Value Monism & Public Reason: More Layard Flogging

I think I need to stop arguing with Layard about utilitarianism because he's really just too philosophically inept to take all that seriously. The chapter at the middle of Happiness defending the principle of utility as the sole standard for judging right action and public policy is just laughably dumb.

If I was still TA-ing ethical theory classes, and Layard turned this in, he'd get a solid “B”:

Why should we take the greatest happiness as the goal for society? Why not some other goal–or indeed many? What about health, autonomy, accomplishment or freedom? The problem with many goals is that they often conflict, and then we have to balance them against each other. So we naturally look for one ultimate goal that enables us to judge other goals by how they contribute to it.

Happiness is that ultimate goal because, unlike all other goals, it is self-evidently good.

How is it that health, autonomy, accomplishment, and freedom are not self-evidently good? Layard will want to insist that we only want these other things for the sake of happiness. But that is just so much table pounding, and it is false. I am, in fact, willing to sacrifice some measure of happiness to ensure my autonomy, or to accomplish something of great value. I would, in fact, be willing to face suffering and death if that was required to preserve my freedom. And it's pretty easy to point out that happiness is instrumental to other values. I want happiness because I will be motivated to accomplish great things if I am happy. I am more likely to be benevolent and kind if I am happy. I am more likely to have a meaningful, successful intimate relationship. I will live longer if I am happy, and it is good to live. Etc. If we are going to admit that it makes sense to talk about things being self-evidently good, then happiness surely is one of those things. And so are all the other goods Layard mentions. He gets nowhere.

Layard is right that a plurality of values requires balancing. But there is no way around this on a personal level, and especially not on a public level.

Individual moral intelligence involves weighing competing values and making judgments about their ordering according to standards that vary with context, relationship, social role, and more. It is hard to be a good person because it is hard to make out all the morally relevant characteristics of one's situation, and it is hard to know how to trade values against each other, and to be modest but resolute in the face of complexity–not because it is hard to be motivated to maximize something ridiculous like net aggregate utility.

Layard's larger problem is that he totally fails to grasp that the central problem of liberalism is how to accomodate and balance the pluralitiy of value conceptions of citizens in a cosmopolitan society. That Layard thinks he is in possession of the one true philosophy of value that allows him to rank other values is quite nice for Layard. But the very fact that I am spending my time writing a blog post disagreeing with Layard about utilitarianism demonstrates that not everyone agrees that his is the correct conception of value, or the correct standard for determining public policy. And the simple fact that we are having this disagreement, whether or not Layard is right about utilitarianism, is a reason not to accept utilitarianism as the sole arbiter of our public rules. Even if utilitarianism, or any comprehensive conception of value, is true, it cannot therefore be asserted as the legitimate basis of a just society as long as people reasonably reject it. None among us has the special authority to declare that ours is the public philosophy, and others will just have to live with it, like it or not.

Ironically, Layard accuses anyone who is not a utilitarian of paternalism, because he apparently thinks that if some value is a value, then the state ought to promote it, but that if a value doesn't register as hedons, then you're forcing people to act in the interest of alleged values that they don't benefit from experientially.

However, Layard is a transparent paternalist. If you think that things other than happiness are good, then Layard will just say that you are wrong, have no moral right to act for values other than happiness, and that the state may force you to do what “science” reveals to be conducive to happiness, whether you most want happiness or not.

If one has aspirations for the totalizing rule of one's comprehensive moral conception, it seems that one should accept a fair burden of persuasion. But Layard treats classic objections to utilitarianism as annoyances, or bad manners, and brushes them off with incompetent “argumentation.” Here's what he says about Nozick's famous experience machine:

If offered the chance, asks Nozick, would you plug in? Of course, many people would not, for all sorts of reasons. They would not trust the machine to deliver what it promised, so they would prefer to keep their real autonomy. Or they might have obligations to others that they could not perform if they were inert. And so on. Thus this is a weak test case, especially because it describes a situation so far from our reality that we have almost become a different animal.

That the machine perfectly delivers as promised is stipulated. Inability to entertain the counterfactual–to actually conduct the thought esperiment–is not an argument against it. And “obligations to others they could not perform”? Well, yes. This is precisely the sort of thing people might worry about because people generally think they ought to meet their obligations, regardless of the hedonic payoff. That's part of Nozick's point, dipshit. If Layard was honest, he would bite the bullet and say, yes, plug in. And if there was an experience machine for each of us that would maximize the hedonic quality of our experience, then we would be obligated individually and collectively to forgo a real life of actual action and actual engagement, and instead climb into our pods on the Matrix pod farm, and dream sweet virtual dreams until we die. If Layard will not deign to explain to us why, despite our deep sense of revulsion, we ought to see this scenario as the happiest of all possible circumstance, he cannot expect us to acquiesce to his Benthamite Philosopher Technocrat fantasy.

Hitch in the House

Hitchens is now testifying to the DC City Council against the proposed smoking ban, and given how, um, sobriety compromised he seems to be, he did a quite fine job of working the sainted Carol Schwartz up into a good freedom of choice lather.

Oh, now repartee with the demonic Jim Graham. Something about Iraq-Kurdistan being the smoking–or at least smoldering–section of the middle east. And this is nice, and sadly true: “You're treating us like children; retarded children at that.”


If You Like Social Insurance So Much, Then How Come You're Against It?

This is from a now very old Barry Schwartz column about why people are too stupid to manage their own finances, especially if their finances involve a Social Security personal retirement account, in the NYT. Old, but so bad I can't help talking about it.

This brings me to the final defense of privatization: the payroll taxes you pay are your money, and you ought to be able to do what you like with your money. This, I suspect, is the real justification behind the move to privatize, and it is the worst reason of all. The payroll tax is not “your” money; it's our money. Social Security was created as an insurance scheme, not a pension scheme. It was meant to provide a safety net, to protect the unlucky from immiseration in old age. The benefits we get are not payouts from accounts in which we have accumulated our own private stash. What we get is largely determined by what we earned, but we keep getting it even after we've taken out every penny we put in. And if we happen to die early, someone else reaps the benefits of our contributions.

That's refreshingly frank: it's not your money! OK. So, it's “ours.” Let's just skip over the fact that the entire Social Security system and the disinformation one regularly gets from the SSA is specifically designed to encourage the sense that there is some kind of property-like nexus of entitlement between the payroll tax and retirement benefits. (And that social insurance systems like ours are commonly called pensions systems around the world.) Perhaps Schwartz will forgive American voters for having the wrong idea here, and not realizing that they do not in fact have any right to their benefits.

Anyway, what is it that we're doing with “our” money? Well, we're sending over 90% of it back to the same income bracket from whence it came, that's what! Now why would we be doing that if what we wanted to be doing was “protecting the unlucky against immiseration in old age”? (Not to sustain the illusion that our payroll taxes do in fact belong to us as individuals, for sure!) I mean, wouldn't it be silly to pretend to “insure” people by taking money away from them (thereby increasing their exposure to risk!), and then simply replacing it later? That sure would be silly! Schwartz gestures toward the redistributive function of the program, but . . . there is almost no redistribution! And . . . it isn't progressive!

An authentic government old-age insurance program might look like government disability insurance. You pay taxes into the program and then you get money back if and when you need it–sort of like the way actual insurance works!

Hey liberals! Since you insist on talking about social insurance, why not stop dissembling and plump for a system that is actually sort of like insurance? Why not not defend a disability insurance model of old-age insurance, where you get it only there is some actual threat of immiseration? We can fund it with a dedicated payroll tax and everything. It really will not function like a pension at all. It will be a safety net for people who need it funded by people who don't. Isn't this exactly what liberals should want? TPM Cafe? Left2Right? Somebody? Why don't you love this idea? Really, I want to know.

Non-sequiturs in Layard's Happiness

This book is just a philosophical/methodological disaster.

Layard cites a study by Carol Ryff that purports to show that “purpose in life, autonomy, positive relationships, personal growth and self-acceptance” are highly correlated with self-reported SWB. OK. No suprise. What does Layard think this shows? That Mill was wrong about the existence of qualitatively “higher” pleasures.

Thus Mill was right in his intuition about the true sources of happiness, but he was wrong to argue that some times of pleasure are intrinsically better than others

Of course, it doesn't even begin to establish this. It might simply establish that people who have more intrinsically valuable experiences tend to report that they are happier on the whole. That's what Mill thinks, after all.

Layard goes on to say that Mill's high/low distinction is “inherently paternalistic.” But the only reason to say that is if you, like Layard, are an irremediable paternalist, and take the existence of higher pleasures as a reason to coerce people into having more of them and less of the lower. That is, Mills distinction is paternalistic only if you think the fact that something has special value on one conception of value immediately implies that the state should do something about it. Absurd.


[S]ome unhealthy enjoyments, like that of the sadist, should be avoided because they decrease the happiness of others. But no good feeling is bad in itself–it can only be bad because of its consequences.

Now, I understand that that's just a restatement of Benthamite egalitarianism among pleasures, but it doesn't pass the straight face test, does it? Many emotions (or any “judgment sensitive attitudes”, in Scanlon's terms) are themselves morally evaluable. And it strikes me as exceedingly dubious to assert that the problem with taking pleasure in the rape of children, the torture of kittens, or the betrayal of those who trust you has to do with their consequences for happiness.

The reason Mill distinguishes between higher or lower pleasures is that the distinction is real, he's a good philosopher, and so sees that it must be accomodated within his theory. The problem with Mill's move for Mill is that it points beyond utilitarianism toward the independent value of properties, such as beauty, cognitive complexity, and truth in virtue of which higher pleasures are higher.

Sign Up To Testify at Smoking Ban Hearing

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If you don’t want to speak, you can submit written testimony, or just drop in on the hearing during the day to show your support!

Call Carol Schwartz’s office at 202-724-8105 to sign up or for more information. Call right now before it’s too late!

All DC freedom lovers should call!

Happiness? Equality? What?

Looking through the literature on happiness (those in the know say “subjective well-being,” or just SWB), it seems clear that a good number of those involved have egalitarian or welfare liberal politics. A lot of these folks profess to being utilitarians of some sort. And there seems to be a push for more redistribution, less inequality, etc. But I think I'm detecting something amiss, here.

Much of the upshot of the literature is that extra money doesn't do much for you; that people tend become accustomed to their level of material comfort; that people have happiness set-points to which they recur after positive or negative spikes in affect. The flip side of “a lot of money doesn't make you happy” is “not so much money doesn't make you unhappy.” So the problem with large economic inequalities isn't the happiness gap, because the happiness gap is small.

Now, it turns out that one's perception of one's place in the income distribution matters to happiness, such that people lower in the distribution are less happy in virtue of being lower in the distribution (or thinking they are). But, aside from total egalitarianism, which isn't likely to make anyone happy, there is nothing to be done about this. There is always going to be some distribution. There is always a bottom and a top quintile. The point being, I'm a bit puzzled at this point by the attachment to utilitarianism AND SWB research AND egalitarianism.

My hunch is that these folks aren't really utilitarians after all. They have a prior intuition about the injustice of inequality, and the justice of progressive redistribution. Then, they attempt to undermine resistance to higher tax rates on the wealthy by pointing to research that they interpret to say that this won't make the wealthy any less happy, and so, Why worry? The trouble is, it won't make the poor (in a country like the US where the poor are already rich) much happier either, and won't do anything to change relative position in the distribution. So what's the point? The point is more progressive redistribution, to which many folks are committed to prior to and independent of utilitarianism or their interest in happiness.

In a way, it turns out that dogmatic welfare liberals are just like dogmatic libertarians. I've run into a lot of libertarians who think that a perfect libertarian regime MUST be most conducive to happiness. Because if it wasn't, then that would be a strong argument against the perfect libertarian regime, against which there is no strong argument. Unsurprisingly, a lot of welfare liberals think this way too. Start with your political commitments, and then argue that everything good must revolve around your fixed point. This is fun at parties, but it tends not to make for good science.