*Rethinking the Good*, by Larry Temkin

The subtitle is Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning.  Without hesitation I paid full price for this book, in this case $74 though since then the price is falling.  While not an easy read, it is the most important work in choice theory and social choice in some time.

Why does the transitivity debate matter?  If you believe in transitivity, you will see lots of piecemeal improvements as adding up to something desirable.  If you do not believe in transitivity, useful normative inquiries have to be much more global.  You will put less weight on the Pareto principle, and less weight on partial equilibrium cost-benefit analyses.  You will focus on what constitutes a good society, and you will trust some very gross macro comparisons (“America is better than Albania”) more than micro comparisons (“the best system of taxation is X”).

If you are skeptical of transitivity as a postulate, you probably are less inclined to see individuals with intransitive preferences as irrational.  This may affect your views on paternalism and time inconsistency.

Many economists of course view the rejection of transitivity as simply unthinkable.  Perhaps without transitivity we cannot even speak of the notion of a coherent preference.  Temkin is skeptical of transitivity.  There are a few versions of anti-transitivity arguments:

1. A version of Arrow’s theorem will apply to plausible versions of pluralistic moral reasoning, just as it applies to decathlon scoring.  Temkin does not pursue this route, though he notes in the introduction it may be possible.  It is the route I would have preferred, as it makes the investigation more economical.

2. The Sorites paradox, or how many stones make a pile.  Temkin insists his argument does not boil down to the Sorites paradox, though one may add this to the pile of arguments against transitivity.

3. The “roughness” relation: maybe Mozart is roughly as good as Beethoven, but this need not be transitive.  Possibly Haydn is roughly as good as Mozart, but it does not follow that Haydn is necessarily “roughly as good” as Beethoven.  Often judgments about the good are rough by their nature.

4. Various pairwise comparisons lead the transitivity advocate to unacceptable conclusions.  For instance you can start with the view that adding a pain to the world is a bad, and (with intermediate steps), end up having to believe that adding a very very slight pain for a trillion lives is worse than brutally torturing ten people.  Or perhaps you are familiar with Derek Parfit’s Mere Addition Principle.  If you endorse some pairwise comparisons which increase both utility and equality, you can again be led to apparently unpalatable conclusions by some multi-stage comparisons (pdf, it would take a long time to explain here).  Temkin stresses this kind of argument and works through the possible responses in great detail.

The main contribution of this book is to show you that the transitivity postulate is far less intuitively appealing than it seems at first.  Twenty-two years ago I disagreed with Temkin but now I accept much of his critique.  Here is one very good Temkin piece from JSTOR.

These days, I see the good is more holistic than additive-aggregative.  This defuses Temkin’s arguments, though at a high cost.  (You will find Temkin’s criticisms of holism and related ideas at around p.355, though I find them unusually lacking in force.  One of his worries boils down to how a multiplicative view will handle negative numbers but I see the scale as sufficiently arbitrary that they need not pop up to begin with.)  We can make some gross comparisons of better and worse at the macro level, with partial rankings at best, but for many individualized normative comparisons there simply isn’t a right answer.  I view “ranking” as a luxury, occasionally available, rather than an axiomatic postulate which can be used to generate normative comparisons, and thus normative paradoxes, at will.  I see that response as different than allowing or embracing intransitivity across multiple alternatives and in that regard my final position differs from Temkin’s.  Furthermore, in a holistic approach, the “pure micro welfare numbers’ used to generate the paradoxical comparisons aren’t necessarily there in the first place but rather they have to be derived from our intuitions about the whole.

These thoughts provide one reason — though by no means the only reason — why I think so many policy comparisons are not very clear cut, not even in principle, not even if we had better empirics.

My main objection to this book is how it was written.  It is too long and too branching, much like Parfit’s recent volumes.  Temkin notes that Shelley Kagan, a very smart guy, gave him 117 pages of single-spaced comments on a prior manuscript draft.  Temkin took that as an invitation to lengthen the presentation rather than shorten it.

Addendum: If you are interested in these issues, you also should read Leo Katz’s new and fascinating book, more applied than Temkin’s, also rejecting transitivity as a universal principle of reasoning but focused on explaining the content of the law and its apparent paradoxes.


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