Whether to care about the desires of the dead

Many people claim that fulfilling a person’s desires after they are dead cannot benefit that person. Not just that it isn’t strategic to honour such desires, but that such desires can’t be fulfilled. Either it is not really possible for a person to desire for things that won’t happen until after they are dead, or it is somehow not possible for such a desire to be fulfilled.

It seems possible (i.e. consistent) to have a concept of preference fulfilment that requires the person to be alive at the time the preference is fulfilled, and similarly possible to have one that doesn’t require this. Which is the ‘true’ concept seems a poorly defined question. Which concept you choose matters though. The concept is intended to fit into your ethical stance, or your preferences, so presumably one concept better fits what should really happen, or what you really want. Here are some considerations for working out which concept you want to use:

The analogy with space

If you can’t have your preferences fulfilled in parts of time where you don’t exist (after you die, or before you are born), can you have preferences fulfilled in parts of space where you don’t exist? Can I prefer for my fridge to contain milk even before I open the door? Can I prefer my brother to be alive even though we don’t cohabit the same spatial region? If so, what’s the relevant difference between time and space? You can bite the bullet and refuse to acknowledge preferences over anything other than a person’s own mental states. And you could do that without straying too far from your intuitions about what you do prefer by noting that a lot of things that are spatially distant from you will eventually send some kind of signal to you, and claim it is those signals you care about. You are still then committed to indifference about for instance what kinds of assault go on behind the closed doors of people you love, as long as you are never informed about them.

The vagueness of personal identity

Another implication of not being able to value things that don’t overlap with you in time is that what you can or can’t value depends on what counts as ‘you’. And what counts as ‘you’ is pretty vaguely defined usually. Some people think ‘you’ are the bunch of physical processes we call ‘you’, or whichever of those we find most important – your continued memory and personality for instance. This is a concept with pretty blurry boundaries, and different people find different features important enough to call ‘themselves’. Do you want such an arbitrary definitional choice to determine what values can count for anything? If you think of me as a series of person-moments, suddenly I can’t legitimately care about the milk in the fridge even if a later-Katja will learn about it later. If you identify me with all past and future people who feel a lot like me, then I’m allowed preferences about what happens after the death of this body. Is there some particular line in the many-dimensional space of things more or less like me that seems hugely important to you in deciding which preferences are valid?

Other people think there is more to ‘you’ than a set of physical processes, in which case there may be one clear line around what counts as ‘you’. On the other hand, you probably don’t have any good way to locate this non-physical line. The more ignorant you are about the location of the line, the more you are committed to caring about preferences that may be outside it, assuming some straightforward kind of consequentialism.

The limits of biology

Perhaps you want a concept of preference fulfilment that requires the person to be alive at the time because you doubt anyone can actually have preferences that don’t involve their existing. For instance perhaps you think the way that preferences are encoded in a mind involve a representation of oneself enjoying the thing, or something else like that. So that even if I say ‘I value bandicoots existing’, my feelings are really that I value thinking that bandicoots exist. I’ll discuss that view in more depth if anyone who actually holds this view tells me exactly what it is. At a glance it seems this kind of view also implies that it’s impossible to care about anything other than your mental states.

Strategic considerations

For the purpose of trading, the more of another person’s preferences you are willing to deal with, the better for you. But this is a different question to which of their values you want to care about outside of trading.

14 responses to “Whether to care about the desires of the dead

  1. Your first paragraph assumes that if what happens after your death can’t benefit you, it is because you can’t have preferences about what happens after your death, or that such preferences cannot be fulfilled. I think most philosophers that think you can’t be benefited after your death would say that you could have such preferences and that they could be fulfilled. It kinda sounds like you’re assuming that people with this view have a preference-satisfaction account of well-being, but I think they don’t. And I think they’d agree that if you had a preference satisfaction account, you should say that what happens after your death could benefit you. So philosophers are among the people that you’re puzzled about, I hope this helps a little.

  2. Brennan Falkner

    Typically when people talk of preferences of the dead they use past tense, ‘wanted’ or hypothetically ‘would have wanted’.

    Fulfilling other people’s desires, dead or living, seems more about the person fulfilling. When working I often consider the desires of proven people in my field that I haven’t met, not because I actually care about their desire, rather to imitate their success.

  3. I think you’re focusing too much on the concept of “having preferences”. If a person is harmed as a consequence of a mismatch between her preferences and the state of the world, this presupposes that she learns about that mismatch. If she’s dead, she cannot. Hence she cannot be harmed by what happens after her death.

    Contrary to what you seem to be saying, I don’t think this position commits you to being indifferent to persons being assaulted behind closed doors, because *those* persons are harmed even if you don’t know it.

    • >I don’t think this position commits you to being indifferent to persons being assaulted behind closed doors, because *those* persons are harmed even if you don’t know it.

      True, but it does commit you to believing that no harm is done to Alice if she cares deeply about Bob and Bob is assaulted behind closed doors. Under this philosophy, the only harm is done to Bob.

      I think Katja was sloppy here on the distinction between preference satisfaction and moral duty. It’s perfectly consistent to think that it is my moral duty to help my children after my death (e.g. by leaving them money) while also not thinking that I am harmed if that money is stolen (even if the children are harmed). To think clearly about this, it helps to remove the future moral agents from the picture: if I want a monument made of a pile of rocks in the wilderness to remain undisturbed for 200 years, is it immoral for someone to kick it over after my death?

      • Yes, my (consequentialist) position is that the only harm is done to Bob (if Alice doesn’t learn about it). And no, it isn’t immoral to kick it over. (I am assuming your putting the pile “in the wilderness” is meant to mean nobody can learn about the kicking over of the pile, so that it can’t affect live people’s estimated likelihoods that their wishes will be respected after their deaths.)

        • The important part of your position isn’t consequentialism, it’s that your position seems to only protect people’s mental state. But the experience machine thought example shows that most people care about more than just mental states. Now, *you* might care only about *your* mental state, but isn’t it selfish to not protect (by way of moral prohibitions) non-mental-state things that most other people want?

          If Sam tells me with his dying breath that the *only* thing he wants and has ever wanted his whole life is the survival of this stone pile (which, say, is believable since he has worked his whole life on constructing it and ensuring it’s longevity), I can’t convince myself that it’s OK to kick the pile over for, say, a cheeseburger.

          • People do care about things other than mental states, but caring is itself a mental state, so no harm can be done if the mental state is not altered as a consequence of a mismatch between the state of the world and people’s preferences. If no harm is done, it follows that it cannot be morally wrong.

            So, yes, my position protects only people’s mental states. I guess that isn’t just consequentialism, but, more narrowly, utilitarianism.

            • > People do care about things other than mental states, but caring is itself a mental state, so no harm can be done if the mental state is not altered as a consequence of a mismatch between the state of the world and people’s preferences

              This doesn’t follow at all unless you assume that harm can only be done when mental states are affected. That’s a defensible position, but don’t think that it somehow follows inexorably from recognizing that caring is a mental state.

              > I guess that isn’t just consequentialism, but, more narrowly, utilitarianism.

              No, it’s even more narrow than that. Most utilitarians admit utility function which value things other than mental states, because most people want things other than mental states. (Again, consider the experience machine example.) The philosophy you describe is a subset of utilitarianism which is sometimes called “mental state theory”.

          • Apparently you think the experience machine is dispositive; whereas I think it’s a circular argument. Desires misguide people regarding their welfare. Whatever people happen to desire consciously, the homeostatic mechanism behind the process drives them toward maximizing pleasure. The problem invalidating the experience machine is that people find it unpleasurable to desire pleasure; but that doesn’t change the fact that pleasure is the only thing they really desire.

            The issue does make a practical difference. If you believe that the desires of the dead lay ethical claims (despite their hedonistic irrelevance), you will use such mysticism to justify irrational, reactionary institutions like the inheritance of wealth. (Which is what this is really about.)

  4. I agree with your discussion about the relevant differences between time and space, because events distant from us in time can affect our mental states while temporally distant events cannot. But I don’t think this commits us to indifference toward things we’re ignorant of. We can have conditional preferences about what goes on behind closed doors, so that, conditional on my aunt torturing my cousin or something, I want my aunt to stop. We can have lists of preferences about different conditions, even if we’re ignorant about which ones hold. And as long as people aren’t systematically biased in their ignorance, so that we can reasonably think we have an accurate picture of whether or not the milk is in the fridge, it’s meaningful to care about it.

  5. Although I’m partial to your conclusions, I agree with Nick and Cody that there are alternative positions which you really didn’t address.

    I’ll add this. There is an important difference between space and time which prevents your analogy from being directly useful: the flow of time is massively asymmetric, including a preferred direction of causality. Causality is easily an important enough concept in ethics to permit consistent moralities which have restrictions in time but not space. (Or really, restrictions based on the set of spacetime events Z, where Z is the intersection of the future and past domains of dependence of the observer’s world line.)

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  7. What does this mean? “If you identify me with all past and future people who feel a lot like me, then I’m allowed preferences about what happens after the death of this body. Is there some particular line in the many-dimensional space of things more or less like me that seems hugely important to you in deciding which preferences are valid?”

    Pretty obscure. What exactly do you conceive as a continuation of yourself following your death? Also, if you want to benefit those somehow similar to you, aren’t you banking on their having, specifically _desires_ like yours? (Derek Parfit is the philosopher most associated with elaborate mental experiments about personal identity. But I don’t think he ever conceived of your identity persisting, even partially, after your _death_ unless your life were “partially extended” by some science-fiction method. Everyone seems to agree that some experiential *continuity* is a necessary condition for personal identity. It isn’t just that you’re similar to yourself of yesterday, but that you changed in ways continuous with her.)

  8. Pingback: Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition | Meteuphoric

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