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Preference Satisfaction and the Good

Michael Philips wonders what you really, really want.

To Jeremy Bentham it all seemed obvious. Pleasure is the only good, pain is the only evil and both are easy to calculate. It is simply a matter of multiplying the intensity by the duration. How do we measure intensity? As undergraduates, my friends and I chose the pleasure of biting into a certain juicy hamburger (the Denny Burger) as our unit of pleasure intensity and measured other experiences in relation to that one: dives into cool pools on hot days had a DBB (Denny Burger Bite) equivalent, as did first kisses, Bergman films, philosophical insights, and howling at the moon. Of course, we disagreed on how many DBB’s to assign to these experiences. That is because these experiences are not really just fainter or more vivid versions of the DBB. Old Jeremy notwithstanding, ‘pleasure’ does not name a single, phenomenologically distinctive experience present in all that pleases us, varying only in intensity and duration. These other experiences do not stand to DBB’s as a hue of green at a given saturation stands to other instances of that hue at different saturations. Our DBB ratings were really based on our preferences. We differed on how many DBB’s we would be willing to sacrifice for the experiences in question because we preferred different things.

In its own innocent way, our system satisfied the central precept of contemporary utility theory, a view widely accepted by economists, decision theorists and moral philosophers (including John Rawls). According to that view, a person’s good consists in the satisfaction of his preferences (or, as some would say, desires). This view has at least four main attractions.

Firstly, it is generally regarded as a default view of the good that frees us from the impossible task of defending any more objective candidate. The traditional objective favorites include truth, beauty, honor, knowledge, pleasure, tranquillity, justice, friendship, happiness and virtue. Attempts to defend some of these against others or to rank or weigh them in relation to each other seem hopeless enterprises based on nothing more that idiosyncratic intuitions or obsolete, metaphysically-grounded theories of human nature. Still, to live our lives we need way to decide which course of action leave us better off. So in the absence of any alleged realm of ordered, absolute values, preference satisfaction seems a good default view. Everyone wants their preferences satisfied.

Secondly, the preference satisfaction account seems to harmonize with our democratic impulses. High brows get no pride of place. Pushpin (or stock car racing) is as good as poetry. Everyone’s preferences, everyone’s judgments count equally. There is no justification for snobbery or paternalistic despotisms.

Thirdly utility theory promises philosophers unrivalled opportunities for precision, proofs and progress. It looks very much like a branch of applied mathematics or applied logic. It brims over with mathematical notation, axioms and theorems. There are famous problems (the Prisoner’s Dilemma) and famous achievements, such as Arrow’s Theorem, game theory and preference logic(s). Contributing to a literature so rich in fancy notation and numbered sentences provides moral philosophers with an outlet for their rigor envy.

Finally, since utility theory is the central tool of economists and public policy consultants, contributing to this literature also provides moral philosophers with a sense that they have descended from the ivory tower into the real world of movers and shakers.

If we look closely at contemporary utility theory, however, we find that the more philosophically plausible it becomes, the less it has the first three advantages. This being the case, joining the world of movers and shakers amounts to little more than joining the naked emperor’s haberdashery staff.

The root of the problem is that the central concept of the theory is rarely clarified. “Let P stand for preference”, the utility theorist incants, and then immediately races off looking for axioms or principles. At a minimum these principles are supposed to allow us to compare someone’s levels of well being given: (a) a list of her preferences (weighted or ranked); and (b) various alternative schedules of their satisfaction. But since very little attention is devoted to determining what counts as a preference to begin with, utility theorists are unable to answer certain basic and obvious questions. Consider a rural gardener who lives a simple life with relatively few preferences but who satisfies most of them (i.e., a life with a high ratio of satisfactions to frustrations, but a relatively low net difference between satisfactions and frustrations). Compare her to an urban professional who has and satisfies many more preferences but also satisfies a lower percentage of the preferences she has (i.e., a life where the net difference between preference satisfactions and frustrations is higher than in the simpler life but the ratio of preference satisfactions to frustrations is lower). If utility theory provided a clear account of our good, it should tell us which life is better. But it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t provide us with the faintest idea of how to count preferences to begin with.

If we ask ourselves which of these two lives is better, we are driven to ask questions like “What do (and should) one really want out of life?” Our answers are likely to include such vague things as a sense of fulfillment, loving and being loved, the experience of beauty, excitement, creativity, the development and deployment of our talents, and the happiness of those we love. But it is difficult if not impossible to rank or assign weights to these sorts of preferences. In fact, the attempt seems wrong-headed. Most of us want some sort of balance between them (such that our preferences for any one are conditional on the degree to which we have satisfied others). Thus, we might prefer loving and being loved to excitement up to a point, but once that threshold is crossed, we might prefer more excitement to having one more person in our lives who loves us. It is hard to say in advance, moreover, just what the balance is. We live, we learn, we adjust. Typically, we judge after the fact. And we do not do this by applying the complex mathematics of utility theory. It’s hard to see how we could. After all, it’s not only difficult to rank and weigh these preferences, it’s also very difficult to say with any precision the degree to which preferences of these kinds are satisfied (Do I really have exactly my preferred amount of excitement in my life? How far over or under am I?). Any results derived from rigorous applications of complex mathematical algorithms are just another case of garbage in, garbage out. The more we deal with preferences that really matter, the less use we have for the rigor of utility theory. It may help us determine how well off we are as consumers, but we can satisfy most of our consumer desires and still be suicidally miserable.

What of the claim that utility theory is a default view? Consider another question. “Would someone be better off if she satisfied most of her preferences but ended up miserable?” A utility theorist is forced to reply “It depends on how much she wants to be happy (i.e., whether she prefers happiness to the relevant schedule of satisfactions).” But this is a strange response. Certain very depressed people may not care at all about their health, happiness or the development of their talents. They may want above all to remain in bed and be left alone. They may not even want to attend to health problems, because it is too much trouble. Does this mean that they are better off sick or maimed in bed than they would be healthy and walking through the woods? There are also people who prefer not to be joyful because they feel unworthy of happiness (or because they believe its uncool or corny to be joyful or because they believe it is immoral to be joyful given all the misery in the world). Are we to say that the fact that they have these preferences settles the matter, that there is no basis for further discussion? Why not say instead that some preferences are foolish – for example, preferences based on weak imaginations, false beliefs, bad arguments or logical confusions?

Some utility theorists have tried to address this problem by restricting the preference satisfaction account to rational preferences. This immediately robs the account of its democratic attractiveness. For now poetry may turn out to be better than pushpin after all and political hierarchy might be justified for the sake of promoting rational preferences (as in Plato’s Republic). This amendment also robs the preference satisfaction theory of its status as a default view. After all, limiting preferences in this way implies that there is something good about rationality itself (whatever that is supposed to mean). But if one can argue that there is something good about rationality itself, why not happiness, musicality, humor or the development of one’s talents?

There are also two deeper problems. First, rational preferences are typically characterized as those we would have if we could vividly imagine our alternatives, had complete empirical knowledge and made no mistakes in reasoning. But as long as they remain hypothetical, these ‘rational preferences’ are not really preferences. In fact, people may lack the conceptual resources to have them. For example, a child in a remote village in New Guinea might ‘rationally prefer’ a life on a ranch in Montana to a life in her village. But she can’t have an actual preference for this life because she doesn’t know what Montana is or what a ranch is. If by some quirk of fate she someday found herself living on a ranch in Montana, she might be better off by it, but this would not be because she had satisfied some pre-existing preference.

In the second place, the motive for restricting preferences to rational preferences in this way is simply the recognition that some preferences are badly aimed. That is, it is the recognition that there is something wrong with preferring pain to pleasure, mediocrity to talent or depression to happiness (all other things being equal). But if preferences can be well or badly aimed there must be better and worse things at which to aim them. We want to exclude preferences based on weak imagination, false beliefs, bad arguments or logical confusions because we think them likely to miss the mark. To borrow a note from Plato’s Euthyphro, a state of affairs is not good for us because we rationally prefer it, we rationally prefer it because it is good for us.

This talk of well and badly aimed preferences does not commit us to any mysterious realm of absolute values. Neither does it imply that anything is good from the standpoint of the universe as a whole. It is just the common sense (and Aristotelian) idea that different things are good for different beings, depending on their natures. What is good for sharks is not necessarily good for ants; what is good for ants is not necessarily good for people. Roughly speaking, a being’s good consists in a favorable relationship between its nature and the world. If we had full knowledge and a fully vivid appreciation of what the alternatives would be like, we would know what these fits are. That’s why thinking about it helps.

This shift in perspective has a good deal of practical importance. The preference satisfaction account short circuits any attempt to discuss what is really good for us. The spirit of that account is that what is good for us is what we now prefer. The alternative I am proposing asks us to take a good look at ourselves and try to assess what states of affairs satisfy us. Some of that answer will depend on our nature as human beings. But some of it may depend on our cultural identity, our gender, our prospects, our abilities and our dispositions. A careful look at who we are and what we want in these ways may reveal that we should change our preferences or try to change some feature of our makeup. Of course, there are no guarantees that we will get it right. These matters are, as we say, underdetermined by the evidence. Few of us can be entirely sure that we wouldn’t be better satisfied as Zen monks or nuns. But we can be reasonably sure that thinking about these matters will make us better off than simply accepting our present preferences as given and thinking about how to maximize their satisfaction over our lifetime.

© Michael Philips 2001

Michael Philips is a professor of philosophy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. In his spare time he is a photographer and performance artist

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