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Reasons and Persons$

Derek Parfit

Print publication date: 1986

Print ISBN-13: 9780198249085

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/019824908X.001.0001

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A A World Without Deception

A A World Without Deception

Reasons and Persons

Derek Parfit

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Discusses what would make someone's life go best; whether causing someone to exist can benefit this person. It considers a world without deception. Are we our brains? Closest continuers. The social discount rate. Rawlsian principles. Buddhism and the No Self View.

Keywords:   brains, Buddhism, deception, persons, Rawls, self‐interest, well‐being

Suppose that we were all both transparent and never self‐denying. Call this the Status Quo. It would probably be better for each of us if he became a trustworthy, threat‐fulfilling, threat‐ignorer. Each change would involve certain risks. But these would be likely to be heavily outweighed by the benefits.

How would someone gain, if he changed his dispositions in these three ways? This depends on what others do. The gain from becoming trustworthy depends upon the number of others who become trustworthy. The gain from becoming a threat‐fulfiller depends upon the number of others who become threat‐ignorers, and vice versa. If everyone else remains never self‐denying, it would be no advantage to be merely a threat‐ignorer, and at most a small advantage to be trustworthy, but it would be a great advantage to be a threat‐fulfiller. Someone who is trustworthy gains little if no one else is trustworthy,1 and gains most if everyone else is trustworthy. A mere threat‐ignorer gains nothing if no one else is a threat‐fulfiller, and gains most if everyone else is a threat‐fulfiller. But a threat‐fulfiller gains most if no one else is a threat‐ignorer. These facts are shown in the diagram below.

A A World Without Deception
(p.458) Everyone is assumed to be transparent, and to be never self‐denying except in so far as he acquires any of these three dispositions. The diagram ignores risks, and certain other complications. We could avoid these complications by making further assumptions. But we do not need these here, since they would not affect the argument. A threat‐ignorer could be a special case of a threat‐fulfiller, one who has threatened to ignore other people's threats. Call someone merely a threat‐ignorer if this is the only threat that he would fulfil.

As the diagram shows, if someone gains from becoming either trustworthy or a threat‐fulfiller, these can be gains with respect to the Status Quo. Such a person becomes better off than he would have been if he and everyone else had remained never self‐denying. But the gain from becoming merely a threat‐ignorer cannot raise someone above the Status Quo. It can only prevent him from sinking lower.

These facts can be explained as follows. When someone gains from being trustworthy, it will often be true that others also gain. And these gains need not involve losses to others. These gains can come from the keeping of mutually advantageous agreements, which create new benefits at no cost to others. This would be true, for instance, of some co‐operative forms of industry, or agriculture. But, when someone gains from being a threat‐fulfiller, this is worse for someone else. The gain to the threat‐fulfiller may be only a defensive gain, preventing a would‐be aggressor from gaining from aggression. But this would be worse for this aggressor. And when someone gains from being a threat‐ignorer, this is just the avoidance of a loss. If I am transparently a threat‐ignorer, threat‐fulfillers cannot gain by threatening me. It will be worse for them if they threaten me, since I shall ignore their threats, and they will fulfil them, which will be worse for all of us. Since it would be worse for them if they threatened me, they will not do so. But if I am merely a threat‐ignorer, my only gains are of this kind—what I do not lose to threat‐fulfillers. This is why this disposition cannot raise me above the Status Quo.

These facts have the following implications. If everyone became trustworthy, this would be better for everyone than if no one did. But there would be no such general gain if we all became threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorers. This explains why, of these three departures from the disposition of being never self‐denying, only the first is thought to be required by morality. It is a plausible claim that, if we can affect our dispositions, we ought morally to cause ourselves to be or to remain trustworthy. But it could not be plausibly claimed that, if we are all now never self‐denying with respect to threats, we ought morally to cause ourselves to be threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorers.

Though this general claim is not plausible, we might make two other claims. If other people have sufficiently bad intentions, we ought perhaps to become transparent threat‐fulfillers, so that we can deter these people. (If we are not transparent, it would be morally better merely to appear to be (p.459) threat‐fulfillers. This is clearest in the case of nuclear deterrence.) We could also claim that, if other people have become threat‐fulfillers, and have bad intentions, we ought morally to cause ourselves to become transparent threat‐ignorers.

In the world as it is now, where we are partly opaque, it would be hard to convince others that we really are threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorers. It would not be enough to fulfil or ignore some threat at some small cost to ourselves. Since it would be better for us to appear to be threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorers, it may be rational for us in self‐interested terms to pay this small cost, in an attempt to gain this useful appearance. But this very fact would make people doubt that we would fulfil or ignore threats at a great cost to ourselves. A threat‐fulfiller should therefore welcome the development of infallible lie‐detector tests.

What are the risks involved in these three changes in our dispositions? If we are not transparent, one risk in becoming trustworthy is that we might be tricked into keeping some mutual agreement by those who merely appear to be trustworthy, and will not do their share. If we are all transparent, there is only the smaller risk that those with whom we make such agreements, though intending to do their share, may in fact be unable to do so. This risk would be heavily outweighed by the likely benefits of trustworthiness, those that are created by the keeping of mutually advantageous agreements. The risk in becoming a threat‐fulfiller is that we might threaten a threat‐ignorer, and the risk in becoming a threat‐ignorer is that we might be threatened by a threat‐fulfiller. But if we were all transparent these two risks would be small. It would be clearly worse for a threat‐fulfiller if he threatened a transparent threat‐ignorer. And I am assuming that, except when we are acting upon these three dispositions, none of us would do what he believes would be worse for him. The risk is only that this assumption may, occasionally, fail to hold.

If we all became transparently trustworthy, this would be better for everyone. We would rise above the Status Quo. If we all became transparently threat‐fulfillers, this would not be better for everyone. It might be better for some people. These are the people who are naturally weak. If we are all never self‐denying, the strong can exploit the weak not with threats but with warnings. If the strong harm the weak, because the weak have not made concessions, this may not be worse for the strong. But if the weak had weapons that could destroy both them and the strong, it might be better for them to become transparent threat‐fulfillers. By making credible defensive threats, they could save themselves from exploitation by the strong. This gain to the weak may be part of the reason why General Gallois welcomed nuclear proliferation. But this gain would be insecure. It would be abolished if the strong became transparent threat‐ignorers. And if we all became threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorers, there would be greater risks for everyone. This might make these changes in our dispositions worse for all of us.

(p.460) This last claim may seem to conflict with another of my claims. I claimed that it would be better for each of us if he caused himself to become a threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorer. If these changes would be worse for all of us, it may seem that this could not be true.

This is not so. These claims could both be true. It could be true both (1) that, whatever others do, it would be better for each of us if he himself became a threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorer, and (2) that, if all rather than none of us made these changes, this would be worse for all of us. What each would gain by making these changes may be less than what he would lose if everyone else did the same.

Suppose that we are at the Status Quo, all transparently never self‐denying. If we add one assumption, it would not be better for anyone if he made himself a threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorer. This assumption is that, if anyone changed himself in these two ways, he would thereby cause everyone else to make the same two changes. Let us suppose that this would not be true. It would be unlikely if we are very numerous—members of a society with a large population.

If I would not be copied by everyone else, it will be better for me if I become transparently a threat‐fulfilling threat‐ignorer. If everyone else remains never self‐denying, I gain nothing from being a threat‐ignorer, but I gain most from being a threat‐fulfiller. This is how I could rise highest above the Status Quo. As others start to acquire these two dispositions, I gain less from being a threat‐fulfiller, but I start to gain from being a threat‐ignorer. When everyone else has made both changes, I would cease to be above the Status Quo. Since there are certain risks, I may even sink lower. And I now gain nothing from being a threat‐fulfiller. Since everyone else is now disposed to ignore my threats, they have become useless. And since there is the risk that I might, foolishly, make a threat, it may now be better for me if I lose this disposition. But I now gain most from being a threat‐ignorer. It would be very bad for me to be never self‐denying in a world of threat‐fulfillers. Everyone else could then exploit me by making threats. Perhaps most people, being good‐natured, would not do so. But a few would. So it would be clearly better for me to remain transparently a threat‐ignorer.

My conclusions are, then, these. In a world without deception, it would very probably be better for each of us if he ceased to be never self‐denying in at least two ways. It would very probably be better for each if he became, and remained, a trustworthy threat‐ignorer. According to S, it would be rational for each of us to change himself in these two ways.

As I have said, it might be true that we cannot bring ourselves to act in ways that we believe to be irrational. And it might be true that others would not believe that we would act in ways that we believe to be irrational. If either of these were true, we would be told by S that it would be rational for us to change, not only our dispositions, but also our beliefs about rationality. Each of us should still believe that it is usually irrational for him (p.461) to do what he believes will be worse for himself. But he should try to make himself believe that such acts are rational when they involve ignoring threats, or keeping promises.

(That we might through technology become transparent, and that we should think in advance about such changes, I learnt from J. Glover. For deeper thoughts on these lines see GLOVER (3).)


(1) B. Hooker corrected my earlier view that, if someone was trustworthy, he would gain nothing if no one else was trustworthy. Someone who was not trustworthy might give me a benefit because he trusted me to give him some benefit in return.