Saturday, July 23, 2005

Utilitarianism again

I wrote a while back about a blargument (Did I just coin a new phrase? Sadly, Google says no.) between Brad DeLong and Will Wilkinson. Wilkinson wrote a post attacking Richard Layard's decidedly Benthamite Happiness and DeLong responded by defending preference utilitarianism, not Bentham's hedonistic utilitarianism. Wilkinson's parry only conflated the two even further. Julian Sanchez had to step in and set them both straight. Then everything was quiet, or so we thought. We now have this from Wilkinson, in response to a DeLong post:
Maybe it would be helpful for DeLong if he were not to think like this:

(1) X is valuable iff X is a pleasurable mental state. (Axiom!)
(2) Someone just said A is valuable.
(3) But A isn't a pleasurable mental state!
Therefore, (4) Head explodes. Aghh!
But clearly DeLong is not thinking like that. Rather, his axiom is that X is valuable if and only if X is, say, preferred to all other feasible states. Please stop attacking the straw DeLong! I'd love to hear a good debate over what he really believes.

On the other hand, I don't really think that preference utilitarianism is that solid of an ethical philosophy, though I think it's incredibly useful for economic analysis. It does capture *most* of what we (or maybe just I) consider good: in general, people should get what they want. But when people want things that offend our common sense of morality, like murder, genocide, and so on, it doesn't do terribly well as a basis for ethics. There has to be something else as well...

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