Thursday, December 01, 2011

Utilitarianism Revisited

This new Sam Harris interview of Daniel Kahneman about Thinking Fast and Slow has a high density of good material for such a short sample. All of it is worth reading. Of particular interest is the impact of "the experiencing self and the remembering self" on conceptions of utility and the good life.

Some conceptions of the good life take the Aristotelian view to the extreme of denying altogether the relevance of subjective well-being. For those who do not want to go that far, the distinction between experienced happiness and life satisfaction raises serious problems. In particular, there appears to be little hope for any unitary concept of subjective well-being. I used to hold a unitary view, in which I proposed that only experienced happiness matters, and that life satisfaction is a fallible estimate of true happiness. I eventually concluded that this view is not tenable, for one simple reason: people seem to be much more concerned with the satisfaction of their goals than with the achievement of experienced happiness. A definition of subjective well-being that ignores people’s goals is not tenable. On the other hand, an exclusive focus on satisfaction is not tenable either. If two people are equally satisfied (or unsatisfied) with their lives but one of them is almost always smiling happily and the other is mostly miserable, will we ignore that in assessing their well-being?
I love this. It gets at the root of a very long argument in a new way by looking at the texture of thought and consciousness. The Thinking book (and Kahneman's body of research) is full of exactly this sort of insight, and is one of the few books I've read on the subject that treats with decision-making and strategy while avoiding beginners mistakes in understanding general psychology. One of the best books of the year.

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