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.

Frank Pasquale

Frank is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.

Frank accepts comments via email, at All comments emailed to may be posted here (in whole or in part), with or without attribution, either as "Dissents of the Day" or as parts of follow-up post(s). Please indicate in your comment whether or not you would like attribution, or would prefer your comment (if it is selected for posting) to be anonymous.

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5 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Hear! Hear!

  2. Frank,

    I’m not sure I understand why subjectivity in values is such a problem (and I’m trying to understand why you deem virtue-oriented theories to be more “objective”).

    Such subjectivity does indeed make policy and moral theory difficult, but whoever said it would be easy? I think the effort to mask the ineluctable subjectivity of value discourse by “objectifying” ethics is one of the most mischievous legacies of modernity.

  3. Matt says:

    For some (to my mind decisive) reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of an “objective and virtue-oriented account of wellbeing” you might like to look at Philip Kitcher’s essay “Essence and Perfection”. It was mostly a review of Tom Hurka’s book _Perfectionism_ but the critique applies quite generally to the sort of naturalistic account of wellbeing found in Aristotle and his followers. I don’t have the full citation right now but it was in the journal _Ethics_ some time ago, in the early to mid 90’s I think. Really first-rate stuff, and pretty devistating to that line of thought, I think.

  4. Matt says:

    The Kitcher article reference is here:

    Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 1 (Oct., 1999), pp. 59-83

    It’s avaliable on JSTOR for those who have access. Amazing what google will let you find these days. It’s well worth the read.

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Values as such are objective but they have an ineluctable subjective dimension: it is their appreciation, celebration, articulation, instantiation, realization, expression, etc. that is subjective…. Hence, for example, many individuals might realize or express the same value(s) in myriad ways. Philosophers as different as Robert Nozick and Nicholas Rescher have discussed this in some depth.