A last thought on Paul: Why phenomenal values?

Before getting to the relevance of my discussion of Paul’s argument to issues in political philosophy (which will happen today in another post), I would now like to try my hand at a final criticism of Paul’s argument.   Paul argues that the value of choosing to have a child (HC) is determined by “what it is like for you to have your child, including what it is like to have the beliefs, desires, emotions and dispositions that result, directly and indirectly from having your own child” (p. 5).  She refers to these sorts of values as “phenomenal values.”  Since HC is something that happens to you specifically, Paul argues that the phenomenal value (the value of “what is like for you”) is the most important and is likely the solely important factor in determining the value that HC will have for you and, in turn, whether it is rational for you to HC.

This argument moves too quickly.  There are many non-phenomenal values that can play an important role in deciding the value of HC and that can also outweigh any of the personal phenomenal value that you associate with HC.  For example, if you are a member of a dying (or minority) culture that has only one or two members left – say, you are the last of the Mohicans – and you see yourself as having a strong moral duty to prevent the demise of your culture, then you can determine that HC will have positive value for you for non-phenomenal reason.  There are likely many other similar sorts of cases.

In an e-rejoiner, Paul acknowledges that

“if you’re really not basing your decision at all on what being a parent is going to be like for you then you can make a rational decision. But relying only on criteria like that is not the usual way to decide to have kids.”

Her response is that this is not how people typically make rational decisions.  This response is not fully convincing.  First, at least some of the time, this is the way that people typically make decisions to HC.  People do seem to choose to HC for moral reasons.   Second, even if it is not the way that people typically choose to HC, this fact does not in itself make it an irrational way to decide to choose to HC.  Moral values can determine the value that HC (or ~HC) will have for us.  So, it seems that Paul must acknowledge that, even if they constitute only a small number of the decisions that are actually made, it can be rational to choose to HC.

Recall that her original conclusion was that we cannot, on the standard model, make rational decisions to HC or ~HC.  This discussion illustrates that, when properly understood, her arguments support a much weaker conclusion (assuming we accept the rest of her arguments), namely, that we cannot make rational decisions, on the standard model, to HC on the basis of phenomenal values, which still leaves open the possibility of making rational decisions to HC or ~HC on the basis of non-phenomenal values.  Understood in this way, the conclusion of her argument is much less controversial than first appeared.  It does not challenge the possibility of making rational decisions (according to the standard model) to HC.  It just narrows the grounds for such decisions.  It’s not so bad after all!

As a bit of a side note, Paul’s focus on phenomenal knowledge seems somewhat odd to me.  Paul argues that we must know what it is like to HC in order to determine the value that HC will have for us.  There is, however, nothing in the standard model that states that we can only determine the value of X when we know what it is like to X.  This is Paul’s addition and she seems to derive this requirement from her understanding of commonsense rationality.  Even if this is an appropriate conception of commonsense rationality (which I am not entirely convinced of), it doesn’t necessarily follow that this is an appropriate conception of the standard model, since the standard model doesn’t claim to be and certainly doesn’t need to be understood as representing commonsense rationality.   So, why the focus on the necessity of phenomenal knowledge in rationality on the standard model?

This linking of the standard model of rationality and, what she takes to be, common sense rationality may explain why it was unclear to me, earlier, as to whether Paul’s target was commonsense rationality more generally or the standard model specifically (on this issue see my response to Schliesser’s rebuttal).  She seems to see the two as being linked, but, again, I wonder whether this is or has to be the case.

%d bloggers like this: