Friday, June 24, 2005

An Apology And An Attempt At Compensation

I know that, last Wednesday, I said there would likely be more blogging here since I'd finished my finals, and that, since Sunday, I have posted precisely sweet FA. I did start an internship on Monday, which keeps me away from non-work-related internet use from nine to five, and nothing's really caught my eye since then anyway, but still, 'tis remiss, and efforts to remedy it will be made, beginning now, with a little bit of linking and commenting on said links.

On Sunday, I linked to Will Wilkinson bashing Richard Layard and his utilitarianism (again), something which, as anyone who has read this blog for a while, I have not little sympathy with, as utilitarianism is, I am convinced, philosophically interesting but seriously, seriously wrong as a moral philosophy (morality is not about maximisation, and whatever it does aim at, it is not only happiness). Brad De Long has a go at showing that Layard is right here and here. I've been rather disparaging about De Long's philosophical pretensions before (here), and now I'm going to do it again (not that Will needs the help: he does a fairly good job of defending himself here).

In the first link, De Long represents Bentham as a preference satisfaction theorist and defends him on the grounds that preference satisfaction is a good moral theory, which a) as Brian Weatherson points out, is simply wrong about Bentham and b) comes up against the problem of really morally objectionable premises, which I have outlined before. He also makes the classic subjectivist mistake of assuming that because something makes us happy, that is what is good about it, rather than the fact it is good making us happy, in attempting to give a reply to Wilkinson's argument: I don't care about moral value x because it makes me happy, I care about moral value x because it's moral value x, and if I achieve the ends it prescribes, I will tend to be happy because I have achieved ends I care about.

In the second link, he has a go at dealing with Nozick's infamous experience machine (this is a thought experiment supposed to show the falsity of all experience based ethical theories, where we think about whether we would think it was right to spend our entire lives in a machine which prevented us from having any contact with the world at all, and instead provided us with experiences which would be valuable were they had in the real world, and which we believed were in the real world, in exactly the same way that we now believe our experiences are in the real world: to put it another way, do we, or do we not, go back into the Matrix?). He seems to think that reading a book counts as a kind of low-level experience machine, and the fact that we read books means that Bentham must be partly right.

Firstly, books are not anything like Nozick's experience machine: that radically falsifies our experience - we believe we're living out a life full of friendship, success in our goals, and so on, when in fact we're strapped into and kept alive by a machine and doing none of these things - whereas books, even at worst, produce a kind of immersion in an interior world which by virtue of its interiority always knows it is not the whole world (and which is achieved through an engagement with an object in the world which is not characterised by total falsification) . Second, even if books were anything like Nozick's experience machine, the fact that we don't spend out whole lives reading them indicates that they are no counter-example to the point it makes: genuine utilitarians have to believe that if our lives would contain more happy experiences spent wholly in the experience machine, as the thought experiment specifies, we are obliged to live our whole lives in the experience machine (indeed, the idea that we would not become aware of the non-veridicality of the experiences in the experience machine if we were not always in it is surely ridiculous).

Also, Scanlon comments in one of DeLong's posts, and that's worth reading just because it's Scanlon. Scanlon has written fairly extensively on the metric of value, which this is basically a discussion about, including what I take as the claim that preference satisfaction as a measure of value may contain a fatal paradox, because, if it says that only people's preferences can stand as the basis for claims about value, it can't affirm its own claims about the value of people's lives, as that is on the basis of something other than people's preferences, specifically, the claim that only people's preferences can stand as the basis for claims about value. He also makes a more conventional argument involving a religious fanatic really wants to work themselves to death to produce a monumental status of their God, or something similar, which is supposed to show, that since we think there's at least something wrong about that, and would attempt to prevent them from doing that, at least if it did actually kill them - let's suppose that's all they want, so at least mostly disarming the 'they'd want other things too, and that's what we care about' argument - we must think that there are other sources of value apart from preference satisfaction (the informed preferences argument is no good either, because the standards by which we judge the informed-ness of preferences look suspiciously like they are the standards by which we judge whether they aim at things which are, of themselves, good).

The Sharpener has a post up by Andrew of nontrivial solutions having a go at the welfare state because it provides incentives for what he takes to be morally bad things, in particular, abortion and divorce. Legalising abortion undoubtedly, in the sense that it removes a disincentive, provides an incentive to abortion. This is not an interesting claim. The interesting claims are the ones in the arguments over the morality, or otherwise, of abortion. If abortion's bad, then it would be bad - at least in the sense that it is likely to lead to an increase in the number of abortions, which might not be all the things we would want to consider - to remove a disincentive to abortion. No argument was provided even to this limited effect, limited because it doesn't discuss the undoubted costs, on the child, the parents, and society at large, of having unwanted children.

The divorce argument is just wrong-headed a similar way. The claim is that by increasing benefit to un-married parents, the incentives for divorce are increased. As in the case of abortion, insofar as this increases the number of divorces, and divorces are bad, this would be - in this sense - a bad thing. On the other hand, tying people in to loveless and/or abusive marriages is, by implication, since it is not discussed, no cost to be considered at all, just as the fact that parents who aren't living together might have costs they didn't have before, most notably, the cost of providing themselves with somewhere to live now they're not living in the former family home, is also ignored. Bah (textual representation of dismissive Italian hand gesture picked up from better half).

Stumbling and Mumbling is getting all het-up that Marx might win the Radio four philosophy poll. He wants Hume to win. I have to say that I find the critical acclaim heaped on Hume totally baffling: there is not a single philosophical position which he takes up that I can think of which is not clearly wrong or utterly banal. None of his work that I've read is half as well written as the Communist Manifesto either. I don't think Mill's a better philosopher than Marx either, even though I probably agree with Mill more, mainly because Marx is such a provocative thinker, in a way that neither Mill (now, anyway) or Hume are. As for Hobbes, well, any liberal - scrap that, anyone - who thinks well of who believes that we, as a matter of moral necessity, must concentrate all power in the hands of one person is a nutcase (and anyone who says anything about the dictatorship of the proletariat wll be reminded that the state, and so concentration of any legal coercive power in anyone's hands, supposedly withers away in the communist utopia, which, for all its impossibility, is a rather appealing moral vision).

On a slightly lighter note, a guest-poster at Ezra Klein's blog talks about why they think we are scared of zombies. Personally, I was quite uncomfortable being anywhere by myself for a not-insignificant period of time after seeing the remake of 'Dawn of the Dead' (seriously: that's the last non-comedy zombie film I ever see), and I think they're probably right: it's something to do with anonymity, and huge numbers.

Finally, this is an interesting and sensible take on the problems the left faces all on both sides of the Atlantic, I think (taking for granted that describing, in British terms at least, the current Labour Party as leftwing rather than say centrist, or even centre-right, would be misleading).


brad said...

Re: "[DeLong] also makes the classic subjectivist mistake of assuming that because something makes us happy, that is what is good about it, rather than the fact it is good making us happy..."

Don't be daft. What I wrote was:

"At its core utilitarianism is two commands:

"1. Respect people's choices--those made with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties. You want to know what is good for someone? Watch the choices that he or she makes. Watch them carefully.

"2. A good society is one in which as much of what people would choose for themselves--with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties--is attained, taking care that when there is a tradeoff between one person's preferences and another's, each one counts equally."

Brad DeLong

Rob Jubb said...


No, I'm not being daft. You've identified the wrong set of points as the part I criticise. The place you make what I call the classic subjectivist mistake is when you attempt to defend Layard against Wilkinson by arguing that it would be bizarre to say that we would sacrifice happiness for other values, saying

The response... would be that Wilkinson believes that if he were to sacrifice his freedom for his happiness, that if he were to do so he would then look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life, and that he would be unhappy. If Wilkinson says otherwise--that he would look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life and be happy, but that he would still regret what he had done and wish he had done otherwise--Wilkinson is simply saying, "Baa baa buff."

I think what you mean here - the passage is far from clear - is that it would be odd if we made choices, thinking that they realised values of some sort, and then regreted those choices - were unhappy - as long as the supposed values we were aiming at were realised. So, by this argument, we would be happy, even though we weren't, by our own lights, aiming at happiness. Thus happiness must be the single transcendent value: we are decieved about what we in fact are doing, because what we really want is to be happy. If that is the argument you make, then it is the classic subjectivist mistake I outlined, because it assumes that value x we think we are aiming at is in fact merely a means to happiness, rather than happiness resulting from the achievement of value x. Perhaps hedonist would be a better name for this mistake.

And it is a mistake. It makes the claim that happiness is not the supreme value non-falsifiable, because there is nothing that can be said against it, at least in the form you presented it in, because any value I claim is not do to with happiness can have increasingly tenuous links to happiness drawn for it. It also makes happiness an extra-moral value, which I think is simply a psychological mistake: if I am happy because I fulfill some onerous duty, it is because I believe it was duty, and it would have been wrong of me not to fulfill it - the motivation comes from the acknowledgement of the duty, not the desire for happiness. Finally, related to the idea that the claim is non-falsifiable, the argunment makes the concept of happiness so vague as to be utterly uninteresting: it could not fail to pick out 'good' mental states, simply because anything that pleases us is happiness. This is rather like the argument for egoism which runs, all my desires/preferences are mine, any action I take must aim at the satisfaction of some of my desires/preferences, therefore we are all egoists, because all our actions aim at the satisfaction of our own desires/preferences. If this is true, it is so banal as to be utterly uninteresting. Egoism wins, but it's a totally phyrric victory.

The pieces of your piece you cite have very little to do with utilitarianism, except through some rather dubious empirical premises, as Nozick's experience machine shows: if people didn't make informed choices - for fairly good reasons I suspect - to go into the experience machine, a utilitarian would force them, because they would, ex hypothesi, be happier in the experience machine. They look to me like premises that would be justified by something like autonomy, rather than happiness, simply because there is very little evidence at all that people do make choices which make them happy - rather than lead to them having good lives.