CHAPTER 4: INTENTIONS AND THE UTILITY FRAMEWORK
It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition that it must be lived forwards.
In my study, I have a 1-foot-high mahogany statue from Ghana of a hand holding an egg. According to the sculptor, the egg represents life and his message is that life can be crushed if it is grasped too firmly – a common motif in West African art. I believe there is a great deal of wisdom in the statue’s very simple message, and in this chapter I attempt to explore this concept a little more systematically in the context of the utility framework.
As I previously outlined in Chapter 1, this framework rests upon three principles:
(I) The Principle of Optimality ensures that decisions bear a relationship to optimal action under the circumstances. (The exact relationship, recall, turns upon whether we are building a microeconomic theory, demonstrating an approach to decision theory, or developing a moral position on the basis of ethical utilitarianism.)
(II) The Principle of Commensurability ensures that the desirability of all outcomes can be reduced to a single scale.
(III) The Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences allows the social scientist to take preferences and events as data and dispense with other aspects of the individual.
In Chapter 2 I argued that the Principle of Optimality is based on a misunderstanding of the problem of choice when the decision-maker faces an uncertain future. In Chapter 3 I contended that the principles of Commensurability and Sufficiency of Preferences did not account for the capacity of self-conscious agents to evaluate potential desires or, more generally, to choose the terms of the trade-off between various mental states. The responsibility agents bear for their preferences introduces an extra level of complexity that the utility framework does not capture.
In this chapter I examine the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences more carefully. Recall from the opening remarks of Chapter 1 that any theory or framework must decide which elements of a situation are germane and which are essentially irrelevant. In the utility framework, the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences expresses the idea that all elements that cannot be captured by preferences or events are unnecessary to understanding (or advising on, or moralizing about) decision making. Individuals are defined by their preferences – for that is all there is.
I argue in the following pages that this view is incoherent. This is a broad, and very difficult, topic and an open mind is essential to grapple with the issues.
Typically, people have approached the matter from the viewpoint of ethical utilitarianism – which is ruled unacceptable because it ignores essential elements of personhood, such as integrity, autonomy, or community attachment. I tend to agree with this assertion, although it is difficult to demonstrate in the form of analytic argument as used in this thesis.
Rather than follow in a similar direction, T will narrow my attack on the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences to a single concern: the inefficacy of deliberately pursuing some desirable objectives.
Because Becker most clearly expresses the implications of the utility framework with respect to the issues raised in this chapter, I start by reviewing his argument that our preferences are not defined over market goods and services, but over bedrock sources of satisfaction [4:4]:
These underlying preferences are defined over fundamental aspects of life such as health, prestige, sensual pleasure, benevolence, or envy, that do not always bear a stable relation to market goods and services.
Though we can debate precisely what should count as an underlying preference, Becker has made a significant point: choice is not based on market goods but on the derived properties of activity or consumption. The decision-maker feeds market goods and services into his household utility function and presumably receives agreeable sorts of feelings that he can rank to form a preference function. Becker’s formulation rests upon Lancaster’s  original analysis of characteristics.
Becker’s view, essential if the utility framework is to progress beyond the strictly market subset of human decisions to encompass all human action (an objective of the utility framework’s adherents), implies a certain sequence for decision-makers.
First, the utility function is defined with these fundamental desires – labeled deep goods by Becker – as arguments. The Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences is crystallized hero, as any aspect of the individual is discarded if it is not captured by a desire for a deep good.
Second, the decision-maker examines these fundamental desires, and the relationship between them and actual activity or market goods, and chooses the most preferred bundle of actions, goods, and services. And, following Becker’s assertion that we devote more thought to important decisions, it is those deep goods vital to our overall welfare that receive the most effort and attention when gathering information and deciding on the course of action.
It is crucial to highlight two aspects of this sequence. First, deep preferences are set as projects to be realized by the decision maker. Becker makes use of the by now familiar notion within the utility framework that the hallmark of our rationality is its means- end character. The individual recognizes which deep preferences are compelling, and chooses the intermediate market goods and services that will best satisfy them.
Second, if the utility framework is going to claim to be an all- encompassing approach to human behavior, it must accommodate our deepest aspirations: meaningfulness, self-esteem, self-fulfillment. Presumably, these objectives would be lumped together with other deep preferences in the utility function and the decision-maker would weigh the opportunity of increasing life’s meaningfulness, say, against that of taking a Club Med vacation. Meaningfulness would be set as a project – as with any other desire – for which the decision-maker would choose the most appropriate bundle of market goods and household inputs. And following the dictate that, more thought is devoted to more important decisions, meaningfulness and related aspirations would undoubtedly demand a significant share of the decision maker’s attention. The concerns of this chapter concentrate on how these most critical preferences have been embedded within the utility framework.
One of the characteristics of human decision making absent in Becker’s model, and in the utility framework in general, is the role that direct pursuit or intentions may play in the decision sequence. Though microeconomics and decision theory have been silent on the role of intentions, there appear to be at least two possible views.
The first is that conscious intention is irrelevant; there is absolutely no room for it in utility theory since it is not particularly significant whether an action is intentional. Becker, who argues that a decision-maker sometimes maximizes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but always maximizes nonetheless, again presents the strongest version of this view [4:7):
. . . the economic approach does not assume that decision units are necessarily conscious of their efforts to maximize or can verbalize or otherwise describe in an informative way reasons for systematic patterns in their behavior. Thus it is consistent with the emphasis on the subconscious in modern psychology and the distinction between manifest and latent functions in sociology . . .
Becker seems to be asserting that (i) decision units always optimize their conscious attention – if this optimization requires such attention, the decision-maker provides it; and (ii) if conscious attention is not required to make the optimal decision, then the decision unit does not provide it. But he provides no justification for his assertion – which he needs to allow the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences to hold: if decision units always apply the optimal amount of conscious attention to any decision, then the social scientist can dispense with the issue confident that the decision-maker is doing as well as he can. Becker’s claim here is also troubling because it cannot be easily reconciled with his dictate that individuals devote more effort to large decisions.
The second possible view on the role of intentions within the utility framework is that conscious intention improves utility; one loses nothing in deliberately aiming to do as well as possible. Indeed, despite Becker’s emphasis on the possibility of subconscious maximization, it seems implicit in the utility framework that paying more attention to the overt maximization of utility should increase one’s welfare as, presumably, utility-diminishing mistakes in behavior will be noticed when scrutinized. It is precisely this view that animates decision theory – opportunities to improve decision making can only be exploited if we consciously apply decision theory techniques.
A twofold conclusion can be drawn from all of this. First, if the utility framework were to come to a landing concerning intentions, I think the natural touchdown would be the view that more attention should be paid to important decisions. The notion that we always apply the optimal amount of attention is just not credible, as I will argue. Second, the utility framework does not really come to this landing – it has been content to hover over the issue, presumably since intentions cannot be made to fit easily into the fixed relationship of decisions, preferences, and events upon which the framework is based.
In this chapter, I contend that ignoring intentions and relying on the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences leads to a misunderstanding of how self-conscious agents reach objectives, particularly those important to their lives. My key argument is that the utility framework has overestimated the role that direct pursuit of our objectives plays and that many desirable goals become unreachable when the decision-maker strives to attain them in an overly deliberate fashion.
Capturing this nuance requires adding further structure to our model of human decision making. We require a framework for choice that recognizes individual objectives may be pursued with varying degrees of conscious intention. Many desirable deep goods are best achieved through a combination of conscious and unconscious attention, a combination which itself cannot be chosen in any sort of optimal manner. This creates a problem for the utility framework, particularly for ethical utilitarianism and decision theory, because attaining desirable goals now becomes a function of how much conscious attention they are given, with too much resulting in a diminution of utility.1*** Our will is imperfect – and, generally speaking, the more imperfect, the more deeply an issue touches our life.
Even at this early juncture, one should be able to discern a tension between the arguments of this chapter and those of the previous one. There, I argued that our capacity for deliberative rationality – that is, our capacity to exercise will or volition in acting on certain preferences – was an essential element of self- consciousness. Here, I address the limits to that will. These limits arise from the paradoxical nature of many of our most significant objectives. (Note that this chapter is not concerned with the question of weakness of the will, a subject that should undoubtedly remain the domain of psychologists and philosophers.)
In constructing this argument, I draw on Elster’s [18: Chapter III] argument concerning “states that are essentially by-products.” Elster asserts that there are many desirable states that cannot be directly reached by aiming at them. It is an important point, and one with which I generally agree. Nonetheless, he has slightly overplayed his hand by not sufficiently structuring the decision problem. He classifies outcomes as either intended or by-products, and he does not distinguish between degrees of conscious willing. After reviewing Elster’s argument in Section 4.1, [attempt to carve out an intermediate position between the deliberate willing of the utility framework and his concept of by-products.
4.1 The Utilitarian Will and By-products In his intriguing study Sour Grapes, Elster contends that [18:43]:
Some mental and social states appear to have the property that they can only come about as the by-product of actions undertaken for other ends. They can never, that is, be brought about intelligently or intentionally, because the very attempt to do so precludes the state that one is trying to bring about.
Such states – Elster’s by-products – are more liable to be brought about unintentionally. Simply undertaking the action yields the end but undertaking it in order to reach the desired state does not yield the end.
For example, Elster [18:45] describes Stendahl’s manic desire to be natural:
. . . [becoming natural] involves, at the very least, not to give an impression that one is trying to make an impression . . . Accordingly, [Stendahl] formed the project to “say whatever comes into my head, to say it simply and without pretension; to avoid striving for an effect in conversation” . . . This idea, however, is contradictory in terms, since the intentional element involved in the desire to appear indifferent is incompatible with the lack of intentionality that characterizes indifference.
In terms of Becker’s model of household production, the difficulty is that no combination of market goods and household inputs can ensure that one produces the deep good of naturalness, unless there is a further guarantee that the decision-maker is not actually trying to be natural.
Sleep is a second objective where Elster’s arguments work well [18:46]:
The attempt to overcome insomnia by sheer will is . . .a paradigm [of] irrational plans . . . First, one tries to will an empty mind . . . The attempt, of course, is contradictory . . . Secondly . one tries to induce a state of pseudoresignation to insomnia . . . Next, real resignation sets in . . . And then, finally and mercifully, sleep comes.
Again – and even though it is within the feasible set – labelling sleep as a deep good ensures that such an objective cannot be attained if it is too greatly desired. The state of sleep is attainable, but the project of sleep – and the utility framework relies on the means-end efficacy of such projects – disintegrates.
Such goals as sleep or being natural, in which pursuing the goal directly is truly contradictory, are however somewhat rare. If they were the only type of desirable objectives facing this difficulty with direct pursuit, they could be classified as minor anomalies and would not be much of a threat to the utility framework.
Elster [18:91] tries to extend his argument to include such desirable deep goods as self-respect or self-realization among cannot be directly pursued:
[I shall criticize] a certain view of politics, the theory that the main benefit and indeed purpose of a political system can be found in the educative and otherwise useful effect on the participants . . . What I object to is the idea that these benefits can be the main or even the sole point of the system . . . True, many people who over the last decades have engaged in consciousness-raising activities of various kinds, with little or no purpose beyond that of achieving self-respect or self-realization, would protest strongly.
It is his contention that there is no coherent way to directly pursue the goal of self-respect, just as there is no coherent way to pursue sleep. The argument is based on the lack of an identifiable activity that can be associated with attaining self-respect [18:100]:
Self-respect, like self-expression, self- realization and their companions are essentially by-products. There is no such activity or kinesis as “acquiring self- respect,” in the sense in which one may speak of the activity of “learning French,” although other activities such as that of uniting in the struggle for a common goal may have self-respect as a side-effect.
Now, if Elster’s position were correct, that would indeed be fatal for the utility framework. If many of our deepest aspirations (self-respect, meaningfulness, love, etc.) were not amenable to direct pursuit, then Becker’s notion of combining market goods with household production would implode, and we would need a more complex theory of rational behavior.
But in defence of Becker and the utility framework, I do not think the Elster argument is entirely convincing for the broad range of deep goods that he cites.2 I assert that many individuals successfully undertake projects to generate self-respect. Obviously there must be some intermediate goal or activity, for Elster is right in that there is no specific activity associated with generating self-respect. However, this does not imply that self-respect cannot be the exercise’s prime objective, with the actual activity undertaken serving as the intermediate goal. Indeed, this is precisely the model that the utility framework (with Becker’s deep goods) suggests. If I have a desire for the deep good of self- respect, then I will find a combination of market goods and household production that yields respect.
Thus, for example, if I taught English to immigrants because I wished to build my self-esteem, my day-to-day focus would nevertheless be on teaching English. If I were asked why I taught English to newcomers, my response would probably include a number of decisive reasons – they need English in this country; it is my way of contributing to society; I need the income. But I could also include my objective of increasing my self-respect and there would nothing incoherent in such a reply.
Elster’s distinction between principal goals and by-products breaks down here – if I receive satisfaction both from the increase in my self-respect and from the fact that I am helping immigrants, who is to say which objective is primary and which is the by-product?
To extend the analysis, imagine choosing between two alternative activities that provide a similar amount of utility save for the aspect of self-esteem. An example could be the choice between a week at tennis camp and a week with Outward Bound. Either one provides an appealing degree of physical activity and social conviviality. The only difference is that the decision-maker knows he will have increased self-respect at the end of the Outward Bound week because he will have successfully met a series of personal challenges. And since self-esteem is an argument in the utility function with deep goods, his preferred choice would be the week at Outward Bound. The Elster argument could not accommodate this scenario, for the project of deliberately increasing self-esteem is ruled out as incoherent.
Similarly, it does not strike me as implausible that the staff at a womens’ shelter can tell a new arrival that restoring her shattered self-esteem is one of the first objectives of her stay. Does telling her this preclude her from attaining the required self- esteem? Surely not.
Turning to another desirable objective that Elster calls a by – product – meaningfulness, it would be absurd to assert that one could acquire meaning in one’s life if, at some level, one did not have the objective of doing so. If you ask me why I wrote this thesis, my answer could include objectives such as acquiring tenure, completing what I had started, or coming to a conclusion about a question that had puzzled me. But it would also make sense if I added that the thesis was meaningful for me; that in writing it, my life was given meaning. If I had to justify this, I would argue along the lines of the previous chapter – that the thesis fit sensibly into my narrative. If we followed the Elster argument, I could not say this.3
For these reasons, I am not sure that Elster has properly captured the phenomenon of unrealizable projects. Nevertheless, there is a nagging sense that he is right. There is still something faintly unsettling about the assertion that actions can be based on deliberate intentions to realize projects such as meaningfulness, self-esteem, or love.
Indeed, Mill, despite advocating the pursuit of happiness as life’s end, long ago noted the uneasy relationship between being happy and trying to be happy [45:100]:
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness . . .
The enjoyments of life . . .are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken [in passing], without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient.
One ignores what Mill4 has to say only at one’s own peril, so perhaps Elster is on to something. Though I do not think Elster’s position is completely correct, it deserves further exploration. In the next section, I try to add some structure to the problem of choice by distinguishing between different modes of pursuing desirable objectives.
4.2 Two Ways of Willing In order to investigate the issues Elster raises more carefully, we need to specify the role intentions can play in actions. There is a crucial distinction to be drawn between two sorts of intentionality (or willing).
With the first sort, conscious willing, projections (or protensions) are made and our will attempts to guide us toward the completion of the project this protension visualizes. For this reason, as Schutz [74:61] suggests, “the planned act bears the temporal character of pastness.” That is, the decision-maker first chooses a final objective and then sets sufficiently detailed intermediate goals to immediately determine the appropriate action. And the more complex or distant the objective, the greater the necessity to form intermediate goals. This sequence of willing and action obviously corresponds to the deliberate pursuit of an objective. It is precisely this deliberateness that is cited as evidence of the action’s rationality: the hallmark of human behavior is its means-end character (at least for the advocates of the utility framework), and rationality is demonstrated by being able to reason and act in this way.
Indeed, Schutz [74:61] defines rational action using this model of intermediate goals:
How does a person acting rationally proceed? . . . if he is to achieve his goal, he must adopt certain means . . . if he chooses M1 M2, M3 as his means, he is also projecting them as intermediate goals.
Rational action can therefore be defined as an action with known intermediate goals.
This view of rationality and deliberate willing on which the utilitarian framework rests has been stressed earlier in this thesis. And the matter of factness with which Harsanyi, another eloquent advocate of this view of decision-making, gives this argument in his discussion of rationality (both normative and positive) is indicative of the general acceptance it enjoys [28:83]:
In everyday life, when we speak of “rational behavior,” in most cases we are thinking of behavior involving a choice of the best means for achieving a given end. This implies that . . . rationality is a normative concept. But . . . this concept of rationality does have important positive (non-normative applications): it is used for explanation, for prediction, and even for mere description of human behavior.
For those relying upon the utilitarian framework, this is as far as we can go regarding willing. If one is not engaging the utilitarian will, then one is merely behaving and, as Schutz [74:61] also argues, such behavior has no particular significance. Action can be sharply distinguished from behavior because “action is the execution of a projected act.” Since behavior is not animated by the pursuit of any particular goal, it is not rational, not conscious, and not of interest to the social scientist.
For these reasons, the utility framework is essentially binary when it comes to willing. Either the will is being directed toward the object of one’s desire – in which case one is exercising means- end rationality in pursuit of given goals – or the will is not – in which case one is merely behaving and rationality is not engaged.
I assert that the utilitarian will cannot be the end of the matter. There is a second mode of will, an unconscious will. With this no precise projections of outcomes are made. Instead, the will (and action) proceeds on a general course, but with no specified goal mentally formed. One plays basketball, makes love, or consults, but without accompanying mental projections of “winning the game,” “experiencing orgasm,” “making partner,” Farber [20:5] does an excellent job of drawing this distinction:
The first realm [i.e., unconscious willing] of will moves in a direction rather than toward a particular object. Our tennis playing has no particular object, such as a particular shot or point, but merely pursues its own direction, which is playing and winning, playing and winning, and then going home.
and contrasting unconscious willing with conscious willing (or the utilitarian will) that characterizes the rationality embedded in the utility framework [20:6]:
In the second realm of will [i.e., conscious willing], will moves us toward a particular object, all such movement being conscious or potentially conscious. This could be said to be a utilitarian will, in that we do this in order to get that . . . Here, the experience is not that of freedom . . . but of conscious willing.
This chapter’s objective, then, is to demonstrate that the purely utilitarian will is not a sufficient explanation of the problem of choice, and that there may be a role for this non- utilitarian or unconscious will in a theory of decision making – particularly for those objectives that deeply affect our lives.
After examining the issue more carefully, my conclusion will be that goals are reached optimally when both types of willing are used together, with the decision-maker alternating between conscious (or utilitarian willing) and unconscious willing. Farber [20:6] makes this point implicitly in his discussion of tennis:
Obviously there are tennis games which desperately cry for the [utilitarian] will, invoked by a competent teacher. And there are other games which suffer from hopeless self-consciousness in every movement.
So there is something beyond mere preferences that must be considered within the utility framework – this interplay between the two sorts of willing adds a further complexity to the problem of choice.
Now if we could make the Becker-style move and assert that the decision-maker always applied the optimal amount of conscious will, then we could escape the problem. That is, if we tacked on a theory of optimal utilitarian will to the utility framework, then we could assert that: (i) decision-makers generally apply the right amount of conscious willing (the Becker position) in microeconomic theory; or (ii) the optimal amount of conscious willing to be applied can be determined when doing our ethical utilitarian calculations; or (iii) decision-makers can generally be advised on how much conscious attention should be applied to the pursuit of a given deep good.
The difficulty for the utility framework is that the concept of optimal utilitarian will is incoherent. It requires only a moment’s reflection to recognize that one cannot turn off conscious attention through an act of will. This is equivalent to Elster’s sleep example and, indeed, it lies at the heart of all such paradoxes. If reaching a goal optimally requires greater conscious attention because, say, the agent should gather more information to reach a decision, then he could certainly be advised to do so. Thus, decision theory might say that spending several days researching possible ways of investing one’s pension savings would indeed be worthwhile. However, the observer could not sensibly advise the reverse: “If you wish to achieve your political goals, you should stop being so directly ambitious.”
For these reasons, optimality is not a particularly useful concept to describe the relationship between conscious and unconscious willing. Thus, when Becker says that an individual is maximizing, and this may not be conscious, he has failed to draw a fine enough distinction between the different sorts of will and to give a plausible explanation as to why will would move optimally between the conscious and unconscious states. In Becker’s story, there is one important insight – and one this chapter has stressed: actions bringing about desirable outcomes may be performed without the conscious will. This, however, is not the same as the claim that a decision-maker exercises the optimal mix of wills. This latter claim is simply too strong.
Instead of optimality, then, the required concept seems one of appropriateness – the capacity to will in the appropriate way for various goals. Different desirable objectives require different degrees of conscious willing, and appropriateness reflects the degree to which the decision-maker achieves this objective. It is the analog to judgment and autonomy of the previous chapters.
Some people seemed blessed with appropriateness – individuals who do what they can, don’t worry when they can’t, and have the wisdom to distinguish between these situations. Other people are paralysed by conscious attention: (i) the business associate who is concerned that every word he says is being evaluated; (ii) the overbearing host who lacks the effortless grace of the born host; or (iii) the tense graduate student who cannot contribute at faculty seminars. The most extreme case is the existential crisis, where virtually all actions are brought within the conscious will – the crisis invariably resolves itself only when the individual’s attention is somehow diverted.
It strikes me that the individual differences along the appropriateness dimension swamp any differences in the ability to calculate. If decision theorists could discern the process by which some people display the appropriate degree of conscious attention, and they were able to teach it to those who don’t, they would have contributed vastly more to increasing society’s overall welfare than any attempt at performing more cost/benefit analyses.
So far, I have motivated the need for the concept of appropriateness, but I have not carefully examined the deep preferences where this concept is useful or why conscious willing can be self-defeating. In the following two sections, I thoroughly examine those deep preferences where duality of willing is a problem and speculate on the underlying causes of this difficulty.
4.3 The Utilitarian Will and Deep Goods I have asserted that our deep preferences require different degrees of conscious attention – thus, for example, writing an excellent paper to secure tenure may require a degree of conscious willing that would be incompatible with executing a triple axle.
If this assertion is true, it presents difficulties for the utility framework,5 as the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences assumes that the only relevant pieces of information arc. preferences and events. The required inference from preferences and events to actions and utility is undermined, since it now depends on the particular form of willing that animates action.
The appropriate degree of both conscious and unconscious willing obviously turns on the nature of the particular objective. And there are many objectives that are best reached by direct pursuit. I may desire the particular pleasure that accompanies sipping a fine cognac and, therefore, I simply have some. I like the look of Italian silk ties, so I spend more on ties and less on other goods. As I prefer playing with top of the line golf balls – even though I have a 32 handicap and they make no difference to my score – I do. Or I may have carefully considered how I want to decorate my living-room and decided that a designer Italian couch would be best. Indeed, the type of goods over which simple utility functions are defined are precisely those where deliberate consumption is not self-defeating ~ and this is one of the reasons why the difficulties this chapter raises have been largely ignored by the utility framework. Three beers, for example, give me so many units of utility – more than other deliberate options – so I deliberately consume three beers.
These types of situations, however, lie at the far end of the appropriateness spectrum – the more conscious attention that is paid to such pursuits, the better the decision-maker will generally do.The only limits to conscious willing are the constraints of time and effort, and the fact that the marginal benefits of such attention are probably diminishing. Thus, I worry somewhat about the brand of peanut butter I buy, and I could do better if I concerned myself more but I don’t because my time is limited and I have more important things to worry about.
Still, such situations are not particularly common, especially when we concern ourselves with deep goods crucial to the overall quality of our lives. With such deep goods, there is generally a diminution in utility as a result of too much conscious attention.The source of this diminution in utility seems to be two sorts of anxieties:
1. The fear of failing to complete the intended project. Conscious willing requires the decision-maker to form projections of how the completed act will turn out. The potential for it not to do so creates an anxiety that diminishes the probability of completing the project.
2. The dilemma, and the responsibility, that arises from the capacity to accept one set of preferences rather than another. We have the capacity to evaluate our desires but when we do so, we also recognize that we are making a choice. And because we can recognize that we are indeed making choices about what to value, paralyzing anxiety that reduces overall utility can accompany our self-conscious efforts to choose our own preferences. Here we can see the close link between the arguments of this chapter and the previous one: we possess a certain measure of will to control our own preferences, but this will is imperfect.
In this section, I explore why the fear of failure creates problems when the conscious will is operative. The relationship between the conscious will and choosing a preference ranking is discussed in the next section.
Using tennis as an illustration can help us understand the anxiety that arises from the fear of failing to complete a project. More than most sports, tennis suffers from the ineffectiveness of conscious attention – as all can attest who have been caught in the destructive grip of the deliberate attempt to play better. The continuity of basketball or soccer, say, makes it easier for the player to play unselfconsciously. In tennis, each point starts the play again, and players have time – between and within points – for the futility of intentions to manifest itself. At least one thinker has stumbled upon the same ideas from the direction of tennis and not philosophy, Gallwey [23:13] first notes the typical “conversation” that occurs within the mind of a tennis player unhappy with his game and goes on to analyze the phenomenology here:
Obviously the “I” and “myself” [conducting this internal conversation] are separate entities or there would be no conversation, so one could say that within each player there are two “selves.” One, the “I,” seems to give instructions; the other, “myself,” seems to perform the action. Then “I” returns with an evaluation of the action. For clarity let’s call the “teller” Self 1 and the “doer” Self 2.
Playing tennis without well-formed intentions, with the doer (Self 2) in charge, gives the game a general direction – serve, shot, approach, volley, etc. – but sets no detailed objectives that interfere with its flow. In this case, our implicit knowledge of the strokes manifests itself in each shot. The game becomes deliberate, however, when we begin to say to ourselves, “footwork, backswing, stroke.” When intentionally pursuing particular goals within a point, prospective shots are set as projects (i.e., using a utilitarian will) against which we can measure actual execution. This setting and pursuing of projects is simply the utilitarian will described in this chapter’s introduction. We have an exact picture of how we want the stroke to turn out and we use our conscious will to bring about this project. Prima facie this would appear to be an excellent way to play at the top of one’s game. Expert coaching can teach us the correct strokes, and forcing our body to hit strokes properly should lead to better tennis. This expert coaching in tennis is analogous to the decision theorists’ exhortations to use decision theory to increase overall utility. Unfortunately, as anyone even casually acquainted with the game of tennis (or golf, or even ballroom dancing, windsurfing, or a standard transmission) has discovered, this type of conscious effort more often than not leads to a diminution in performance.
The key here is the unleashing of anxiety. Forming a conscious intention requires visualizing the contemplated action as complete. Inevitably, there is a comparison between one’s activities and an external standard – and the result is an anxiety that makes it more difficult to attain the objective.6 Anxiety occurs before the action is complete; one is anxious not because one has failed, but because one might fail. In cases where the will is not directed at a specific goal – that is, where the unconscious will is operative – no particular expectations are formed and the anxiety that disturbs performance with the utilitarian will does not arise. Thus, paradoxically, many potential goals become much easier when exact projections of the objective are not formed. Not only does one’s tennis improve – career success happens when one is simply doing one’s job rather than consciously striving for a promotion, and interesting experiences occur when one is not deliberately seeking the interesting to experience.
Similarly, applying conscious attention to the relationship with one’s spouse may diminish the quality of the relationship, and even destroy the marriage. Casual empiricism tells us that many couples experience phases where the spotlight of conscious attention threatens the relationship, as the partners are acutely aware – too acutely – of their motivations and behavior with one another. Could the couples follow Mill’s dictate to enjoy life in passing, they certainly would have more fully attained their objective of constructing a fulfilling relationship. Friendship shares these features with love. Career success, or seeking power deliberately, are also objectives that may recede when our will is overly conscious.
Indeed, it is not farfetched to suggest that it is precisely those who are critically self-aware who are most likely to fail, even though they may be the most talented. The self-doubts that arise for one cognizant of the immensity of tasks faced undermine projects that could otherwise be successful. This is certainly the case with many Ph.D. students when charged with completing a thesis. Those not subjected to such self-doubts can be much more successful in the single-minded pursuit of a goal. I am reminded here of the Nike advertising campaign in which the tennis player Andre Agassi exhorts us to “just do it.” How much easier life would be if we just did it, rather than worrying about it!
The results of this anxiety also play a role when we attempt to elicit responses from others to reach our objectives, as with the example of the overbearing host referred to several pages back. His anxiety arises from the stress of attempting to induce a particular response from the guests. This response is unlikely to occur if the guests recognize that their host is acting in order to achieve this effect. And our well-honed abilities to detect faking make this an extremely difficult and stressful project. Who has not experienced the adolescent neuroses arising from the attempt to appear attractive in the eyes of the opposite sex? And how much more genuinely attractive we are when we are already involved in a relationship and, hence, not trying to impress.
In all of these cited situations, the desired mental states are attainable – but only if the decision-maker does not deliberately and consciously pursue his objective with a utilitarian will. Although this list of examples of this phenomenon is not exhaustive – the reader can undoubtedly add more – it does suggest the wide scope of this issue for the utility framework. Indeed, as we review the list of problem areas, it seems as though many of the issues that touch our lives deeply may be resistant to direct pursual. Moreover, by the end of this chapter (and recalling Mill’s claim – see Section 4.1), it may not be unreasonable to assert that happiness in general has this property of being immune to direct pursuit. Setting the desire to be happy as one’s project in life is likely to be sub-optimal. One’s happiness would increase with goals chosen through some other mechanism and life enjoyed as it comes.7 This is indeed a disturbing thought for those committed to a normative interpretation of the utility framework.
It is probably worthwhile here to briefly discuss indirect strategies. These strategies are an attempt by the decision-maker to avoid the difficulties raised in this chapter by undertaking an action ostensibly to attain a “false” or “illusory” objective while pushing the true goal of meaningfulness or friendship to his mental background. One can easily imagine situations in which such strategies pay off. If I can convince myself that I am avoiding conversation at a cocktail party because I am genuinely bored, and not because I only want to appear to be bored, I may succeed in my goal. The trouble is that such indirect strategies can only succeed in those cases where the decision-maker manages to erase the original impetus. Thus, an individual may place himself in a calming situation to reduce anxiety, and this tactic may succeed, but it will be less effective the more he is aware that his decision is a deliberate attempt to use an indirect strategy to attain a mental state that cannot be willed. Elster [18:45-6] observes the same difficulty with insomnia. If genuine resignation to the bleak night ahead sets in, one will actually fall asleep. But this indirect strategy no longer works once one knows that such a strategy might succeed. The problem arises from the necessity of self-deception in cases such as these. Satisfaction can often be increased by forms of self-deception that do not butt too hard against reality. Unfortunately, while one can be fooled much of the time, it is more difficult to aim at having oneself fooled. The only certain escape to this trap is again to hold to Mill’s dictum, to enjoy life “in passing.” Of course, one can’t deliberately enjoy life in passing either. Indirect strategies are called for, but they work best when they are not even strategies!8
In this section, I have identified some desirable goals where the anxiety of trying to fulfill the visualized project can reduce satisfaction. For this reason, conscious intentions matter. The Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences (and with it the utility framework) flounders in such situations, since preferences and events are meant to be sufficient to describe the decision situation. Moreover, intentions often work in a paradoxical manner – it is when we deliberately strive after a desirable goal that utility is likely to be diminished. Were one to merely take the same set of actions, without the accompanying intentions, then the chances of attaining the goal would increase.
In the following section, I examine the effect of conscious attention turned toward choosing the preference ranking itself. We will see that issues here affect one life’s more deeply, and that the accompanying anxiety can be even more crippling than the anxiety described in this section.
4.4 Anxiety and Meaningfulness Having distinguished between two ways of willing, and argued that different objectives require different degrees of conscious (or utilitarian) and unconscious willing, I want to turn attention to the problem of selecting one preference ranking over another. Indeed, we saw in the previous chapter that the capacity for self-consciousness gave us a measure of control over our preferences, and the opportunity to choose one preference ranking rather than another. But this same self-consciousness also poses a dilemma: because one has this capacity, one must decide how to use it. One knows – at least when conscious attention is applied – that one has chosen to value certain outcomes above others. This too can create anxiety.
Whereas in the preceding section, the anxiety arose because of the fear of failing to attain one’s objective, the anxiety here arises because in embracing one preference ranking, one is forsaking others. One bears the responsibility for having chosen – a responsibility that is absent from the utility framework and absent for beings who are not self-conscious.
The nature of this responsibility is best captured by the term meaningful, a concept encountered in Chapter 3. The self-conscious decision-maker needs to be convinced that the preference ordering upon which he bases his choice is meaningful for him.
Before proceeding, we should briefly review the notion of meaningfulness. Man is a meaning-endowing animal. Objects, activities, and rituals all become infused with an importance beyond their purely physical characteristics. Our ability to attach meanings rests on the same capacity for self-reflection that gives rise to the arguments of Chapter 3. Because we can both act on and stand back from our actions, we are pushed to a position of ultimately justifying activity. Actions require reasons.9 Reasons require meanings.
The concept of the narrative introduced in Chapter 3 helps explain how these reasons and meanings are constructed. Meaningful behavior is that which can sensibly be placed by the agent in his narrative. Indeed, as I previously asserted, it is precisely the requirement that an agent perform meaningful action that places limits on the range of actions an individual can undertake. In this way, continuing the narrative in a fashion that is intelligible to the agent and actions or situations that are meaningful for the agent are, at bottom, one and the same thing. Moreover, in much the same way that scenes may have varying importance for the play on the stage, different actions have varying degrees of meaningfulness for the decision-maker. Getting married or changing careers will generally be more meaningful than purchasing a new suit or watching a movie.
Now, in continuing the narrative, the will can function in either of its two modes: a self-conscious agent can be aware of the need to choose a preference ranking to act upon; or he can simply follow a previously accepted preference ordering, with his will concerning itself no further with the ranking.
In the first mode, the capacity for agency is engaged, and the agent is aware that he is making a choice on how to value competing ends. In the second mode, this choice has been taken for granted, and the will proceeds on its course without taking particular note of the preference ranking. Indeed, the analogy here can be drawn from mathematics. When the capacity for agency is engaged, the agent is setting down first principles; when the will proceeds on a more unconscious course, the first principles are assumed as given and the individual can get on with proving more substantive theorems.
Thus, either I can wrestle with whether to rank management consulting above academics – in which case the conscious will must be applied to this choice – or I can settle down and simply be a management consultant or professor without consciously addressing the more fundamental question.
If I am in this second mode, I will certainly need to address the more mundane issues of the choice – how to do analyses and bring in clients or write papers and ensure tenure – but I will not need to agonize over which prior choice would be the most meaningful for me. And whether my prior decision was consulting or teaching, the considerations of Section 4.3, of course, would probably be relevant. For example, as a management consultant I might be anxious over whether my presentation before the board was going well, but I would not have the added difficulty of simultaneously worrying about whether I really want to be in the boardroom or the ivory tower.
I do not think that the above discussion really contains anything novel or controversial – it stems from the fact that we do have the capacity for self-reflection. The important insight, however, is that there is an optimal or appropriate degree of reflecting on preference rankings and an optimal degree of simply doing.
The difficulty for the utility framework is that there is no mechanism to ensure that the will is directed in this optimum fashion. Indeed, my personal observation is that there are: (i) many individuals who are overly concerned with which preference ranking to choose – in which case they are paralyzed by the anxiety arising from second-guessing their choice; and (ii) an equal or greater number who never reflect upon which preference ranking is to be acted on.
Members of this latter group suffer because they have abdicated their capacity for rational deliberation that could presumably result in choosing a more meaningful preference ranking. Decision theory, in its broadest form, may be able to help the second group – but I doubt it has anything to offer the first.
Thus, we see that the utility framework has ignored what must be an essential element of the self-conscious decision-maker’s problem. How well an individual does cannot be defined independently of how his capacity for agency is exercised. Both too much or too little conscious attention result in a diminution of personal welfare; unfortunately, the means-end concept of rationality embedded within the utility framework has no way of capturing this nuance. The decision-maker in the utility framework will always do better with conscious attention, and the division of this attention should be determined by the standard rule of equating the marginal benefit of attention across alternatives.
Before leaving this subject, it is worthwhile relating the issues of this section to the concept of radical choice from existentialism. This concept was briefly introduced – and dismissed – in Chapter 3 with the argument that the concept of second-order preferences is not complete without the context created by the accompanying narrative. The self-conscious agent capable of radical choice can recreate his utility function through the sheer act of will. He can simply assert, “I find this activity meaningful,” without the necessity of fitting this activity into his previous narrative. Were we endowed with this ability, then the type of anxiety described in this section would disappear.
But it is precisely because we are self-conscious that the concept of radical choice is incoherent. If the choice does not fit in with our previous narrative, it is groundless, and such groundlessness is incompatible with the agency that is our hallmark. Indeed, an existential crisis occurs when an individual cannot identify any action that appears meaningful in the context of his narrative. If we were beings truly capable of the acts of radical choice, as claimed by Sartre and Nietzsche, then this kind of crisis could never occur, since an individual could presumably will that a certain action is meaningful, and in that way self-create a reason for pursuing a certain course of action. That is, one would create a preference ranking from scratch and simply choose according to its dictates.
Rejection of the capacity for radical choice is rooted, therefore, in the empirical fact that only certain actions make sense in the context of the previous narrative. That is, only certain preference rankings are really available for one to choose.
This section has examined one of the sources of anxiety that can affect how desired objectives are attained. This anxiety arises because our capacity to evaluate our preferences also entails a responsibility to choose one preference over the alternatives, and the decision-maker is faced with a dilemma in making this choice. The concept of a narrative helps to give some structure to how self- conscious agents go about choosing their preferences.
Let’s reiterate the key argument of this section. Because we need to both evaluate our preferences and act in the world, there is an optimal amount of conscious attention that should be devoted to considering the choice of preferences. Too much attention, and the decision-maker is paralyzed by the anxiety of making this choice. Too little attention, and the agent is not engaged in the rational deliberation that is our distinguishing characteristic. Unfortunately for the decision-maker, and the utility framework, there is no mechanism to ensure that the optimal amount of conscious willing is applied, particularly in those cases where too much conscious willing is present.
4.5 Conclusion In this chapter, I have argued that the utility framework has ignored a crucial aspect of the decision maker’s dilemma. In specifying which elements of the decision problem are germane and which are to be ignored, the utility framework has left no room for intentions or different types of willing. According to the Principle of Sufficiency of Preferences, preferences and external events matter; whether one’s will is conscious or unconscious is irrelevant.
I have made two objections to this view. First, I’ve argued that many desirable objectives have the property that deliberate pursuit of the goal with the conscious will can self-defeating. If one avoids visualizing the completed project, one can attain the objective – but if one invokes the utilitarian will to pursue the goal, the likely result is failure. In these cases, conscious intentions matter. Moreover, the objectives that most deeply touch one’s life seem to be precisely those least amenable to direct pursuit. Consuming material goods is easy – if one wants something, one can buy it. Pursuing love in such a manner, however, is likely to end in disaster. The stumbling block is that the decision-maker has no available mechanism to optimally control the fleeting whims of his will – and it is incoherent to attempt to not deliberately pursue a desirable objective. For these reasons, the principles of Optimality and Sufficiency of Preferences flounder. The utility framework has been built upon a foundation that neglects key elements of the decision situation.
Second, our capacity to reflect upon our own preferences is a two-edged sword. Life is more fulfilling when an optimal amount of time is spent reflecting on this choice. Unfortunately, many of us either reflect too much – resulting in the anxiety born of our freedom to choose – or reflect too little – allowing our ability for rational deliberation not to be put to its proper use. Again, the term “optimal” has no purchase for the agent here, and the utility framework has neglected an essential feature of the decision situation.
This second issue militates against the results of the third chapter. Our capacity for self-reflection implies a measure of control over our desires. At the same time, however, this capacity can prevent us from being able to successfully seek desirable goals in a deliberate manner. The conscious evaluation here – the cause of anxiety concerning the choice of preferences that ultimately leads to a diminished utility – is precisely the same conscious evaluation that gives rise to the capacity for second-order preferences. The uneasy tension between the questions raised in the third and fourth chapters deserves its own book.
Returning to the continuing theme of the contrast between profit maximization and utility maximization, the concerns of this chapter have a surprising impact on profit-maximizing activity. There is no issue, of course, regarding which ultimate objective to pursue – money provides the final yardstick. Nevertheless, pursuing this goal in an overly self-conscious way can often result in a reduction of profits. For example, a management consultant who consciously chases clients to increase billings – rather than simply doing the work that is always in the clients’ best interests – will often make less money as clients recognize that the consultant is not a source of completely impartial advice. Similarly, automobile salesmen or real estate agents who unselfconsciously put their client’s interest first will often end up being the most successful.
The considerations of this chapter play a role in all three strains of thought derived from the utility framework – microeconomic theory, ethical utilitarianism, and decision theory – although decision theory is affected to the greatest extent. The difficulty here is that admonishments to improve our decision making necessarily involve an increase in conscious willing to carry out the maximization. Thus my friend the decision theorist advises me to map out a career plan to better manage my advancement and I find that, in following his advice, my performance deteriorates and my career planstalls. Or the decision theorist gives incoherent or unrealizable advice, such as worrying less about what preferences to choose.
Ethical utilitarians have long understood the implications of this chapter. A stated societal goal of utilitarianism would actually diminish overall happiness, as the population recognized that they lived in the type of society that was willing to sacrifice an individual for the sake of the overall welfare. Such use of people as a means, the argument goes, would reduce overall welfare as the citizens began to believe their society was unworthy of respect. It is to avoid this trap that sophisticated ethical utilitarians have generally recognized the need for an elite to run society according to utilitarian rules while society at large saw the rules as being more rights-based.
A related issue here arises from problems of collective action. When confronted with the common prisoners’ dilemma situation, the defection option cries out for one who is deliberately pursuing utility maximization. What other possible choice could there be? With two utility maximizers, the result is well-known – both do worse than if they cooperated. Yet two players not attempting to maximize utility might very well do better as they attain the cooperative outcome. Labeling players in a prisoners’ dilemma “cooperators” and “defectors” implies an element of conscious volition. The argument of this chapter, however, is that removing the element of conscious willing could increase the welfare of both players.
Finally, the implications of this chapter for microeconomics are less clear. I do not think, for example, that there is an alternative way to study the subject based on the considerations presented here. Perhaps, though, microeconomics’ relative contentment with its means-end view of rationality – an issue touched on repeatedly in this thesis – will be ruffled and these thoughts will help to focus more attention on precisely what it means to be rational.
We have reached the end of our discussion of the utility framework’s shortcomings. In the concluding chapter, I review the ground that has been covered and explore some of the implications that follow from the preceding chapters.
ENDNOTES TO CHAPTER 4
1. It is worth noting that the arguments of this chapter have nothing to do with the notion that deliberately seeking to maximize utility increases search costs and thus may actually diminish utility. Presumably, thinking about maximizing utility requires energy that could be better spent actually doing so. Economists have rightly pointed out that truly maximizing behavior may lead to sub- optimal (in the narrow sense) decisions only because the optimal decision in the absence of search costs is different than the case in which search costs are counted. The naive arguments of those who point to the energy expended in maximizing have thus been rightfully demolished by utility theorists (though, of course, the further considerations raised in Chapter 2 still preclude the type of maximizing behavior utility theorists sometimes posit).
2. At the very least, Elster carries his argument too far with respect to individual choice, the topic with which we are concerned here. His arguments regarding social institutions [18:11.8-9] are more convincing.
3. Indeed, in my current profession, management consulting, we often have clients go through a process to reach certain goals (such as improving the effectiveness of the sales force), with the full knowledge that one of the key benefits of the exercise arises from simply having gone through it.
4. It is interesting to note here that Mill seems to have made no attempt to integrate these observations (which appear in his seldom-read Autobiography) within his general utilitarian framework.
5. The issues raised by by-product states also pose difficulties for the view of second-order agency presented in the preceding chapter. Second-order agency implies a certain measure of control over one’s life. The exercise of volition is conscious as one chooses for oneself the trade-offs between competing ends. Second-order preferences suggest a high degree of responsibility for one’s happiness. Not to exercise one’s capacity for agency is to abdicate control and sink to the level of Frankfurt’s  wanton. The existence of by-product states places this personal project of objective management in jeopardy.
6. A certain level of anxiety is of course desirable, since stress also acts as a motive to action.
7. I should also add that these considerations bear a relationship to a long-noted doctrine in ethical utilitarianism. Social utility is maximized in a society if an enlightened minority, in on the secret, make the rules on utilitarian grounds, while the masses believe that the rules have some deeper foundation. This is the social equivalent of an individual arranging some sort of self-erasing technology to hide the deliberate aim from himself.
8. One reason that the above discussion may be particularly relevant to contemporary society is our keen belief in the ability of individuals to deliberately control their lives. According to Farber [20:7]:
Day in, day out, every citizen is instructed by the public media that there is no portion of his life that is not wholly within his control or, in my vocabulary, wholly subject to his will.
That we do not possess the type of will that provides this control is a key theme in this chapter. Indeed, Farber argues that this illusion regarding our ability to will is responsible for the current malaise he labels “the Age of the Disordered Will” [20:32]:
It takes only a glance to see a few of the myriad of varieties of willing what cannot be willed that enslave us: we will to sleep, will to read fast, will to have simultaneous orgasm, will to be creative and spontaneous, will to enjoy our old age, and, most urgently, will to will.
Being able to will is, of course, at the heart of the utility framework.
9. Recall poor Mr. Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s God bless you,Mr. Rosewater; he possessed no reasons, and took no actions, at least until the policeman crossed his path and provided a reason.