Fortunate Misfortune, a philosophical paradox?

Saul Smilansky's 10 Moral ParadoxesI’m reading Saul Smilansky’s ’10 Moral Paradoxes’. It is a very small book, and according to Smilansky it addresses a neglected field in ethics (p. 2). I enjoy philosophy (or at least I think I do; I’m afraid I’m don’t really know what philosophy is; what I’m familiar with is mainly philosophy of science), and I find paradoxes entertaining, so ’10 Moral Paradoxes’ caught my attention at some point.

I have many problems with this book (more than I remember actually; I have to start to keep notes) and I want to discuss some of them here on my blog. Before I get to ‘Fortunate Misfortune’, however, I should make (somewhat) clear what Smilansky thinks of as a paradox. There’s two extreme and oposite ideas of a paradox; a paradox is a logical contradiction, or merely something unexpected or ironic. Smilansky deliberatly places himself somewhere inbetween these extremes, and does not require a strict logical contradiction but still wants to be ‘quite rigorous’ in what he considers a paradox (p. 3). The way I see things, what he discusses is often merely hypothetical paradoxes, and I ask: Is a hypothetical paradox a paradox, and, more important, is it interesting? I could give you an example of what I mean, but I won’t; I trust you are able to conjure a hypothetical paradox yourself. Is it interesting?

So, the first chapter in ’10 Moral Paradoxes’ concerns Fortunate Misfortune (capitalized to be safe). Smilansky claims that sometimes, misfortune can be fortunate and that such fortunate misfortune is paradoxical. Well, I do not disagree to the paradoxical figure of speech (fortunate misfortune), but I do only agree to it in the ironic sense of paradox; if one should be more strict in what one regards as a paradox, Fortunate Misfortune is not a paradox.

Let me be more specific. To illustrate what he means by Fortunate Misfortune, Smilansky provides examples (p. 12) (I observe that philosophers more than anyone argues through examples and I find it highly dissatisfying; I touched upon my dissatisfaction with examples as ‘definitions’ earlier). His main example is that of Abigail who were born with breathing difficulty and a muscle disease that made it hard for her to use her legs. Her doctor told her to swim alot. Later, her breathing and legs became normal, but she continued to swim and became a world champion swimmer. The point is that Abigail had misfortune early in life, but in the end it turned out to be a fortune for her because it introduced her to swimming. (Smilansky provides deails to ensure that she would probably not swim much if she was normal as a child.) First of all, for there to be a paradox, the misfortune has to be the deterministic cause of her later fortune. Such determinism is impossible in practice (to become a world champion swimmer you need the right genes; with those genes she might have become sucessfull in some other sport or something else for that matter; only getting those genes is fortunate as beeing conceived is a lottery; fortunate circumstances made it possible for her to start swimming at an early age, and I can go on listing necessary fortunes in her life for her to become a world champion swimmer) and Smilansky’s Fortunate Misfortune paradox is at best hypothetical, and not a very interesting one. Second, Smilansky points out that he only considers cases where the misfortune has been severe or serious to qualify for his sense of paradox (p. 13). The later fortune has to be equally ‘severe’ as it is supposed to compensate Abigail for her sufferings in her childhood. Can later fortune compensate one for earlier misfortune? (A technical argument here is discounting, and makes the paradox dependent on whether Abigail is forward or backward looking (I just realized that I don’t really know how to treat backward looking discounting!), or whether it is an independent philosopher who observes and assesses the paradox. Abilgail, by the way, is most probably backward looking as anything else would remove the example so far away from reality that it might not be interesting anymore; the Fortunate Misfortune paradox looses interest value as it removes itself from reality in my eyes. And then I haven’t mentioned risk aversion.) And is seriousness truly necessary? I think it would be much less problematic to conjure examples of small misfortunes that were compensated by later fortunes that is conditional on the first misoftunes. The causal issue would also be much easy to establish with smaller events. I am disappointed that Smilansky does not realize this. Another problem is that we cannot observe Abigail’s alternative lives; maybe her illness was only a mild case of what was most probable given whatever conditions that lead to her illness; maybe she could have had an even better life had she never been ill (she could have been an even better swimmer; or been good at something more rewarding altogehther).

I think what Smilansky struggles with in chapter 1 of his ’10 Moral Paradoxes’ is merely a hypothetical paradox. I also wonders what he (and others) put into the words ‘fortune’ and ‘misfortune’. In a lottery where each draw is independent of each other, one can only talk about fortune and misfortune per draw; later fortunes are not dependent on neiter earlier fortunes nor misfortunes. In life, however, things are more complicated. Things depend on each other in ways we don’t understand, and on things we don’t realize matter at all. ‘Fortune’ or ‘misfortune’ then has to apply to a specific set of events. It is misfortunate to become sick. It is fortunate to have a great talent. But when one combines events, like ‘become sick, start training, get well, be stronger than before’, one may call that chain fortunate since one ends up stronger than before (here I go, arguing in examples myself, jeez), and still consider it unfortunate to become sick. I don’t see a paradox here; the fortune and misfortune applies to different sets of events; they operate on different scales.

Even though (or maybe because) I have several problems with ’10 Moral Paradoxes’, I still find it an interesting and rewarding read. Particularly, I enjoy its brevity. If there’s one thing many academics (myself included (ok, semi-academic), see above for example; not exactly brief) need to pay more attention to, it is the art of brevity. Many of the paradoxes under scrutiny spur ideas and new thoughts, and I plan to discuss some of these later. So stay tuned for more Smilansky!

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One Response to “Fortunate Misfortune, a philosophical paradox?”

  1. A Smilansky paradox: Beneficial Retirement « Kvams Says:

    […] This is my second post on Saul Smilansky’s ‘10 Moral Paradoxes.’ My first post addressed the paradox of Fortunate Misfortune. Now, I would like to address the second paradox […]

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