Robin Hanson recently said that we should count satisfying the preferences of the dead as a benefit in cost benefit analysis. I disagreed, arguing 1) that it would lead to horrible outcomes, and 2) the dead don’t know whether their preferences have been satisfied, so satisfying them benefits nobody.

In response, Robin has offered some comments. First he states that efficiency is not morality, so we should not be surprised that using efficiency criteria would deliver us outcomes that are not moral. That’s fine, but the conclusion I draw then is when efficiency would have us select obviously highly immoral outcomes -like, say, slavery, holocausts, and orphan eating- we reject efficiency in that circumstance. Robin, in contrast, bites the bullet: bring on the orphan eating!

Robin’s second objection is that we should definitely care about outcomes that we can’t see, like having our preferences satisfied after we’re dead:

Many of us want things we will never experience directly; we want our children to prosper after we are gone, for example. This is especially true of our moral wants; we want our donations to Africa to actually help real Africans. So we are understandably wary of deal-making frameworks which explicitly suggest that they seek only to achieve the appearance, not the substance, of our wants.  So yes, a deal-finding analysis tool should definitely count unseen wants!

What he’s saying is that people prefer to believe that their preferences are going to be satisfied, even the ones they won’t see themselves. This is an argument for satisfying unseen preferences but only to the extent that it allows us to believe our own unseen preferences are satisfied.

This is really a classic time-inconsistency problem: we’re all better off if we live in a world where we can trust our unseen preferences are satisfied, including preferences for things that happen once we are dead. But the most efficient outcome is to commit to satisfying unseen preferences, and then later reneging on them. Of course once you break that promise once, it will be hard to credibly commit to keeping them in the future. Thus breaking the promise now will mean that current and future generations will not believe their preferences will be satisfied, which may be an inefficient outcome relative to not breaking the promise in the first place.

Of course we never promised our ancestors anything. They observed what we are observing today, which is the fact that “Our contract law system refuses to enforce many win-win deals between distant generations.” So by not caring about the preferences of our ancestors, we are not reneging on any promise or refusing to fulfill commitments they expected to be fulfilled, which means we could still credibly commit to honoring the preferences of the future dead. So while future people should defer to us, we should definitely not defer to our ancestors, because to do so would be inefficient.

And what if our future ancestors renege? It doesn’t matter as long as we die believing that they wouldn’t, and they can find some way to convince themselves they’ve credibly committed to their future generations. It’s all a con game where our own irrationality can make us better off. How perversely un-Hansonian of a conclusion is that to derive from a Robin Hanson argument?

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