Schmucks and Philosopher Kings: A Dilemma for Well-Being Policy

It’s fashionable to call for supplementing traditional
economic measures with measures targeting the impact of policies on well-being.
Leaving aside worries about measuring well-being and implementing policies, a
more basic question remains: should the state be in the business of monitoring
and promoting people’s well-being in the first place? Call this the Question. I’m
going to argue that there’s good reason to answer in the negative: either
well-being policy is paternalistic towards the beneficiaries, or it imposes an undue burden on the benefactors. Insofar as we have positive
duties toward each other, paternalism is the lesser evil.

To answer the Question, we need some kind of principles for
what the state is supposed to do and not do in general. I’m going to assume without
further argument that some form of liberal democracy is the ideal form of a
state. The minimal principles that I will rely on could be supported by many
different kinds of arguments. What makes a state liberal is that individuals have rights against the state and other
individuals that are not trumped by the interests of the state or others. Some
of these rights are negative in the sense that they limit the demands others
can legitimately make of the right-holder, others positive in the sense that
they require others to act in certain ways. Second, what makes a state democratic is, roughly, that decisions
about how to use the powers of the state to promote the common good and
implement people’s rights are made in a way that is reliably sensitive to
everyone’s publicly defensible political preferences. For a traditional
liberal, the justification for these principles isn’t that people are better
off under liberal democracy, but rather that they are the requirements of respect for persons.

What these lofty principles
tell us is in essence that if you’re making a decision about public policy, you
need to take two things into consideration: what are people entitled to, and
what do they want? Giving weight to these things is necessary for respect. So
say you’re in charge of rewriting regulations about food and drink, and you
encounter the chapter on soft drink sizes. Assume no rights issues are at stake
– no one has a right to buy or sell drinks in containers of any particular
size. (It’s interesting why it’s okay to interfere with capitalist acts among
consenting adults in this way, but leave it aside here.) Just by looking at the
market, you can tell that people like the megajumbo size when watching a movie.
Call the policy permitting this Jumbo. Yet you learn that consuming such drinks
makes it highly likely that people become obese, which leads to all manner of
health problems and unhappiness. So you think of a policy limiting the size of
a container, which, behavioural economics tells us, makes it likely that people
end up consuming less, and hence less obese. Call this policy Bloomberg.

Why would you adopt Bloomberg? Because it’s good for people. Bloomberg is a
paradigmatic well-being based policy. But it conflicts with Jumbo, the policy
that people prefer. Hence the Standard Objection to well-being based policy:
Bloomberg is paternalistic. So here’s
a candidate answer to the Question: well-being is irrelevant to public policy,
because either people prefer a well-being promoting policy, in which case it is
the preference that does the normative work, or they don’t, in which case
well-being considerations should be given no weight, because doing otherwise
would be paternalistic, and inconsistent with respect for persons. It’s okay to
inform people about, say, the effects
of soft drinks, and thereby potentially change their preferences between Jumbo
and Bloomberg. But it’s not okay to promote well-being contrary to people’s
rights or actual preferences.

In an important new paper, ‘Normative Foundations for
Well-Being Policy
’, Dan Haybron and Valerie Tiberius attempt to respond to the
Standard Objection, among other things. They defend weak welfarism, according
to which promoting well-being should be one objective of public policy (5).
This is consistent with respect for people, they contend, if and only if
policies aimed at bettering people’s lives do so according to the
beneficiaries’ own standards, and do not impose some external standard of
well-being on people (6). They call this view Pragmatic Subjectivism. According
to it, “even if value is objective, policymakers are not (in general) entitled
to base policies on objective values; public decision-making procedures should
be subjectivist in practice, whether or not values really are objective” (MS,

Governments shouldn’t be in the business of declaring which
theory of well-being is correct, Haybron and Tiberius argue. The alternative is
to promote what people intrinsically value (for themselves, presumably). This
is not the same as tracking people’s preferences, since preferences often come
apart from values. So Pragmatic Subjectivism licenses policies that go against
people’s actual preferences. Perhaps people value the health and abilities that
come with not being obese, even if they prefer Jumbo; in that case, apparently,
Pragmatic Subjectivism says a policy-maker should choose Bloomberg (or more
precisely has at least some reason to do so). Since the policy tracks people’s
values even though it goes against their preferences, it’s not disrespectful.

Let’s grant for the sake of the argument that Pragmatic
Subjectivism is necessary and sufficient for respect for beneficiaries. Does it follow that well-being policy based on
Pragmatic Subjectivism is consistent with the core principles of liberal
democracy and respect for persons? No, because well-being policy involves not
only the beneficiaries. It also involves the benefactors, people on whom the policy imposes a burden – say a
financial cost or restriction of freedom. The policy has to respect them as
well. And it is questionable whether that is possible under Pragmatic

To see why, consider first a case in which Benjamin is
faring badly due to no fault of his own, and has a positive right to assistance
from others. It’s thus, let’s assume, a legitimate goal of liberal democratic
public policy to promote Benjamin’s well-being. According to Benjamin’s values,
X is good for him. Is it consistent with respect for a benefactor, say Aino, to
tax her in order to provide Benjamin with X? The answer, I claim, depends on
whether X is actually good for
Benjamin. After all, at the end of the day, what is at issue here is the
legitimacy of state coercion in order to benefit others, of placing a
potentially unwanted burden on Aino in the name of Benjamin’s well-being.

There are two possibilities: either X is genuinely good for
Benjamin or it isn’t. Suppose it isn’t – Benjamin is wrong about what’s good
for him. (This is not to beg any questions against Haybron and Tiberius. Recall
that they are only pragmatic subjectivists
– they don’t deny that there is a fact of the matter about what is good for
someone, a fact about which a person may be mistaken.) It is easy to imagine
Aino crying out: “I don’t want to give a cent of my money to be used for
something some schmuck thinks is good for him when it in fact is not good for him!” (Aino might think so
even if she shares Benjamin’s conception of well-being – she might consider
herself fallible.) I think she would be right: it’s wrong to coerce people in
the name of the merely perceived
interests of others. That is, we don’t have a duty to provide people with what
they regard as assistance, even if we have a duty to provide assistance. (This
is related to the point that Scanlon made in ‘Preference and Urgency’ – maybe
Benjamin thinks what’s best for him is building a monument to his God.)

In discussion, Tiberius labelled this the Schmuck Objection. For all that it
shows, it’s okay for the state to place a burden on Aino to genuinely promote
Benjamin’s well-being. It’s not necessarily disrespectful to coerce us to carry
out our duties toward others – indeed, some political philosophers see the
state as just a vehicle for us to carry out our duties toward each other. But
this requires the state to do something proscribed by Pragmatic Subjectivism:
find out what is actually good for people before making public policy, since if
we have a duty, it’s to do what’s truly good for others. Haybron and Tiberius
are surely right that this carries not only the risk of paternalism but also
the risk of bureaucratic error – the state, not just the citizens, is fallible
in its conception of what is good for people. And so we get a dilemma: If a
policy promotes what makes people better off according to a conception of
well-being beneficiaries don’t share, it is potentially inconsistent with
respect for persons, because paternalistic. (The Philosopher King objection.) If
a policy promotes what makes people better off according to the beneficiaries’
conception of well-being, it is potentially inconsistent with respect for
persons, because it may impose an unjustifiable burden on the benefactors. (The
Schmuck Objection.) A well-being policy must be based either on the
beneficiaries’ conception of well-being or an external one; hence, any
well-being policy is potentially inconsistent with respect for persons.

This is very bad news for those who want to put well-being
on the political agenda without giving up on liberal democracy. The answer to
the Question is No. Is there some way to avoid this? Well, I think that both
horns can possibly be somewhat dulled. The Schmuck Objection works only insofar
as promoting what people regard as their good places burdens on others. That’s
generally the case, but there may be exceptions. If we were able to identify
obese and potentially obese people who regard health as intrinsically good for
themselves, we could restrict the size of sodas sold to them in their own interest, while placing no corresponding
restriction on the drink sizes of, say, fashion models and lanky hipsters. This
kind of policy wouldn’t burden others, and might not be objectionably
paternalistic – it would be akin to lending people a hand at living according
to their own values. (It might still be necessary to give them a say on whether
they would prefer the government to do so, however.) But of course a ‘Jumbo for
skinnies, Bloomberg for fatties’ regulation might be a stigmatizing and
therefore otherwise disrespectful policy. So there doesn’t seem to be much room
for Pragmatic Subjectivism in practice.

How about the other horn, then? When might it be okay for
the government to settle on a conception of well-being and use it to guide
policy even when it goes against the beneficiaries’ preferences and values?
Well, perhaps there is good reason to think that some people’s values are
mistaken, just as there is good reason to think people’s preferences sometimes
fail to align with their values. Even so, a government can’t be indifferent to
considerations of well-being. We plausibly do owe it to each other, at the very
least, to ensure people don’t fare very badly merely due to brute luck. For the
state to help us carry out this responsibility, it will have to determine when someone is faring badly in a way that is
sufficiently reliably to justify placing a burden on others, and in doing so,
make value judgments that are as well-grounded as possible. I’ve already
argued, in effect, that this responsibility can’t be delegated to the potential
beneficiaries. (Nor is there any reason to think that the benefactors are
better judges of value.) So who should governments turn to for settling
questions of intrinsic value for policy purposes? Surely some additional weight
should be given to the views of people who reflect on such things for a living
– most obviously us philosophers, but also novelists, artists, historians,
perhaps even religious authorities in the community. It may be temperamentally
easier for people in charge of policy to run a deliberative poll to determine
what people actually value than to engage
them in a deliberation about what is actually valuable, and then devise usable measures to study the effects of
potential policies on welfare; alas, the latter is what a justifiable
well-being policy calls for.

This view, call it Genuine
Welfarism, is not a doctrine of philosopher kings. After all, promoting
well-being is just one consideration in public decision-making in addition to negative
rights and people’s actual, publicly defensible preferences. The main point is
that if we’re going to promote well-being at cost to someone, we need to do our
best to ensure that we’re really making people better off. In practice, this
will often be indistinguishable from promoting what people value, since people
often value things that are really valuable. For example, both Genuine
Welfarism and Pragmatic Subjectivism will likely favour taking walkability into
account in planning new neighbourhoods, even if it’s not given much weight in
people’s actual preferences, since people underestimate its role in fostering a
sense of community, an important determinant of happiness (cf. Haybron and
Tiberius, 23). But Genuine Welfarism does so because people actually have
reason to favour things that promote happiness, not because they think they do.
This does involve a paternalistic element, but that is the price that
beneficiaries must pay for the privilege of burdening benefactors.

9 Replies to “Schmucks and Philosopher Kings: A Dilemma for Well-Being Policy

  1. This is interesting Antti. One point though:
    “what makes a state democratic is, roughly, that decisions about how to use the powers of the state to promote the common good and implement people’s rights are made in a way that is reliably sensitive to everyone’s publicly defensible political preferences”
    Here, you suggest that the relevant preferences a liberal democracy ought to respect are *publicly defensible political preferences*. But later you suggest that the state ought to respect my preference for megajumbo coke. I’m not entirely sure whether this preference is publicly defensible, but it’s surely very doubtful that this is a political preference. What am I missing?

  2. Interesting stuff Antti.
    You claim that the burden on benefactors is disrespectful if the beneficiaries are given something that they take to be of value but that it not of *actual* value, and then suggest that to figure out when impositions on benefactors are justified (respectful) the state would need to settle on what is actually good for potential beneficiaries. This seems to be your core objection to the Pragmatic view.
    Why couldn’t the pragmatist resist this line of argument as follows:
    The truth that is close to your claim is that the burden on benefactors is disrespectful if the beneficiaries are given something that the beneficiaries, but not the benefactors, *take* to be of value. And while you rightly insist that the state must, on pain of being respectful, pay attention to the burdened, not just the beneficiaries, it need not take a stand on what is actually valuable; it need only concern itself with what the benefited *and burdened* value.
    I think this objection shows you need to defend an assumption of your argument, but reflection on cases makes it hard to decide between your view and the “both parties” pragmatist well-being view towards which I am pointing.
    It is hard to know what to say, e.g. about (i) cases in which the beneficiary is actually benefited but the burdened don’t, and perhaps can’t be brought to, recognize the relevant values and (ii) cases in which in which the burdened and beneficiaries share a false view of what is good. I lean towards thinking state interference in the former cases is disrespectful (at least sometimes), and that would favor the pragmatic view over yours. But I am less clear about what to say in the cases of the second type.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys!
    Alex, I admit my one-line theory of democracy isn’t very sophisticated, and you’re right about the preference being unpolitical. But I don’t think it’s implausible to assume that the people who prefer the megajumbo drink also prefer it to be legally available to them. (Though the two kinds of preference could come apart.) I guess I’d take a preference to be publicly indefensible if it was for a policy that’s a non-starter, such as a policy that undermines the freedom or equality of citizens or violates their rights. But again, that’s very sketchy, to be sure.
    Brad, that’s an interesting suggestion. I did consider a similar line. The reasoning that led me to reject it was something like this. We’re talking about whether you have a right to get something from me, or at least whether it’s right for the state to force me to give you something or constrain my options. Insofar as such use of power is justified, it is justified by the fact that you’re actually benefited. Similarly, you don’t have the right to get what I regard as good, but only what actually is (assuming such positive rights exist in the first place).
    Would it be disrespectful towards me to constrain my options to serve a purpose who value I can’t be brought to see? That’s not a trivial question. Maybe respecting me requires only treating me in ways permitted by norms I could rationally will to govern everyone. In that case, assuming that such norms call for me to benefit you, it’s not disrespectful to force me to do something I don’t actually will, given that I’m irrational. If respecting me requires giving a veto to what I actually will or value, then it is disrespectful. But then it’s also disrespectful toward me to stop me from taking what’s yours or violating some other right, if that’s what I actually will or what accords with me actual values. And that seems wrong. So I’m inclined to think the benefactor’s values aren’t decisive, though respect might require at least trying to convince me that what I’m asked to contribute to is genuinely good for the beneficiary.

  4. Hi Antti,
    That makes sense, but I am still inclined to think, along broadly Rawlsian lines, that respect requires us to respect some irrational values – roughly those that involve false evaluative assumptions but which are (i) held blamelessly and (ii) subject to reasonable disagreement in the relevant context. Of course unpacking those conditions is a nightmare. But take this example. Assume some Theistic view is true and that therefore public funding of prayer centers will benefit many people. I want to claim it would be disrespectful to tax me to pay for this because I blamelessly doubt God exists and the relevant theistic view is subject to reasonable disagreement.
    I am not sure how to diffuse your argument (in the last comment) on the basis of this view, or whether one case, but I will think about it!

  5. Antti,
    I just wanted to say how much Dan and I appreciate your considering our paper so thoughtfully. As you know, the paper is a draft (we’re on revision #23 now!) and Dan and I have tried to respond to your objection in the most recent version. We hope to respond here eventually, but we’d like to reply with one voice rather than two and it takes us a while to coordinate. In any case, we’ll send you the finished version, which should be soon, and I’m sure you’ll have a rebuttal!
    – Valerie

  6. Antti
    this is very interesting. I don’t know if this helps, but it seems to me that there is connection between the Shmuck objection and the debates about multiculturalism.
    I take it that, if you are multiculturalist, then you believe that there are group-differentiated rights. Some of these rights are positive entitlements for additional support for pursuing the given conception of good life within the minority (minorities can be small here). Conversely, the multiculturalist has to accept that the money needs to come from somewhere – others can justifiedly be coerced to support the minority way of life with its conflicting conception of wellbeing (which might even be false). The Shmuck objection, in effect, claims that such coercion could perhaps be paternalistic and at least requires in any case figuring out what wellbeing is (which gets us to Genuine Welfarism).
    So, if you are a multiculturalist, you better have a response to the Shmuck objection.
    This lead me to think about how multiculturalists might respond to Aino. Now, it does not seem to me that all responses to Aino would have to be based on conceptions of a good life. I take it that a liberal like Kymlicka could offer a freedom and non-wellbeing based (or well-being neutral) justification for coercing Aino to support Benjamin’s conception of a good life.
    You could say that it is important for individuals (even if not necessarily good for them) to be able to endorse their way of life and to be able to revise their conceptions of a good life. This goes for Aino too. This requires being able to make informed choices between different ways of life. And, in order to have meaningful choices, we must have alternative ways of living a life that are actually lived by others. And, so in order to have such alternatives (such as Benjamin’s) that are important for Aino’s freedom too, we can coerce individual’s like Aino to support them.
    Now, making this response to Aino does not require taking a stand for what is good life or what wellbeing consists of beyond saying that it is important for inviduals to be free (even if they might lack wellbeing under freedom).There might be a hint of paternalism here, but I’m not sure about this.

  7. I don’t know if anyone will read this, but I’d like to belatedly respond to some of the comments above. (Sorry for taking so long – been caught up in other projects.)
    Brad: Thanks for pressing the point. What you say seems right to me. I suppose my primary goal here was to argue for the necessity of actual benefit to beneficiaries. Maybe it’s not sufficient. I’m inclined to agree that as long as there’s reasonable disagreement about prudential value, coercing a disagreeing potential benefactor is wrong. This, of course, only sharpens the original dilemma I set out.
    Valerie: I look forward to #24!
    Jussi: Thanks for the suggestion and link to the multiculturalism debates. I think you’re right there are parallels. Two quick thoughts. First, it’s strictly speaking consistent with my argument that it’s permissible to force Aino to support Benjamin’s pursuit of what he misguidedly considers to be the good life for him, as long as the ground isn’t Benjamin’s well-being.
    Second, it is a little bit scary thought that Aino’s freedom could be enhanced by forcing her to support a way of life that she doesn’t want to support (and may be right not to value)! Maybe it enhances my freedom a little bit that there are actual Scientologists out there. Still, I would not be happy to be taxed to support their chosen way of life, even if that was necessary for them to go on living the way they want.

  8. Hi
    thanks Antti. I agree that it is consistent with your argument that it’s permissible to force Aino on non-wellbeing grounds. Yet, when you wrote:
    “The main point is that if we’re going to promote well-being at cost to someone, we need to do our best to ensure that we’re really making people better off.”
    this strikes to me to be false if we want to take multiculturalism seriously. Also, given that you took a liberal society as a premise and presumably that the citizens of this society accept a liberal ethos, it is interesting that the non-wellbeing based justification in Kymlicka’s case is the liberty of liberals itself.
    About the second point, well, I am not sure it is scary. It does seem reasonable to me that there needs to be a decent number of meaningful alternative ways of life around in order for us to be genuinely free to endorse our own way of life. I grant that it is one problem in Kymlicka’s view how many of these ways we need for being free. And, I assume that there can be some constraint on these alternatives that they must be reasonable as many liberals often emphasise. This probably deals with the Scientology case.

  9. Thanks again, Jussi. I don’t disagree that the availability of models of alternative ways of life is freedom-enhancing, at least other things being equal. (Though I have my doubts about how important it is that someone actually leads a life you might want to lead.) It’s just the bit that you can be forced to contribute to them in the name of freedom that is scary from a liberal perspective. I mean, Berlin freaked out at the thought that you could be forced to do what your true self would want in the name of freedom. I’m more sympathetic to Pettit and the like when it comes to understanding freedom, but still, being forced to contribute to what someone else happens to value for herself in the name of your own freedom does strike me as a fundamentally anti-liberal notion. (As far as this point goes, I don’t think it matters if the others are reasonable.)
    There may be other grounds for doing the same that are acceptable from a certain kind of liberal perspective – perhaps we owe everybody some support for the exercise and development of their autonomy – but there’s an Orwellian ring to the suggestion that it’s to make you more free.

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