Saturday, February 16, 2008

More Tyler Bashing

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.


  1. I had some further thoughts. What about battlefield memorials and old cemeteries? According to Cowen, we should act like a bunch of ghouls by destroying all of these and digging up the bodies.

    Another way more random thought, how does Cowen know that their utility functions are gone! Perhaps, they're in heaven or spirits may be still sentient with utility functions after death?

    Perhaps, I'll tell my priest to preach tomorrow about your utility function continuing after death.

  2. I couldn't find your post, but I think I agree with your point. It's first of all highly debatable (and in my view incorrect) to understand this situation by use of a social welfare functions. Is it wrong to dishonor your father if you know he won't be around to see it? Maybe Tyler thinks there is no such a thing as honoring someone because of an intrinsic obligation? Defining dead people out of ethical consideration because of an abstract/mathematical notion of a social welfare function is a subtle legerdemain. The point, as most people with their heads not up their asses can tell you, is that there is clearly an obligation to consider, if not always honor, your parents (or friend's) last wishes for its own sake.

    This question is best answered by Nabakov's family. My own take is that it is very conceivable that Nabokov would not have minded this being published in due time, at least if it is judged to be very good and publishable. He did write in his Lectures on Literature that "Fortunately Brod did not comply with his friend's [Kafka's] wish."

  3. Thinking about this some more, there is more to it than just people paying respect to the dead.

    For example, consider these activities such as funerals, final rites, and praying for the dead.

    All of these activities are not designed to increase your utility but actually to increase the utility of the departed and make sure they make it wherever they are going. So, literally speaking, people do consider spirits of the departed as part of a social welfare function. They actually spend time of their day praying or performing some rite or ritual so that their utility will improve in the afterlife.

  4. Kamana Wanna Layu3:01 PM

    Cowen is a pathetic panderer to whatever he senses is the popular opinion of the moment. What's shocking to me is that anyone pays him any heed.

  5. David Gordon3:04 PM

    The idea of not counting certain preferences didn't originate with Tyler Cowen. Although I agree it's problematic to do so, it's a fairly common move. Harsanyi and Dworkin both do it.

  6. Thanks, David. Well, I didn't realize Cowen belongs to a long list of smart guys who know something is wrong with utilitarianism but can't bring themselves to reject the approach. (David sent me Harsanyi's essay in which he specifically says that only impartial preferences should be in a social welfare function.) This is basically saying, "We derive moral judgments from preferences, but only if those preferences are moral." Sweet.

  7. I think you are misreading Tyler. Tyler's point I think is, "If we are to consider the preferences of the dead with respect to the execution of a will, then why ought we not take seriously ALL of their preferences?" and using their (possible) preferences for racism as a simple (provocative) example.

    1. This post is from Bob Murphy, and since he doesn't post here anymore, I don't think you will get an answer!

    2. Thnx for the heads-up