not the experience ends on an incline or a decline. All the rule attends to is the (average of) the peak (i.e., most intense) pain and the level of pain at the end of the experience. That rule would predict indifference between the long trial described by Kahneman above and a trial of equal overall length which consisted of 14 °C for the first 60 seconds, then rose gradually to 16 °C over the next 25 seconds, and then declined rather swiftly during the last 5 seconds to 15 °C. Experimental data indicates that people would, in fact, be indifferent between these two trials. (See Schreiber and Kahneman, op. cit., pp. 35 and 38.) People’s preference for a longer experience containing more overall pain is not, therefore, well-explained as a preference for experiences that end on an incline.

(b) I think, in any event, that any preference for either of the long trials described above over the shorter trial is irrational for the following reason. Suppose that, as in all of the above trials, your hand is initially immersed in 14 °C water for 60 seconds. But now suppose that, as you reach the one-minute mark, you are informed that you have a choice between a complete cessation of this painful experience and a continuation of it for an additional 30 seconds, but at a less intense level of pain as specified by either of the two longer trials. Assuming that you’re not a masochist, you would have to be crazy, at that point, to prefer a 30 second extension of the painful experience to its complete cessation. If you are told that, in retrospect, you will remember the experience as less bad if it is extended for an additional 30 seconds, you should conclude that this is grounds for thinking that your memory is unreliable rather than for thinking that the longer experience is in fact less bad.


Comments

  1. 1. Posted by Neil Levy | October 6, 2007 6:04 am

    Thanks for the post, Mike. I share your scepticism with regard to Kamm’s discussion of the peak end rule and the tax case. It seems to me that the best that can be said for her response to the peak end rule is that it shows that we divided up experiences in ways that are counterintuitive. Why, in any case, is she concerned to reply to this finding? Unless she thinks that she can reply to the entire literature on cognitive illusions, she should focus her efforts on findings like the framing effect, which actually challenge her view.

    I am less confident than you are that her reply to the framing effect succeeds. Two points. First, I am not sure that her counterexample compares like with like. In the wild animal case, the animal is independent of the agent’s actions. So the case might at best force a revision of the loss-versus-foregone-gains principles, according to which we put greater weight on loss than foregone gains, if the causal factors leading to each are held constant. That seems an irrational principle, and one that Kamm hasn’t shown isn’t at work in generating our intuitions.

    Second, consider this set of cases:

    (a) I can save one limb of each of five people by cutting off the limb of one other person;
    (b) I can choose to save the limbs of five people, but only by ignoring the plight of one other who without my aid will lose a limb;
    (c) I can save the limbs of five people by acting so as to prevent one person from regaining a limb already lost.

    Clearly (a) is impermissible while (b) is permissible or perhaps obligatory, just as both principles predict. But what of (c)? Plausibly, if I act to prevent the one person from regaining her limb I harm her (perhaps I deliberately move the medication she needs out of her reach). But my intuition is that doing so here is permissible. If it is permissible to harm here, this may be because doing so results in a forgone benefit, rather than a loss. It appears that sometimes losses-outweigh-foregone gains trump harming-worse-than-not- aiding. If that’s the case, then some of our moral intuitions are the product of an allegedly irrational principle, just as Horowitz claimed.

  2. 2. Posted by Mike Otsuka | October 9, 2007 4:09 pm

    Thanks very much, Neil, for these comments.

    I am not sure that her counterexample compares like with like. In the wild animal case, the animal is independent of the agent’s actions. So the case might at best force a revision of the loss-versus-foregone-gains principles, according to which we put greater weight on loss than foregone gains, if the causal factors leading to each are held constant. That seems an irrational principle, and one that Kamm hasn’t shown isn’t at work in generating our intuitions.

    I think, however, that, insofar as independence of the agent’s actions is concerned, Car Case 1 and Kamm’s wild animal variant of that case are like cases. In each case, that which would cause the death of the one person on the side of the road is something other than the agent’s actions. In Car Case 1, it’s the (unspecified) life-threatening medical condition he’s suffering. In the wild animal case, it’s the wild animal. We might, however, want to try to make these cases more similar by stipulating that, in Car Case 1, the one on the side of the road is in need of lifesaving aid because he’s already been attacked by a wild animal. We could add that, in all three cases (Car Case 1, Car Case 2, and Kamm’s variant of Car Case 1), the five are in need of life-saving assistance because they’ve been attacked by a wild animal.

    But what of (c)? Plausibly, if I act to prevent the one person from regaining her limb I harm her (perhaps I deliberately move the medication she needs out of her reach). But my intuition is that doing so here is permissible. If it is permissible to harm here, this may be because doing so results in a forgone benefit, rather than a loss.

    I would deny that the permissibility of harming in this case would be explained by the fact that you fail to provide her with a benefit rather than imposing a loss. I think that whether you harm her, and whether you act impermissibly, both instead depend on whether you have an independent right (e.g., a property right) to do that which prevents her from regaining her limb. If, for example, the medicine that you snatch away from her before she’s able to grab it is her medicine, then you’ve harmed her and you’ve done something impermissible. If, however, it’s your medicine for which she’s reaching, and you grab it first in order to deliver to the five, then you don’t harm her, nor do you act impermissibly. (Here I believe I’m tracking claims that Timothy Hall made in his PhD dissertation. I also believe that Hall was himself inspired to make these claims by remarks of Shelly Kagan on pp. 106-111 of The Limits of Morality.)

  3. 3. Posted by Neil Levy | October 10, 2007 1:41 am

    Hey Mike,

    The idea about the independence in the wild animal case turns on how we individuate situations. My thought was this: there is a large mass of empirical evidence on how people individuate what is internal and what external to a case (in the moral case, the evidence has been gathered by Hauser). This evidence suggests that when causal processes begin is relevant to whether they are considered part of the same situation, and that whether the process is begun by an agent (that is, an animal or other self-animating being) is also relevant. If the causal process begins after the person has left, then it is independent of her; if it is begun by another agent, it is likewise independent. Kamm cannot ignore this evidence, since it is likely the same principles of situation individuation are at work in pumping her intuitions.

  4. 4. Posted by Thom Brooks | October 10, 2007 12:22 pm

    I simply wanted to thank you, Mike, for an excellent post — I think you are absolutely spot on. Moreover, you can look forward to a piece by Timothy Hall in the Journal of Moral Philosophy entitled “Doing Harm, Allowing Harm, and Denying Resources” that deals with medicine, etc.

  5. 5. Posted by Timothy Hall | October 12, 2007 11:49 pm

    I’d like to make two sorts of comment. The first is to buttress the case made by Frances Kamm and Mike for the moral irrelevance of the no benefit/loss distinction in the Car cases above. The second is to elaborate on (what I think is) the correct moral analysis of the withdrawal of medicine-type cases Neil and Mike discuss. The second point is elaborated in the article Thom refers to above.

    Kamm suggests a comparison to show that the difference between the absence of benefit and loss is not morally significant in the Car cases:

    Car Case 1: One is able to save the lives of five threatened with death in the back of one’s car by driving on to the hospital, and failing to aid a single person suffering from an existing, life-threatening medical condition on the side of the road.

    Car Case 1’: One is able to save the lives of five threatened with death in the back of one’s car by driving on to the hospital, and failing to prevent a wild animal from killing an otherwise healthy person on the side of the road.

    Kamm and Mike both judge driving on in these cases to be on a moral par. I agree.

    Driving on in both cases is, with respect to the one, an omission of action. We might compare no-benefit/loss cases that involve an agent’s acting, too:

    Strength Chemical Case 1: Left on his own, Smith will continue to grow in strength beyond normal strength to superhuman strength. Jones sprays Smith with a chemical that stops Smith’s growth in strength immediately and permanently, at normal levels.

    Strength Chemical Case 2: Smith is superhumanly strong. Jones sprays Smith with a chemical that immediately reduces Smith’s strength to normal levels permanently.

    In the first case, Jones prevents Smith from benefiting from superhuman strength. In the second, Jones deprives Smith of superhuman strength. I judge these cases also to be on a moral par. (We must be careful to bracket common, but inessential, differences between cases of this kind: the greater certainty of plans based the use of existing powers, as opposed to expected powers, etc.)

    In defense of the moral parity of these cases, I suggest that whatever Smith might permissibly do to prevent Jones’ spraying in Case 2 he may do in Case 1. For example, Smith might permissibly knock Jones unconscious with a club to prevent the harm in Case 2, even if that would result in some permanent injury to Jones. He may also do the same in Case 1.

    (As regards Kahneman and Tversky, would these cases elicit different responses from philosophically naïve audiences? About that I make no prediction.)

    To turn to my own views on withdrawal-type cases, Neil’s case augmented by Mike’s comments yields the following:

    Limb Threat 1: Smith will lose a limb unless he consumes some rare medicine. The medicine rightfully belongs to Jones. Jones removes the medicine from Smith and Smith loses the limb.

    Limb Threat 2: Smith will lose a limb unless he consumes some rare medicine. The medicine rightfully belongs to Smith. Jones removes the medicine from Smith and Smith loses the limb.

    Mike wants to say that, in the first case, Jones allows harm to Smith, and, in the second case, that Jones harms Smith. This difference is made by Jones having, or not having, a right to the medicine in the two cases. In this, Mike follows not only Kagan in the passage he cites, but Jeff McMahan and Kamm herself. (McMahan, Ethics of Killing (New York: Oxford, 2002), p. 379; “Killing, Letting Die, and Withdrawing Aid”, Ethics 103 (1993), pp. 250-79; “A Challenge to Common Sense Morality”, Ethics 108 (1998), pp. 394-418; Kamm, Morality, Mortality Vol. II (New York: Oxford, 1996), p. 28.)

    I am less sure about the metaphysics of the situation. Perhaps it is an excess of philosopher’s caution, but I hesitate to say that Jones harms Smith in LT2. Jones certainly denies to Smith the medicine that would otherwise prevent the threat to Smith from running its course. I am more comfortable saying that Jones allows harm in LT1, but those who balked at this description because of Jones’ action would not meet with great resistance from me.

    What I am much more confident about is that LT1 is on a moral par with what I call “standard allowings of harm”. A standard allowing of harm is a case in which an agent fails to act to aid, or prevent harm to, another, e.g., standing by while someone drowns. So, LT1 is on a par with a case in which Jones fails to send his rare medicine to Smith and Smith loses a limb. And LT2 is on a moral par with what I call “standard harmings”. A standard doing of harm, or a standard harming, is a case in which an agent creates a threat that harms another, e.g., when an agent attacks another with a club. So, LT2 is on a par with a case in which Jones poisons Smith causing Smith to lose a limb.

    To support these claims, I would point out that Smith might permissibly use very serious force, perhaps even deadly force, to stop Jones from poisoning him resulting in a loss of a limb. So too might Smith permissibly resist Jones’ attempts to deprive him of his medicine in LT2. However, Smith may not use force, much less lethal force, in LT1, or in its standard allowing-of-harm analogue, to acquire Jones’ medicine.

    The behavior in the Limb Threat cases is an example of what I call “denials of resources”, cases in which an agent deprives another of, or makes unavailable to another, a useful resource. In the article Thom mentions, only those resources that might prevent a loss from an existing threat are considered. The analysis also applies, though, to those cases in which a resource might produce a benefit.

    The claim is that denials of resources are on a moral par with comparable standard allowings of harm when (a) the denying agent has a right to the resource denied and (b) the denied party has no right. Limb Threat 1 is a case in point. Denials are on a moral par with standard harmings when (a) the denying agent has no right to the resource denied and (b) the denied party has a right. Limb Threat 2 exemplifies this situation.

    A right to a resource plays a much more important role in the moral status of denial cases than it does in either standard harmings or standard allowings of harm. The morally important metaphysical distinctions are thus between standard doings of harm and denials of resources, and standard allowings of harm and denials of resources. This is true whether denials of resources are doings of harm, allowings of harm, or neither. So, whether denials are doings, allowings, or neither is a much less important question for purposes of moral explanation than it has commonly been taken to be.

  6. 6. Posted by Mike Otsuka | October 13, 2007 10:15 am

    Thanks, Neil, for your clarification at #3. I think, however, that Kamm could appeal to the following pair of cases that are cleansed of these two distracting influences (temporal and agential) on our intuitions:

    Boat 1: In order to get five dying individuals whom you are transporting in your boat to the hospital in time to receive life-saving assistance, it is intuitively permissible for you to refrain from stopping en route to rescue a healthy individual who is stranded on a rock in a rising tide and who will eventually drown once the tide submerges the rock.

    Boat 2: It is intuitively impermissible, by contrast, for you to run over someone on a raft even if that is necessary if you are to get five dying individuals whom you are transporting in your boat to the hospital in time to receive life-saving assistance.

    Here it appears that the harming/not-aiding distinction explains the difference in intuition, rather than either the loss/no-gain distinction or the temporal or agential factors you mention.

  7. 7. Posted by Mike Otsuka | October 13, 2007 11:13 am

    Thanks, Tim, for your extensive and thoughtful comments. You write:

    Perhaps it is an excess of philosopher’s caution, but I hesitate to say that Jones harms Smith in LT2 [by taking Smith’s medicine that he needs to consume in order to prevent the loss of his limb]. Jones certainly denies to Smith the medicine that would otherwise prevent the threat to Smith from running its course.

    Suppose that Smith’s medicine is an antibiotic that is already in the process of being administered to Smith via a drip and is already starting to fight off the bacteria in Smith’s limb. Smith, however, needs a full dose of the antibiotic, otherwise he will lose his limb. Jones removes the yet-to-be administered portion of the dose from the bag that supplies the drip. Would you hesitate to say that Jones harms Smith in this case? If you would not, how do you distinguish this case from your LT2? If you would hesitate, how do you distinguish this case from the following case that surely involves harming: Jones turns off a respirator that Smith owns and that is keeping Smith alive during a temporary coma from which he will fully recover as long as he is oxygenated via the respirator for the period of the coma.

    A separate remark:

    I think that the fact that Jones steals from Smith in your LT2, thereby non-accidentally making him worse off than he otherwise would have been, is sufficient to ground the claim that Jones harms Smith in LT2. If you’d hesitate to endorse this sufficient condition of harming someone, I’d be interested to hear why.

  8. 8. Posted by Guy Kahane | October 17, 2007 4:52 pm

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to return to the pain example. It’s importantly different from the others. If it’s a bias, it’s true that it’s a bias that issues in a mistaken evaluative belief. But this belief is either brute (explained only in terms of some sub-personal process) or based on a misleading experience. It’s NOT based on a biased response to the facts under some description, as in the other examples. People can’t be said to implicitly BELIEVE the Peak-End Rule. As you note, nobody asks to be given a bit more pain because this would make for a more desirable experience in light of this rule. So it’s more a case of bias in perception than in judgement.

    I think it is a bias, but I also think you may be a bit too quick to reach this conclusion. We can reach it only if add certain (plausible) assumptions. In particular, we need a certain view of pain’s badness.

    In cases where people prefer a decline to a rise, they do not deny that the total is worse. They just claim there is a further normative factor that tips the balance (as inqeuality might tip the balance in some interpersonal distribution of utility). But must we accept that the total is worse? Of course there is more pain, in one sense of pain. But one might reject the (natural) picture on which this automatically translate into greater harm (stating the example in terms of utility is thus question-begging). Here is one way (not the only one) in which one could reject this further step. Supposed you tied well-being to preferences, not to hedonic states. On such a view, a brute preference to more pain distributed in this or that way would be sufficient to make that distribution better than the alternative.

  9. 9. Posted by Mike Otsuka | October 18, 2007 3:30 pm

    Thanks, Guy.

    Of course there is more pain, in one sense of pain. But one might reject the (natural) picture on which this automatically translate into greater harm (stating the example in terms of utility is thus question-begging).

    I agree with you here. Note that, in my post, I refrain from describing the experience with the greater total amount of pain as the experience which has a greater total disutility. I also avoid describing the most intense pain as that which has the greatest disutility. (Kahneman and Kamm do not exercise similar restraint in the passages I quote from their work. And you’re right to call them on this.)

    Supposed you tied well-being to preferences, not to hedonic states. On such a view, a brute preference to more pain distributed in this or that way would be sufficient to make that distribution better than the alternative.

    But even if we tie well-being to preferences rather than hedonic states, there’s still the question of which preferences? Suppose that someone has already undergone one long trial and one short trial. Now you are subjecting him to a third trial. As he reaches the one-minute mark, you ask him whether he would prefer a complete cessation of the painful experience (which would amount to a short trial) or a continuation of it for an additional 30 seconds, but at a less intense level of pain (which would amount to a long trial). Suppose he expresses a preference for cessation. (As I maintained in my post, I think he would have to be either a masochist or crazy to have the contrary preference.) Suppose, however, that before subjecting him to this third trial, you had instead asked him which of the two trials that had already occurred he would prefer to have repeated. Perhaps he would have responded in the manner Kahneman predicts – i.e., he would prefer a repetition of the long trial. Surely we shouldn’t privilege the preference for the longer experience that is based entirely on memories of past experiences over the preference for the shorter experience that is expressed contemporaneously with the third trial. We should instead discount the entirely-memory-based preference on the grounds that our memories of experiences have been shown to be notoriously unreliable. (Kahneman, for example, has shown that we are very unreliable in recalling how long past experiences have lasted.)

  10. 10. Posted by Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics: Chapter 3 : Ethics Etc | March 31, 2008 12:11 am

    […] of the harming/not-aiding distinction (Frances Kamm, Intricate Ethics, p. 435). See also our Kamm Reading Group’s discussion of Kamm’s Chapter 14 of Intricate Ethics for this point. Or, Marc Hauser and his colleagues […]

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