What color does a submarine weigh? (True or False?)

In my previous post, I explained the theoretical reasons why IUCs are impossible. In this one, I'll tackle the other reasons why arguing from this erroneous beginning yields bad consequences in argument.[1]

Specifically, I'll start addressing the meat of Brandon's post. His main point is that using the impossibility IUC as an argument against redistribution is a bad idea. That is correct, but not for the reason he says:

But in some cases, particularly those in which proponents of redistribution are most keenly interested, you can guess with near certainty which of two people will value a particular resource more. In virtually all cases, taking $1,000 from a billionaire and giving it to a starving beggar will help the beggar more than it hurts the billionaire. No, it’s not true 100% of the time, but you don’t need complete certainty; if you’re right 95% of the time, that’s good enough for government work.

While begging all sorts of questions, the primary problem is that you won't know until you ask them, and even then you still won't know due to the lack of an objective scale. Further, of course, is the whole "who, whom" issue- good enough for whom and by who's measurement, etc. The even more embarrassing question raised by the "IUC" above is whether the starving beggar wants $1000 or food, now. $1000 can only get him fed indirectly (another step is required), while a chicken wing solves his hunger immediately. Thus it can quite easily and credibly be stated that yes, the billionare values $1000 more than the starving beggar, and not even because one is a 'utility monster,' but because of the differences in immediate needs.

Worse, the question of utility comparison is completely irrelevant.

The salient question here is alleviating a starving beggar's miserable condition, not whether the beggar values $1000 more than a billionaire does. This is the problem that redistributionists claim to care about[2], and whether or not the billionaire values $1000 more than the beggar is completely irrelevant to this end. If there is demonstrable suffering, and there are resources available that would end that suffering, then that is all one needs to know from a redistributionist's end. The relevant questions and objections from liberals are addressed later in the post by Brandon- what are the effects on the future, what are the consequences to individuals and institutions from the taking, what about desert and competing claims of justice, etc. In other words, redistributionists don't (now) defend their actions by appeals to utility comparisons, so arguing against redistribution on the impossibility of IUC is moot.

The bad faith argumentation comes when redistributionists *do* start to try and defend their policy on utility. I say this because of the following: if it were such that one could show that the billionaire's utility loss is greater than the utility gain of the starving man, the redistributionist would have to make two choices- either the redistributionist agrees to let the starving man starve, and therefore reveals that they don't actually care about the starving/less well off at all (and thus their program is sold to the public on a lie), or else they say "take it from him anyway", in which case the whole exercise in 'utility comparison' is moot and a sham. All the hand-waving in the world about how 'this will never happen' does not change the fundamental problem posed by the extreme case. I suspect that Joe would not let the starving man starve, even in the presence of a 'utility monster', and thus I think his arguments in favor of the IUC are in bad faith, since they are not the actual justification for the taking. (no offense)

Finally, and perhaps pedantically, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a utility comparison is that leads to odd arguments. This bit I first aim at Jonathan's comment regarding what IUCs are, then extensively towards Joe's comments:

If interpersonal utility comparisons were truly impossible, I think we wouldn’t engage in many of our everyday behaviors.
If anything, I’d say the suicide example is an attempt to make an IUC. The person trying to convince the other not to committ suicide is carrying out the following thought process:
1) That guy is suicidal.
2) I’ve been sad before; it passes. It would suck to be dead right now.
3) That guy is probably a lot like me. In the future, he’ll be glad he didn’t kill himself. Right now, he’s temporarily in an irrational frame of mind.
4) I will convince him to not kill himself.
It’s an exercise in empathy. Empathy is the product of an assumption that other people are probably a lot like us, and that there are some things constant about human nature, an assumption that most people intuitively possess.
If IUCs were truly impossible, we wouldn’t give gifts. We wouldn’t try to figure out what one gift would make a person happier than other gifts.
If IUCs were truly impossible, we would treat everyone in exactly the same way. But we don’t. We treat people differently, because different things make different people happy.

First, the process outlined above (and empathy in general) are not utility comparisons. In steps 1-4 at no point has the viewer compared his utility with the suicidal guy's. At most, the viewer has engaged an "if-then" model in his head and plugged in some assumptions. How that gets you to comparing utility, I have no idea. The rest does not follow- I don't need to compare my utility and my friend's utility to find out if I should give him a gift- all that requires is a completely autistic calculation/consideration in my head, with assumptions having and needing no necessary basis in reality. Sociopaths, who have no empathy, treat people differently. Treating people differently requires no comparison of utility. This is a massive category error, mistaking judgement for utility comparison.

Joe's attempt to salvage Jonathan's point fails as well- the capacity to guess what people like is (a) unreleated to making a utility determination and (b) assuming arguendo that one can guess utility, what you're doing ultimately is comparing an estimate vs. an estimate, which need not have any connection to actual reality. Keep in mind that when people talk of the possibility of IUC, one needs to be clear that what is meant by this assertion is that utility is objective, constant, and can be measured, and as such you're actually measuring something objective, immediate, and real when claiming that X's utility boost is higher than Y's utility loss so net utility is increased. None of these things are remotely going on when people use their internal models of other people's behavior to anticipate action or formulate plans on how to interact and deal with other people. And if one is not ready to precisely posit the truth of the above assertions, then one is not, in fact, making an interpersonal utility comparison.

Furthermore, I believe that Joe is incorrect in his analogy of biology vs. computation, for generally the same reasons above. It is not theoretically impossible for a computer to recognize faces, while it is theoretically impossible to compare utility between persons. So its not a case where the theory is lacking and cannot describe reality, its that reality is not doing what you think it is doing. Comparing people within a theoretical model in your own head is not remotely interpersonal utility comparison. Fortunately, Joe seems to understand this when he says "call this whatever you like", but the fact remains that there is no objective measure of 'utils' or any other such fantasy unit to compare the intensity of desire between the examples he gives later - between 6 and 5 cars to a rich person and between 0 and 1 sandwiches to a starving man. Which is of course why we have philosophy and ethics to guide us (as well as plenty of other means to influence valuation, comparative and otherwise).

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fn1. The title of this post is an example of a grotesque yet amusing category error. I think. :)

fn2. Usually bollocks in the course of masking simple envy and a lust for power, but eh.


Related posts:

Why IUCs?
Cardinal Schmardinal, Ordinal Schmordinal
Encoding Happiness
IUCs and the Law of Large Numbers
No Soul Suggests IUCs
Futilitarianism
I-CDDFP
I-CUP
Love and Intrapersonal Utility Comparison
Exploding IUCs on the roadside
Interpersonal Utility Comparisons
Pareto Efficiency and Justice
Can the Paradox of the Non-Comparability of Interpersonal Utility be Resolved?

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quote: "The salient question

quote: "The salient question here is alleviating a starving beggar’s miserable condition, not whether the beggar values $1000 more than a billionaire does. This is the problem that redistributionists claim to care about, and whether or not the billionaire values $1000 more than the beggar is completely irrelevant to this end."

But who would say we should alleviate the beggar's miserable condition at any cost? Surely if doing so killed ten other people it would become wrong in anyone's book. If we are going to help someone we have to make sure we are not causing more harm than we are creating. Thus, we have to make sure that when we distribute the $1000 the suffering we alleviate is not outweighed by the suffering of the person who lost it. That is where the utility comparison comes in. So yes, if for some reason taking the money caused more suffering than it alleviated, perhaps because it caused the man who lost it more suffering than it alleviated in the beggar, as a "redistributionalist" I would agree that we should not take the money.

quote: "assuming arguendo that one can guess utility, what you’re doing ultimately is comparing an estimate vs. an estimate, which need not have any connection to actual reality."

Don't estimates have any connection to reality? Estimates are what economics is all about. We can't see how certain changes will affect the actions of economic actors in the future, we just make our best estimates. The effects of any change or action are not directly observeable until they have already taken place. Why do utility comparisions have to be infallible?

Furthermore, nothing is observed "directly". If I see a table I see the light reflecting off it. Tricks of light can make my conclusions based on directly seeing something innacurate. Utility estimates are rather more indirect, but this doesn't mean we have no reason to believe they measure something in the real world.

The problem of comparision of happiness is a result of the fact that there are many different standards one could use to give weight to different mental states. But I can't see how one could say that we have no knowledge of mental states. Every day we base actions on estimates of whether someone else likes us, is angry, is sad, and how strong each emotion is. If we can't know anything about how people feel, there is no reason to even believe they think at all.

Yep, I'm convinced. This is

Yep, I'm convinced. This is why I help people: not because I am maximizing utility but because I am maximizing MY utility. It doesn't really matter whether the guy is starving or not, only that I and my peers believe he is, therefore to avoid social stigma from my peers and self concious thoughts I feed the individual in question.

the beginning seems rather

the beginning seems rather stretched:

Thus it can quite easily and credibly be stated that yes, the billionare values $1000 more than the starving beggar

If you think that is an easy and credible statement, then I'm not surprised that the vast majority of people find it easy to see that libertarians lack credibility.

One can certainly imagine utility functions where a billionaire gets more happiness from a grand than a beggar, but it seems very unlikely to hold in practice. And why are you comparing giving the beggar $1000 vs. giving him a hot meal, and saying that this has anything to do with question of whether the grand is worth more happiness to beggar or billionare? You seem to be asserting that since item B might be worth more to the beggar than item A, that item A is worth less to the beggar than to the billionaire. Isn't this logically incoherent?

The paragraph beginning with "The salient question here is alleviating a starving beggar’s miserable condition, not whether the beggar values $1000 more than a billionaire does." makes an excellent consequentalist point. I think you will get much farther using that type of argument ("teach them to fish, don't give them fish") than trying to convince people that just because $1000 needs to be spent to be useful, it is worth less to a beggar than a billionaire.

if it were such that one

if it were such that one could show that the billionaire’s utility loss is greater than the utility gain of the starving man.

Isn't this "utility monster" demonstrated in the actions of every person not on the verge of starvation themselves, every time someone starves? There is no poor person who couldn't be made a little better off by giving them some piece of your property.

Which brings us to another pretty good argument: "start with yourself". If it is moral for the proponent of confiscation to accumulate any more wealth than needed for immediate survival while any human starves (or might someday starve), how can he claim it to be immoral for others to do so?

I kept reading and found

I kept reading and found more I object to :stupid:

"First, the process outlined above (and empathy in general) are not utility comparisons. In steps 1-4 at no point has the viewer compared his utility with the suicidal guy’s. At most, the viewer has engaged an “if-then” model in his head and plugged in some assumptions. How that gets you to comparing utility, I have no idea."

I disagree. The ability to model someone else's utility function gets you most of the way to IUC. All that remains is to calibrate the two scales. To do this, one need only find one situation in which you are pretty sure that they and you are deriving about the same happiness. In practice, with people we know, we get many such opportunities.

I will post in response.

Brian, Interesting

Brian,
Interesting arguments. My response to (some of) them is up at my place.

You know, after reading a

You know, after reading a bunch of homelessness-related blogs, I've realized that $1000 may actually not do a homeless beggar much good. Sure, he may get some meals out of it, but it's not gonna get him a job he can hold. I have an acquaintance who has been in and out of homelessness for a couple of years now. I've given him a bunch of money. If I thought giving him $10,000 would get him out of this mess permanently, I'd give it to him. But he's just incapable of holding a job because he's too arrogant to think he actually needs to work hard and be thoughtful and not scream at execs and notify the right people when he's out sick. His thought is always "I'm too good for this." I guess he'll soon be again too good for a home.