Thursday, June 29, 2006

An IUD for IUCs

The boys at Catallarchy are having a little dust-up on the subject of interpersonal utility comparisons (IUCs). Are such comparisons possible? Brandon Berg, Jonathan Wilde, and Patri Friedman say yes; Brian Doss defends the conventional economic wisdom and says no.

Without offering too much in the way of justification, I’ll just say that philosophically I tend to agree with Brian. Making interpersonal utility comparisons is a kind of category error, akin to trying to add degrees and pounds. I don’t have a logical proof of this point; it just seems intuitively right to me. You can’t add my utility to yours, because my utility and your utility are just different sorts of thing. And appealing to objective measures, like dopamine levels or endorphins in the brain, seems to me to miss the point. We’ve got different brains, and an endorphin in my brain just ain’t the same as an endorphin in yours. I suspect there’s some connection here to Rawls’s “separateness of persons” objection to utilitarianism.

But on the other hand, as defenders of IUCs are fond of pointing out, we make such comparisons all the time. If you win a baby doll at the fair and give it to your daughter instead of your son, in the expectation that your daughter will enjoy it more, you’re making an IUC. Right? And if you’ll donate money to a homeless person rather than George Soros, on grounds that the homeless person will obtain greater benefit from it, you’re making an IUC. Right?

Since we make these comparisons all the time, they’re clearly not impossible. In that sense, the debate is suffering from ill-chosen language. The question is not whether we can make such comparisons, but whether they possess philosophical or scientific validity. People make IUCs, but they make lots of other mistakes, too. They say things like, “Mary is fatter than John is tall,” a statement that makes less and less sense the more your scrutinize it.

If we’re going to make sense of real-world IUCs, I think we have to reconstruct them more carefully. I think most of them can be understood as imagined “standing in the shoes of” comparisons. If you have a baby doll to give to one of your children, you imagine yourself as a girl with a baby doll, and then you imagine yourself as a boy with a baby doll, and you imagine your satisfaction with each situation. If you have a philosopher gene, you might even imagine that you have a 50% chance of occupying each child’s position. And then you think, “Which of these imaginings was the more satisfying?” Or if you have an economist gene, you might imagine that you also have a toy truck to give away, and realize that the daughter would prefer the doll to the truck and the boy would prefer the truck to the doll.

Similarly, if you have a dollar to give away, you imagine yourself as a homeless person gifted with one more dollar, and then as Soros gifted with one more dollar. In which of these imagined situations did you experience the greater “lift”? You might – again with the economist gene – imagine each of these persons as a possible future you, and then ask in which future you’d prefer to have that extra dollar. That is the sort of imagining that moves people to buy insurance.

Am I just slipping IUCs in the back door by this “imaginings” method? Maybe, but I think not. I am not claiming that the comparisons made by this method possess an objective reality. The comparisons are filtered through an internal, subjective assessment process, which is unavoidably connected to my particular background and character (though I might try to set aside my personal circumstances as much as possible). And that means people who perform such imaginings will naturally reach different conclusions in some cases. This is not because one evaluator is right and another is wrong, but because there is not an objective answer to the question.

Nevertheless, there will exist a range of cases where, despite the non-existence of an objective answer, most everyone will arrive at the same answer. That is, they reach intersubjective agreement. This is what makes the examples given by the IUC-defenders so intuitive; the examples are selected precisely because they fall into the regions where intersubjective agreement is easily reached. On the other hand, there exist other comparisons where different people will honestly reach different conclusions. The IUC-defenders wish to treat these as cases where the utility numbers are just too close to call, and thus people make mistakes. I would counter that in such cases, the differences are not merely honest but also accurate, being based on differing evaluative processes. (And yes, I realize that intersubjectivity is a post-modernist notion, so maybe Scott Scheule’s concerns are well-placed. But even if post-modernism is usually full of crap, even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.)

All this might seem odd coming from a confessed utilitarian like myself. I assure you that I have a fascinating and compelling account of how my positions are consistent, but it will have to wait.


Glen Whitman said...

I plead ignorance on net-neutrality. I really don't know enough about the technological and industrial structure to have a strong opinion. I will say this: when corporate monopolies occupy their position in large part because of government interference, I'm at least open to the idea that regulating those monopolies could be a good idea (if removing the gov't-granted privileges is off the table for some reason). Whether this is such a case, I just don't know.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with "Mary is fatter than John is tall"? If Mary's two standard deviations beyond mean weight and John's only one standard deviation taller than mean height, the statement above makes perfect sense. No?

Brett said...

The problem with inter-personal utility comparisons isn't so much that they aren't possible, as the use people want to put them to.

Rough comparisons are fine when you've got something that's your's to give, and you're contemplating who to give it to. If you're wrong in your comparison, you're still at least doing something you've got a right to do.

The problem is when you say, "This is more valuable in his hands than her's", and take it upon your self to adjust things, in the process violating rights.

A loaf of bread might very well be more valuable to a starving man than to the baker, but that doesn't make it your loaf to give.

It's not, then, that you can't compare the utilities, but that even if you can compare them, they're still not fungible. They're still the utility of particular people, not a global quantity.

Loquitur Veritatem said...

The fact that we make IUCs all the time doesn't mean that they're valid, it just means that we make them.

Glen Whitman said...

Anon -- Yeah, you can compare height and weight using a statistical device like standard deviations, but I doubt that's what people who make that kind of statement have in mind. If the characteristics aren't normally distributed, then it's not even clear what information is conveyed by a standard-deviation-based comparison. But I agree I could have chosen a better example, such as "Tom is as funny as he is smart."

Brett -- I'm trying to answer the metaphysical/epistemological question first, before getting to the political question. You're right that even if IUCs are valid, that doesn't necessarily justify income transfers. But that doesn't make the discussion of whether IUCs are valid a pointless debate.

Thomas -- yeah, that's pretty much what I was trying to say. Or one thing I was trying to say, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I question whether we are genuinely making IUCs when we decide who to give the doll to. That may be how we conceptualize it to ourselves, but what we do and how we think about what we do are two separate things. I think furthermore that if we trace back why we really do things we don't come up empty-handed, nor do we come up with a utilitarian explanation. Specifically, we internalize the balance that we learn in our interaction with each other, so that what was at first done for quite nakedly selfish reasons in the end is internalized and is done seemingly for itself. Thus the balance we achieve in our treatment of ourselves and others is not produced by an IUC but is produced by habit which in turn is established by the give and take - i.e., we treat our neighbors nice because they make us treat them nice, and they train us with carrots and sticks.

Richard Y Chappell said...

"The fact that we make IUCs all the time doesn't mean that they're valid"

But also: the fact that we make IUCs doesn't necessarily mean that there's nothing more to them, either.

Glen writes: "The comparisons are filtered through an internal, subjective assessment process, which is unavoidably connected to my particular background and character"

But of course this is true of every judgment that we make. For example, the conflicting beliefs of scientists and creationists can partly be traced to cultural differences, educational "background", and - more immediately - their differing "internal, subjective assessment process[es]". These mental differences mean that they "will naturally reach different conclusions in some cases." That doesn't mean there's no fact of the matter, though. So it is pure assertion for Glen to say that "This is not because one evaluator is right and another is wrong, but because there is not an objective answer to the question." This doesn't follow from what was said above. It remains a possibility, for sure, but so does the contrary view.

It seems pretty plausible that there really is a fact of the matter about whether your being tortured to death would be worse for you than a papercut would be for me. In fact, the answer seems as obvious as anything. (Not absolutely certain, of course. We're always fallible in making such judgments. But I'm as confident that I know the answer to this as I am about any other piece of everyday knowledge.)

I also think it's pretty plausible that some people might be in a better position than others to make reliable or justified IUC judgments. If I want to know whether a gift toy would better benefit the brother or the sister, I would be more inclined to trust the judgment of an empathetic family member who knew both children well, over the judgment of a psychopath passing by. I believe that the "internal, subjective assessment process" of the first person is more likely to track objective reality here than the psychopath's opinions are.

But if it's all purely subjective, then there are no grounds for distinguishing between the two. All opinions are equally "valid", as there are no facts of the matter for them to track with varying accuracy.

If I have to choose between saving one person from torture, or another from a papercut, I may as well flip a coin, right?

Really. I can't see how anyone not in the grip of a theory could take such radical skepticism seriously.

Glen Whitman said...

Richard, I'm not a radical skeptic about everything. I think, for instance, that gravity is a fact regardless of what anyone thinks. But I am very much a skeptic as to whether IUCs are in that category of things.

The IUC-defenders keep reverting to seemingly obvious examples like "my paper cut vs. someone else's torture." But the whole question is what it even means to say the former outweighs the latter. I suggested such a comparison arises (or can be reconstructed) from a process of imagining oneself in each of those situations. When almost anyone would reach the same conclusion in doing that imaginary comparison, then we can say there's intersubjective agreement -- which seems a lot like objectivity. You are welcome to be "sure" of your conclusion, because almost anyone would reach the same one. But that doesn't entitle you to assume a similar answer exists in other cases that lack the same degree of intersubjective agreement.

In any case, I think you miss the point of my post. The moral isn't "So let's give up this crazy process of comparing one person's happiness to another." Rather, the moral is "Let's give up this pretense of objective truth and admit we're engaged in a process of finding mutually agreeable conclusions."

Richard Y Chappell said...

Yes, I didn't mean to imply that you were a universal skeptic. I was just suggesting that it isn't clear what the basis is for treating IUC any differently. If it's just a personal intuition of yours, then I guess that's fine as far as it goes, but won't be very convincing for the rest of us who have no problem gaining an intuitive grasp of what such comparisons mean.

Perhaps you mean to challenge us to provide the meaning, perhaps by way of a definition. But it may simply be a fundamental concept (alongside 'existence', 'consciousness', 'space', etc.) which cannot be reductively defined in other terms.

But even if reductive definitions are impossible, perhaps I can help bring out your own intuitive understanding of the idea by offering a specification of sorts:

1) I assume there are facts about the conscious states and welfare of individual persons. Such facts include those about "what it is like" for the person having a certain experience.

2) I assume the above facts can form the basis for true counterfactual claims about what it would be like for me to have direct mental access (or other full comprehension) to another's conscious states.

3) Hence, there is some fact of the matter about what it would be like to experience first one person's life, and then another's, from their respective perspectives. Having experienced both, I could compare the two directly.

4) In this way "interpersonal utility comparisons" can be explicated in terms of (hypothetical) intrapersonal utility comparisons. It doesn't matter that they are merely hypothetical. So long as there really is some fact of the matter about what would be preferred from this "God's eye view", then this fact can provide an objective basis for fixing which of two benefits actually is the greater.

Note that our imaginative simulations can then be seen as (fallible) attempts to track these truths. We engage in such speculative "mind-reading" all the time. I see someone red-faced and yelling, and I infer that they are feeling angry (because I imagine that's how I would feel if I were behaving like that). I employed a subjective method to gain this knowledge, but no-one would seriously doubt that there was an objective fact of the matter about whether the other person was truly angry or not. (Perhaps they were merely acting out a play.) Similarly, we try to imagine what it would be like to be each of two different people. This is no reason to doubt that there is also a fact of the matter, about what it really is like for each of them: facts which can (in principle) be compared, even if in practice we can never be certain that we've done it right.

P.S. You might not wish to endorse the "anything goes" conclusion of my previous comment. But I was suggesting that this is an implication of your stated view, whether you like it or not. If our judgments are mere "pretense", why bother with them? What's wrong with my coin-flip?

Jody said...

I think if you buy the theory of mind, then you have to believe in IUC.

This does not mean that IUC is perfect. Indeed, if you believe that self evaluation of utilities is imperfect (which it is), then you have to believe that IUC is even more imperfect (two degrees of difficulty).

That being said, I actually occupy a middle ground between libertarianism and utilitarianism. Or more specifically, I'm a utilitarian, but believe that libertarianism should be the default approach to achieving utilitarianism.

There are times when IUC is possible and thus libertarianism may need to be sacrificed (social benefit may still be maximized from individual actions).

However, these situations are infrequent and hard to identify and a non-libertarian approach always increases variance in outcome (inherent added uncertainty from IUC), so a real good justification is required.

In the abstract, the only situations I can think of are tragedy of the commons and what I'll term natural public goods, but both of these are oversold and can sometimes be solved with a more libertarian approach.

Cross commented over at catallarchy

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm boring, but these far-out ideas are making me seasick. I'd like to propose a way to think about IUCs that recruits less philosophical machinery. To compare two peoples' utility, just imagine how each would spend the same amount of money.

If your daughter would pay more for the doll than your son would, then you give the doll to her, even if neither child actually has any money. The comparison needn't even be hypothetical -- one could experimentally identify the objectively correct choice:

Give each child $100, saying it's theirs to keep.
Put the doll up for auction.
Give the doll to the highest bidder.
Demand all the money back.

It probably wouldn't work very many times, but that doesn't matter. My point is that because the experiment could be done, there is an objective answer to the question, "Who should I give the doll to?"

These "interpersonal hypothetical normalized monetary valuation comparisons" (IHNMVCs) also provide an objective answer to the "torture you versus papercut me" argument. If we both had the same amount of money, presumably I would pay less to avoid a papercut than you would to be tortured. (If I'm a millionaire and you're broke, I might pay more to avoid the papercut than you would to avoid the torture; that's why the IHNMVC equalizes both parties' hypothetical incomes.)

Alas, this procedure doesn't solve the question of why one might feel more compelled to give a dollar to a beggar than to George Soros, because neither of them would pay more for a dollar.

Wait, no. This whole comment misses the point. The IHNMVC idea could be used to create value, and arguably do so in a more equitable way than would a market with unequal initial allocations of wealth -- but it doesn't necessarily maximize utility. For instance, IUCs might lead me to give the truck to my much more appreciative daughter, even though her willingness to pay was lower than my perpetually gloomy son's.

Dang it. Philosophy sucks.

Jeff Brown
(I lost my blogger password; I used to blog at dotsintheshark)

Richard Y Chappell said...

Jeff, your experiment merely measures the strength of relative preferences for money over the other option. You need the added assumption that everyone gets objectively equal utility from money before your conclusion follows. After all, it's always possible that someone really would feel their experiences so intensely that a papercut for them would be objectively worse than torture for me. (I might still pay more to avoid it, if I get less objective utility from money than the other guy. If *all* his experiences are magnified, he could buy much more happiness than I could with the same amount of cash.)

So I doubt we could ever "experimentally identify the objectively correct choice" with absolute certainty. That's why my previous comment settles for showing how there could be an objective fact of the matter (even if it is out of our epistemic "reach"). I don't assume that we can always know this fact. That's a separate issue. To refute Glen's position, it suffices to show that "the truth is out there" (regardless of whether we can find it).