Robert Nye: Well-Being Howard Nye offered a very interesting and tightly argued paper on our care for intellectually disabled persons. I commented on the paper; my comments follow.

WCPA, Vancouver, BC
September 2014
Guillermo Barron
A View From L1

I find I’m largely in agreement with Nye, so I’ll confine myself to elucidating this paper just a bit and to offering some minor objections.

Nye opens by arguing that the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence are more fundamental to moral obligation than an agent’s preferences since well-being generally trumps autonomy in moral questions. This is so, he says, because the only morally justified treatment we could offer to a never-autonomous person is simply care for her well-being. (But, contrariwise, the only treatment perhaps appropriate to an autonomous agent who is incapable of suffering is respect for her autonomy.)

As an example, he asserts that there is clear reason to sacrifice Arthur’s autonomously chosen pursuit of an artistic opus, even at great cost to himself, if doing so averts great harm from befalling Christine.
Nye thereby concludes that the Millian argument arguing from

(1) our preference to not become intellectually disabled to
(2) the claim that we are better off not developmentally disabled to
(3) the claim that there are stronger moral reasons to preserve our lives

… is invalid. This is so because our well-being is distinct from and morally more fundamental than satisfying our preferences.

He then asks us to consider two possible futures: (L1) with full intellectual faculties or (L2) with markedly less, but with slightly more happiness than L1. Even if there are aesthetic or intellectual reasons to prefer L1, the value of well-being should impel us toward L2. If we think not, then Nye invites us to consider (L3), perhaps the life of grumpy but super-erudite Klingons. If you prefer L1 to L2, consistency then forces you to choose L3 over L1.

So far so good. Nye offers a plausible argument that the well-being of others is more morally germane than our preferences. And he points out a problematic tension between Mill’s insistence that happiness and the avoidance of suffering (or some other counterparts) are the only criteria of moral action, on the one hand, and his claim that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied on the other. Mill even provides Nye with the additional premise that such outcomes are not merely hypothetical, but likely, since the intellectual has many more ways to be unhappy than the fool.

Mill may have introduced this cautionary consideration to avoid nineteenth century accusations of promoting wanton hedonism, but he has nonetheless noted something that strikes a deep and intuitive chord: Many of us would not sacrifice our current cognitive powers for a measure more of happiness, even if it were easy to do. Socrates cannot, after all, take the fool’s place at will: it is difficult to unknow what one already knows.

The question is still whether our well-being is impaired if we are thrust into the life of the intellectually impaired as described by L2. I think so. If, for example, some other person, either through design or negligence, brings it out abut that I come to live L2, she is surely culpable of more than violating my preference for L1. My life in L2 is now worse.

Similar comments can be about our preference for L1 over L2 and for L1 over L3. This example only proves that we generally prefer our own lives over the lives of others. Pick any lifeboat ethics example you wish – saving either the brilliant oncologist or the violent serial rapist – and most of us will prefer to save whichever life we happen to occupy in that experiment. The question does not turn on what we choose in our own cases, but on whether an objective and impartial chooser should choose L1 or L2. (Although, arguably and problematically, any competent and objective observer would have to be drawn from L1. And this may fact may impair her impartiality.) Nonetheless, assuming such an observer can be found, it is not clear that our fates aren’t worth less than the dissatisfied but enlightened Klingons.

One final thought: it is not clear that if a fate as severe as L2 (since, ex hypothesi, it includes intellectual disability) were to befall me, that my personal identity would survive. Arguably, if I were to undergo such a profound change, I would no longer exist and should have no interest in life as L2. One anecdote about an imagined death (published perhaps, but I cannot locate the source) may this clear.

On his death, the intractable atheist C. B. Martin finds himself, against all expectations, facing God himself in heaven. True to form, C. B. confronts God and forces him to account for all his epistemic, metaphysical, and moral shortcomings. Finally wearying of this theological wrangling, God taps C.B. on the forehead and C.B. enters heaven and an eternity of fulsome bliss.

I was horrified by this outcome. Granted, God had done the best thing possible for C.B.’s welfare by maximizing his happiness and, withal, doing so without impairing C.B.’s intellectual abilities one whit. But in a sense, C.B. as a feisty and sceptical philosopher had ceased to exist. I think this captures a central truth about our suspicion that a life of intellectual disability is not simply one we disprefer, but one that is worse. It is worse because we would have lost too much, perhaps an intolerable portion, of what we take to be our identity. And perhaps this explains why our preferences should be given more weight.


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