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Old 06-28-2010, 06:36 PM
Tyrrell McAllister Tyrrell McAllister is offline
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 121
Default Re: Identity Economics (Will Wilkinson & Rachel Kranton)

When our tastes conflict, one of the options open to us is to eliminate or modify one of those tastes. If I like binging on cartons of vanilla ice cream and I like to look good in beachwear, a rational solution to the conflict is to eliminate the desire to binge on vanilla ice cream. If the objects of our tastes are of value to us because we desire them, there are other things that we regard ourselves as desiring because they have an antecedent value. And where we do not desire what we take to be valuable, we regard ourselves as having a reason to acquire a desire for that thing.
I agree with this if you mean: If we desire a state S because of facts that are independent of what we will experience, then we regard ourselves as having a reason to acquire an enjoyment of experiencing S, because then we are even more likely to bring S about.

You try to account for this distinction in terms of valuing something as a mere means to something else versus wanting the thing for its own sake. You say that I value vanilla ice cream merely as a means to pleasure, while I value justice for its own sake. I grant you that we do not value the ice cream apart from the experience of tasting it – at least we don't normally. But do we desire this experience merely as a means to some further mental state (pleasure)? At certain points it sounds as though you are presupposing a rather implausible picture of pleasure as a kind of psychic currency – a unitary mental “stuff” that varies only in intensity and duration from one pleasant experience to another (for example, when you speak of the pleasure that vanilla currently provides and chocolate will provide in the future).
I don't think that I presupposed this. I said that "you value vanilla ice cream because it provides a certain kind of pleasure." (Emphasis added.) And then, for the remainder of the post, I was careful to say "that pleasure", instead of just "pleasure". I am nowhere supposing that this pleasure differs only in duration and intensity from other kinds of pleasure, or that there is some fundamental unit of pleasure, with which all other pleasures are commensurate. I agree with you that such a theory of pleasure is implausible. But I don't think that anything I've said presupposes any such theory.

Nonetheless, some pleasures do seem to differ in little more than duration and intensity. Some experiences, though different, seem to provide very nearly the same kind of pleasure for the same duration at the same level of intensity. I was taking your love of vanilla today and your hypothetical future love of chocolate to be such experiences, for the sake of the thought experiment. But this isn't important to my argument.

I suspect that there is a whole mess of very different qualia that are all called "pleasure" or "enjoyment". I imagine that it will take a more advanced neuro-psychology to tease them all apart definitively. I don't want to define pleasure to mean "that which I pursue just for the feeling, and not for any other facts of the matter." I can imagine someone who feels compelled to pursue certain experiences just for the feelings that accompany the experiences, but who doesn't feel anything that we would call pleasure when those experiences are attained. Granted, such a person would be strange, but the premise doesn't seem self-contradictory to me. There is a useful distinction to be made between (1) an experience that compels us to seek it, and (2) pleasure.

So maybe we ought to read your suggestion in this way: I desire vanilla ice cream only insofar as I can have the experience of it, while I desire justice whether or not I experience justice. This is a distinction between the two, but it isn't the difference between a taste and a value. It is quite possible that I could have a taste for something that I won't experience. For example, I might happen to want to be remembered a thousand years after my death. If this is just something I happen to want, I may quite reasonably take this desire into account as I make plans for my life, even though I will not experience the fulfillment of the desire. Yet that doesn't make it something I value in the unconditional way I'm talking about. I might decide that I'd be happier without this desire for posthumous fame and work to get rid of the desire – or at least to leave it out of all my calculations about how to live – just on the grounds that I'd be happier without the desire. I might have a taste for justice in just this same way – I happen to like it and I pursue it only insofar as I have a desire for it. If I know I'll love cruelty and injustice tomorrow, then I'll be happy to lay plans today for the exploitation and abuse of others tomorrow. And I could conceivably value vanilla ice cream or posthumous renown in something like the unconditional way that I imagine people actually tend to value justice.
Okay, you anticipate here some of what I wrote above, and you seem to be offering a rebuttal, but I don't understand your rebuttal.

Suppose that I desire a future state S because it is just, and suppose that I also know that I would be happier if I changed myself so as not to desire S. It just does not follow that "I'll be happy to lay plans today for the exploitation and abuse of others tomorrow." That will only follow if my motivation to pursue the happiness is sufficient to overwhelm my motivation to pursue the just state S. And there is no reason to suppose that this would be the case in general. Indeed, it's easy for me to imagine that no possible amount of personal happiness would suffice to motivate me to change myself in this way.

(Yes, if I were to change myself in this way, I would look back on the decision without regret. But that fact is not necessarily among the ones that I care about now, when I am making the choice.)

At the end of your remarks, you treat decision theory as simply a (sometimes) useful mathematical formalism – a way of constructing a utility function out of a coherent set of preferences. Insofar as this is all it is, I certainly wouldn't claim that a utility function couldn't be constructed out of the preferences of someone who values justice and likes vanilla and has achieved the kind of coherent preference-ordering required by decision theory. But insofar as decision theory is employed as a (neo-Humean) theory of rationality or of value, it is at best a portion of a full theory of rationality masquerading as the whole.
Who claims that expected utility theory, in and of itself, is a full theory of rationality? Who could ignore the fact that it doesn't tell you which utilities you would assign to different states in the limit of full coherent reflection? Until you have some approximations of some of these utilities, you can't even begin to use expected utility theory.

The kind of preference ordering required by decision theory is not just a given. If it ever actually existed, it would be itself an achievement of deliberation.
That doesn't necessarily follow. People sometimes make decisions without reflection. Sometimes, the brute facts about what motivates us can act upon us without our engaging in any deliberation in a conscious sense. I would guess that, in infancy, some of our unreflected-upon decisions are decisions to learn more about what we prefer (via fantasies, for example). Thus, by the time we get to the point of making conscious deliberative decisions, we have already learned enough to approximate some of our preferences. From that point on, we can proceed to use expected utility theory explicitly.

Yes, I prefer strawberry to vanilla and vanilla to chocolate just as a brute matter of fact, but much deliberation begins with a conflict of desires and attempts to determine what to prefer. It's precisely into this space that the distinction between values and tastes comes in (as well as norms and identity). We can imagine an ideally rational agent who prospectively works out all his preferences in detail before he ever faces a decision. Then we can take these preferences and say what he ought to choose if he acts according to these preferences. In reality, our deliberation about preferences is itself often concurrent with our deliberation about what to do, but the idealization may well have its uses. The mistake would be to treat preference-forming deliberation as non-existent and to treat preferences as given.
I agree that it would be a mistake "to treat preference-forming deliberation as non-existent". I'm sure that some people make that mistake, but it's definitely not intrinsic to expected utility theory. On the contrary, preference-forming deliberation is just another activity, another way to use up resources, and it comes with certain expected benefits. Thus, a fully reflective person would use expected utility theory to decide how much of their resources they ought to allocate to preference-discovery.
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