The Joan of Arc challenge to objective list theory, as I shall argue, shows that only happiness is of intrinsic value. Pluralists—people who say that there are many things of intrinsic value—otherwise known as objective list theorists (maybe there’s some technical distinction between the two, but if so, I haven’t been able to find it) think that there are several things that are of intrinsic value. Objective list theorists hold roughly the following: that which is of intrinsic value is only happiness, knowledge, relationships, and achievements. To paraphrase Hitchens’ famous quote about those who proclaim “there is no god but Allah,” such people end their sentence a few words too late.
The basic idea behind the Joan of Arc challenge is that all of the things other than happiness that are on the objective list potentially hinge on whether various people take innocuous actions that no one will ever find out about. As a consequence, objective list theory has deeply counterintuitive implications about what you should do in private—holding that people being harmed is desirable. This objection will become clearer in the later sections.
All in all, I think this is potentially the second or third best argument for hedonism, after the lopsided lives challenge and maybe also the argument advanced here.
Lots of people think that they know something about Joan of Arc. She was burned to death, had a rap battle against Miley Cyrus, stood up for . . . (I’m actually realizing I know embarrassingly little about Joan of Arc, though I think it was something religious—maybe to do with the beginning of Protestantism?). But what if . . . everything you know about Joan of Arc is a lie? What if it was all the product of a grand conspiracy—Joan of Arc wasn’t really burned at the stakes? What if she actually lived out her life in peace and happiness and harmony?
No, I obviously don’t think that’s actually the case. But if it were, that would be good, right? If Joan of Arc didn’t actually get burned at the stake, but instead lived out her life in happiness, unburned and at places that are nicer than the stake, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Intuitively it seems like it would be. But unfortunately, most versions of objective list theory must deny this very obvious moral datum.
Why is this? And what the hell is objective list theory? Objective list theory says that there are various things that make your life go well—things on the list of good things might include knowledge, happiness, friendship, romantic relationships, reading my blog, etc. But if knowledge makes your life go well, then it’s hard to maintain that this conspiracy would be a good thing.
After all, millions of people have learned about Joan of Arc in school. Philosophers generally say that knowledge is belief that is justified + true + a little special something extra that they can never agree on. Whatever the extra special sauce required for knowledge is, many people have that about Joan of Arc. Many people have beliefs about Joan of Arc that would count as knowledge if there was no conspiracy.
But this means that if there was a conspiracy—if Joan of Arc didn’t really burn to death—then millions of people would have potentially tens of billions of fewer pieces of knowledge about Joan of Arc. But if knowledge is intrinsically valuable, then this is very bad—such that Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake would be a good thing.
As we’ll see, this problem generalizes to all versions of objective list theory—even ones that don’t believe in the intrinsic value of knowledge. But first, I’ll address the responses that an objective list theorist might give to this specific version.
They might first say that only some types of knowledge have intrinsic value. Perhaps if, for example, one repeatedly memorizes numbers in a phone book, that is not intrinsically valuable even though the people have gained lots of knowledge. But such a response is not available here. Presumably, if any knowledge is of value, the knowledge garnered by historians who dedicate their life to studying Joan of Arc, and of ordinary people who paid more attention than I did in history class, which makes them sophisticated and well-rounded, is valuable. But on this account, it is not.
Next, they might say that, while millions of people would be worse off if there was a conspiracy, the conspiracy would be better all things considered. Perhaps Joan of Arc’s suffering was so immense that it’s worth slightly diminishing the welfare of a few million history professors and 6th-grade students to avert her suffering. But I think that there are a few problems with this response:
As I’ve argued before, even the smallest instances of agony can add up to be as bad as the worst forms of misery—in sufficiently great amounts. It’s probable that the actual world has enough people to meet the threshold—but if not, then if we accept this line of reasoning, then if the future is sufficiently large, and people continue to learn about Joan of Arc, her grisly fate would be guaranteed to be good.
There doesn’t seem to be anything especially bad about the conspiracy. For this line of response to work, one would have to think that a conspiracy would have been very bad, but the goodness of averting torture would have outweighed it. But that doesn’t seem true. To see this, imagine Joan had diminished pain receptors, such that burning at the stake would only be a bit unpleasant—and was deciding between a conspiracy or just burning at the stake. On this account, if the pain isn’t very great, she should burn at the stake. But this is implausible. If people come to me asking to burn me alive, on the grounds that many future historians will find out about this, it seems the correct response is, “those future historians can go F&*k themselves—I’m not going to be burned alive.” Even if we lower the stakes (pun intended), such that I’m deciding between just being hungry for ten hours—in which case future historians will know it—or not doing that, in which case they will mistakenly justifiably think I was hungry, I don’t have any reason to be hungry for ten hours. In contrast, if me being hungry for ten hours would benefit hundreds of millions of people, I think I would have good reason to do it.
If this is true, then knowledge is lexically inferior to averting intense agony—such that no amount of knowledge can add up to the goodness of averting intense agony. But, as I’ve argued before, it’s overwhelmingly plausible that some amount of pleasure is superior to averting intense agony. If we accept:
no amount of knowledge is as valuable as averting some extreme suffering.
Some amount of pleasure is more valuable than averting intense agony
then by transitivity, we’d accept
Some amount of pleasure is more valuable than any amount of knowledge. Notably, here we are talking about the addition of extra knowledge, regardless of whether the knowledge is paired up with goods. No doubt there are lots of people who get pleasure from knowledge involving Joan of Arc (nerds, for example, who enjoy learning about the topic)—despite that, Joan of Arc intense suffering can’t be counterbalanced by any amount of knowledge that it produced. But this conclusion is not amenable to objective list theory—no objective list theorist would want to hold that there’s some amount of pleasure that just barely balances out the badness of one torture, that is more valuable than all the knowledge in the world; however, this is what the objective list theorist is committed to.
You might object and deny that any pleasure can outweigh the badness of extreme torture. I think this is an untenable implication as I’ve described before. But if you think this, then you should support the extinction of life on earth—because the continued existence of our species guarantees some extreme suffering, and on this account, that extreme suffering can’t be counterbalanced by joy or knowledge.
Imagine that there are some aliens who want to achieve something grand. They want to make every being in the universe have exactly one arm. Suppose that for these aliens, this is not a vicious aim—perhaps it is generally valuable for the aliens to have one arm. Suppose that there are a lot of aliens! In addition, suppose that the aliens have no ability to detect our existence—they can never find out about what we do.
If there are lots of aliens who worked hard towards this goal, then it seems on the objective list theorist account, we would all have very strong—and almost certainly decisive—reason to cut our arms off. But . . . that’s not plausible. Finding out that some aliens worked hard to get the universe to consist only of one arm people would not prompt us to saw off our arms if they have no way of ever finding out. Now, perhaps achievements are lexically inferior to people losing arms, but that conclusion isn’t amenable to objective list theorists who find achievements to be of deep importance.
Given that there are so many aliens, each arm that is cut off corresponds with trillions of alien achievements. But it’s a relatively weak objective list theory that holds that a single person losing their arm is less valuable than any amount of achievements.
Now perhaps wanting all entities in the universe to have only one arm is a bad goal, even if there’s some philanthropic motivation, such that it doesn’t really make the aliens better off. But examples abound!
For example, suppose that the population became very large. Imagine the world is so large that there are billions of people who design panic rooms—rooms designed to provide safety from, for example a nuclear blast or robber. Suppose that these people expend enormous resources on trying to create a panic room that no one can enter without the code. That’s the life mission of many people, and it seems like they succeed.
In addition, suppose that I get decisive evidence that I will be able to walk through walls, in a ghostlike way, in a year. If I were able to walk through walls, then even if no one finds out that I can do this, and even if I never walk through any walls, this would undermine the achievements of the panic room designers because it would mean that all of their panic rooms can be entered by people. Suppose I could prevent myself from being able to walk through walls if I were to cut off both my legs. On this account, I’d have decisive reason to cut off my legs.
Or suppose that Jesus is going to come back in ten years. Many people have been attempting to organize a situation where when Jesus returns, everyone calls out “thank you Jesus, greatest one, who is our lord and savior.” But suppose that you do not have the ability to pronounce the word savior, and you are the only person like this. When Jesus returns, you’ll be alone and Jesus doesn’t care if you call that out—he’s actually kind of shy, not really very into these dramatic showings. Now suppose that the only way to be able to pronounce the word savior would be to undergo a painful and invasive surgery that will likely leave you in intense, chronic pain. On this account, you’d have strong reason to do that. But this is nuts!
Objective list theorists tend to think that relationships are of intrinsic value. Of course, everyone agrees that such relationships are of instrumental value—friendship and family are the things that make life go best. There might even be a reason to care about them non-instrumentally. But they do not have intrinsic value, apart from any joy that they bring you.
I have a lot of friends. But let’s imagine that I had a few more friends—say a total of 1 billion friends.
Now you might say “there’s no way any person could have that many friends. If your population of friends is larger than the populations of Brazil, the United States, Argentina, and Kazakhstan combined, there’s no way you are being a very good friend to all of those people.” And that’s probably true. So instead of imagining me, imagine some aliens who are capable of very rapid communication, who can, on account of this, simultaneously be friends with a billion people. Call the alien who does this Robin.
Suppose that Robin’s friends all think Robin is on vacation, so none of them are communicating with him via alien WhatsApp (and plus, who communicates by alien WhatsApp?) But Robin has been kidnapped. The kidnappers offer him an ultimatum—they’ll either kill him now or torture him for an hour and then kill him now. Being painlessly killed immediately seems like a better deal.
But now suppose that Robin is a super good friend. Right now, a population roughly equal to the number of people in Brazil are thinking “wow, I’m so glad Robin is my friend, he’s so cool! I’m so lucky to have a friend like this.” The following two principles are both plausible:
If objective list theory is true, then if you get joy from appreciating a friend, that is extra valuable.
If you appreciate something, and the value of that would be enhanced if the thing you were appreciating were the case, on account of it being on the objective list, but it’s not the case, then the value is diminished. For example, suppose that happiness from relationships is especially valuable on account of relationships being on the objective list. But suppose someone thinks they’re in a relationship but is really a brain in a vat. Then the the happiness they get from what they believe to be a relationship is less valuable than it would be if they were actually in a relationship.
But together these imply that if there are lots of people thinking “wow, I’m so happy that Robin is my friend and exists” or “I’m so lucky to have a friend like Robin, who is so cool,” then if Robin dies an hour earlier, that would be very bad for them. But if this is true, then Robin should be tortured for an extra hour, in order to benefit his friends, even though none of them will ever find out about how long he survived and none of them will interact with him during that hour. But that seems crazy.
There are roughly four ways I can think of that one could get around this argument. First, they could say that relationships are lexically inferior to averted torture. For the responses to that, see my comment in the section on knowledge.
Second, they could deny 1 and say that the joy from appreciating a friend is not extra valuable on account of being on the objective list. But this seems to go squarely against objective list theorist intuitions. Consider the following cases:
A person thinks about their spouse. They think “I’m so lucky to be with such a wonderful person.” A smile crosses their face. They take out a photo of their spouse and smile. Surely, if objective list theory is true, the joy from this is more valuable than the joy of, for instance, just eating tasty food.
A person sings the song “I’m Happy You Exist,” while thinking about a particular person. Lyrics include:
I'm happy you existAnd it must be obviousHow you're always in my armsAnd I never lose my grip
Surely, if objective list theory is true, the joy they get from that is more valuable than it would be if they instead just got drunk and ate tasty food.
A person on thanksgiving thinks “I’m so grateful to have such a wonderful family.” They do have a wonderful family. Unfortunately, they can’t see their family on thanksgiving—they were banished to a Siberian work camp :(. Still seems valuable.
Next you might doubt the second principle, according to which if you appreciate something that really isn’t actually the case that is less valuable than if it were the case. But this principle is also very plausible. Consider:
A patient with dementia appreciates their wife who has been dead for 40 years and thinks “wow, what a wonderful wife, I’m so glad she exists.” It seems there’s something sad about this—this is not as good as if he was appreciating an actually existing relationship.
Imagine I’m actually in the experience machine. I think “wow, what wonderful family I have.” This seems less good, on objective list theory, than it would be if I actually had such family members. This is true even if I have the thought when they’re not physically around.
Some delusional person thinks “I’m so lucky to have a wife like Jane.” But Jane isn’t his wife. Jane doesn’t even know him. This seems worse than if he was appreciating someone who was actually his wife.
Finally, a person could object by suggesting that there is a limit to the non-instrumental value that one can bring their friends. But this is very implausible. On this account, if you’re deciding whether or not to befriend someone, you would have to consider how many friends they already have, even if you know that that will not affect how good of a friend they will be to you. This seems crazy. In fact, on this account, if there’s a person who has lots of other friends, even if they spend lots of time with you and are very nice, that friendship would be less valuable than another friend with a drug dealer, that brings you just as much joy on account of selling you drugs (assume counterfactually that the drugs do actually make you happy). But that’s clearly false.
This is, I think, enough to establish the merely instrumental value of every objective list good.
But if knowledge is intrinsically valuable, then this is very bad—such that Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake would be a good thing.
But if knowledge is intrinsically valuable, then this is very bad—such that Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake would be a good thing.
The world where Joan of Arc died at the stake and people truthfully believe it is not one step away from the world where she didn't die at the stake and people falsely believe it.
Naively, you can say "the worlds are different with regards to the fate of Joan of Arc, but they are otherwise identical because people have the same beliefs in both of them." But that's not actually true. People have similar-looking beliefs in both worlds, but the process by which they achieved them is different. Claiming that both worlds are identical aside from Joan's fate is equivalent to saying "the method by which you came by your beliefs doesn't matter".
We are stipulating that we would have the same evidence in both cases, so it would lead to the same beliefs, just with different truth values.
That just moves the problem back one step. The processes that lead to the evidence in the untruth universe can't be the same as the ones which lead to the similar-looking evidence in the truth universe (unless you get Gettiered, and then the people in the truth universe don't actually have knowledge.) So if you don't ignore history, the worlds still differ in ways other than just the fate of Joan.
I suspect I'm not well-versed in the overall debate you're participating in - do you have a pointer to some operational definition of "intrinsic value", and why you think ANY of these candidates for list membership are universally understood and valued the same way among humans?
To me, there are a few different models that fit my experiences with respect to these things. In myself, the pluralist position can be reconciled that all of these things (including but not limited to happiness) contribute to my satisfaction and thriving - overall positive thoughts about my life, even when experiencing pain, sadness, or regret. Note that the weights and correlations between these things are nonlinear and change over time.
In my evaluation of others, I can't experience their reactions and I don't fully trust their reports of their experiences or preferences, so I'm stuck with a balance of proxy measures for "what I want for them (aka: what they SHOULD want)" and "what I want from them". Both uncertainty and differential impact mean I overall care less about others than about myself.
The experience machine is a good thought experiment for WHY you're adopting these evaluation frameworks. I wouldn't knowingly choose that subset of happiness over my belief that I'm having a positive impact on other existing and future humans. That doesn't seem at odds with prioritizing my own inclusive satisfaction which comprises all of these things.