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June 22, 2005

DeLong Smackdown Watch

Professionally administered by Brian Weatherson:

Thoughts Arguments and Rants: Happiness is a Warm Book: Brad DeLong has two posts up defending Richard Layard's defence of Benthamism against criticism from Fontana Labs and Will Wilkinson. I think Brad is misinterpreting Bentham, so while his defence might be a defence of something interesting (say, preference utilitarianism) it isn't much of a defence of Bentham....

The problem with interpreting [Bentham] is that "advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness" do not really come to the same thing. At the very least, it is clear that advantage and pleasure do not come to the same thing, and which (if either) of these good and happiness are is part of what's at dispute. But for interpreting Bentham, it's very important to realise that he did view them as the same thing....

What matters for [Brad] is "what people would choose for themselves", i.e. preferences, and preference satisfaction isn't a kind of experience. If people choose different kinds of experiences, or even things that do't maximise their own chances for good experiences (as when people take life-endangering jobs so as to provide goods for their children) they are getting what they choose, but not maximising utility as Bentham saw it. In principle my preferences can be satisfied by things that happen after I die, even if I don't get any extra experiences after I die, in which case we certainly couldn't identify preference satisfaction with any kind of experience.

As I said, I don't want to get into the pros or cons of the moral view Brad is espousing here. I just want to make an historical point, that it's a mistake to think Bentham viewed preferences rather than experiences as the core of utilitarianism. It was a great advance over Bentham (I think) when later philosophers made this move.


Posted by DeLong at June 22, 2005 09:30 PM