Archive for the 'welfare/utilitarianism' Category


Optimism, Confidence, James Stockdale

Here’s a little forest of ideas I just wandered through.

First, I watched this movie.

Thea idea is pretty simpel and intuitive. People do better when they are optimistic. I agree with the overall point, but the issue is not optimism, it is confidence, and they are subtly different. I think confidence is a complex thing, but it is not an outlook and it is not faith, two things that I think get bled into optimism. Optimism is the tendency to look at a situation and to see the best in it, but that is not confidence. Confidence can along with someone who sees disaster lurking around every corner or in someone who thinks everyone will turn out right. Rather, action is a kind of knowledge, it is knowledge HOW to attack problems and perhaps knowledge THAT one has this attacking skill. It is the difference between “learned helplessness” and other hard-to-characterize psychological states that can overtake people when they do not see opportunities. People without confidence see certain actions as impossible or closed off. Someone without confidence may not start a business, even though they are eminently qualified to do so. They may not ask another person out, even though they are kind and attractive. Confidence then is a way to unfold the world as one of POSSIBILITIES FOR ACTION.

A chair offers the possibility of sitting and level, stable ground offers the prospect of walking. These are such banal actions that we don’t think about them, but confidence is just like these basic interactions with the world but amplified. Someone who is confidence knows that they can adapt to meet a challenge and persevere in the face of unseen obstacles.

So throw away optimism, I prefer to think about the trait being pointed at in this video as confidence, which is different than optimism.

So, all of this brings me to the Stockdale paradox. I read briefly about John Stockdale, one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest heroes, perhaps more heroic than John McCain (though comparisons of heroism are of course shallow). He was captured in Vietnam and survived all types of torture. He is one of the most highly decorated Naval officers of all time.

Anyway, there’s not really a paradox, but he expressed the view that people who thought they would be released went crazy. They were too optimistic, or FOOLISHLY optimistic. His view on the other hand was realistic. He knew his situation was terrible and disastrous. But he said this:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

To me, this is absolutely critical, because it’s not just confidence. It’s not just that he never doubted he would succeed in resisting the brutal torture of the Viet Cong (take a minute to appreciate what kind of person has confidence like that). But not only that, he VALUED the experience. He didn’t just think things would turn out alright, rather, he thought things were alright, because he was in the midst of a defining and valuable life moment.

And now I’ll just make the point that I’ve been wanting to hone in on for many years now, which is that pain is good. I don’t mean that’s it good because it helps you do something else or focuses you. I mean it’s good, full stop. Excessive pain is not good, and it’s not good to inflict pain on others, but somehow or other, pain, tribulation, and difficulty, are all necessary ingredients to a good life. They unlock our potential, add confidence, and inject meaning.

Some have charged the view that I have just put forward as a misguided privileged view. A pseudo-philosophy that looks callously on the suffering of others. Not so. Concern for others is paramount and alleviating suffering is good. Doing these things is just another way that a life gains importance and meaning. We hear this point, in words remarkably similar to John Stockdale, a quote from Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor. Notice the similarity to the above quote.

Fundamentally, therefore, any  man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, can say with confidence, as he does throughout his book, that there was something valuable and liberating in his suffering, then I think there is something to that position.

The difficult is in saying why pain and suffering can contribute to a good life. Clearly if pain were good in the way that happiness is good, then we could help others by INFLICTING pain on them. But we know that is false. We do good only by alleviating pain and suffering. Still, I have the thought that pain is good because because it sets the conditions for a valuable activity. For instance, our ability to laugh is a condition on the activity of joking around with each other. Pain by contrast sets the condition for the activity of heroism. It is right and good to fight against pain, but if we were ever to fully end suffering in the world, completely nullify difficulty or frustration, then my claim is that we would have lost something. We would have lost, among other things, the possibility for heroism.

If we tore all the basketball hoops in the world down, we would lose the ability to play basketball (until we built some new ones obviously). If we ended pain, the same thing would happen. We would lose the ability for heroism.

We are thus in an interesting moral situation with regard to pain. We must make pain our enemy and strive against it, but we must never fully succeed. Of course, if we abolished pain, people might still want it in some cases. Maybe some runners would want some pain while they ran, to give them runners high, or complete the feeling of the activity taken as a whole. But pain paradoxically cannot serve its purpose if we can pull at it like a drug, streaming it only as we want it. The whole ability of pain’s function to ennoble us depends on the fact that it does NOT respond to our wishes. When we are put in a difficult situation, like being in Vietnam, we cannot choose to turn pain on and off at will. The heroism of Stockdale comes from the fact that he endured what was thrown at him. Not that he turned on a pain chip in his brain until he was done having enough pain.

In other words, I claim that morality sets the boundaries for what is an acceptable balance between pleasure and pain in the world. And looking at ordinary morality, this is not so strange. Pretend I can sacrifice in order to help someone, and that the person who I help will not feel pleasure to a degree greater than the pain I feel. But imagine the person I’m helping is badly off and I’m fairly well off. Ordinary morality requires my SACRIFICE. A utilitarian would claim I have no obligation. If my pain will not generate more pleasure than is lost by my efforts, I should not act. But ordinary morality contains the notion of sacrifice. It says I should help someone who is worse off if I am better off even if their gain does not outweigh my loss. If pain is bad, then this is hard to explain. If pain can be good in some cases, i.e., when I’m helping someone worse off then myself, it can be ennobling. And this is what we find.


Soda Welfare

A friend sent me this piece about New York City’s recent attempt to prevent food stamps from being used to buy sweetened drinks like soda on the idea that the public is simply financing health problems for the destitute. The article comes in response to a recent op-ed written by the health commissioners of both New York State and City respectively (see here for a considered economic analysis of fat tax type measures by Richard Posner).

What I find interesting about the policy to prevent food stamps from being used for sugary drinks is that it’s hard to see how the policy is either a) not justified or b) justified on grounds that would warrant its extension to more parts of the populace.

Consider the question of why NYC thinks this policy is worthwhile. Is it better for the actual people receiving food stamps and now use them to buy sugary drinks? Well, the people presumably take some pleasure in these drinks and are currently consume these drinks despite their deleterious affects on health. If we assume the poor are rational consumers, then we are effectively lower their overall welfare (according to a subjective view of welfare). But maybe the poor, like the rest of us, do not make decisions about our health rationally or perhaps we purchase with imperfect information about how damaging these drinks really are, in which case the justification for the policy is the health of the people buying these drinks. But if health is the goal of the policy, to be achieved by taxing a harmful activity, then taxes should be put in place so that the regular populace can also benefit from these measures (and be disincentivized to drink these harmful drinks). I hope the implication is not that only the poor are behaving irrationally with regard to sugar drink consumption.

Another point is that the government should not be spending money to help people continue to do something harmful, but this raises an interesting question of why we give people money at all. Do we give food stamps because we want poor people to have more PLEASUREFUL lives, because if that’s the reason, then we’re contradicting that goal by denying them the sweet release of a sugary soda (again, on the view that pleasure is determined by willingness to pay). Or do we give food stamps to poor people because we want them to live HEALTHIER lives, in which case the sugary drink restriction policy would be justified.

There is also a repeated mention of the money that obesity costs the public. Sugary drinks = obesity = various diseases like diabetes and heart disease = taxpayer dollars. Here too though, if tax dollars are lost to obesity, then we should be using a tax to recoup those lost dollars in ALL segments of society.

Anyway, I’m kind of vaguely dancing around the main question here, which is: why do we give poor people money so that they can eat and how does that goal interact with this soda policy? Are we trying to make the poor as well off as possible, or only ensure they have a certain minimum amount of welfare, or make sure that they can DO certain things, or make sure they are to a certain degree HEALTHY. All of these notions are separate.

These are tough questions, but my answer is this: I think we give money to the poor so that they can participate in society on equal footing with other people, and this means the money must go primarily not toward making poor happier (as if we could just buy a lot of cocaine for them, or some more sophisticated sedative) but toward making them be able to healthily participate in society (and not be obese and not sick), to be able to learn skills (education), impact our government (vote and have their voices heard).

Toward this goal, I think the policy of NYC is justified. The goal of the policy is to make public dollars maximally translate into able-bodied and capable citizens, and that’s why food stamps already don’t go to alcohol. The rest of public money should go to helping poor people purchase the things they need to be active members of society, so housing, healthcare, education, and food are obviously justified. Still, there will be some who are so ineffective at making use of these opportunities and so fall into miserable lives, and the government should not let these people languish in their suffering, but programs designed to address these people will not be based at ability to participate in society but in overall welfare or happiness.


what is desert?

Some people really chafe at the notion, favored by utilitarianism, that there is no such thing as desert, at least in any robust sense. Sure, you are entitled to your property, but only because it’s in general good for people to have some rights to property. Sure, you are entitled to a fair trial and not to be thrown in jail for no reason, but only as long as a rampaging mob wouldn’t make a mock trial resulting in your execution expedient. Under utilitarianism, people just deserve whatever will make the most good. Nothing more and nothing less.

For those who don’t like this picture (like me), it’s worth seeing how powerful the argument actually is. Of course we are upset when we find out about someone who is punished unfairly, even when the punishment was for the better. We say something like “you can’t just do that to someone!”

But is our notion of desert symmetrical? We don’t like it when an innocent person is made worse off for no reason, but do we protest when someone is made better off for no reason? Not really. We think to ourselves “lucky them.”

But is that right? I’m going to reveal a seemingly angry part of my psychology to make a point (I not really this bitter). Sometimes, and maybe you think this too but don’t like to admit it, we see some really obnoxious people living the high life without any justification. This happens very often with the children of rich people. They’re out, dressed to the nines with every conceivable amenity at their fingertips, just generally being snobby and pretentious. Is there not some part of us that recoils and whispers silently “you don’t deserve that happiness.” Then, we often tell ourselves a long and detailed story about how such people aren’t TRULY happy, because, say, their psychology is burdensome. But this is just a lie we tell ourselves. There are genuinely obnoxious and malicious people who are happy, and who have every advantage. Should we wish ill on them; a pox on their kingdom?

Maybe we should. I’m not sure. This is certainly what egalitarians believe. They believe that equality is intrinsically valuable, and so advocate raising the poor because they don’t deserve their poverty. However, they also believe in lowering the rich, because they don’t deserve their wealth (see this post).

So there is at least this similarity, but maybe this just shows that equality trades on our notion of desert unfairly. With a real theory of desert in hand, we might be able to say which people should be leveled down and which should get to enjoy their talents/wealth/beauty/whatever.


intrinsic value: two perspectives

Utilitarians think that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically good and others disagree, but one interesting thing is that the perspective we take on our own lives greatly influences what we think is valuable.

In this post, I talked about the philosophical difficulties caused by our ability to view the world from the first person perspective as well as the third person perspective. In the case of value, these two perspectives are relevant. From the first person perspective, it seems plausible that the only thing that is valuable would be our own experience; how we feel when we’re looking out from our own cranium.

But viewed from the third person perspective, it seems like other things might matter like knowledge, achievement, and even things like beauty. Imagine someone who lost the ability to feel pain and pleasure as sensations. This person would be defacto in the third person perspective and might come to regard their life more as a sculpture regards a block of stone; as a canvas for excellence.

This difference also comes up in subtle ways that certain thought experiments are carried out. Sometimes, in trying to determine whether something is intrinsically valuable, someone will create two worlds and ask “which world would you create.” This question is asked from the third perspective, and so makes it easier to see certain things as valuable. For example, if I could create a world of happy sloths, eating fruit that was readily available for their consumption and drinking from pure streams without anything to be afraid or to test them OR a world of hardworking and resolute folk who had to get what they needed through work and overcoming. I would see the second world as far more excellent. However, if I were asked which world I would want to live in, I would of course choose the first, but this is just the difference between addressing questions to the different viewpoints we can inhabit.


an objection to utilitarianism?

Is utility a homogenous good that can be compared in discrete lumps like bricks or ounces of coffee?

Take this case. I could prevent you from having to pass a kidney stone (one of the most painful thing that can happen to someone, second to childbirth according to some) or I could prevent 100,000 people from experiencing a 10 minute long and relatively mild headache (assume there will be more total pain with the 100,000). Utilitarianism says that I should prevent the headaches, but it seems that our sympathies lie with the kidney stone victim.

What I think is interesting about this case is that pain or disutility can be so easily aggregated in the way necessary for utilitarianism. The headaches here contemplated, though they are painful, are just something people should endure, and thus, to reach the equivalent of certain pains requires more than just adding up a bunch of smaller ones.

This is kind of a shallow criticism of utilitarianism, but one that I can’t help thinking has something to it.


google finance and deliberative democracy

I’m in the market in a modest way and so I like to check google finance now and then (the fact that I check google finance is surely an indicator of my amateurishness right?). I’m convinced that the message boards under various stocks are a threat to democracy.

What do I mean? I mean that the google message boards are what Cass Sunstein describes as echo chambers, in which the participants can bounce absurd opinions off other similarly uninformed people to heighten their own ignorance and resistance to further argumentation.* This sort of deliberative solipsism is very dangerous to democracies, which rely, at least partially, on the erstwhile persuasion of various groups concerning controversial social decisions. This is not idle speculation or unmotivated alarmism. A substantial body of psychological and political science literature notes that people, when put into a group of like minded people, often emerge from discussion with a more firm belief in their own views.

But such isolation is not limited to lunatics on google finance boards, but infects our entire FOX/CNN media culture. You see, I think our culture, with its emphasis on a narrow kind of satisfaction or happiness encourages confusing actions with beliefs. Actions aim at the good, which is pleasure or happiness, but beliefs are supposed to aim at the truth. We watch our favorite media outlet because their opinions, which match ours, are soothing. News thought of in this way is a type of entertainment or sedative. This is wrong. If beliefs are about truth, then we should not seek to derive satisfaction from their unchallenged status. Rather, our beliefs should be made to collide with others so that we can become more justified in our beliefs and perhaps even embrace more truths in the long run.

* One might worry that I’m being too much of an intellectual elitist, and that people in these message boards, while not being scholars, are genuinely exchanging ideas. I provide these small snippets to prove that this is not so. I’ve only provided two, since they’re pretty offensive.

Obama sure could have used a dad growing up.
No one ever taught him how to be a man.
Bush’s dad was a WWII vet and taught him not to bitch
like a chick and blame everyone else for your problems.
Bush had to deal with the aftermath of a president that
chose to ignore the growing terror threat. I cannot recall
him ever blaming his predecessor  for any of his inherited
problems. I cannot recall a time when Obama did not.


Also he’s [Obama] an indecisive, limp wristed sissy that succumbed to the advances of a homo while on drugs.
I don’t trust any man that rolls gutter balls consistently.
It’s a matter of testosterone.

And so on.


that’s garbage! (or why recycling is kind of a joke)

I just read an interesting article (you might not be able to get access to this article unfortunately) that looks at the welfare implications of recycling programs.

As usual, a close analysis reveals some really interesting issues.

On first glance, it seems that recycling is kind of a losing proposition.

The costs to the
municipality to collect, process, and transport recyclable materials exceed by an
average of roughly $3 per household per month the budgetary benefits of
reduced disposal fees and revenue from the sale of recycling materials (Kinnaman,
2000; Aadlan and Caplan, 2005). On a per-ton basis, recycling is roughly twice as
costly as landfill disposal.

The costs to the municipality to collect, process, and transport recyclable materials exceed by an average of roughly $3 per household per month the budgetary benefits of reduced disposal fees and revenue from the sale of recycling materials (Kinnaman, 2000; Aadlan and Caplan, 2005). On a per-ton basis, recycling is roughly twice as costly as landfill disposal.

And, as this author points out, most of the benefits to recycling do not come from the natural resources they preserve, because the preservation value is incorporated into the above quote via the price that recycled goods fetch in the market for raw resources.

Assuming that markets for recycled material are sufficiently competitive, the marginal benefit of preserving natural resources through recycling is equal to the corresponding market price for each recyclable material and is therefore internalized by municipal recycling programs selling recyclable materials. Prices for recycled glass, various recycled papers and cardboards, and the various forms of recycled plastics have historically been near zero.1 Prices for aluminum and bi-metal cans are higher, but the quantity of these materials recycled by households is rather small. Judging by the prices for recycled materials, the natural resource benefit of recycling is not particularly substantial.

So, given this, why recycle. Well, the authors point to two other benefits of recycling. First, recycling can reduce costs that are not internalized by trash collection. For example, landfills have costs, including smell, reduced housing prices in an area (landfills are ugly), possible water contamination and the CO2 and pollution cost of transporting garbage to and from the landfill (though recycling probably wouldn’t reduce this last factor very much). However, these costs are not very significant to start and they are mostly reduced by taxes that already exist precisely to try and incorporate these costs.

What’s far more interesting is that these authors propose that the apparent loss of recycling is outweighed by the utility recyclers derive from recycling. As they point out, many consumers will pay to be able to recycle (many people contracted with private parties to recycle before their municipality required it):

Recycling is something parents and children feel good about, and for this reason households may be willing to pay for the mere opportunity to recycle. An expanding literature employing the contingent valuation method finds that households are willing to pay an average of $5.61 per month for recycling services (Jakus, Tiller, and Park, 1996; Lake, Bateman, and Partiff, 1996; Tiller, Jakus, and Park, 1997; Kinnaman, 2000; Aadlan and Caplan, 2005).2 Unlike the sources of external benefits discussed above, these benefits to households exceed the $3 per household average cost of operating curbside recycling programs in many (but not all) municipalities.

This benefit is known as the “warm glow” effect of recycling.

The semi-philosophical question I want to raise is this: if the warm glow utility benefit rests on a mistake (that recycling is good for the environment), then should it count in our total welfare assessment. In other words, I think people only feel good about recycling because they think it helps, but if it’s a source of inefficiency, wouldn’t the warm glow feeling disappear?

Thus, the question: should we respect people’s preferences, or their considered preferences (their preference after finding out about recycling). Or is it that the benefit of recycling does not make anyone better off, yet it makes the results of our actions better off. In other words, is it just good that we respond to our natural surroundings in a certain way even if that response is actually less efficient.

Another argument one might make against this analysis is that the price of raw materials does not price in the damage to animal habitat and the blight it causes to the environment (my guess is that these might be significant, but my guess is also that they are partially if not completely accounted for in various environmental regulations and taxes).

So the question really is: why recycle?