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.