Libertarians Against Subjectivism

Some commenters on my post on the Value of Pets took me to task for being too quick to discount individuals’ extraordinary attachment to their companion animals. I found some support in unlikely quarters–Will Willkinson’s critique of “happiness research” which recently appeared on the Cato Institute’s website. This is the most comprehensive recent comment on the literature of subjective well-being that I’ve seen, and raises all sorts of interesting questions for those who are trying to expand the boundaries of economic analysis.

A little background: A growing number of economists have begun to question traditional measurements of well-being, such as GDP or income, and have focused instead on self-reported “subjective well-being” from interviewed subjects. “Happiness research” has come up with some counterintuitive findings, reporting extraordinary levels of life dissatisfaction in apparently prospering liberal democracies.

Wilkinson takes these social scientists to task for failing to fully describe “the dependent variable—

the target of elucidation and explanation—in happiness research.” He claims there are four main possibilities:

(1) Life satisfaction: A cognitive judgment about overall life quality relative to expectations.

(2) Experiential or “hedonic” quality: The quantity of pleasure net of pain in the stream of subjective experience.

(3) Happiness: Some state yet to be determined, but conceived as a something not exhausted by

life satisfaction or the quality of experiential states.

(4) Well-being: Objectively how well life is going for the person living it.

Wilkinson provides some great arguments for questioning 1 and 2 as hopelessly subjective desiderata for public policy. He quotes Wayne Sumner, a Toronto philosopher, on 2: “Time and philosophical fashion have not been kind to hedonism . . . Although hedonistic theories of various sorts flourished for three centuries or so in the congenial empiricist habitat, they have all but disappeared from the scene. Do they now merit even passing attention[?]” “Life satisfaction” also comes in for heavy criticism, as epiphenomenal of various uncontrollable variables: “people have different standards for assessing how well things are going, and they may employ different standards in different sorts of circumstances.”

Of course, Wilkinson and I go entirely different directions at this point: he tries to argue that the whole line of research is useless, while I think inconsistencies like the ones he points out demonstrate the necessity of more objective and virtue-oriented accounts of well-being. (Or, to be more precise, Wilkinson (like Freud) appears to believe that debates over happiness may ultimately best be settled by brain analysis, while I tend to think the direction of Aristotelian theorists like Seligman & Nussbaum is the way to go.) But his perspective does demonstrate that even those most committed to the idea of individual liberty as a public policy goal are not necessarily wedded to the type of subjectivity in value that would underlie societal recognition of the more extreme claims of pet-owners mentioned in that post.

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