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June 22, 2005

Yes, Bentham Got It Pretty Much Right

The philosophical sharks are circling the swimming Richard Layard. Their dorsal fins make a sinister pattern as they cut through the waves. The top philosophical predators close in on the naive utilitarian:

Fontana Labs:

Unfogged: It would be more fun to disagree, but I'm afraid Will Wilkinson's negative evaluation of Richard Layard's Happiness is correct. This is not a good book. The results from economics and psychology are interesting (if reported elsewhere), but Layard really botches just about every philosophical discussion he attempts. On the other hand, there's some novelty in the sentiment You know who got it pretty much right? Jeremy Bentham. So props for that.

And Will Wilkinson:

Will Wilkinson / The Fly Bottle: Value Monism & Public Reason: More Layard Flogging: I think I need to stop arguing with Layard about utilitarianism because he's really just too philosophically inept to take all that seriously. The chapter at the middle of Happiness defending the principle of utility as the sole standard for judging right action and public policy is just laughably dumb. If I was still TA-ing ethical theory classes, and Layard turned this in, he'd get a solid 'B':

Why should we take the greatest happiness as the goal for society? Why not some other goal--or indeed many? What about health, autonomy, accomplishment or freedom? The problem with many goals is that they often conflict, and then we have to balance them against each other. So we naturally look for one ultimate goal that enables us to judge other goals by how they contribute to it. Happiness is that ultimate goal because, unlike all other goals, it is self-evidently good.

How is it that health, autonomy, accomplishment, and freedom are not self-evidently good? Layard will want to insist that we only want these other things for the sake of happiness. But that is just so much table pounding, and it is false. I am, in fact, willing to sacrifice some measure of happiness to ensure my autonomy, or to accomplish something of great value. I would, in fact, be willing to face suffering and death if that was required to preserve my freedom. And it's pretty easy to point out that happiness is instrumental to other values. I want happiness because I will be motivated to accomplish great things if I am happy. I am more likely to be benevolent and kind if I am happy. I am more likely to have a meaningful, successful intimate relationship. I will live longer if I am happy, and it is good to live. Etc. If we are going to admit that it makes sense to talk about things being self-evidently good, then happiness surely is one of those things. And so are all the other goods Layard mentions. He gets nowhere....

Individual moral intelligence involves weighing competing values and making judgments about their ordering according to standards that vary with context, relationship, social role, and more. It is hard to be a good person because it is hard to make out all the morally relevant characteristics of one's situation, and it is hard to know how to trade values against each other, and to be modest but resolute in the face of complexity--not because it is hard to be motivated to maximize something ridiculous like net aggregate utility....

Will no one save him?! I will!

The response--against which Wilkinson has no defense except to issue squidlike clouds of obfuscating ink--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." He would be demonstrating that he does not understand the rules of conversation using the English language.

Happiness--utility--plays a very special role in Bentham's philosophy. It is defined to be that which is maximized by the choices of a rational and reasonable person with enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation. To say "I would rather be unhappy and free than happy and a slave, and thus I have refuted Bentham" is to miss the point entirely.

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.

Those seem to be obvious and unexceptionable foundations for morality. Thus: You know who got it pretty much right? Jeremy Bentham.

Posted by DeLong at June 22, 2005 08:38 PM