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Commentator:
Michael Stocker, Syracuse University
(mastocke@mailbox.syr.edu)
Posted 9/3/96

i-drop.gif - 1.2 Kn "Monism and Rational Regret", Thomas Hurka claims to show the failure of various arguments holding that moral conflict and regret require plural values. (Henceforth, I talk mainly of regret, not conflict.) Whether or not he has shown this for certain arguments, I do not think he has shown it for those given in my Plural and Conflicting Values (P&CV). To review some of the issues briefly, P&CV held that plural values are not needed for many sorts of regret, including the regret of weakness of will and regrets informing many other sorts of irrationality, including irrational conflicts. Further, putting forward a version of what of Hurka calls proportionality, I held that it is often enough possible to regret that what is done, for example, is not better than it is. Similarly, I can regret being unable to give you more of a given good than in fact I can.

However, P&CV argued that regret requires plural values where several conditions are met. Roughly, it is regret over doing b rather than c, where: (i) one can do (or could have done) c, (ii) one believes one should do b (even rather than c), and (iii) the regret is rational. Hurka argues that rational regret over a practicable option is possible even if only one value sort is involved in both b and c: e.g., act b is giving person B 10 units of pleasure and act c is giving person C 5 units of pleasure. Hurka says that there can be rational regret here - e.g., that C was given 5 rather than 10 - and that a monism, recognizing only pleasure as a good, can allow for this.

I think that there can be rational regret here, but only if there is a pluralism. How can I find a pluralism here? Isn't pleasure the only good? I will start my answer by considering a somewhat similar case: I rationally regret having to devote most of my free time to my sick child, rather than divide my time more equitably between him and his brother. (For present purposes, the important question is not whether, as I think easily possible, the regret is rational - other cases could be crafted.) The important question is whether there is only one value and thus a monism. I do not think so, for at least two reasons, which I think very important, but which Hurka (joined by Hooker) seems not to think so important, if important at all.

The first reason is found in, but not only in, Kantianism: that each person is a separate locus of value. Here locus does not come to just being a different location. (Special considerations apart, I do not see how I could rationally regret having the pleasure of seeing the movie Fargo at the 68th Street theater rather than the very same pleasure, in amount, sort, ... at the 83rd Street one.) Rather, each person can matter evaluatively: not always, but quite generally, it makes a moral difference who is affected, e.g., pleased or pained, not just how much pleasure or pain is produced. I do not think monists can accommodate this. Hurka thinks they can - or that this example and similar ones do not turn on this notion. I would like to hear more on this - especially because I think that this evaluatively pluralistic way of thinking about people is so deeply ingrained in our thought that it takes considerable effort to think about different people as not making up a pluralistic evaluative world.

The second reason has to do with the function a theory uses to "move from" goodness or goods to, say, rightness: e.g., maximization. (See P&CV 246, 249, 308) If a theory tells us that we must (or may) distribute a good differently to different people because of their differences - e.g., more to one's child than a stranger - that theory is pluralistic. It gives different moral weight to those different people. It does not treat all equally good instances of that good as evaluatively the same. (As noted in P&CV, if the function is not examined for pluralism, a clever theorist can make any theory - even the most pluralistic of them - monistic, simply by "putting" all the pluralistic differences in the function: e.g., holding that the good of benefiting one's child, or a promisee, or ..., is more decisive for rightness than the same amount of good for someone else.) I suspect that Hurka's case, and his intuitions about the possibility of rational regret, involves a pluralistic function.

Let me sketch why, by returning to Hurka's case, where one rationally regrets giving C 5 rather than 10 units of pleasure. A theory holding that we are to count only the total amount of pleasure engendered by an act, no matter whose pleasure it is - a theory Hurka and I agree is monistic - would hold that if the better act is chosen, there is no ground for rational regret. But this, evidently, is not the monistic theory Hurka has in mind. I suspect that he thinks a different monistic hedonism can allow for rational regret, by allowing that whose pleasure or the sort of pleasure, is involved, not just the total amount, is morally relevant. This would allow for rational regret that C was given 5 rather than 10 units.

But, as noted, I think that the second theory is pluralistic. And I wonder why Hurka thinks it is monistic - and that it can also allow for morally relevant differences, grounding rational regret, between B having 5 and C 10, and B having 10 and C 5. Were I to be accused of begging the question by "assuming" that only differences of a certain sort - which I think sufficient for pluralism - can make the relevant difference, we might try to imagine how Hurka would argue to adherents of what he and I agree is a monism that his, second, theory is a monism. On my view, they would think, with me, that the function in Hurka's second theory is pluralistic.

Hurka (joined by Hooker) does not argue, but simply asserts, that the second theory is a monism, with pleasure as its one generic good. Sometimes, he seems to think it a monism because it is coherent in telling us to bring about whichever instance is better, i.e., more pleasurable, irrespective of whose pleasure it is and its other qualities, such as piquancy. But that does not show the theory monistic. It shows only that instances of the value or values of the theory are comparable and that the theory requires choosing, e.g., the greater over the lesser.

Sometimes he seems to hold that it is a monism because its good, or instances of its good, can be seen as involving just one category, one generic good - pleasure. (Hooker, in his commentary, seems to think this, too.) However, the issue is not whether there is a category, a genus, that encompasses both. Of course - indeed, of necessity - there is: and so too for any plurality of items, no matter what. (Just consider the all-encompassing notion of a thing, of which just everything is an instance; and consider, too, that in all cases, rightness, say, depends on something.) Restricting my genera to what is evaluatively relevant, I will say only: that we can use one genus shows nothing. If it did, it would also show that goodness, itself, is monistic. After all, all its instances are good or goods and all are encompassed by goodness. And if the function is irrelevant, it would show monistic all theories holding that rightness depends solely on goodness. (In the terms of P&CV, good and pleasure are spurious monisms.)

In conclusion, Hurka does not show how his supposedly monistic differences can make a difference - enough to ground rational regret - without their really being pluralistic.

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