• Preference utilitarianism—psychological or metaphysical? III

Intro

Earlier, I suggested that there are multiple interpretations of preference utilitarianism available, and outlined the implications of a few. Now, we’ll clarify how this whole line of thinking relates to existing discussion because context is good.

Value based on preferences

At first, I thought this paper might be detailing exactly the same thing I have here. However, further reading leads me to believe that they’re addressing something more like a secular version of the Euthyphro dilemma. Do we prefer good things because they are good? Or are good things good because they’re preferred? This issue is distinct from the one we’ve examined here.

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• Preference utilitarianism—psychological or metaphysical? II

There are at least two possible interpretations of preference utilitarianism: psychological preference utilitarianism (the morally important part of preference satisfaction is when the preferrer believes it to be satisfied) and metaphysical preference utilitarianism (the morally important part of preference satisfaction is when the world comes into accord with the preference). Each has strange implications. PPU favors deception and gives up intuitive supervenience. MPU requires us to pick us some demarcation criterion; the broadest possible demarcation criterion is a bad candidate.

Intro

Last time we highlighted that there are actual several possible interpretations of preference utilitarianism. These depend on when you get to a recognize a preference as having been satisfied in your moral accounting: When the world changes to accord with your preference? When you believe the world to have changed? When you have a justified true belief that the world has changed?

In this post, we’ll draw out some implications of these views which will also serve as preliminary arguments for and against. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus on the two poles: preferences are satisfied when the preferrer believes the world to have changed (purely psychological), and preferences are satisfied when the world has changed (purely metaphysical).

(I’ll also note that I assume advocates of preference utilitarianism implicitly (or explicitly and silently?) believe the psychological variant and my intuition favors it. If I argue against that position more vehemently, it’s only a sign of esteem.)

Psychological

Deception

One obvious but unfortunate implication of the psychological point of view is that self-deception is A-OK. Obligatory even. If I’d like to be create a grand unified theory of physics, I may find it easier to set myself a bastardized version of the problem than to solve the real thing. And if I can deceive myself in this way, the psychological theory of preference utilitarianism (henceforth PPU) makes a prima facie case that I am morally obliged to. (Because this deceptive approach is easier, it means I can satisfy this preference quickly and move on the satisfaction of other preferences rather than sinking vast gobs of time into the ‘authentic’ method.)

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• Preference utilitarianism—psychological or metaphysical? I

Preference utilitarianism involves preferences. Knowing whether a preferences has been satisfied often requires knowing about the world. But epistemology says that “knowing about the world” is not such a simple thing. From a moral perspective, should we count a preference as satisfied when the world changes or when the preferrer learns about the change?

If a preference is satisfied in a forest and no one is around to witness it, is it good?

Intro

Preference utilitarianism holds that the good a utilitarian ought to maximize is the satisfaction of preferences. Preferences exist in our mind, but (often) refer to the external world. Thus, the satisfaction of preferences must bridge this gap between the mind and the world. That is, if I have a preference for the world to be in a particular state which was once unsatisfied and that very preference is now satisfied, it must be because my beliefs about the world have changed. But beliefs about the world are the domain of epistemology. Preferences may then be the Trojan horse that smuggle the problems of epistemology into the already troubled camp of ethics.

Color shifted CCTV

Let’s try to make the issue a bit more vivid.

Suppose, in his halcyon days, Broseph Raz attended The School for Convenient Philosophical Thought Experiments. At the school, they inculcated in him the sincere preference that M&M’s must always be sorted by color. One group for blues, one for green, etc. During his sophomore year there, he pledged at the premier philosophical Greek fraternity on campus, ΣΟΦ. As part of the pledge process, he had to take part in their fiendishly thought-provoking hazing rituals:

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1. Is Ornamenting Solar Panels a Crime?

Certainly fiction-as-ideological vessel carries dangers. And earnest proposals, even without a strong ideological bent, are probably always somewhat at risk of functional exploitation; they may be reduced to a lowest common denominator and turned into dogma, nuance erased. And yet there is a fundamental difference between proposition and persuasion. This could also be framed as the difference between fiction that presents itself as a possible option versus the only solution.
2. Does It Harm Philosophy as a Discipline to Discuss the Apparently Meager Practical Effects of Studying Ethics?

Across 17 measures of (arguably) moral behavior, ranging from rates of charitable donation to staying in contact with one’s mother to vegetarianism to littering to responding to student emails to peer ratings of overall moral behavior, I have found not a single main measure on which ethicists appeared to act morally better than comparison groups of other professors[.]

[…]

Rickless: [P]lease understand that the takeaway from this kind of research and speculation, as it will likely be processed by journalists and others who may well pick up and run with it, will be that philosophers are shits whose courses turn their students into shits. And this may lead to the defunding of philosophy, the removal of ethics courses from business school, and, to my mind, a host of other consequences that are almost certainly far worse than the ills that you are looking to prevent.
3. Using Massive Online Choice Experiments to Measure Changes in Well-being

GDP and derived metrics (e.g., productivity) have been central to understanding economic progress and well-being. In principle, the change in consumer surplus (compensating expenditure) provides a superior, and more direct, measure of the change in well-being, especially for digital goods, but in practice, it has been difficult to measure. We explore the potential of massive online choice experiments to measure consumers’ willingness to accept compensation for losing access to various digital goods and thereby estimate the consumer surplus generated from these goods. We test the robustness of the approach and benchmark it against established methods, including incentive compatible choice experiments that require participants to give up Facebook for a certain period in exchange for compensation. The proposed choice experiments show convergent validity and are massively scalable. Our results indicate that digital goods have created large gains in well-being that are missed by conventional measures of GDP and productivity. By periodically querying a large, representative sample of goods and services, including those which are not priced in existing markets, changes in consumer surplus and other new measures of well-being derived from these online choice experiments have the potential for providing cost-effective supplements to existing national income and product accounts.

[…]

50% of the Facebook users in our sample would give up all access to Facebook for one month if we paid them about $50 or more. […] According to the median WTA estimates for 2017, Search Engines ($17,530 [for a year]) is the most valued category of digital goods followed by Email ($8,414 [for a year]) and digital Maps ($3,648 [for a year]).

[…]

We estimate the median WTA to give up breakfast cereal [for a year] to be \$44.27 in the US in 2017.
4. The Educational Benefits of Obscurity: Pedagogical Esotericism

[T]he primary aim of philosophic education must be less to instruct than to convert, less to elaborate a philosophical system than to produce that “turning around of the soul” that brings individuals to love and live for the truth. But precisely if the primary end of education is to foster the love of truth, this love cannot be presupposed in the means. The means must rather be based on a resourceful pedagogical rhetoric that, knowing how initially resistant or impervious we all are to philosophic truth, necessarily makes use of motives other than love of truth and of techniques other than “saying exactly what you mean.”

I remain somewhat unconvinced, but this is the best case I’ve heard for obscurantism.

5. How is the world doing in its fight against vaccine preventable diseases?

The WHO estimates that 2 to 3 million deaths are prevented every year through immunization against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles.2 Nonetheless, the WHO also estimates that VPDs are still responsible for 1.5 million deaths each year.
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• In praise of principal-agent problems

When principals contract with independent agents who know things they don’t, there are costs. Contrary to common connotation, this is sometimes good. For example, we can view the failures outlined in Seeing like a state as warnings about incautious attempts to ignore or eliminate the principal–agent problem. Furthermore, we can view the principal–agent problem as a fundamental constraint on autocrats that limits them when compared to inclusive societies.

The concept

Briefly, principal–agent problems occur when a principal enlists an agent to act on their behalf, but the agent has private information and independent interests. This scenario means that the principal incurs agency costs when compared to simply acting themselves.

Examples include brokers front running, doctors prescribing medications based on their relationships with pharmaceutical companies, and taxis taking overlong routes.

Principal-agent possibilities

As these examples suggest, principal–agent problems are (I think) usually viewed as a bad thing. And they often are. But they can also be a refuge. To see this, we just have to flip our sympathies. The common examples encourage us to sympathize with the principal and see the agent as abusing their power.

Examples from the flipped perspective include:

Micromanager
If your manager at work is a petty tyrant, you surely appreciate and exploit whatever gaps in their knowledge you can find to work in ways you believe more effective or just to preserve your psychological health.
Overbearing parents
Some parents seem to think of their children as agents in the project of aggrandizing themselves. Children in this situation may justly find that moving out–an increase in agency costs—represents a gift.
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