The fable of Aladdin’s Lamp, adapted here as “I Dream of Genie,” is an enduring favorite, and perhaps that’s because it raises a fundamental philosophical issue of how one ought to lead one’s life in a very personal way: What ought you to wish for, if any three wishes could be fulfilled by a genie? This is a hard question, since it is not the question simply of what you want. You may, at the moment, want lunch, or to have the garden weeded, but it would be foolish to waste your wishes on having those wants satisfied, partly because such desires are momentary and fleeting, and party because those desires hare highly specific, and likely leave a lot of your desires unmet. This suggests that the desires that you should try to satisfy, by the genie’s wishes or in more mundane ways, are desires that endure, and that are general. An example of such a desire would be the desire to be a concert violinist. If you had such a desire, it would likely last over a significant period of your life, perhaps from the time you first picked up a violin. It is also somewhat general. It is more general, for example, than the desire to be a concert violinist in a particular city, or with a particular orchestra.
This doesn’t suggest that you ought not have fleeting and particular desires. We all have such desires, and we can’t help having them. But when it comes to figuring out which desires we would want to satisfy by the granting of a genie’s wishes, in light of the scarcity of that resource, we need to choose carefully, and we can say, at least provisionally, that it would make sense to wish for things that would satisfy some of our general and enduring desires. (The generality of our desires can pose problems as well. See the final wish-fulfillment scenario in “Man in a Bottle”). Of course, we may have many such desires, and thus we face the further task of ranking them by their importance to you.
Since we’re discussing the normative matter of what you ought to wish for, we have to look beyond just a catalog of the desires that you have, particular or general, fleeting or enduring, and assess whether those desires ought to be fulfilled. Suppose, for example, that someone dislikes another person intensely, and harbors the enduring desire for harm or even death to come to that person. In general, we should not approve of the fulfillment of such a desire. In fact, we would say that in general, such a person ought not desire the death of someone he dislikes, and that he should not wish for the fulfillment of that desire by way of the genie or any other way. If we reject ethical egoism, the view that you ought to satisfy your desires, whatever they are, the difficult question then is this: What desires ought one have? Another way of putting it is the one posed in this episode: What wishes should one ask the genie to grant?
Genie scenarios simplify matters a bit. In addition to figuring out what desires we ought to have, we also have to think about how we ought to go about fulfilling them. It might be o.k. to desire wealth, at least up to a point, but there are good and bad ways of achieving it. We don’t approve of all means of attaining wealth. When there’s a genie to grant one’s wishes, the question of the moral status of the means to wish fulfillment are bypassed, as long as the genie in question has the appropriate moral credentials. Wish-granting by the devil, for example, is problematic, as we’ve seen in “Jesse-Belle,” “Escape Clause,” and “Printer’s Devil.”
It’s noteworthy that the very first thing we hear George P. Hanley assert is: “I don’t know what I want.” He says this well before his confrontation with the lamp and the genie, but it might well stand in for the philosophical worry about what anyone should want.
There’s nothing objectionable about the genie George P. Hanley accidentally activates. In fact, this genie offers excellent advise. Hanley should take his time in selecting his wish. (In this story he only gets one.) He should “sleep on it.” Hanley takes this advice, and we follow him through three distinct possible worlds, the consequences of three wishes fulfilled by the genie. To understand these wishes, we need to understand the man George P. Hanley, including his character, his wants and needs, and the checkered history of his attempts to fulfill his wishes and lead a life of well-being without a genie.
As Hanley exercises his moral imagination, that is, as he thinks about possible worlds in which would follow from the granting of a specific wish, he is able to follow out their consequences, tracing out how others would act in the circumstances which result from the wish-fulfillment, as well as how he would act, and he can determine whether the resulting life would be a life of well-being, a life in which he is truly happy. In successive thought experiments Hanley imagines being married to one of the world’s most glamorous women, possessing one of the worlds greatest financial fortunes, and being one of the world’s most powerful leaders.
As he imagines the consequences of each of these possible wishes, each scenario turns into a nightmare. Perhaps the common problem has to do with the wish for superlatives: marrying the greatest beauty, having the greatest wealth, and possessing the greatest power. To each of these correspond what Aristotle described as “states” of an individual, and he argues that when one possesses these states in the extreme, just as when one completely lacks the state, the person is not in balance. The virtuous person should possess love, confidence in mastery over material things, and power, in intermediate degrees. Hanley’s imagined extreme states result a person who is not virtuous.
These three journeys of the imagination lead Hanley to find something appropriate to wish for. The key difference between the wish he asks for and the ones he rejects is that once granted, the wish enables him to promote the happiness of others, rather than to promote his own happiness. Whether Hanley’s final choice, or any human act, is truly altruistic, is another philosophical question raised by this episode.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (1984), Volume II, Barnes, Jonathan, ed. , Princeton University Press. Book 11, 1105b.
Blackburn, Simon (1999), Think, Oxford University Press, Chapter 8, “What to do”, pp. 270-298.
Nagel, Thomas (1970) The Possibility of Altruism, Princeton University Press.