DeLong Shot

Brad DeLong takes issue with my recent attacks no utilitarianism. In reply to my claim, against Layard, that if happiness is self-evidently good, then so are lots of other things, such as freedom, DeLong writes:

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.

I wonder if DeLong has carried on a conversation in the English language. Games of rational and moral justification sometimes but rarely terminate in reasons of happiness, much less in reasons of pleasure. He must hear “Baa baa buff” almost every time someone explains himself. Or BD just refuses to listen, uncharitably reads his philosophical theories into people’s heads, and so assumes that they are offering reasons of happiness when they are evidently not. DeLong’s argument, if I am making it out correctly, is that the following proposition deserves a little linguist’s star of semantic deviance:

(a) Happiness without freedom is not worth having.

English speakers, lend me your ears! Does (a) violate the intuitive semantic constraints of it’s constituent terms?

Well, if “worth having” in English means “conducive to pleasure” it sure does. But that’s not what “worth having” means in English. That’s what it means in Benthamese, the vulgar dialect of the morally insensate (economists, Asperger’s cases, etc.) “Worth having” in English means something like” valuable” or “good,” and there is surpassingly little evidence to be gleaned from the semantic practice of competent English speakers that “valuable” and “good” are synonymous with “pleasurable” or “happy making”. (a) is far from “Baa baa buff.” In context, it’s surely true!

My defense, then, is the truth of the claim that there are conditions under which being happy would be worse than not being happy. I take it that DeLong would agree that if a mad scientist rigged his brain such that slaughtering his own beloved children would bring him the most exalted, never-ending, guilt-free bliss, this would not be happiness worth having. Or is this, too, just “baa baa buff?”

Anyway, refusing to do violence to one’s language, or, more importantly, the complexity of moral experience, in the service of an ill-supported theory does not strike me as a project of obfuscation.

More later on Delong’s inability to understand the experience machine thought experiment.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center