Friday, June 04, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: Quantifying Value - Part III

In my last post I explained (briefly) how we can quantify value.

It was brief, because I expected some early objections would block some people from considering any further developments until some initial objections were handled.

Basically, we can assign a number to value by looking at the maximum amount that a person would bid to realize a state of affairs against a competitor where the bidder and competitor had equal wealth and true and complete relevant beliefs.

I would like to repeat that this is a formula for generic value. Specific moral value will prove to an instance of generic value with some of its own qualities.

On this account, if Person1 with true relevant beliefs is willing to pay $1634.987 to realize a particular state of affairs, then this is the quantity of value that Person1 finds in that state. And if Person2 is willing to pay $995.356 then this is the quantity of value she finds in that state. The aggregate value is 2630.342.

So, let me explain some of what this means.

In earlier posts I have written against the claim that in a free market goods will go to the person who places the highest value on them. Presented an example to show that this is false. Instead, people with more wealth have the power to bid goods away from people with less wealth, even though the people with less wealth value those goods more. The difference rests in the different potential to express one's preferences in the marketplace.

In that example I imagined two people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, both wanting a bottle of water. One person with very little money wants the water to give to her dehydrated and sick child. The other - a person carrying a great deal of cash - wants the water to use to shampoo her dog.

The fact that the second person can outbid the first person and get the water does not prove that she values the water more. Let us put the two contestants in this case on equal economic footing. Then, let us see which one is willing to pay the most money. This will then tell us which of the two agents places the most value on the state of affairs in which she has acquired the bottle of water.

Thus, the quantification of value depends on what the agent would pay compared to another under conditions of equal wealth. Differences in wealth distort the results.

Yet, true beliefs are also important.

Let us assume that the water was collected from a puddle behind the merchant's shop. This piece of knowledge may well have a significant influence on what the first person is willing to pay for the bottle of water. It might even bring the most of what she is willing to pay down to nearly 0 cents.

Of these two options, the price she would pay under conditions of true and relevant beliefs reflects the value that such a state of affairs has to her. False beliefs cause agents to make mistakes about the value of things, thus causing them to pay more to realize states that have little value, or to fail to act to realize a state when they do not realize its true value.

Now we have a unit of measure that gives us the right answer in obvious cases.

In an earlier post I mentioned an example in which a person has one hand each on two buttons, and the buttons are being pulled slowly away from each other. Sooner or later he will have to release one of the buttons. If he releases the left button, then five nuclear bombs will go off in five distant cities. If he releases the right, a child in Bangalore, Maine will discover a $1 bill on the sidewalk.

I used this as a way of challenging the claim that we cannot make interpersonal comparisons. Such a claim implies that a person concerned only with doing the least harm or the most good would stand there in agony not knowing which button to release - because interpersonal comparisons are impossible. The assertion is so obviously false we can wonder how a person can propose it with a straight face.

The form of measurement described above works fine on these obvious cases. Assuming that the agent's relevant beliefs are true and complete, and equal abilities to pay, we could expect people to be far more willing to pay to prevent the atomic bombs from going off than to pay to prevent the child from fining the $1.00 bill.

This does not imply that the system provides an easy answer in all cases. But, then, some measurements in science are difficult as well. How do we measure temperature at the sun's core, for example? How could we have done it when a method for quantifying temperature by measuring the volume of a liquid was first presented?

Remember, Carroll's claim is that these types of measurements are impossible in principle (in spite of the fact that we make them every day). The difficulty in making measurements in some circumstances is not proof of the impossibility of making measurements in principle.

Objections might be raised that this method is imprecise. It still leaves us with no way to determine the value of something exactly. In the example above, what would the value be, precisely, of not releasing the button that would detonate the atomic bombs? The best anybody can give is an estimate. That this estimate is significantly more than the willingness to pay to prevent a child in Bangalore, Maine from discovering a dollar bill on the sidewalk does not show that the measurement can be made with any degree of precision.

However, there are no forms of measurement that is perfectly accurate or perfectly precise. Every form of measurement - including distance, volume, velocity, and mass, comes with an error bar. Over time, we have developed newer forms of measurement that has given us better and better precision. However, nothing will every allow us to do determine the measure of something exactly.

The last objection I would like to consider in this post is the objection that states that this cannot be a measure of moral value. You cannot make a leap from the fact that people generally are willing to pay a great deal of money for something under the conditions of true beliefs and equal wealth to the conclusion that they ought to have it - and others ought to be made to suffer for them to get it.

Besides, there are a great many people who may be willing to pay a great deal of money to, for example, have atomic bombs go off in a number of American cities. One would have to conclude from this formulae that those desires are to be considered as well. This carries the implication that if enough people want the atomic bombs to go off badly enough that this would become permissible -- even obligatory.

This objection is sound, as far as it goes. However, it is an objection against the claim that moral value represents the value is to be found in this willingness to pay for states of affairs.

Desirism does not accept that assumption. One way to think of desirism rests with the fact that some desires are malleable. This means that we have the ability to change what people generally are willing to pay to realize certain states of affairs and avoid others. We can, for example, create in people (or strengthen) a willingness to pay to avoid a state in which they lie or steal or rape or murder.

Moral value, according to desirism, concerns the value of using social forces to increase some willingnesses to pay and decrease others. It concerns promoting an aversion to lying or stealing, for example. This, in turn, means using social forces to make it so that people are to avoid states of affairs in which they realize particular ends through deception. "I would really like to take that trip to Hawaii, but I am not going to take money out of the till at work to pay for it."

So, there may be people willing to pay to have the atomic bombs go off. However, how much would people with true beliefs and equal ability to pay be willing to pay to promote a universal aversion to the setting off of such bombs? That is the moral question. This is the question of whether people should be willing to pay to have such bombs go off.

Once more, the desirist is going to respond to the objection, "I don't like your measurement, so I am going to measure this thing over here," with a shrug of indifference. Desirism will have to incorporate any objectively true claims you make about what you choose to measure, while anything else - those claims where there is no experiment we can imagine that can prove you are wrong - can be dismissed as make-believe and let's pretend.


Eneasz said...

I found this post very helpful, thank you!

Martin Freedman said...

Waiting in anticipation for next post. Great articles so far. I have questions but awaiting the completion of this series before asking them. How many more in this series?

Ορθόδοξος said...

Atheism, denial of truth

Martin Freedman said...

Hey Alonzo

10 days since your last post here! And I am really have high expectations of the next post. Is everything OK? Or us the next part being challenging to you (if so, email it to me and I can provide private feedback if you wish)?


Martin Freedman said...

woops sorry about the typos in the previous comment

Alonzo Fyfe said...

All is well. Thanks for asking.

The in-laws were here last week, and there was the task of preparing for their arrival. Also, I am writing a weekly post for Common Sense Atheism and responding to comments - which takes some time.

And, actually, as I wrote these posts about Harris and Carroll I have had a strong sense that I have said all of these things before.

In fact, I've written the next part. But, I'm having trouble finding the motivation to post it because it is just more of the same. "Been there. Done that. Time to move on."

Which invites the question: What should I move on to?

Don't answer that question. I'm not fishing for complements (or criticism).

So . . . just thinking.

Martin Freedman said...

Hi Alonzo

Please post it even you are not motivated to do so. It seems, ironically, that praise sometimes does not work given my and Eneasz comments here :-)

It is remarkable the time and effort you have put in providing a daily high quality thought provoking essay 7 days a week for so long. I am not aware of another blog in this field that has done so. (I know I found it a huge challenge when I attempted it). So I am not surprised you need a break and to reconsider your efforts.

I agree you have covered anything that your are likely to be challenged by commenters. Still you could, more slowly, answer more academic challenges against desire-based theories by Scanlon etc.

Anyway one thought is that rather rewrite what you are already written republish old post on the relevant topic. Secondly you could systematically go through old posts and have a theory day just republishing relevant posts on a theme.

Another is to expand desirism specifically on economic topics. How does economic value relate and so on. This seems a logical follow up to this current series.

Looking forward to the presumed final post in this series anyway.

Martin Freedman said...


Tow further points.

You are still writing original and informative posts, such as your series on climate change with respect to its moral implications. So there is plenty of new stuff you could write. The question is, is this blog the best outlet for it? I really think you should try and get a newspaper column, possibly easier in the UK than the US (due to our position over atheists, our Deputy Prime Minister is one!). I can image a "bad Ethics" column in the Guardian.

Now to the post at hand, I do not think it is sufficient to have equal wealth and true and complete beliefs. They need equal obligations or responsibilities. By this I could explain by extending your poodle/baby example.

Or, better still, consider a parent with one child versus a parent with four. Given scarcity of water a single child parent, having less mouths to feed, can outbid a parent with four children given equal wealth and complete and true beliefs. You get the idea, I hope.

Eneasz said...

I'd stay far far away from any job as a columnist in the UK. Their libel laws are absolutely horrendous, people routinely lose cases in which what they printed was factually accurate because someone finds it offensive. People and firms engage in "legal tourism" - taking their grievances from the country of origin to English courts - because the libel laws are so slanted to the plaintiff.

The government is looking into reforming those laws (last I heard), but until that's done I wouldn't go there as a columnist as a career move.