How to accept the transitivity of better than

Abstract

Although the thesis that the moral better than relation is transitive seems obviously true, there is a growing literature according to which Parfit’s repugnant conclusion and related puzzles reveal that this thesis is false or problematic. This paper begins by presenting several such puzzles and explaining how they can be used in arguments for the intransitivity of better than. It then proposes and defends a plausible alternative picture of the behavior of better than that both resolves the repugnant conclusion and preserves transitivity. On the threshold-based model of lexicality defended here, hedonic episodes whose intensity is above a certain point are lexically greater (in absolute magnitude) than those whose intensity is below it. The final sections argue that this model is independently plausible and can be defended from several important objections.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Parfit (1984, chapter 17). See, for example, Rachels (2001), (2004), (1998); Temkin (1996) and (2012).

  2. 2.

    Parfit (1984, p. 387).

  3. 3.

    Parfit (1984, p. 388). This formulation is borrowed in slightly edited form from Huemer (2008, p. 899), and recast from the original so as to omit references to arbitrary numbers of persons.

  4. 4.

    Cowen (1996, p. 756).

  5. 5.

    Rachels (2001, p. 224), Rachels (2004, pp. 166–167).

  6. 6.

    Temkin (1996, p. 181). Temkin credits Rachels for the main idea behind this example. See also Rachels (1998, p. 73) and a similar point in Rachels (2001, p. 224). Another version of this example mentions mosquito bites in place of the hangnail.

  7. 7.

    See Rachels (1998, passim), Rachels (2004, pp. 164–167), Rachels (2001, pp. 220–224), and Temkin (2012, pp. 34, 135–139). See also Cowen (1996).

  8. 8.

    Rachels (2001, 214–217).

  9. 9.

    Rachels (2001, pp. 214–215). Although the view is stated in a manner that presupposes hedonism about welfare, this is not an essential component of the quasi-maximizing theory.

  10. 10.

    Rachels (2001, pp. 214–217).

  11. 11.

    Rachels (2001, p. 216).

  12. 12.

    Temkin (1996, pp. 179–181; 188–190), and Temkin (2012, p. 135–139).

  13. 13.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 30–31).

  14. 14.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 32–33). Scare quotes in the original. Temkin appeals to something very much like sufficient-difference lexicality in connection with this and other even-numbered standard views. See pp. 48, 51, 133.

  15. 15.

    See, for example, Temkin (2012, pp. 35, 48, 51, and 133ff).

  16. 16.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 229–230, 371 ff). Temkin argues that the most plausible version of a Rawls-inspired maximin principle is essentially comparative, among others.

  17. 17.

    See Temkin (2012, pp. 228–229, 363–369, 446, 494–495, and 543).

  18. 18.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 166–170).

  19. 19.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 461–462, and 465).

  20. 20.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 166–170). Temkin credits Jason Stanley for providing him with this material.

  21. 21.

    Temkin (2012, p. 164, 7).

  22. 22.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 228–229, 363, 382–383, 446–448, 455).

  23. 23.

    See, for example, Stevens (1946, p. 679) and Ellis (1966, pp. 24–38).

  24. 24.

    See Krantz et al. (1971), p. 14 ff.

  25. 25.

    Rachels and Temkin each accept this implication of their view, and do not see it as particularly troubling.

  26. 26.

    Broome (2006, pp. 212–214); Huemer (2008); McTaggart (1927, pp. 452–453).

  27. 27.

    Griffin (1986, pp. 85–86), Katz (2012), and Derek Parfit in an unpublished Mala Kamm lecture, entitled “The Ethics of Population: How to Avoid the Repugnant Conclusion,” delivered at NYU in the spring of 2012.

  28. 28.

    There is a similar principle that claims that any episode whose intensity is above the threshold, no matter how brief, is better than every episode at an intensity below it. This principle is implausibly strong. It is likely that some such episodes would be so brief as to be unnoticeable (or unnoticeable under ordinary circumstances), and it is possible that such an episode would be worse than a noticeably long-lasting one that is below the threshold. See Temkin (1996, p. 179), Temkin (2012, pp. 144–145, 539), and Binmore and Voorhoeve (2003). Other philosophers who have proposed theses similar to threshold lexicality include Aristotle (1999, 1174a1–1174a4); Lemos (1993); and Parfit (1986, p. 161).

  29. 29.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pressing for clarity on this point.

  30. 30.

    If we suppose that population A consists of 10 billion people, that the population is halved at each step (as it is doubled at each step between A and Z), and that it takes 26 steps to get to population AA, then population AA consists of 298 people.

  31. 31.

    Temkin (2012, p. 518).

  32. 32.

    Temkin (2012, p. 511, n. 33).

  33. 33.

    See Parfit (1984, p. 386) and Temkin (2012, p. 319).

  34. 34.

    Stevens (1946).

  35. 35.

    Temkin (2012, p. 465).

  36. 36.

    Note, however, that threshold lexicality does not trade on the idea that there is a fundamental difference in kind between e.g. pleasure and mere comfort; the basic suggestion, rather, concerns the numerical relationship between the magnitudes and values of various positive experiences. The phenomenological evidence adduced here is designed to support the presence of this numerical relationship, and does not suggest that there are various fundamentally or incomparably different kinds of positive experience.

  37. 37.

    I thank an anonymous referee for bringing this to my attention.

  38. 38.

    See Temkin (2012, p. 157). I thank an anonymous referee for bringing this point to my attention.

  39. 39.

    Perhaps it is any of several such cases.

  40. 40.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 53 ff, 56, 168–169, 326 n. 10).

  41. 41.

    See Krantz et al. (1971), especially chapters 1 and 4.

  42. 42.

    Temkin (1996, p. 197).

  43. 43.

    Rachels (2001, p. 216).

  44. 44.

    I am grateful to Stuart Rachels for putting the objection this way.

  45. 45.

    Of course, the foregoing represents something of a false dilemma, in that the literature contains defenses of other proposals, some of which preserve transitivity. Examples include acceptance of the repugnant conclusion and the “critical level” solution, which holds that it is not good, either morally or all things considered, when a person's well-being falls below a certain positive value. Unfortunately, considerations of space prohibit a thorough discussion of these issues. See Huemer (2008) for a defense of accepting the repugnant conclusion; Broome (2006), Feldman (1995) and Kavka (1982) for discussions of the critical level solution; and Arrhenius (2000), (2003) and (2005) for criticism of the critical level view. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  46. 46.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 140–141; 143–144; 274 ff.).

  47. 47.

    Temkin (2012, p. 144).

  48. 48.

    Temkin (2012, pp. 144). See also p. 275.

  49. 49.

    To be clear, I am not suggesting that the spectrum arguments Rachels and Temkin use to call transitivity into question are themselves fallacious instances of Sorites-style reasoning.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Rekha Nath, Stuart Rachels, Chase Wrenn, and an anonymous referee for helpful feedback and discussion on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Justin Klocksiem.

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Klocksiem, J. How to accept the transitivity of better than . Philos Stud 173, 1309–1334 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0548-4

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Keywords

  • Intransitivity
  • Repugnant conclusion
  • Parfit
  • Temkin
  • Rachels