Thursday, July 28, 2016

Avoiding the Holocaust

Corpses at Dachau
When we say:
S1: "It would have been a good thing had the Holocaust not happened."
 What are we actually saying here? That is to say, what metaphysical assumptions does this statement imply?

The same general idea seems to be able to be said in a different manner:
S2: "It would have been better had the Holocaust not happened."
In colloquial discourse, we would understand that both statements are implying the same thing (whatever that is).

But in a philosophical sense, these two statements are quite different.

Both statements utilize the pronoun "it". I believe that "it" is referring, in both statements, to a state of affairs (or a possible world) in which the Holocaust did not happen.

However, S1 is not coherent under philosophical analysis, whereas S2 is. In fact, S1 is the colloquial statement that, despite its construction, is reduced to S2.

A state of affairs is a composition of objects and their properties, and the relations between these objects. For sake of convenience, objects are anything that can be referred to as a subject of a proposition, inanimate objects, active processes, or events alike.

The speaker in S1 would have us believe that the state of affairs in which the Holocaust did not happen is good. That is to say, the state of affairs in which the absence of something - the Holocaust - is good in virtue of the absence of the Holocaust.

But this is problematic, since a state of affairs is made up of its constituent objects. It is not clear how the lack of an object can be enough for a value to exist. Something else needs to either have been repressed by the existence of said object or be added in to "fill in the gap" and make the state of affairs good.

Whereas S2 is a philosophically-coherent statement. In S2, the state of affairs in which the Holocaust did not happen is better than the state of affairs in which the Holocaust did happen. Why? Because the former state of affairs lacks the Holocaust!

Now this may seem like it would fall into the same trap S1 did. But this is not the case. For S1 proposed that the lack of a bad (the Holocaust) resulted in a good, whereas S2 proposes that the lack of a bad (the Holocaust) results in a better. Better/worse evaluations are inherently comparative.

Therefore, absences of goods and bads result in comparative analysis, whereas presences of goods and bads results in absolute analysis.

Perhaps you're not quite convinced. Here is a slightly different example:
"State of Affairs A has ten happy people. State of Affairs B has five happy people. You must choose one to be actual."
Anyone of sound mind would choose State of Affairs A, as opposed to B, since A has more happy people (more is an comparative adjective). This makes State of Affairs B worse than A, and A better than B.

However, State of Affairs B is not bad. It still has five happy people as constituents! It's just not as good as A. The absence of five more happy people does not make B bad.

The act of choosing between states of affairs can be good or bad, but the state of affairs must have goods or bads as constituents if they are to be considered impersonally good or bad and not just better or worse:

For if we remove the state of affairs in which the Holocaust happened, we are left with a state of affairs empty of any Holocaust. But without a state of affairs in which the Holocaust happened to compare to, the empty state of affairs is now "naked" of any value. Its comparative value depended upon the alternate state of affairs in which the Holocaust happened.

Similarly, without State of Affairs A, State of Affairs B loses its status as "worse". However, it does not lose its constituent five happy people. State of Affairs B stands independently as a good state of affairs in itself.

One final example:
"It's a good thing that Jim is trying his best."
or
"It's better that Jim is trying his best." 
The only reason why it is a good thing that Jim is currently busting his ass is that we commonly associate working hard with success. That is to say, the act of working hard commonly (or so the conservatives claim) leads to a better state of affairs - one which Jim is successful. This future state of affairs need not be good in itself, though, for Jim's action to be good. Jim might just need to work hard so he doesn't get audited by the IRS, which doesn't constitute a good state of affairs in itself.

In conclusion:

  1. Absolute values of states of affairs depend on the presence of its constituent objects
  2. Comparative values of states of affairs depend on the presence or absence of constituent objects of other relevant states of affairs
  3. Actions to produce a better state of affairs (regardless of its absolute value) can be evaluated in absolute, normative terms.
Thus, the statement:
S1: "It would have been a good thing had the Holocaust not happened."
is referring to a comparative state of affairs in which the Holocaust never happened. Such a state of affairs would not be absolutely good, but only relatively good, or, in other words, better. Relatively/comparatively good refers to the decision to choose the better state of affairs.

Therefore, when a person says that it would have been good if that child had not been born, they are saying that the prevention of this child from being born would have been good, not that the state of affairs in which the child is not born is actually absolutely good (but in reality is only comparatively better).

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(You know it's bad when the alternative, in which no absolute value exists, is seen as a good. Such (understandable) defective axiological reasoning applies in many cases, from the immigrant desperate for a safe haven even if it's a ghetto, to the suicidal individual who wishes to die, to the decision of whether or not one will have a child.)

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