Yes, another post bashing on Tyler Cowen. (BTW, this is actually a compliment, since it shows that I check his blog every 30 minutes!)
Cowen dabbles in many things, much like we do here at Crash Landing. (Well, not really.) Regarding the Nabokov controversy (should his family honor his deathbed wish to burn his manuscript?) Cowen comes down on the side of publishing it. Now, I have no problem with this answer. I think some libertarians interpret the world as a matter of legalities, which is different from thinking people should obey the (libertarian) law. So I agree that there are nuances (e.g. maybe Nabokov didn't really want his family to burn it, etc.) and I think people can differ on this issue, without betraying their libertarian credentials.
However, just look at the reasoning behind Cowen's answer! After quoting Tom Stoppard who wrote, "It’s perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it," Cowen responds:
...Stoppard is wrong. Dead people don't count in the social welfare function. (If they did, how many of them would prefer non-democratic or racist outcomes? And would we count that? We shoudn't and we don't.)
I am absolutely flabbergasted. Let's put aside the issue of wills; we'll assume Cowen wasn't talking about that.
Where in the world does Cowen come up with the idea of eliminating people from the social welfare function, on the basis of their views? If you're going to be a utilitarian, you don't get to veto people's preferences like that. Now, you can overrule them, because to cater to their preferences would cost too much in terms of other people's preferences. E.g. a utilitarian wouldn't endorse serial killing, but the reason isn't, "Oh murder is icky!" No, the reason is that most people don't want to live in fear of being murdered in their beds, etc. Tradeoffs have to be made--everyone can't get everything he wants--and the utilitarian can decide that the "most" happiness results from keeping serial killing illegal/immoral.
(BTW folks, of course I am ignoring all the tremendous problems with this method of thinking. But my point here is that even when I was a utilitarian a la Mises, Cowen's remarks would have shocked me.)
Why stop with dead people? Do racists right now count in the social welfare function? What about homophobes? What about communists? What about atheists? What about Jews? What about Muslims? What about Christians? What about abortionists? What about anti-choicers? What about those awful people who eat meat?
Now this last point I don't hold with as much conviction as the previous ones: I'm not so sure I agree with Cowen that dead people in the past don't count. If they don't, then why should we count future people who are unborn? In other posts Cowen has talked about his guarded endorsement of the global warming concerns, and presumably he is mostly worried about future generations.
So does he count them in the social welfare function, or is it that our altruism for them affects our current utility? But if the latter, then what about our current concern for the wishes of a dead author?
I'm glad that people ripped Cowen a new one in the comments to his post. I wonder if he will reconsider his justification.