Friday 4 December 2020

Must one disvalue a failure of ordinary doing in Fulford's account of illness?

Gloria and I were discussing Fulford’s account of illness with students this week including his background subjectivism about values which prompted a student to ask: Fulford says that illness is a failure of ordinary doing and the notion of not getting the end encoded in such a basic action is the explanation for the negative value of illness. But if he also thinks that value judgements are subjective, is one really compelled to disvalue action failure?

My first thought was to think that there’s a transcendental condition on action here. While it may be true that what one takes to be the ordinary doing worth doing is partly constituted by what one values and that there might be some rational disagreement about that (given Fulford’s subjectivism), there’s no freedom not to disvalue a failure of ordinary doing once selected. It’s akin to the idea that while one might not be obligated to value anything in particular – given subjectivism – still there’s no freedom not to value what one values. Then given the link from action to value, there’s no freedom there. And hence no freedom about disvaluing action failure. It just drops out of the conceptual machinery of action.

But actions including even ordinary doing seem to stand in complicated relations, sometimes contributing via their success to the success of broader actions but not always. I recall a friend’s child who had been encouraged to do something but had failed saying with apparent delight “I told you I couldn’t do it!” The failure of the one action was the subject of positive appraisal. Edward de Bono encouraged people to play the L game with better players so as to learn from losing. (I assume here that they had to aim to win within the game.) One might thus value action failure. Might this apply to cases of illnesses and if so what effect does it have on Fulford’s general explanation of why illness is a negative value because it is linked to action failure and we disvalue that.

I must say: I find these cases puzzling. For the child to have been as sincere as she seemed, she must have tried to do something – hence valued it – while also valuing failing to do it. the latter value didn’t undermine her attempt.

So let’s throw three other more relevant examples into the mix. Mohamed Rashed discusses cultures where it is standard to hear the voices of the dead. If this is a reassuring cultural trope then, he suggests, it isn’t pathological. Bill Fulford’s example of Simon has what he takes to be a religious experience rather than a delusion with thought insertion and uses it to motivate himself to be more successful. Henry has delusions of angelic presence which he finds magical and enriching.

In such cases, one possibility is to vary the content of the notion of ordinary doing. If hearing the dead is common practice then such ordinary doing is sustained, not undermined by inner voices. We can argue for non-pathological status by ascribing appropriate ordinary doing. (I’m setting aside my own qualms about this: no one can actually hear the dead.) Simon, too, doesn’t seem to have any failure of ordinary doing (again bracketing whether religious experiences of his sort can occur). Henry’s case may be more complex. Perhaps he does suffer a failure of ordinary doing if he is ever confused about reality by the presence of his angels. Perhaps it is merely that he enjoys some of the effects of his illness such that, all things considered, he prefers to keep the illness and its effects.

These three cases suggest two different responses. In the first, by adjusting the ordinary doing to include a bit more in heaven and earth we can preserve the link between ordinary doing and valuing: there’s no failure of ordinary doing to be paradoxically valued. In Henry’s case, I think we preserve the link by ascribing a failure of ordinary doing but then suggesting that other values may be in play.

Further, the additional values that are in play are in play because of further actions, even if not ordinary doings. Here, too, the transcendental link can be preserved. But it may be in the fineness of grain of description, the fact that someone values something does not undermine its pathological status, as one might think.