walto’s paper on prudential values

The journal Philosophia recently accepted a paper by TSZ commenter walto, entitled CHOICE: An Objective, Voluntaristic Theory of Prudential Value. Congratulations to walto.

Our discussion of walto’s previous paper was cut short due to censorship by the moderators. Let’s hope they have the sense to stay out of the way and allow open discussion to proceed this time.

Prudential values are a good topic for TSZ, and a nice change of pace from our usual discussions of objective moral values and whether they exist. Hence this thread.

You can download walto’s paper here.

I’ll save my remarks for the comment thread.

77 thoughts on “walto’s paper on prudential values

  1. walto,

    You disagreed with the following…

    3. The [social] program does not have the same (predictable) effect on everybody’s future choices, so this argues against “every vote is equal”.

    …but why?

  2. keiths:

    4. The rich people face a dilemma: CHOICE-individual tells them to vote against the program, but CHOICE-societal tells them to support it. Deciding which standard to apply is a moral decision because it involves the well-being of others.

    5. CHOICE itself is of no help in resolving the dilemma. CHOICE-individual will indicate that CHOICE-individual is the right standard to apply, and CHOICE-societal will indicate the same for CHOICE-societal. The dilemma has just been moved back one level.

    walto:

    Don’t understand what ‘back one level’ means.

    There’s a regress. Let me make it explicit:

    1. The original question is “Should I vote for the social program?”

    2. If a rich person applies CHOICE-individual, the answer is no, because the social program slightly reduces their future options.

    3. If the rich person applies CHOICE-societal, the answer is yes, because the social program produces a net increase in options across the entire society.

    4. This creates a dilemma. The rich person, who wants to affirm CHOICE generally, can’t affirm CHOICE-individual without denying CHOICE-societal and vice-versa.

    5. So a new choice presents itself: “Should I apply CHOICE-individual or CHOICE-societal?”

    6. One might hope that CHOICE itself could answer this question, but no such luck. If one applies CHOICE-individual to this question, it indicates that one should apply CHOICE-individual to the original question. If one applies CHOICE-societal to this question, it indicates that one should apply CHOICE-societal to the original question. The dilemma has been moved back one level, and the person still doesn’t know which version to apply.

    7. One can continue applying CHOICE, but each application will move the dilemma back another level. The only way to stop the regress is to appeal to something other than CHOICE.

    So CHOICE is incomplete in that it can’t resolve the dilemma, and it’s internally contradictory in that its two forms — CHOICE-individual and CHOICE-societal — contradict each other in some cases.

  3. walto,

    Also it’s not a dilemma. Why should what’s good for a society be expected to be good for each person. Even Pareto didn’t require that!

    But CHOICE does. Otherwise there’s a conflict internal to CHOICE, between CHOICE-individual and CHOICE-societal.

  4. Plain observation reveals that both rich and poor people value their children and their descendants. For non-sociopaths, there is no clear distinction between personal good and societal good.

    There are, however, differences in how one perceives the value of immediate gratification vs improvement in the systems that produce goods and services.

  5. keiths:
    walto,

    You disagreed with the following…

    …but why?

    Because it has nothing whatever to do with equal votes.

  6. keiths,

    There’s no conflict. Forget about CHOICE for a second and think about your mom telling you that packing off and going to India to help the poor instead of going to college might be good for the world but it would be bad for you. The point of mentioning the societal CHOICE is only to indicate that summation is possible: it does not require that what would maximize YOUR prudential value will also maximize your group’s.

  7. petrushka:
    Plain observation reveals that both rich and poor people value their children and their descendants. For non-sociopaths, there is no clear distinction between personal good and societal good.

    I generally agree, although me and mine need not equal “the society.” There maybe goods that will only largely inure to one small societal class.

    There are, however, differences in how one perceives the value of immediate gratification vs improvement in the systems that produce goods and services.

    Right. Of course. Not sure why keiths doesn’t get this.

  8. petrushka,

    Plain observation reveals that both rich and poor people value their children and their descendants.

    Sure, but we are talking about walto’s CHOICE standard here. According to CHOICE (individual version), a state of affairs is intrinsically good for a person only if it predictably increases that person’s options.

    If the social program is implemented, it will dramatically increase options for the poor while marginally decreasing them for the rich:

    Suppose a society is voting on a proposed program. Further suppose that the program in question will open up scads of new options for the poor citizens, but it will slightly reduce the options available to the rich ones.

    So according to CHOICE-individual, it’s “intrinsically good” for a poor person to vote for the program, but not for a rich person.

  9. keiths: So according to CHOICE-individual, it’s “intrinsically good” for a poor person to vote for the program, but not for a rich person.

    That’s the nature of voting. Just like–on the individual level–it’s intrinsically good for diabetics but not others to take insulin.

  10. walto,

    There’s no conflict. Forget about CHOICE for a second…

    The conflict is within CHOICE, as I noted above:

    So CHOICE is incomplete in that it can’t resolve the dilemma, and it’s internally contradictory in that its two forms — CHOICE-individual and CHOICE-societal — contradict each other in some cases.

    I stress this because I think your paper should mention the internal conflict.

  11. keiths:

    You disagreed with the following…

    3. The [social] program does not have the same (predictable) effect on everybody’s future choices, so this argues against “every vote is equal”.

    …but why?

    walto:

    Because it has nothing whatever to do with equal votes.

    According to you, it does:

    (2) If each choice is taken to be equal in value to every other one (except as they predictably result in the future acquirement of more or fewer freely chosen goods by oneself or others), there is a basis for claiming the equality of each person’s vote with every other person’s vote and, thus, for defending majoritarianism.

  12. keiths,

    You misunderstand. What has nothing to do with equal votes is this:

    “3. The [social] program does not have the same (predictable) effect on everybody’s future choices”

    It’s just a non-sequitur.

  13. walto,

    You misunderstand. What has nothing to do with equal votes is this:

    “3. The [social] program does not have the same (predictable) effect on everybody’s future choices”

    It’s just a non-sequitur.

    But the effect on future choices is exactly what you were talking about when you wrote this:

    (2) If each choice is taken to be equal in value to every other one (except as they predictably result in the future acquirement of more or fewer freely chosen goods by oneself or others), there is a basis for claiming the equality of each person’s vote with every other person’s vote and, thus, for defending majoritarianism.

  14. keiths,

    The idea is that making the assumption that choices are equal is tantamount to letting votes be equal. Or, if we think choices are equal, we may as well think that votes are equal. Now you say, “Yes, but you admit that choices are not actually equal: some produce more successful choices or more options for them.”

    But, again, that’s different from saying that choices aren’t equal. In fact, if they weren’t equal, it wouldn’t follow that those that are more fecund have anything special about them, since they could be productive of “less important” choices. It’s like this: Suppose in some area all the farmers agree on a price for sheep that is indifferent to their age, gender, size, etc. They’re 1000 bucks each, regardless. But, obviously, those that are fertile are worth more under such a pricing convention–not because you can get 1500 dollars for one: nobody checks. But the fecundity is valuable, even though it’s not priced–or is factored into the average price that is used for all the sheep.

    By noting this we haven’t altered the contract regarding the price per sheep. Each still has the same price as all the others. The same is true of choices (and votes). If we treat them as equal, there will nevertheless be additional successes brought by some of them. That’s worth something.

  15. walto,

    The idea is that making the assumption that choices are equal is tantamount to letting votes be equal. Or, if we think choices are equal, we may as well think that votes are equal. Now you say, “Yes, but you admit that choices are not actually equal: some produce more successful choices or more options for them.”

    But, again, that’s different from saying that choices aren’t equal.

    Even CHOICE itself says that choices aren’t equal. Some are “intrinsically good” and some aren’t. Some lead to an increase in future options, and some don’t. CHOICE undermines the case for the equality of choices rather than supporting it.

    Suppose in some area all the farmers agree on a price for sheep that is indifferent to their age, gender, size, etc. They’re 1000 bucks each, regardless. But, obviously, those that are fertile are worth more under such a pricing convention–not because you can get 1500 dollars for one: nobody checks.

    That isn’t desirable. The sheep economy would suffer due to less trade, and the bad sheep would drive the good ones out of circulation. It’s the ovine version of Gresham’s Law.

  16. keiths: Some lead to an increase in future options

    Some votes are up some are down, some wise some stupid. Still equal.

    Re the last bit, I agree that that pricing system might not be advantageous under certain conditions, but it would be under others–i.e., if the costs of checking for individual characteristics were high, or it was hard to price most of them. Insurer’s don’t price for every difference they can find in their risks: just the big ones that aren’t too expensive to find. And some of those aren’t allowed to be put into their prices anyhow–like race, e.g. The sellers may know that some races will be more or less expensive risks for them, but they must treat them equally or not write that line of insurance.

    I don’t see the bad sheep driving the good ones out of circulation, assuming $1000 is really a decent approximation of the average “worth.” If so, all should be OK. If not, some farmers may have to stop trading or go out of business. I think these sorts of arrangements aren’t terribly unusual. Stuff is sold in bulk–the good with the bad.

  17. walto: Stuff is sold in bulk–the good with the bad.

    Reminds me of trying to find the best container of strawberries. Or the best used car. Or house. Or spouse.

    Better stop there.

  18. keiths:

    Even CHOICE itself says that choices aren’t equal. Some are “intrinsically good” and some aren’t. Some lead to an increase in future options, and some don’t. CHOICE undermines the case for the equality of choices rather than supporting it.

    walto:

    Some votes are up some are down, some wise some stupid. Still equal.

    Votes are stipulated to be equal in one sense, in that each vote counts equally in determining the outcome. Under CHOICE, options are likewise stipulated to be equal in that sense, because each option contributes equally to the determination of whether a choice is “intrinsically good”.

    You wrote:

    (2) If each choice is taken to be equal in value to every other one (except as they predictably result in the future acquirement of more or fewer freely chosen goods by oneself or others), there is a basis for claiming the equality of each person’s vote with every other person’s vote and, thus, for defending majoritarianism.

    But the stipulation that choices are to be treated equally (in that one sense) doesn’t make them inherently equal, and it doesn’t support the notion that votes are (or should be) inherently equal in that one sense, either. The latter is also a stipulation.

  19. keiths:

    That isn’t desirable. The sheep economy would suffer due to less trade, and the bad sheep would drive the good ones out of circulation. It’s the ovine version of Gresham’s Law.

    walto:

    I don’t see the bad sheep driving the good ones out of circulation, assuming $1000 is really a decent approximation of the average “worth.” If so, all should be OK.

    It depends on the variation in sheep worth as well as the average. If the cost of sorting sheep (which is very small, indeed) is considerably less than than the typical variation in worth, the farmer will have an incentive to sort. And when they sort, they’ll keep the good sheep for themselves and sell the bad ones.

    The bad sheep will drive the good sheep out of circulation. (Or the farmers will find a different market in which price is responsive to quality.)

  20. Just to add to the “It’s axiomatic” remark, you have to consider that there simply is no way to measure interpersonal “intensities” of successes. That’s something that economists have had to face up to for a couple of generations. So, while it may seem that the fat guy’s wanting one more piece of pie is much less important than the mother’s wish that her baby not die of cancer, we really have no objective measures. But we can treat them as equal and simply count whether the desire is satisfied or not. That’s what this theory does–as you say–by stipulation. The choices are equal, but some are more fecund (and it’s likely that the baby living will be that, but it’s impossible to know). In any case, that’s all we can do. Without such an axiom, we’d either have to pretend we have a “God’s eye view” of what’s important or we could say nothing at all about prudential values. And successful free choices do seem intrinsically good.

    Maybe evolution mavens will see some connections with discussions of “fitness” measures. Dunno.

    You have to admit, it’s kick-ass!

  21. keiths: when they sort, they’ll keep the good sheep for themselves and sell the bad ones.

    The bad sheep will drive the good sheep out of circulation. (Or the farmers will find a different market in which price is responsive to quality.)

    Could definitely happen!

  22. walto,

    Could definitely happen!

    It’s almost certain, given the wide range of sheep prices.

  23. At one time, some farms needed ‘chicken sexers’: they could tell the gender of chickens, but had no idea how. There are some interesting philosophy papers on characteristics of that sort. I mention this because not every animal is as easy to classify as sheep are.

  24. Anyhow, choices, unlike sheep and billiard balls, can’t be measured or weighed at all. Not for any price. We can make ex ante estimates (good or bad ones) about their fecundity though.

  25. walto,

    Just to add to the “It’s axiomatic” remark, you have to consider that there simply is no way to measure interpersonal “intensities” of successes.

    I think that’s an overstatement. You can often get a good idea of relative intensities. Example: When I was a teenager, I worked at a livestock yard shoveling manure. I chose to take flying lessons despite the fact that it required 13 hours of shit shoveling to earn enough to pay for one hour of flight time (plane and instructor). Since I chose to keep flying purely for the fun of it, it’s not hard to discern that that I valued flying quite highly and considered my choice a success, even though it reduced my options for spending money on other things.

    Compare that to a guy whose TV remote is broken. He doesn’t like the show that’s on, but he also doesn’t want to get up off the sofa, walk over to the TV, and change the channel to a better one. He decides to stay put and watch the crappy show.

    It’s pretty easy to figure out that I value flying a lot more than that guy values the better TV show.

    So, while it may seem that the fat guy’s wanting one more piece of pie is much less important than the mother’s wish that her baby not die of cancer, we really have no objective measures.

    Again, that’s an overstatement. Here’s one way you could approach that question: Survey a bunch of fat guys and a bunch of mothers. Present the pie scenario to the fat guys and the cancer scenario to the mothers, and ask them how much they’d pay to achieve the desired outcomes: one more piece of pie for the guys, and the survival of their child for the mothers. Also obtain information about their household incomes, net worth, and number of dependents.

    Correcting for all those factors, I’d be willing to bet that the mothers would pay far more for their children’s survival than the fat guys would for an extra piece of pie. Don’t you agree?

    But we can treat them as equal and simply count whether the desire is satisfied or not. That’s what this theory does–as you say–by stipulation.

    That would be a huge mistake in the scenario described above. Applying CHOICE in that case wouldn’t just be suboptimal — it would arguably be immoral.

    Without such an axiom, we’d either have to pretend we have a “God’s eye view” of what’s important or we could say nothing at all about prudential values.

    There’s some middle ground between saying nothing and pretending to have a God’s-eye view.

  26. walto,

    Anyhow, choices, unlike sheep and billiard balls, can’t be measured or weighed at all. Not for any price. We can make ex ante estimates (good or bad ones) about their fecundity though.

    We can also make ex ante estimates (good or bad ones) about their relative “intensities”. So why not do so?

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