Sunday, 22 February 2009

Do preferences track well-being?

On Austin Cline's Atheism Blog, he asks in Well-Being versus Preference Satisfaction:
If preference-satisfaction does not track reliably with one’s well-being, then it makes no sense to base social, legal, or economic polices on preference-satisfaction if your goal is people’s well-being. Unfortunately, determining what will contribute most to people’s well-being isn’t very easy. Preferences aren’t hard to determine, so it’s understandable why some would latch on to them. The question is, what else might we use in addition to preferences.
Unfortunately Cline uses the very poor arguments of Brian Leiter against an economist's naive preference satisfaction to establish that preference-satisfaction likely does not track well-being.

Now I have criticised Leiter's arguments in my post Why Well-Being Could Not be Preference-Satisfaction and, in response, the Barefoot Bum has also criticised Leiter's arguments in Preference satisfaction. Now whilst we both agree, unlike Cline, that Leiter's arguments are poor, I was reluctant to say that Leiter's picture of an economic version of preference satisfaction was wrong or a straw man. This is partly because I am a critic of such naive preference satisfaction too but not for the poor reasons that Leiter provides. However I use my criticisms to determine a better version of preference satisfaction rather than summarily dismiss the project at the first mis-step - that is the mistake committed by making a hasty generalisation. Still as a critic of economic models of naive preference satisfaction and the related rational expectations models, this has led me to investigate better preference theories, such as desire utilitarianism, and that is one that can certainly both critically analyse such naive models and suggest improvements. This is a work in progress and this post can be considered part of such a work.

The next place as to where I differ from Cline is when he asks:
The question is, what else might we use in addition to preferences?
Now whilst I question the basis of Cline's analysis that results from rejecting preference satisfaction, based on Leiter's poor arguments, what is interesting is that the alternatives that Cline references - insights from cognitive psychology and behavioural economics - are quite consistent with desire utilitarianism and, probably, other sophisticated preference theories. Further and ironically, these alternatives that Cline explores are part of economic thinking - indeed that is where I learnt about these from! However the initial underlying issue that Cline addresses is not economics - as was Leiter's target - but politics and democracy as he says:
This is politically problematic because if you aren't going to make political decisions based on people's preferences — or at least not based exclusively on their preferences — then you are making decisions independent of what people desire (or at least say they desire). To what extent is this compatible with democracy? Should a democratic society look first and foremost to the will of the people, at least insofar as the will of the people does not conflict with basic rights and the needs to keep a democratic system running?

If people don’t make good decisions, does that mean others should decide for them? No — after all, we are still working with people whom we already admitted don’t make good decisions. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t consider a person’s preferences to be the first and last word on what is best for them. We may not have anything better to offer, but we shouldn’t therefore assume that nothing better is possible.
These are very important questions but unfortunately Cline is now labouring under the mistaken premise that preference theory is too flawed to provide any satisfactory solution and feels forced to look elsewhere, whilst realising the political danger of rejecting everyone's capacity to make their own choices. I disagree and the examples he provides are quite compatible with sophisticated preference theories, certainly desire utilitarianism, so these fears are unfounded. The two examples he provides are the "default heuristic" and "satisfycing versus maximising" both topics I have long been meaning to post on, both to flesh out the implications of desire utilitarianism in practice and over my theme regarding double standards. However here I want to note that Cline continues with a peculiar bias against preferentialism (certainly of an economic bent). He references a philosopher of science J.D Trout with emphasis on:
Iyengar has shown that people who had fewer rather than more choices when making a purchase were (1) more likely to actually make a purchase, and (2) more likely to be satisfied with the purchase once made.
Well hang on a second, surely this comes from the work of Herbert Simon on satisfying (versus maxmising optimisation), who won Nobel prize in Economics for this work! Then he also looks at the "default heuristic" from behavioural finance - a discipline in economics - that discovery that consumers can be manipulated by changing the default option. This is because they are most likely to consider the default to be a recommendation in their favour, whereas it can be in the favour of the producer (for example look at the debate over Opt-In versus Opt-in for distributing email addresses in online registration systems).

Well why is Cline, whose views in many areas in religions I respect and mostly agree with, doing this? Oh he is quoting from another Leiter post who in turn is quoting this philosopher of science J.D Trout. Cline omits to quote the last paragraph:
"On the other hand, many of the problems in economic decision-making (such as intergenerational discounting to mention just one) are already widely discussed by a mixture of psychologists, economists, and legal scholars like Kahneman, Thaler, Sunstein, Hastie, Loewenstein, Dasgupta, Hanson and Kysar, Rachlinski, and so on. This work is readily accessible to economists and, if naturalistic work in moral psychology takes root, perhaps it will have an audience in philosophy as well."
Well in this sense I agree. Indeed this is a key theme I am pursing here on this blog and now with particular reference to Desire Utilitarianism. None of the work, of those quoted researchers whom I am familiar with, conflicts with and indeed, I will in the future argue, supports this project. Still I have only made some preliminary posts about "Bias and Heuristic" programs, a phrase I think which captures the underlying type of evidence and insights those practitioners are providing and are some of the tools I plan to use when investigating the use of social forces - praise, condemnation, honor and sanction, reward and punishment - in more detail.

I think a confusion lies in the difference between naive preference satisfaction and rational expectation theory in economics and the far more developed theories on preference satisfaction and decision making in moral philosophy, certainly some of which would both not have a problem with these insights but would find them useful in improving arguments for such theories.

Anyway Cline goes on to examine the implication for religion and here I agree and for much the same reasons. For example I would say that we need to see what the implications of the default heuristic are in creating a better secular society. This is one reason why I think the issue of faith schools is so important as it reinforces if not establishes a default option that most select, in an unconsidered fashion, especially as a children. Now even if they go through that teenage rebellion phase and (temporarily?) reject their birth religion or reject it for other reason, for many the default option is always there to re-selected should circumstances demand it.

I can only wonder why Cline chose such means that I disagree with to end up in conclusions ,such as the above paragraph, where we probably both agree with each other. I do not follow Leiter but do follow Cline's posts. Does Cline agree with Leiter or was he just being lazy and using Leiter provided him with material to make his point. Whether it was the former or the latter, I certainly expect better of Cline in terms of using well supported arguments.

Finally, in the middle of the post Cline also emphasizes in his quote from Leiter's second post which provides my conclusion here:
Preferences are often complex and ill-formed, and so they are not especially transparent to the agent. We are pretty bad at predicting which courses of actions will satisfy us.
Well I agree and also, along with Cline et al. that the naive economists information arguments are insufficient. People not only do not have the time and inclination to find out the facts but I also can add that they are also encouraged by numerous parts of society from politics, through business to religion to not to want to do this e.g. claiming faith as a virtue, no a vice.

However I draw a quite different conclusion from all this. We can ethically evaluate all types of persuasion, manipulation and deception whether from politicians, economics, advertising and marketing or religion and even each other and we can evaluate these in terms of the affects these have on the universal capacities to determine as well as fulfil desires.

Everyone acts to fulfil their desires given their beliefs. Now if their beliefs are faulty due to manipulations by others - such as by taking advantage of the default heuristic - they could be quite mistaken in either bringing about their desired ends or even in having such a desire end. It is in most everyone's interest to defend against such manipulations of their beliefs and desires in virtue of the fact that such manipulations tend increase the thwarting of their desires - that they would otherwise have had without such manipulations.

So the "default heuristic" and "overwhelming satisfycing conditions" are two items we can investigate to see how they are being used and abused by actors in various ways. We can then determine strategies and tactics to defend ourselves to help minimize our desires being manipulated in this way. We can then mutually and reciprocally affect our shared environment to minimise systematic biases and distortions that are not in our favour. Even in such a society where our defences have affected the environmental factors in most everyone's favour, our desires will still often be ill-formed and prone to manipulation from each other but that will always be these case, however they would be less adversely affected than now. What most all of us have an interest in is minimising the situations where one group can exert undue influence to their benefit at the cost of everyone else via such methods. Knowledge of such biases and heuristics can help us mutually improve our ability to seek ends that will help us all flourish.