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July 01, 2005

DeLong Smackdown Watch

Julian Sanchez gives an effective critique of (i) DeLong's version of preference utilitarianism and of (ii) attempts to figure out how to implement it by asking people what makes them happy.

Notes from the Lounge: No problem, say the utilitarian theorists (and economists), we'll switch to preference utilitarianism, wherein "utility" or "happiness" are defined in terms of the satisfaction of preferences. This has the virtue of realigning the object of maximization with what people subjectively value, which makes for a sturdier fact/value bridge. It has the disadvantage of making it much less clear whether that appealingly simple maximizing structure is still a good fit for the task. Even rendering the very different forms of satisfaction and dissatisfaction people are capable of feeling comparable seemed a bit of a stretch. (How many of the bon vivant's wild nights on the town does it take to equal the same amount of "utility" in the monk's serene satisfaction in a day of contemplation?) Preferences over states of the world that need not be experience by the subject who prefers them make things a much bigger tangle. And should we think it's better for people to have more (and more intense) preferences, so that more of them can be satisfied? But I digress.

DeLong's problem seems to be that he's using this second, preference-based sense of "happiness." But this isn't the colloquial sense of the word.... DeLong is like a Ptolemaic astronomer who... [claims] the proposition that the earth revolves around the sun... [is the same as] the absurd proposition that the earth doesn't exist, since "the earth" is defined as the thing at the center of the universe. Now, if we're defining happiness in terms of preferences, then DeLong's semantic objection isn't as wacky as it initially seemed: The claim that freedom might be more important than happiness amounts to the claim that one prefers freedom to the satisfaction of one's preferences.

But DeLong then goes on to argue in terms of "regret" and "being happy" when contemplating one's future life, which certainly sounds as though he's conflating the preference-based and experiential senses of happiness.... [T]he discussion further blurs the line between a technical, preference-based sense of happiness in which DeLong's claim sounds right, with happiness as a sort of feeling about how things will go for you. But if we want to stick with the preference-based version of "happiness", then (and this certainly runs against the grain of ordinary English) it no longer makes much sense to talk about "being happy", since "happiness" might be maximized by the choice that leads to my being killed instantly....

[Layard's] book is described as making use of a series of psychological studies about how satisfied people are. And it's only the experiential sense of "happiness" that's going to turn up in studies like that: First, because if you ask people how "happy" they are, then everybody but Brad DeLong is going to interpret that question in the colloquial way....

Powerful and well-argued, but (to me) ultimately unconvincing. For other philosophical traditions have equal or greater weaknesses when used as foundations on which to build discussions of the good life or the good society. And the question, after all, is whether Richard Layard's book should be ignored because of incoherence in its philosophical underpinnings...

Posted by DeLong at July 1, 2005 02:13 PM