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Time Warp!

October 2nd, 2009 · 9 Comments

Brad DeLong, in a spate of bloggy nostalgia, reposts an old reference to something I wrote back in 2005, a bit of a thumbsucker on hedonistic and preference utilitarianisms, and the pitfalls of conflating them.  I’d actually forgotten about the argument—though I soon remembered that I’d been delighted and flattered to find that it attracted a comment from T.M. Scanlon, whose book What We Owe to Each Other had exerted a profound influence on my moral thinking. (Given my substantive commitments, this may or may not be a source of horror to Prof. Scanlon.)  Anyway, I found myself feeling a pang of regret that I don’t much do posts like that anymore.  Since I now have a job that encourages me to spend long stretches  reading and thinking if necessary, as opposed to obsessively following the news cycle and filing a thousand words or so every day, I figure it might behoove me to try and do a few of those every now and again.  Watch for thoughts once I get through Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice.

Tags: General Philosophy · Personal



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Todd Seavey // Oct 2, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    One quibble on the old piece: You sort of make it sound as if utilitarianism, preference-based or otherwise, is primarily about _one’s own_ happiness, which it seems to me is more the caricature of utilitarianism created by its enemies (who want to paint it as hedonism). Utilitarians (such as me) are concerned with fostering _everyone’s_ happiness. So I am more likely to throw myself on the grenade than someone who merely weighs his own fear of dismemberment against the joys of being a hero, etc.

  • 2 sam // Oct 3, 2009 at 6:54 am

    I found myself arguing a few weeks ago that utilitarian outcomes are preferred outcomes for folks in general. That is, if asked, most people will say that a course of action that results in the greatest good for the greatest number is preferred over any other. I think this is the default position, and we can get all technical and call it “naive utilitarianism”. It’s naive, of course, because it’s not based on any analysis of pleasure, pain, happiness, or any of the other things that figure into technical discussions of utilitarianism. I think Wittgenstein touched on the foundation of this naive utilitarianism in the Investigations. I’m too lazy at the moment to go look up the exact paragraphs, but the discussion concerned skepticism of another’s pain. In response to a hypothetical skeptic who was claiming that he could really doubt if someone else was in pain, Wittgenstein said, in respect of a real situation, “Just try it.” This is part of what he was getting at when he said, “I treat a man as if he had a soul, I’m not of the opinion that he has a soul.” It’s one of those foundational things he discussed in On Certainty that
    from the bedrock of our humanity and are not really captured by an analysis that ends up in some set of propositions that we are said to believe. This fellow-feeling is something beyond belief or disbelief, and I think naive utilitarianism flows from it.

  • 3 Julian // Oct 3, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Mmm, that may be true of your social world (and probably mine) but on the whole people have some pretty profoundly anti-utilitarian intuitions.

  • 4 ryan yin // Oct 3, 2009 at 9:31 am

    I think the Wilkinson link might be broken — I got a “404” message. I think this is the intended link http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2005/06/23/delong-shot/

  • 5 ryan yin // Oct 3, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Wait, I’m an idiot — that link is from the Delong repost (which I guess everyone else figured out when they noticed there’s no Wilkinson link above)

  • 6 sam // Oct 3, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Oh, I wouldn’t doubt that for a nanosecond, Julian. But I suspect even the most stone balls-to-the-wall libertarian would, in the end, try to justify his position by arguing it leads to the best outcomes for the most people.

    Perhaps we could devise some kind of Rawlsian veil of ignorance experiment and tell folks, “Look, you have to make a decision on a course of action, the results of which will affect a large group of people.” We’d do this without specifying what the action would involve, and we’d say, “You are not a member of the group affected by the decision.” Then we’d show them is a list of outcomes ranging from the least utilitarian to the most utilitarian: Something along the lines of, roughly, A small minority benefit…A large majority benefit. I’d bet most folks would choose the most utilitarian outcome.

    I’m not offering any of this up as a defense of utilitarianism. I’m just trying my hand at moral phenomenology .

  • 7 Julian // Oct 3, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I actually think that’s probably false. If you proposed a policy that would impose enormous costs on a small number of people, but provide relatively minor benefits to (say) tens of thousands, I think most people would reject it as unfair even if it was perfectly clear that the aggregate benefit was greater.

  • 8 sam // Oct 3, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Well sure. But I tried to keep any gory details out –that was the point of the veil of ignorance thing. (Of course, and to your point, our lives are the gory details, no?)

    Anyway, you know, that kind of experiment seems pretty obvious. I wonder if anyone’s ever attempted something like that? I look around.

  • 9 sikiş // Jan 29, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    thanks you
    You will have to crawl very nice,owe you gratitude..

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