Welfare-Consequentialism: A Vaccine for Populism?

The Political Quarterly, July 2020

            Live press conferences about the coronavirus pandemic have proved remarkably popular in many countries.  To fans of these spectacles, two character types have become familiar.  First, there is the populist leader, personified by Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Victor Orban among others. Their performances have hit many of the same notes that they did before the pandemic: denunciations of elites and foreigners, interspersed with tributes to common people and their common sense remedies. However a second type of character is equally prominent on pandemic press conference stages: the public health expert, replete with academic credentials, speaking the language of evidence-based policy.

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Good Enough for Government Work? Life-Evaluation and Public Policy

The Journal of Happiness Studies, 2019, Volume 21, 30 pgs.

A life-evaluation question asks a person to quantify his or her overall satisfaction with life, at the time when the question is asked. If the goal of public policy is to make individuals’ lives better, does it follow that maximizing aggregate life-evaluations constitutes policy success? This paper argues that life-evaluation data provides a solid basis for welfare-consequentialist policy-making. This is illustrated by the successful argument for expanding state-funded mental health services in the United Kingdom.

However, life-evaluations do not always provide a complete account of individual welfare. Policy-makers therefore must sometimes inquire into the extent to which individuals’ preferences would be fulfilled, if different policies were to be adopted. This article proposes synthesizing life-evaluationist and preferentist data about individual welfare, as a basis for rational policy-making.

Full text:  https://ssrn.com/abstract=3397151

Everybody to Count for One? Inclusion and Exclusion in Welfare-Consequentialist Public Policy

Revised with major modifications, resubmitted June 2020, Moral and Political Philosophy.

Public policy should try to make individuals’ lives better than they would otherwise be, according to welfare-consequentialism. This article asks which individuals should count in welfare-consequentialist public policy analysis. Possible answers to the “who counts” question fall along a spectrum between parochial and inclusive. One relatively parochial answer is that only welfare effects experienced by the living human constituents of government should be considered. At the other end of the spectrum, a highly inclusive answer would be that welfare impacts on all individuals who are capable of having welfare should be weighed equally in a social welfare function.

The paper proposes a two-level theory to respond to the “who counts” question. Two-level theories distinguish between (i) what is ethically ideal, and (ii) decision procedures for humans who want to give effect to an ethical ideal, but have limited capacity to do so. Persuasive arguments support an inclusive approach that encompasses the unborn, foreigners, and animals. However, human predictions of the welfare consequences of policy options are prone to error. Welfare predictions about individuals who are temporally, politically, or biologically dissimilar from the predicting government are especially likely to be wrong. Using a social welfare function with excessive welfare-prediction requirements to make decisions may undermine the government’s capacity to correctly predict and advance anyone’s welfare. The paper concludes by analyzing alternative ways to make welfare-consequentialist decision procedures more parochial, and therefore more practical for real human governments seeking to make life better for everybody.

Full Text Online: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3392370