Some thought-experiments just grab you and so you think about them for months. Here’s one that I’ve been pondering about for awhile now. It’s from Roger Crisp’s Mill on Utilitarianism (p. 60-62) but adapted from Griffin (Well-Being, p. 9):
The Committee When you are 22 years old, you are approached by a committee composed of friends and family. One of the members tells you that the committee will, if you wish, take over the running of your life for you. The committee will decide which job you take, where you should live, which hobbies you should indulge in and so on.
Your first doubt will probably concern whether the committee would in fact make the correct decisions. But let us assume that that doubt can be put aside: your own past record of decision-making is pretty bad, while the committee can produce evidence of its success with others. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to hand over the control of your life like this [my emphasis].
Crisp takes the fact that handing the power over to the committee would be a mistake to be an argument for the fact that ‘practical reason is also a value in itself’, i.e., intrinsically valuable. Griffin agrees with this argument. He writes that:
Even if you convince me that, as my personal despot, you would produce more desirable consciousness for me than I do myself, I shall want to go on being my own master, at least so long as your record would not be much better than mine.
Notice Griffin’s reservation in the end. He seems to think that practical reason has only some intrinsic value that can possible be outweighed by other instrumental values.
Why I am interested in the case is that I am not quite convinced. I keep wavering about whether it would be a mistake to hand over my practical reasoning to the committee. Thus, I would like to hear whether the Pea Soupers agree with Crisp. I would like to also hear from those who do why they agree with him. What are the features of practical reason that make it intrinsically good?
So, why do I hesitate? First, I think there might be something wrong with the thought-experiment. Someone might say that, when ‘your own past record of decision-making is pretty bad’, this shows that you lack practical reason. This would mean that the value of practical reason cannot explain why one should not accept the offer. That would have to be some other value like the value of autonomy. If one had practical reason, one’s decisions would be much better. But, in that case there would necessarily be instrumental benefits from practical reason too. If one’s decisions were successful in that way, there would be no need for the committee. Thus, the committee, as an argumentative tool, would be ineffective to establish the value of practical reason.
But, I also waver for more personal reasons. I can certainly relate to the thought-experiment. I think I would be very tempted accept the offer and don’t anything really ghastly about it. First, I am pretty bad in practical reasoning. My reason rarely suggests worthwhile, feasible ends and, when it does, the means it picks to those ends tend to be pretty lousy. So, in my case, it would not be that hard for the committee to be successful. Practical reason doesn’t really have much instrumental value for me.
Furthermore, I think it has some disvalue. When you use your own practical reason, you can only blame yourself for your failures. In contrast, you could blame the committee for its failures and this would certainly be a pleasure. I know that the Sartreans amongst you will say that this would be just an instance of bad faith. You would still be using your practical reason in choosing to carry out the decisions of the committee and thus it would be an illusion to avoid the responsibility. This seems to be a good argument against the thought-experiment – there is no option in which you would not be using your practical reason and thus its value cannot be compared. But, if we set this objection aside, I think I could live with the illusion.
So, my practical reason does seem to lack instrumental value and it seems to have some disvalue. At this point, I would like to be convinced that it has intrinsic value so that I could accept more readily that it would be mistake for me to accept the committee’s offer.
Crisp says that what makes practical reason valuable is that practical reasoning is running one’s own life for oneself. I would like to also hear more about this. It does seem to me that having one’s own life requires some success in practical reasoning. For this reason the threat that practical reason is only instrumentally valuable in creating a life of value for one is back in the picture.
I guess that in a way this corresponds to Adeimantus’s challenge to Socrates in the end Book 2, chapter 5 in Plato’s Republic. We could just as well ask:
We put it to you, Socrates, with all respect, in this way. All you who profess to sing praises of [practical reasoning], from the ancient heroes whose legends have survived down to the men of the present day, have never denounced [lacking practical reason] or praised [practical reason] apart from the reputation, honours, and rewards they bring; but what effect either of them in itself has upon its possessor when it dwells in his soul unseen of gods or men, no poet or ordinary man has ever yet explained.
… So, I want you, in commending [practical reason], to consider only how [practical reason], in itself, benefits a man who has it in him, and how [lacking practical reason] harms him, leaving rewards and reputation out of account.