Unpreferred Happiness and My Mother’s Grandchildren

This post is about whether we sometimes do not prefer happiness and whether my mother should want me to procreate. In a dinner conversation my mother stated that she would be happy if I had children, but does not mind if I do not have children. Her point was that my procreation is up to me and she does not want to act in any way to increase the likelihood of me having children.

As I see it, my mother made two claims:

  1. My mother would be happy if I had children.
  2. My mother is not motivated to make me get children.

How can one make sense of my mother’s position within decision theory? A natural interpretation of claim 1 would be to say that my mothers desirability value for me having a child (C) is larger than zero (C > 0) – after all the child would make her happy – and the desirability for me having no child (~C) is equal zero (~C = 0), since there is no happiness or unhappiness associated with no child.

This interpretation, however, results in a contradiction with claim 2 that she does not want to do anything to increase the likelihood of me having children. After all, if C > 0 and ~C = 0, then C > ~C and there should be some prize my mother should be willing to pay to increase the likelihood of procreation. But I took it that my mother is not motivated to make me get children! Either my mother is irrational and should perhaps actively try to get me to have children, or something with my interpretation is wrong.

One option I find particular intriguing is that agents might have unpreferred happiness. They can be happy about a state of affairs without preferring this state of affairs to another, even all other things being equal.

Another option would be to attribute a strong preference for respecting my autonomy to my mother , which counters the preference for the happiness she would receive from my procreation. Given that her intervening in anyway would disrespect my autonomy, she might choose not to do so even though a certain state of affairs would make her happy.

But would this give us the right result? I am not convinced, because on this intepretation my mother would still pay some prize to increase my chance of procreation, if this would not to infringe my autonomy. She would prefer me to get children and would act on this preference as long as this would not conflict with her other preferences. Her preference for my procreation might always be outweighed, but still a preference. I don’t think that this fits with her self-description.

Instead I propose that my mother has some second-order mental state that keeps her from endorsing any mental state or preference that would favour my procreation. She would not prefer for me to have children, even if this were not affecting my autonomy. However, if she lost this second-order mental state, she might develop such a preference. This second-order state might concern my autonomy or not, but in either case it differs from a standard preference.

The second-order mental state would block my mother from endorsing motivational states in favour of me getting children, but it would not stop her from being happy, if I get a child. The second-order state would have no force over happiness, because happiness is a feeling or an emotion. My mother would in fact be happier with one state of affairs than with another without preferring it, even if all other things remained equal.

This model fits my mother’s claims. I am aware that there might be other explanations, but can any of it salvage the assumptions of classical decision theory and account for the statements of my mother (assuming that they were sincere)?



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