Bentham on the Brain

Right now, I’m looking at Richard Layard’s Happiness. He’s an unreconstructed Benthamite, and his view seems to be that evidence on the neurological reward system provides an account of objective utility. And because there’s a neurological correlate to utility, we should think of utilitarianism as the most scientifically respectable of all moral theories, and use it as a guide to social policy, in just the way Bentham intended.

This got me wondering: is the reward system unitary, with a single architecture, or is the reward system implicated in different ways by different cognitive programs or difference kinds of decision tasks. (One possibility is that pleasure/benefit is determined by different systems than pain/costs, and so it may not be that units of plan and units of pleasure trade off in any simple on-to-one sort of way.)

In this article from Nature Reviews, neuro-ethicist Bill Casebeer argues that a virtue-theoretic approach best captures what’s going on in the brain. Moral judgment and motivation is not in all (most?) cases driven by judgments of utility. For example “hot” judgments in social contexts activating theory-of-mind systems probably don’t implicate systems that would calculate either individual or collective expected utility.

This may be important for a number of reasons. The most interesting to me has to do with possible conflicts social policy that is designed to maximize expected social utility and the affective/motivational systems that actually drive behavior. Rawls’s argument against utilitarianism, in a nutshell, is that it is inconsistent with our “sense of justice” and thus utilitarian principles will not gain our willing compliance, and will therefore fail to establish a stable social order. The utilitarian can retort that motivational dispositions are a constraint that utilitarianism must take into account. But then it seems that the principles of utility basically end up mirroring the principles that underlie actual human motivation, which will be doing all the work. At which point it seems otiose to say that what we’re trying to do with policy is maximize happiness, when it would just be more accurate to say that we’re trying to come up with principles people take themselves to have a reason to endorse, where those reasons are only sometimes reasons of utility. The fact that the dopaminergic system or whatever lights up whenever we do whatever we do has nothing interesting to do with what we take to be valuable, or what we should be shooting for socially.

I guess I’m trying to say something to the effect that nothing about the brain actually helps a utilitarian like Layard justify a Benthamite approach to social policy. The reasons for rejecting utilitarianism were never that we don’t know where utility is in the brain, but that it wreaks havoc with native moral judgment and cuts against the grain of our motivational dispositions. Brain science helps us understand why this is the case. We are natural-born Aristotelians (or maybe Humean sentimentalists) unlikely to be moved by comprehensive schemes of utility maximization. Does anyone who might know think the evidence supports this argument?

Questioning Layard

In my notebook I see my notes for the question that I asked Layard at the Brookings talk last week, and which I meant to blog. Here’s more or less what I said/asked.

Well, context first. . . Layard had promoted abandoning the theory of revealed preference as the basis of economic inquiry and policy analysis and recommended substituting his brand of normative hedonism/eudaimonism.

I said:

You said we should give up on the idea of theory of revealed preferences. I want to defend it, and hear your response.

Perhaps the fact that people behave in ways that don’t maximize their happiness is evidence that people don’t always demand happiness. This raises two points, one scientific and one political.

The scientific point: Social science based on taking a side in hotly contested arguments about the metaphysics of value doesn’t count as science.

The political point: In a pluralistic society where people have fundamental disagreements about the nature of value, taking a side and basing policy on one philsophical conception of value is inappropriate.

Layard’s answer? He seemed to me to avoid the question. He reiterated a point he had made earlier to the effect that we can’t tell what makes people happy by observing their revealed preferences, or that individual behavior when scaled up to the macro-level can have results that fail to maximize happiness, or some such thing. (If someone who was there can remember just what he said, please do correct me, or elaborate.) Whatever it was, he didn’t even approach the scientific and political points, which I think deserve to be taken seriously.

How would you respond?

Arms Races, Happiness, and other Goods

I strolled up Mass Ave to Brookings this afternoon to hear Richard Layard speak on his new book Happiness. Layard, an unreconstructed Benthamite, is worried by the fact that, once a certain threshold in absolute wealth had been crossed, people’s self-reported happiness is correlated with their perception of their place in the distribution of income, i.e., by their relative wealth. Layard’s worry is that there is an arms race. Each of us tries to improve our relative position. But since everyone else is trying simultaneously to improve their relative position, very few end up succeeding in moving up relative to the others.

We’ve all perhaps moved up in absolute wealth, but that doesn’t matter so much for our happiness once we’ve crossed the critical threshold. All we’ve done is made a futile rush for a higher relative position, and ended up no happier. But we could have been spending our time doing better things.

Layard suggested that higher taxes might be worth having because it would create a disincentive to work, and this might help create a truce in the relative position arms race, freeing everyone to pursue activities that would positively promote their happiness.

Blah. Blah.

First of all, maybe the lesson we should take from this is that people just value status, period, independent of its hedonic effects. That is, perhaps the value of status cannot be reduced to the value of happiness. Casual empiricism would seem to confirm that people behave in predictably hedonically non-maximizing ways in order to maximize status. And it seem to me that many people find it very difficult to release a privileged relative position, even if they recognize that maintaining the position is making them unhappy. (Source: VH1: Behind the Music).

Some people — pehaps many people — would, other things equal, prefer an additional unit of status over several additional units of happiness. And in arms races over relative position, some people do move up. As long as the arms race does not make you significantly less happy, then it can be worth the gamble to jump in and try to be one of the few folks who succeeds in pulling ahead.

(Suppose that you’re very likely to stay in the same spot if you get in the race. And that when people pull ahead, they pull way ahead, but when people fall behind, they fall only a little bit. So even if you’re more likely to fall behind than jump ahead, the upside can still look big.)

Additionally, it can very well be the case that people are generally less happy when they have a lower relative position, more happy when they have a higher position, but don’t value higher position because it will make them happier. They value higher position because it is higher position, and getting higher position tends to make us happy because we value it, and we are generally made happy by getting what we value.

OK, let’s shift gears. Suppose I have written a transcendently great poem. Yet it very complex, and not very accessible. That said, a fair number people take great pleasure in it. However, this pleasure is swamped by the disutility caused to people who, before reading my poem, had thought that they were potentially great poets, but now are made to despair by the realization that they will never attain the heights of my poetic accomplishment.

Have I done a good or bad thing by writing my poem? Obviously: a good thing. The poem is transcendently great! It’s aesthetic value has next to nothing to do with its effect on net utility. Why care if it makes some people feel bad in comparison? Well, there is no reason to care.

To change the example slightly, suppose my poem raises the bar on poem-quality, and all my competitors rush out to write poems that will be even better than transcendently great. However, the effect of this is sheer frustration. They can never do it; I’m just that good! And here they went and wasted all that time failing to write transcendently great poems when they could have been lying in the sunshine, getting massages, or freebasing Prozac. IS THIS A PROBLEM WE NEED TO BE WORRIED ABOUT?

If the greatness of my poem creates negative externalities, they need to be negative externalities we have reason to care about if we’re going to take them into account in policy making. Parfit or Scanlon, in an argument against the pure preference satisfaction theory, give the example of a person who prefers that Uranus has six moons over any other number of moons (or something like that). If it turns out that Uranus does have six moons, is that guy any better off in any sense that we have a reason to care about? Well Parfit/Scanlon don’t think so, and neither do I.

Similarly, if you are a small person, and my success makes you burn with pained resentment, do we have any reason to take your pained resentment into account when evaluating the value of my success. I think not. The problem here is your unreasonable reaction, not my success.

Back to the poetry arms race. Suppose all those lesser poets are made unhappy by their persistent failure to achieve at a trancendent level despite their years of mindbending labor. Should we conclude that the arms race was a bad thing? Obviously not if it led to the creation of a lot of poety which, if not transcendently great, is still great. Maybe the lesser poets can learn to take satisfaction in the value they’ve created, despite their subordinate position in the pantheon of poets. But if they can’t that’s their problem, not a social problem. Similarly, if folks fail to make any progress in the race for relative economic position, they will have still improved everyone’s absolute economic position, which is just good. They will also have produced many wonderful conveniences, objects of beauty, wonder, delight, and technical merit. They will have increased the sum of human knowledge. They will have opened up new avenues of possibility for human life.

Gentlemen, on your marks!

The Fly Bottle Cash-for-Content SuperNovember Fundraiser

Have I got a deal for you! What would you say if I told you that there was a way to get hot, fresh Fly Bottle content three times a day???!!! After you changed your pants, you’d say, “How, Will? HOW?!” Well, I’ll tell you how: give me money!

That’s right! You know I’m a big believer in positive sum games. Well, here’s a positive sum game for you… If I raise $250 by November 5, 2004, I will guarantee at least three posts per day for all of November (the first five days are FREE!) That’s almost 100 new Fly Bottle posts! I know you can hardly wait!!! What will I say?! What kind of crazy philosophical hijinks will ensue? What kind of dirty jokes and funny pictures will I begin to relate as I run out of good ideas? Will I amuse you? Perplex you? Titillate you? There are only two ways to find out(my preference being your non-free-riding option).

willswing.JPGI have two goals in mind: (1) pay my November rent; (2) Increase the readership of The Fly Bottle manyfold. You will of course feel the warm glow of benevolence knowing you have helped me pay rent. But better than other-regarding moral sentiments (and noble they are!), you’ll get MUCH more of what you come here for, you’ll know that by providing me with incentive to increase my posting output, you will be increasing the readership of The Fly Bottle (my traffic unsurprisingly triples and more when I post regularly), which will provide a permanent incentive to post at a higher rate. Wouldn’t that be great!

You can contribute to this exciting endeavor through the Pay Pal or Amazon buttons below (and on the right column). Give a dollar! Give dickety-twelve dollars! Give til you stop! Pairwise Pareto improvements or your money back!

Do you want a freer world?! Me too! Do your part in the battle of ideas today! Strike a blow against ideological nonsense and Will’s poverty-induced weight-loss problem! The future of November is in your hands.

I love you. Let’s put the “undrai” in “fundraiser”!

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Nussbaum on Capabilities

Interesting paper by Nussbaum: Beyond the Social Contract: Capabilities and the Social Contract.

I was already moving in a Sen/Nussbaum capabilities direction even before I started to become skeptical of the usefulness of happiness as the standard of evaluation in contractarian normative modeling. So I’m pretty interested in what Nussbaum has to say. My guess is that I’ll feel a lot like I do when I read Rawls, that he’s right about the way to think about the issue, but wrong about some of the important facts that feed into the normative analysis. Will report later.

[Update: I take it back. Nussbaum’s is not the right way to think about the issue. She basically abandons the logic of contractarian reasoning simply because it cannot straightforwardly generate obligations to redistribute to people in poor countries. She does not argue that we have such a duty; she just asserts it. This is a problem not only because she punts on the question of the source of that obligation, but because she in effect ignores the logic of stable cooperation. If a system is not mutually advantageous for its participants, there is little reason to believe it will garner compliance, and thus define a stable order. But the point of contractarian reasoning is that it is non-utopian and has the analytical resources to identify the conditions for stable order. Nussbaum ends up merely stating an aspiration based in the assertion, rather than the reasonable derivation, of obligations to others. She therefore doesn’t lay out a serious international political theory. She is, however, quite right about many of the problems of Rawls and Pogge/Beitz at the international level.]

The Evaluative Worthlessness of Happiness

I’ve been dipping into the literature on the measurement of happiness, and the most stunning thing about happiness is that it is so incredibly robust. It seems that there is almost nothing one can do to significantly and permanently alter one’s natural temperamental disposition to happiness. Most people in most places are pretty happy. Income means very little. People who suffer horrifying disfigurements and disabilities usually bounce right back to their happiness “set-point.” The Minnesota twins studies show that hedonic tone is to a large degree genetic. It seems that even people in prison aren’t a whole lot less happy than people not in prison. Freedom and democracy mean something, but not that much. If you’re on good terms with your family, have close friends and meaningful work, you’re probably doing about as well as you’re going to do.

All this implies that any form of happiness-consequentialism is pretty much useless as anything more than a very brute standard of evaluation. I have yet to fully process what this really means. (It does mean that the Objectivist subjective-happiness-as-barometer-of objective-life-success view is plain false.) I do think this pushes me to a more Scanlonian view according to which our reasons for action are not even close to exhausted by considerations of “well-being.” If being more free, more healthy, and so forth do not cash out in terms of happiness, then so much the worse for cashing out value in terms of happiness.

Additionally, I think the methodological implications of the happiness research on measurement problems in economics have yet to be digested. Consider the concluding paragraph of Krugman’s excellent essay “Viagra and the Wealth of Nations“:

In other words, as soon as you try to think seriously about how to measure Viagra’s effect on the nation’s wealth, you realize what a dubious enterprise such comparisons are. I have nothing against calculating real G.D.P. as accurately as possible; we need that number for all kinds of purposes. But the rather vulgar case of Viagra reminds us that, in the end, economics is not about wealth — it’s about the pursuit of happiness.

Krugman seems to be saying that “problem of Viagra” is not simply a problem for calculating the effects new innovations have on material wealth, but a problem for determining the effects of innovation on happiness (which is what wealth really amounts to). But if we take the happiness research seriously, almost nothing has much effect on anyone’s long-term happiness. So if we are to say what makes it better to have Viagra than to not have Viagra (or whatever), then we’re going to have to say something about our reasons to value more possibilities, more choices, and enhanced abilities. But what we have to say is not going to be much about happiness. That is to say, “wealth” isn’t a measure of happiness, either. My intuition about what wealth is: a garden of forking paths leading to multitudes of possible lives.

Too Rich for Our Own Good

There’s lots of good stuff today on the extremely pressing problem of being too rich. Julian notes the lousy Barry Schwartz essay at TNR. Arnold Kling takes on Robert Frank at TCS.

supermarket foods.gifThe arguments basically come down to something like, “The value of the marginal dollar declines, but people irrationally keep working to get dollars, which they really want less than lots of stuff they could have, therefore. . . a single-payer national heatlh care system (or whatever one would like to see the government do.) Now, I take the premises seriously, and really don’t think there is any good reason to believe that people always know what is in our interest, or always behave rationally. However, the conclusions to Schwartz/Frank-style arguments remain shining examples of the bowel-loosening non sequitur.

The first response to the S/F arguments ought to be that they’ve really missed the hard nugget of wisdom at the heart of the theory of public choice. The nugget is not that people are rational utility maximizers, which is certainly false, or that politicians are vote maximizers, or that bureacrats are budget maximizers, or whatever. The hard nugget is that the nature of human behavior is general, and that a theory that applies to market behavior is going to apply to political behavior, too. I call this, pithily enough, the principle of behavioral uniformity. The blatently ideological and sub-scientific character of this kind of research is manifest in the failure to apply a general theory generally and to question the ability of voters to know what is in their interests and to make rational and not self-defeating choices in the voting booth. Why don’t Frank and Schwartz discuss the likelihood that politicians and policymakers will stay apprised of psychological research about well-being, or will be motivated to act in accordance with their compendious understanding of the mainsprings of happiness?

Nothing follows about policy from the fact that people make sub-optimal choices, and it’s an intellectual fraud to pretend that it does.

In his NRO essay, Schwartz writes:

The point is simply that we now know there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation, and that these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution. Given that a concern for people’s welfare has traditionally been one of the chief moral objections to taxing wealth (at least among those sympathetic to redistribution in principle), a policy of heavier taxation for the very wealthy may be the only moral course of action.

The point is simply that we don’t know this. To say that people would be happier if they had fewer choices is not to say that they will be happier if they are stripped of choices. We know that people are very very loss averse, and so increased taxation may well be a deep source of grievance, anxiety, and agitation, even if things would have gone better for the poor rich sods if they’d never gotten that rich in the first place. If people are in general happier with fewer than four children, you do not make them better off by stripping them of excess offspring and shipping Jan, Bobby, and Marcia off to the homes of sad, childless couples.

The flailing Kierkegaardian leap to state solutions when faced with problems of choice in a culture of plenitude is evidence of not only sloppy thinking (for there is no reason to think state action will improve upon private action) but of badly retarded imagination. The future belongs to those who seize what is in effect a huge entrepreneurial opportunity.

Rich in Love

A friend (who may or may not want to be named) points to this WebMD article summarizing the economic value of sexual activity. It turns out that extra money doesn’t make us that much happier, but sex makes us quite a lot happier, so if we’re putting a money value on units of happiness, sex is worth a lot of money.

After analyzing data on the self-reported levels of sexual activity and happiness of 16,000 people, Dartmouth College economist David Blachflower and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England report that sex “enters so strongly (and) positively in happiness equations” that they estimate increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to the amount of happiness generated by getting an additional $50,000 in income for the average American.

My first reaction to this is that prostitutes are undercharging. My second reaction is pretty much the same as my correspondent, who writes:

There should be a tax on all that undeclared income! — after all, all those people are getting the benefit of that money, isn’t that the same as actually having the money? How can that $50,000-equivalent benefit be redistributed so that everyone can benefit ‘equally’?

It seems like a good joke, but it really is more than a joke from the perspective of distributive justice. Take a similar case. Those of us who prefer leisure over money, once we’ve passed a fairly low threshold of money, gain all the benefits of society without paying much in through taxes.

Suppose that after $15,000 annual, the marginal value of a dollar for me plummets sharply, while the value of an hour of leisure remains very high. If I could be working 40 hours a week, and making sixty big a year, but I’d rather have the leisure after working only 10 a week, then those extra hours are worth at least forty five grand to me. So I buy a lot of leisure for the price of my opporunity cost. But, unlike the guy who likes owning a Cris Craft and a high-end stereo more than reading library books, taking long walks, and writing poetry, the value of my leisure can’t be taxed. But this seems patently unfair. People who happen to have leisurely preferences just luck out.

How to rectify this? Well, we could just force people who like leisure to work and give the proceeds to the state, but that makes us sort of uncomfortable, as we’re then caused to think a little too hard about what taxes really amount to.

hammock.JPGWell, I guess it turns out that getting a weekly rather than a monthly is worth about $50G. And it also turns out that having more money doesn’t get you more laid. So, suppose I like leisure, as above, AND I like sex as much as most people do. (Suppose.) If I manage to fit a weekly into my fairly relaxed schedule, then I’m looking at the equivalent of close to $100G in non-taxable income. This is clearly the way to go! People who work sixty hours a week to make $100G taxable, and as a consequence of all that time working and all that stress, only manage a monthly… well, those people are suckas! They’re paying like 30-ish% of their income, and while I’m not literally rollin’ in the Benjamins, I’m rolling in the endorphins, which is just as good.

This isn’t fair! Maybe I have some control over my preference for leisure. Maybe I cultivated it by reading Marcus Aurelius or something. But my ability to swing a weekly? Well. Suppose (counterfactually, of course) that I’m ruddy and good looking, and the ladies are just irresistably drawn to my animal charisma. Well, I didn’t do anything to deserve my mojo. By babe magneticity turns out simply to be an unredistributable resource. Nice for me! But hardly fair.

Maybe because I won’t be so depressed, which we also find (also, that ladies ought to consider that OrthoTri-cyclen is cheaper than Prozac and condoms), it’ll turn out that I contribute to the surplus of social cooperation by means of my sunny attitude. Everyone likes a guy with a spring in his step. But really, the folks paying for all those public goods, which I happily enjoy, with their labor and their lousy sex lives are certainly getting a raw deal. Notice that if they state provides things like health insurance, and so forth, then I’m really kicking it, and things have gotten even more unfair.

Seriously though, what do egalitarians think about this? Should we legalize prostitution and give people vouchers? Should we have mandatory national sexual service? Or can we just ignore certain deep kinds of inequality if the detection and enforcement costs are too high? That would be interesting.

I’m sure I’ve gotten ahead of myself here, but, you know, good times.