Hey Rocky, Watch Me Pull Utilitarianism Out of This (and Every) Hat!

Brad DeLong writes, rather mysteriously, that Julian's parentalism piece “confirms his utilitarianism. convinces me that I would be insane were I to prioritize liberty over utility: that I am right to be a utilitarian.” He quotes Julian at length and then says:

My mind explodes when I read Julian's command to “take as least as much satisfaction in the feeling of responsibility for our choices, in knowing that we have shaped a life that is ours even when we have chosen badly.” It is the libertarian version of the old communist story:

Speaker: After the revolution we will all eat strawberries and cream.

Worker: But I don't like strawberries and cream!

Speaker: After the revolution you will eat strawberries and cream–and like it!

Is DeLong hearing Julian say something like “we should take satisfaction in our dissatisfaction”? Is that why his mind explodes? But that's not what Julian is saying.
What's going on!?
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!
Not thinking/exploding like this might be helpful because sometimes people are just trying to say, more or less directly, that (1) isn't true. And this is OK. This is allowed. For it is not the case that (1) is obviously true, self-evidently true, axiomatic, apodeictic, incontrovertble–cannot, like the law contradiction, be denied without affirming what is denied–, etc. It really might not be true. Really.
And so when somebody comes along and says something that implies that it isn't ture, it's not that they are therefore trying to say that it is true (because it just obviously, axiomatically is) and, on the other hand, it isn't. Because that really would be stupid. The principle of charity indicates that we should assume that they are not stupid, but are trying to offer some reason not to believe (1). After all, there are reasons not to believe (1). And so it may not be especially helpful to address an argument that implies the falsity of (1) by forcefully repeating (1), or having one's head explode (and then living to tell the tale).
Julian, I take it, thinks that something like autonomy or self-governance, or maybe existential self-creation, is valuable for its own sake. At least I think something like that.
Our lives are good lives just in case they are fully ours, constituted by our choices, even if they aren't fully happy lives. Other things equal, happy lives are better than unhappy ones. But some happy lives are bad ones. And some unhappy ones are good, because they realize other values, like autonomy.
Now, it is rational to take satisfaction in what is valuable, and so we ought to take satisfaction in our autonomy, because our autonomy is valuable. But autonomy is not valuable because we take satisfaction in it. Autonomy is not like strawberries and cream. It may be that you have a taste for it or that you don't. But if you don't, you should. Because autonomy is a necessary requirement of a fully good human life, and you ought to take satisfaction in what will make your life go best, even if you don't.
I trust no one will confuse this for an argument in favor of utilitarianism.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center