Norlin Reviews Rosati


Posted March 1, 1995

"Persons, Perspectives, and Full Information Accounts of the Good," Ethics 105 (January 1995): 296-325, by Connie S. Rosati (Northwestern University)

Reviewed by Kurt Norlin, UC Irvine, (KNORLIN@AOL.COM)

According to full information accounts of the good, what is good for a person is (roughly) what she would want for herself if she fully comprehended, both intellectually and imaginatively, her situation and the various ways her life might be lived out. "What is good for me?" means "What would my fully informed self, my 'Ideal Advisor,' have me pursue?"

Rosati attacks such accounts in two ways. First: She argues that one's good must connect with what one cares about, and that full information accounts violate this constraint. A person may not care about the same things as her Ideal Advisor, nor care what the Advisor cares about. To fully comprehend an agent's options, the Advisor must have emotional capacities the agent herself may lack. To grasp, for instance, the discomfort a person gives her friends by freely pointing out their faults and failures, the Advisor must empathize with those friends. But if the person herself lacks empathy, she may not be moved by the wishes of the empathetic Advisor (any more than a chocolate-hater must order black bottom pie because some imaginary chocolate-obsessed self wants her to).

Second: Having initially supposed that the notion of an Ideal Advisor is coherent, Rosati then argues that really it is not. Some choices require the Advisor to compare very different alternative lives from an independent perspective. Superficially, this seems in principle no different from deciding between licorice and peach ice cream. But eating licorice ice cream does not mean acquiring different tastes than one had before, or than one would have acquired by choosing peach instead. By contrast, someone deciding between a life of sympathetic attention to others and a life of resolute obtuseness is choosing whether to cultivate or choke off certain sensibilities. Fully appreciating either life requires, for normal people, being a certain sort of person to start with. An Advisor able fully to appreciate both lives would have to be psychologically so chameleon-like as to have no independent personality that could prefer the one life to the other.

So it seems to Rosati, anyway. She does not, however, really demonstrate that an Ideal Advisor is an impossible being. In the end, she can only insist that trying to imagine such a person leads to vexing problems (322-23). As for whether real, ordinary people would care what their Advisor wanted for them (whether the chocolate-hater analogy is a good one, in other words), that is an empirical question I will not get into. Instead, I will confine myself to clarifying and commenting on the thrust of Rosati's arguments.

Suppose we want, as many philosophers have, to make sense of the good in terms of human affects. And suppose we are inspired by the standard account of color: a thing is, e.g., yellow just in case it would look yellow to a certain kind of person under certain conditions. We would then say, analogously, that the good is whatever would look good to a certain kind of person under certain conditions. It seems natural that the "certain kind of person" should be very person whose good is in question, and that the conditions should prominently include her being well informed about whatever options she is considering. Full information accounts represent one version of this approach, but the larger category comprises what Rosati calls informed desire views (298, n. 6). The clarifying point I want to make is that Rosati's arguments do not target all such views, but full information accounts only, where "full information" means a person's knowing all there is to know about her options. If we instead defined "full information" to mean a person's knowing all she is capable of knowing, or something along those lines, we would end up with an account Rosati might accept. Rosati actually uses the language of informed desire views in setting forth the constraint that one's good must connect with what one cares about. She speaks of "ordinary optimal conditions," in which a person is free of emotional distress and cognizant of available information (301).

I dare say that in the broad spectrum of theories of the good, informed desire views are all fairly close together, and differences among them are more intra-familial than inter-familial. If we tend not to see this, it may be because we conflate the distinction between full and limited information accounts with the distinction between absolutism and relativism. We identify limited information with a particular personal viewpoint, and full information with an ascent to a perspective from which things look the same to everyone. Given that identification, informed desire views will fall into two fairly distinct groups: full information, absolutist accounts in the one and limited information, relativist accounts in the other. However, it is possible to be a limited information absolutist, or a full information relativist. And if anything, the absolutist/relativist distinction is the more important one. Once one has committed oneself to relativism (for instance), then whether one adopts a full or limited information account is essentially a matter of working out the details (cf. Rosati 297 n. 4, on Richard Brandt). That is my sense of it, at least; Rosati might not agree. In any event, readers interested in further studying full information accounts of the good, and other informed desire views, can benefit from Rosati's numerous, well-documented references to the literature.