Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Why Well-Being Could Not be Preference-Satisfaction

Philosopher Brian Leiter attacks economics by criticising its model of well-being, preference satisfaction in a Leiter Report post.

First of all Leiter is choosing to attack the economic model of well-being but this model of well-being is not only derived, or assumed, in economics but also from a variety of different meta-ethical positions, such as from both sides of the objective/subjective distinction and also from both sides of the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction. What is interesting is such a possible convergence from quite different meta-ethical starting points. Now whether the economists or philosophers claim priority in formulating such a model of well-being is moot and not relevant to this critique. I will examine his criticism from the basis of ethics rather than economics and take no position on the economic issues here. Still it is important to note Leiter's motivation in his argument:
...methodologically, what drives economics to such a silly view: if well-being is equivalent to preference-satisfaction, and the value of a particular preference-satisfaction is measurable by willingness to pay for its satisfaction, then we have a concrete way to measure well-being,
Why does Leiter think this model is silly?
...there are lots of preferences whose satisfaction makes people worse off, and this happens all the time. Why? Because people are dumb or irrational or lacking in information or addicted, and so on.
I quite agree however rather than reject preference satisfaction one can instead ask how to revise it, whilst, of course, at the same time avoid ad hoc fixes and this is how I discovered Griffin's Informed Desire Fulfilment and later Fyfe's Desire Utilitarian models (which fixes issues in Griffin or that Griffin failed to see). Now Leiter presents "two stylised cases" and five examples and I will briefly examine these to see how these work, or do not, with respect to the desire utilitarian version of preference satisfaction and explain this model, as needed, in critiquing his arguments.

Case 1: Anyone in the grips of addiction will have preferences whose satisfaction (another shot of heroin, another whisky, another hand of blackjack, etc.) will make them worse off.

Correct but this is not a defeater to to desire utilitarianism. This latter recognizes that everyone seeks to substitute a more fulfilling state of affairs for a less fulfilling one. They do this by seeking to fulfil the more and stronger of their desires and act on those, given their beliefs. It does not say that whatever these desires or beliefs are, are automatically good or correct - this depends on what they are being evaluated against and, that, in turn, is dictated by the situation at hand.

Now it is well accepted how to evaluate beliefs in terms of means-end rationality since here any belief is a means to an end - the fulfilment of the desire, true beliefs usually are better means to realised the desired end than false beliefs. However it is less well understood how to evaluate desires since these are ends and, supposedly, means-end rationality does not apply. However any desire can be turned into a means to evaluated against something else. (Whether one still calls this means-end rationality or, say, expanded rationality is not important, chose whatever label you prefer). Now in this case, it is prudence, that is this specific desire can be evaluated against its affect on any other relevant desire that the addict has or might be expected to have - such as for health, money, status and so on.

So the addict has a desire (a preference here is a type of desire) and in fulfilling the state of affairs, that is the target of the desire, obtains satisfaction. However fulfilling this desire is imprudent, it does not increase their well-being. There are a number of reasons why the addict behaves as they do. They may recognise it is not in their best long term interests - have internal prudential reasons - but these are overwhelmed by the desires for immediate gratification. They may fail to recognise such prudential reasons - they, internally, lack such reasons. They may labour under false beliefs that they are not addicted, will not become addicted or it just a habit - and so on. All and any of these issues can be dealt with once one grants that any desire in isolation is not automatically good in terms of well-being. And this also shows the merely obtaining an inner satisfaction is not sufficient for well-being. (At least this is a key to argument for desire utilitarianism and provides a contrast between it and naive preference satisfaction).

The issues of the availability and cost of drugs, their legality and status, education about and social acceptability of drug usage and so on are ethical questions that desire utilitarianism tackles, granted the affects of addiction which includes, note only the evidence of imprudence and the reasons for it (some of which are) noted above, but also how it affects the malleability of a desire - how it can be modified by social not just pharmacological forces.

Now much of the work has been done we can even more briefly examine the four examples in his second case:

Case 2: Anyone lacking relevant information will have preferences whose satisfaction will make them worse off.
Quite possible. People act to fulfil their more and stronger desires given their beliefs. If they have erroneous beliefs or lack relevant ones it is quite possible that they are mistaken in believing that fulfilling a certain desire might make them better off. The ethical question is what to do, if anything, about this.
(a) John wants to be a professional philosopher, so he satisfies his preferences to go to grad school in philosophy and pursue such a career, only to discover too late that he isn't smart or creative enough to pull it off--all this time and effort has been wasted, and he is much worse off (if he had gone, instead, to grad school in economics, where being able to make a rational argument is not necessary, he would have been much better off);
As Griffin argues in his Informed Desire Fulfilment model - utilising a version of Adam Smiths Impartial Spectator or Ideal Observer - if one could rationally predict if the fulfilment of a desire would lead to the expected satisfaction then one could prune away those desires that do not. However we cannot obtain that idealised position, as much as we often strive to. We often find out by actions in the world. The ethical question here is to what the degree that John is knowingly misled by others that benefit from his (mis)education.
(b) Richard really wants Mexican food, and so goes to a neighborhood dive, to satisfy his preference; he does not know that sanitary conditions at the dive are so poor, that the salsa is full of salmonella, and he dies of food poisoning two days later;
Life is risky. Again the ethical question is could anyone have knowingly avoided this, who was responsible for this state of affairs and how are those to be dealt with?
(c) Mona really wants to be a ballerina, but no one has the nerve to tell her that being six feet tall and built like an Amazon is an insurmountable obstacle; as a result, she spends years and years acting on her ballerina preference, only to meet with professional and personal defeat and humiliation;
This is the same thing again. She is labouring under false beliefs and the ethical question is who is or should be responsible for letting her do so or is it caveat emptor?
(d) Jim and Susie, tourists from Idaho, really want to get a feel for New York City, so they decide to take an evening walking tour of non-touristy parts of Brooklyn, which also, unbeknowst to them, are non-touristy because they are dangerous and crime-ridden; when their bodies are pulled from the East River, it is clear that their preference-satisfaction has made them worse off.
Again who is to be held responsible? What is or is not being done about such neighbourhoods and so on.

So yes in all these cases the naive satisfaction of such preferences can lead to people being worse off. That is why desire utilitarian is an ethical theory - seeking to make recommendations over preferences (desires) - to encourage those desires that (or tend to) fulfil other desires and discourage those desires that (or tend to) thwart other desires.

In a sense I am not disagreeing with Leiter. If economic well-being is based on such a naive model of preference satisfaction then this open to an ethical analysis like anything else and should be criticised. Indeed we both agree that such a naive preference satisfaction is flawed. Where we disagree is that this does not mean one should dismiss any model of preference satisfaction because one is flawed. That is a hasty generalisation.

(h/t Austin Cline About Atheism).