Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I Want You To Want Me

One of the main things about humans is that a lot of the stuff they want has to do with the desires of other people.

I want to be able to eat, but I want everybody else to be able to eat, too. I want my friends to be happy. I want birthday cake, but it's no fun having it alone: I want you to have some too.

Now, when people judge what is right, or fair, or just, or good, with respect to distributing the good things in the world, they often think in terms of satisfying simple desires or preferences.

The distributive justice of cats? (UPDATE: oh yeah, it's probably more like this.) Photo by Flickr user mvplante, here. (Used under Creative Commons license.)

Utilitarians, in their generous, inclusive way, think in terms of totals: the thing to do is the thing that maximizes such satisfaction. Just add it up for everyone. Usually this means a lot of *sharing*.

Contractarians, in their love of individual freedoms and self-direction, think in terms of rational exchanges. We're both better off if we cooperate, so sometimes it will be in my best interest to give up something in exchange for something else. Usually this means a lot of *I get to keep what is mine.*

Rawlsian contractualists, in their moderate way, think in terms of blind justice. Imagine you don't know who in society you will be, and consider how much inquality of preference-satisfaction you would put up with. Usually this means *You share some, you keep some.*

All different systems. But they're all based on different interpretations of the idea that it makes sense, generally, to arrange the world so that people get the things they want; sometimes this means moving things around; the question is how we think about that.

They also usually share one other striking thing. Namely, that when counting preferences, we only count a person's "personal preferences" -- that is, preferences for what one does or gets, and not one's "external preferences" -- that is, preferences about what other people do or get.

I only recently understood the reasoning behind this. The problem is "double-counting" of preferences. As David Gauthier explains, if I prefer that we each have an equal amount of cake, because we both like it, and if you just want as much cake for yourself as possible, then factoring in all preferences seems to lead -- on any of the views above -- to the conclusion that the right, fair distribution for us is for you to get three-quarters of the cake. But that seems wrong.

The solution is to consider only personal preferences: I like cake; you like cake; we each get half. It doesn't matter whether I want you to have some cake too.

This is highly intuitive in the case where we each end up with half the cake.

I start getting confused, though, when I think about cases in which the outcomes support inequality -- especially continued inequality.

I live in a city with homeless people. They don't want to be homeless. I also don't want them to be homeless. I have a strong external preference for them to be able to satisfy their preferences for a place of their own. Their unhappiness makes me unhappy.

It seems strange to me that this preference of mine plays no role when it comes time to figure out the proper distribution of goods, or the just way of organizing society.

It seems extra strange when you think that our general preference for the happiness of others is one of our better qualities, as humans. One of our more admirable, morally sensitive ways of being. What, this counts for nothing?

I want to say, "You know, it would be better all around if you wanted me to have cake, too." You know. Just saying.

Obvs, my preference for you to want me to want to have cake, too, doesn't get counted. That would be, like, double- or triple- or two-and-a-half-counting or something something . . . I was never any good at arithmetic. Wanting, though, I am an *expert* at: personal preferences, external preferences, you name it.


Charlie said...

Not that you were starting a debate on homelessness, but why do you say that homeless people don't want to be homeless? It's my understanding that many homeless people prefer living on the streets, where they can do for the most part as they please, instead of in some shelter where there will be a bunch of rules, possibly religious preaching, etc. In fact, the two homeless people who live on my street seem downright cheerful whenever I pass them.

Daniel said...

NM, I'm a little bit confused as to why it seems strange to you that your external preference (for the homeless not to be homeless, for example) should not be taken into account for distribution of goods, &c. Can you not do with your goods what you want? Share them? Buy someone a house? Give someone your couch? Or is it distributing on a broader level, by taxes, or companies or something like that that you are speaking? Aren't external preferences taken into account all the time with welfare, &c?

Noko Marie said...

Hi Charlie,
Right. I was assuming that some significant proportion of homeless people would prefer to have a place to live - in some form or another. I can understand why someone would prefer outside to shelters. Happiness-wise Canada maybe presents extra difficulties in the form of endless, freezing cold winters.

Hi Daniel,
The short answer is: if I have to share and someone else
doesn't, then I seem worse off for having my external preference, in a way that doesn't seem fair. You may well be right that external preferences are met in redistribution schemes like welfare, but there still seems to be a question of why redistribution of this sort is justified, and how much is justified, and I'm still puzzled that external preferences are not part of that story. Not explicitly, anyway, as far as I know. But I tried to discuss this more at length in this post