Economics and Philosophy

Essay

CAN UNSTABLE PREFERENCES PROVIDE A STABLE STANDARD OF WELL-BEING?

Krister Bykvista1

a1 University of Oxford

Abstract

How do we determine the well-being of a person when her preferences are not stable across worlds? Suppose, for instance, that you are considering getting married, and that you know that if you get married, you will prefer being unmarried, and that if you stay unmarried, you will prefer being married. The general problem is to find a stable standard of well-being when the standard is set by preferences that are not stable. In this paper, I shall show that the problem is even worse: inconsistency threatens if we accept both that your desires determine what is good for you and that you must prefer what is better for you. After I have introduced a useful toy model and stated the inconsistency argument, I will go on to discuss a couple of unsuccessful theories and see what we can learn from their mistakes. One important lesson is that how you would have felt about a life had you never led it is irrelevant to the question of how good that life is for you. What counts is how you feel about your life when you are actually leading it. Another lesson is that a life can be better for you even if you would not rank it higher, if you were to lead it.

Krister Bykvist is a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Jesus College, Oxford. His most recent publications include ‘Preference-formation and intergenerational justice’, in Intergenerational Justice, ed. A. Gosseries and K. Meyer (Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 301–322), and ‘No good fit – Why the fitting attitude analysis of value fails’, (Mind, 2009, 18: 763–792). His current research is on well-being, happiness, and the distinction between subjective and objective moral oughts.

Footnotes

This paper has been long in the making and has gone through many, often radically different, shapes. Ancestors of this paper were presented at Cambridge University in 2001, Oxford University in 2001, University of Birmingham in 2001, University of Edinburgh in 2002, University of Toronto in 2004, and at the conferences in Manchester (Joint Session: 2005), Lisbon (ECAP:5), Robinson College, Cambridge (Workshop on Rationality of Change, 2006), Bergen, Norway (‘Well-Being, Needs, and Human Rights’, 2009), and LSE (Workshop on Preference Change, 2009) I am grateful for comments from all these audiences. For especially helpful comments, I would like to thank Gustaf Arrhenius, Richard Bradley, John Broome, Luc Bovens, Erik Carlson, Roger Crisp, Anandi Hattiangadi, Tom Hurka, Brad Hooker, Max Kölbel, Christian List, Dennis McKerlie, Derek Parfit, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Peter Railton, Wayne Sumner, Alex Voorhoeve and Michael Zimmerman.