Fun with Counterfactuals

My mother was thinking about driving down to Washington for the Rally to Restore Sanity last week, and called me with disturbing news.  The car she would have been in got totalled on the way down (no one hurt).  Yikes, gasp, phew, she said (in so many words). Implied counterfactual:  if I had gone, I would have been involved in the accident.

But no, I said, if you had gone, everything would have been slightly different.  They would have had to drive to your house and pick you up, and other things would have gone differently too, so they would have wound up in slightly different places at slightly different times, and there wouldn't have been an accident at all.  

It so happens I read a philosophy paper by Caspar Hare (start with part 2 on pg. 21) later in the week that involved the same sort of fun with counterfactuals. Here's a puzzle to drive your friends crazy with:  if we had no seatbelt laws in Texas, and the traffic czar suddenly passed such a law, on whose behalf would that be the right thing to do? Accident victims, right?

But it's not so simple.  The law takes effect, and Abby, Bob, and Cathy are in accidents, but wear seatbelts, and avoid trauma.  So the law was passed on their behalf?  Can't be!  Without that law, Abby, Bob, and Cathy would have pulled out of their driveways just a little earlier, so wouldn't have been in any accident at all.

What about Debbie, who avoided being in any accident, because of the time it took her to buckle her seat belt? Well, the law helped her, but surely that's not it's aim --simply to change the timing of accidents.  Changing the timing obviously wouldn't save lives, on the whole.

More fun with counterfactuals.   Imagine a young man starts putting away money for the future, in expectation he will have a family to take care of one day.  Now, what if one day he has kids, and they're all having fun on a cruise in the Carribean, and he tells them to thank him for saving up over the years, so vacations like this would be possible.  Smart Alec says "But if you hadn't saved,  every event would have been timed differently, so some other kid would be having a miserable time vacationing in Waco, Texas, not me.  So don't ask ME for any thanks!"

Smart Alec is right that some other kid would have been in the picture, but wrong that his father did nothing right.  Hare's paper contains a very nice proposal.  The father did something good for his kids "de dicto," not "de re."  He did good with respect to a category (his children, whoever they turned out to be) not for specific things--his eventual kids.

I suspect we think about what to do in "de dicto" terms all the time, and for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes there's no way to think "de re" because of timing matters, but sometimes it's the wrong way to think for other reasons. A lot of ethical thought is about whoever winds up doing this, or going there, or being that.  The idea of an obligation being "de dicto" captures the right sort of generality.


rtk said...

But they would have allowed time to pick up your mother, thereby arriving at the scene of their accident at the same time. Or driven a bit faster to make up for time lost and hit the other car harder. Or driven into a worse scenario. You can't avoid accidents by timing because they're ahead, behind, and to the side of you, both on the road and on the clock.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not saying just that whether my mother went would have made a difference. Anything would have made a difference. If they had stopped to go to the bathroom they wouldn't have had the accident ... though they might have had a different accident. But probably not, because accidents are uncommon.

An accident is a fragile event--it involves a bunch of things happening at an exact time and place. If earlier things had happened differently, the alignment would have been thrown off.

I know this seems nitpicky and just technically true...but it really is true, I think!

Aeolus said...

According to Bertrand Russell:
"...it may be maintained quite plausibly that if Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the United States would not now exist. For it was owing to this event that England broke with the Papacy, and therefore did not acknowledge the Pope's gift of the Americas to Spain and Portugal. If England had remained Catholic, it is probable that what is now the United States would have been part of Spanish America."

Wayne said...

Sounds like Parfit's reasons and persons again...

And ohmygosh so many blog entries all at once. I'm not sure I like this blogging only on saturdays :)

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus--lots of fun with counterfactuals.

Wayne--I know, I know...the four posts just kind of happened. Yes, his paper is partly about Parfit's non-identity problem.