Preference utilitarianism—psychological or metaphysical? I

The problem

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?


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:

His frat brother lifted the blindfold, galumphed out of the room, and locked the door. All Broseph saw in the dusty room was a small CRT TV looking onto a table covered in green M&Ms. Broseph hadn’t really understood the school’s M&M obsession when he’d first matriculated, but he now had to admit it was pretty satisfying. Soon enough, his reveries were interrupted. A man in an Edmund Gettier mask entered the frame and hovered a grubby hand over the pile. He turned to the camera and growled, “Don’t look away!”. Then he started splitting the pile M by M. One to the left, one to the right. One to the left, one to the right. Broseph gritted his teeth. But he looked on; he wouldn’t let his brothers down. The masked man continued. By now, more M&Ms had been pushed out of the pile than were left behind; it would be over soon. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. The masked man hadn’t even finished splitting the pile! There were three separate piles of green M&Ms now. Broseph groaned as the masked man cackled and ducked out of the frame.

As the masked man left the Chamber of Trials, he pulled off his mask and was met with raucous guffaws. “Bro! That was rad.” High fives all around. “Dude, you killed it. Broseph had no idea.” “Browen, that was sick. You just took one good look at that mixed pile of M&Ms and started sorting them. Reds with reds, greens with greens, blues with blues. No hesitation! But they all looked blue to Broseph! You should have seen his face. I was crying laughing, bro!”


Suppose someone prefers M&Ms to be sorted by color. Now suppose they have a CCTV view onto a room with what appears to be a pile of green M&Ms. The trick is that the CCTV shifts colors so they all appear to be green. The actual fact of the matter is that the pile is a riot of colors. Someone else comes into the room and sorts the M&Ms by color. The fact of the matter is that the M&Ms have gone from mixed to sorted (satisfying the spectator’s preferences), but the spectator perceives them to have gone from sorted to arbitrarily separated (frustrating the spectator’s preferences). Is what just happened good or bad?

Epistemology in your ethics

The core problem then is this: I have preferences over states of the world. What part of satisfying those preferences does preference utilitarianism rate as morally important? Is the moral good obtained when the world changes or when I learn about the change in the world? And if it’s not about the world itself but about my state of mind, what precisely is morally important? Is it my beliefs, my true beliefs, my justified true beliefs?

To use the map and territory metaphor: If I’d prefer the world to be otherwise, which is the important part? Are my preferences satisfied as far as preference utilitarianism is concerned when the territory changes? When the map changes? When both have changed? When both have changed and the change in the map was justified by the change in the territory?