Discover more from Quality Time
Can What You Don't Know Help You?
There are ways in which our lives can go better or worse for us. When I’m hanging out with friends, or reading something interesting, these are ways in which my life is going well for me. When I’m lying sick in bed, or struggling to get my computer working, these are ways in which my life is going badly for me. A theory of well-being is a general theory of which things are good and bad for us in this sense.
A major question for theories of well-being is: do we have to know about something for it to be good or bad for us? Or is the old saying correct: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you”?
I think the saying is wrong. I think it’s very plausible that what you don’t know can hurt you, at least in the sense of making your life go worse for you. But this leads to a puzzle, because it’s generally less plausible that what you don’t know can help you. And why would that be? If things you don’t know about can make a difference to your well-being, then why would these unknown difference-makers skew towards the negative? What could explain this asymmetry? For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about this and trying to find a satisfying answer. In this post I just want to set up the puzzle, sketch two possible responses, and explain why I lean towards one of them over the other.
Start out with a case in which something that you don’t know about is bad for you. Suppose it turns out that some people you care about secretly dislike you. To your face they’re perfectly cordial, but behind your back they mock and insult you. If that’s the case, then I think it makes sense to feel bad for you. Indeed, it makes sense to feel bad for you even if you have no idea that people are speaking badly of you, and you are never going to find out that they are speaking badly of you. This leads me to think that, if people are mocking you and insulting you behind your back, then this is a way in which your life is going badly for you. This claim is controversial, but I think it’s quite plausible. At any rate, I accept it. If we’re taking stock of all the facts of your life, categorizing them as good or neutral or bad for you, the fact that people secretly deride you should go into the “bad for you” category.
Now consider a reversed version of the case. Suppose there are some people in your life that you really admire, and you want them to like and respect you. And unbeknownst to you, they do like and respect you. (Maybe you met them a few times, and you don’t think you made an impression, but you’re wrong.) Is this a way in which your life is going well for you? Should I be glad, for your sake, that these people respect and admire you, even though you don’t know it? To me, at least, this is not so clear. And that’s the asymmetry. It seems appropriate to feel bad for you when (unknownst to you) people speak badly of you, but it’s less clear that it’s appropriate to feel glad for you when (unbeknownst to you) people speak well of you. So the former fact seems bad for you, but it’s far less clear that the latter fact is good for you.
I have been thinking about two possible explanations. These two explanations are drawn from a pair of papers on a particular theory of well-being, namely desire satisfactionism. The first is by Paul Forrester: Concurrent Awareness Desire Satisfactionism. The second is by Xiang Yu: Hidden Desires: A Unified Strategy for Defending the Desire-Satisfaction Theory. Although these papers are both concerned with the specific theory of desire satisfactionism, what they say is suggestive of more general responses to the asymmetry — responses which do not draw on a particular theory of well-being.
The first response (drawing from Forrester) is that you have to be aware of something for it to be good for you. And being aware of something is a way of knowing about it. So that is why, in the case where people are speaking well of you but you don’t know it, the fact that these people are speaking well of you is not a way in which your life is going well for you. You aren’t aware that they like and respect you.
That seems right so far. But it would be arbitrary to insist that while there is this sort of awareness requirement on things that make our lives go better, there is no awareness requirement on things that make our lives go worse. If we think that events of which you are unaware cannot be good for you, we should also think that events of which you are unaware cannot be bad for you. By extension we should accept that, in the case where people are secretly mocking and deriding you, this is not bad for you. And that seems hard to accept.
In any case, this awareness-based response effectively denies the existence of the asymmetry that I find puzzling. It denies that, when we are unaware of something that is either good or bad for us, the situation is generally more bad than good. Instead it says that things of which we are unaware are never good or bad for us, so there is no asymmetry. I want to try to explain the asymmetry, rather than denying its existence. I could end up denying its existence if it turns out that there’s no good way of explaining it. But for now at least, it’s too early to give up hope for an explanation.
This brings me to a second response to the asymmetry, one which draws from Yu’s recent paper. This strategy starts from the idea that, although events of which you are unaware can be good for you, the very fact that you are unaware of them can be bad for you. So, in the case in which you are unaware that you are liked and respected by people you care about, the fact that they like and respect you is a way in which life is going well for you, but the fact that you don’t know this is a way in which life is going badly for you. You’re ignorant about something that is important to you. To see how this could explain the asymmetry, consider the following four scenarios:
Situations Two and Four correspond to the two situations I described. The chart isn’t very precise, but I hope the idea is clear enough. When you don’t know that people are speaking badly of you, there are two reasons to feel bad for you: you’re disrespected by people you care about, and you’re in the dark about it. When you don’t know that people are speaking well of you, there’s a reason to feel glad for you and a reason to feel bad for you: you’re respected by people you care about (good), but you’re in the dark about it (bad). So in the latter case, but not the former case, it makes sense for us to have mixed feelings. It’s great that you’re respected by people you care about, but it’s a real shame that you don’t know about it! That’s why it’s clear that Situation Two is bad for you, but it’s much less clear that Situation Four is good for you.
More generally, there is the potential here to explain the puzzling asymmetry between cases in which we’re unaware of something that is good for us, and cases in which we are unaware of something that is bad for us. Often, when something is good or bad for us and we are ignorant of it, our being ignorant of it is bad for us. So when the thing of which we’re ignorant is bad, the overall situation is bad (like Situation Four) and when the thing of which we’re ignorant is good, the overall situation is mixed (like Situation Two). So, on the whole, these sorts of situations tend to be overall bad for us.
I’m not saying that all forms of ignorance are bad for us. I don’t know how many grains of sand there are in Salisbury beach, but this isn’t a way in which my life is going badly for me. But sometimes we do feel bad for people on account of their ignorance, which I take to be evidence that those cases of ignorance are bad for them. And the cases I have considered are cases of that sort. When someone doesn’t know that they’re being mistreated (because people are speaking badly of them, or their partner is cheating on them) we feel bad for them for not knowing. When someone doesn’t know how good they have it (because they don’t realize that people like them, or they fail to recognize their own talents) we also feel bad for them for not knowing. So I think that this ignorance-based strategy provides a promising route for explaining the puzzling asymmetry.
It’s not yet a complete explanation of the asymmetry. It doesn’t say why certain things that are unknown to us can be good or bad for us. And it doesn’t say why certain forms of ignorance but not others are bad for us. I have been appealing to what I hope are fairly intuitive judgments about which things are good and bad for us, but I have not attempted to give a deeper explanation of why they are good or bad. To do that, we would have to situate the ignorance-based strategy within a more comprehensive theory of well-being. That is effectively what Yu does in her paper, since she is working within the framework of desire satisfactionism. As it happens, I like desire satisfactionism, too, and I think that it goes nicely with the ignorance-based strategy for explaining the asymmetry. But Forrester argues that Yu’s strategy fails, and I haven’t addressed those arguments here. Maybe in another post! For now I’ll be satisfied with making a preliminary case for the ignorance-based strategy as an explanation of the puzzling asymmetry.