Thursday, June 23, 2005

Baa Baa Buff Indeed

Though many will disagree, I think Brad Delong gets it absolutely right in his post defending Richard Layard's Happiness from Will Wilkinson's vicious attacks:
Will no one save him?! I will!

The response--against which Wilkinson has no defense except to issue squidlike clouds of obfuscating ink--would be that Wilkinson believes that if he were to sacrifice his freedom for his happiness, that if he were to do so he would then look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life, and that he would be unhappy. If Wilkinson says otherwise--that he would look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life and be happy, but that he would still regret what he had done and wish he had done otherwise--Wilkinson is simply saying, "Baa baa buff." He would be demonstrating that he does not understand the rules of conversation using the English language.

Happiness--utility--plays a very special role in Bentham's philosophy. It is defined to be that which is maximized by the choices of a rational and reasonable person with enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation. To say "I would rather be unhappy and free than happy and a slave, and thus I have refuted Bentham" is to miss the point entirely.
Apparently Wilkinson has a very odd definition of what happiness is. If you are not happier when you are in a situation you prefer than when you are in a situation you do not prefer, than what is happiness? Now, whether that is reflected in actual choices is arguable. Setting aside whether people actually maximize utility, it seems tautological that people want to maximize utility. That is, they want to be in the situation they prefer the most.

UPDATE 6/23/05: Wilkinson's new post on the topic makes it clear that he doesn't understand what Delong is saying. Really this is just a misunderstanding of terms. Delong and I are referring to the economist's notion of utility, just a shorthand for preference satisfaction. Wilkinson and Bentham are using the hedonistic definition. But that doesn't excuse Wilkinson from ignoring the difference and not responding to Delong's argument.


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