Posted 7/7/97

"Sidgwick's False Friends" Ethics, Vol. 107, No. 2 (1997) 314-320, by Robert Shaver (University of Manitoba),

Reviewed by David Sobel (Bowling Green State University)

r-drop.gif - 1.4 Kobert Shaver, in his recent Ethics paper, claims that many philosophers, myself included, have supposed that Sidgwick's final word on well-being was that "a man's future good on the whole is what he would now desire and seek on the whole if all the consequences of all the different lines of conduct open to him were accurately foreseen and adequately realized in imagination at the present point in time. The notion of 'Good' thus attained has an ideal element: it is something that is not always actually desired and aimed at by human beings: but the ideal element is entirely interpretable in terms of fact, actual or hypothetical, and does not introduce any judgment of value, fundamentally distinct from judgments relating to existence;--still less any 'dictate of Reason.'" (1)

Shaver reminds us that Sidgwick immediately goes on to critique this "full information" account of well-being. Sidgwick, in taking exception to his words in the paragraph above, writes that "the calm desire for my 'good on the whole' is authoritative; and therefore carries with it implicitly a rational dictate to aim at this end, if in any case a conflicting desire urges the will in an opposite direction" and thus that it is the desires that are "in harmony with reason, assuming my own existence alone to be considered" that determine one's well-being. (2)

Shaver claims that "Sidgwick's complaint against a full information account, understood without a 'proper reasoning' addition, is that in cases of weakness of will, such an account declares rational or good what is surely not rational or good."(3) The distinctiveness of Shaver's view lies in his plausible claim that Sidgwick finds that cases of weakness of will are a genuine problem for the account, together with Shaver's claim that Sidgwick is right to find such a problem.

I want to dispute Shaver's (and apparently Sidgwick's) claim that weakness of will itself is a genuine problem for full information accounts of well-being. I do not need to claim that having a weak will is incompatible with having full information. I only need show that the existence of weakness of the will in the fully informed agent does nothing to suggest that the agent's informed desires are not a good guide to her good.

Insofar as the problem with the agent's choice is merely weakness of will, the problem is not that the agent lacks an understanding of which option is best for her. Rather the distinctive problem of weakness of will arises when we know, or at least think we know, what is best for us, but fail to do it. Thus we are to picture a fully informed agent who realizes that taking one path will best lead her towards what she really wants, but that path is rocky or other paths look so nice from here that she heads off in another direction. Thus this fully informed agent fails to choose that which is best for herself. Is this a problem for the full information account of well-being? Shaver seems to think so. He writes "Possessing full information does not exclude the possibility of weakness of will. And what one would do, while experiencing weakness of will, seems to constitute neither what one had reason to do nor one's good." (4)

However, this is relevant only if the full information account fixed on the informed agent's choices rather than on her preferences as determinative of her good. (5) But of course the account fixes on desires rather than choices. Because weakness of the will locates problems in choices rather than preferences it is powerless to constitute an objection to the full information account. Once one rejects the unpopular revealed accounts of preference, in which what one chooses determines what one prefers, we see the inability of weakness of will to pose a threat to preference account of well-being generally. The fully informed agent's preferences might well be a good guide to her good even if weakness of will keeps her from acting according to those preferences.

Sidgwick's complaint against the account is perhaps not related to weakness of will but rather that the most intense desire need not be the same as the agent's calm, stable-over-time desire. This seems right but I don't see why this should be a problem for the account either. First, the account can fix on second order desires (see footnote 5), and second the account can fix on informed desires that are stable over time. Perhaps the thought is that we lack a plausible naturalistic counterpart to play the role of "calm" in the full information account. Yet nothing that Shaver or Sidgwick tell us goes any way towards convincing us of this.

The goal of the full information account is not to construct an agent that perfectly chooses her own good, but to offer an account of what makes non-idealized (not fully informed) agent's lives go better and worse. This task can be successful even if the informed agent is weak of will. Thus if, as seems plausible, Shaver is right that it was worries about the informed agent being weak of will that led Sidgwick away from full information accounts, we must conclude that Sidgwick rejected such accounts without adequate warrant. Perhaps this partially explains why Sidgwick's legacy on matters of well-being has been his subjectivist full information account rather than his rationalist rejection of it.


(1) Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (7th edn.), (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), pp. 111-2.

(2) Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (7th edn.), p. 111-2. Shaver lists John Rawls, Richard Brandt, Stephen Darwall, James Griffin, J. David Velleman, Connie Rosati, Don Loeb, and myself amongst those who hold the mistaken reading of Sidgwick's position.

(3) Shaver, p.316.

(4) Shaver, p. 315 (emphasis added).

(5) In fact the best full information account do not focus on the informed agent's wants or choices for herself. Rather they fix on what the informed agent wants her non-informed counterpart to want (or perhaps better, to have). See Peter Railton's "Facts and Values," Philosophical Topics 14 (1986), p. 9.