Eye of the Beholder?
There is a memorable scene from the classic comedy 3 Amigos with Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. Prior to bed, and under the illusion of coming into great wealth, each Amigo shares how they intend to spend their earnings:
CC: What are you going to do with your share of the money?
SM: A car. A big shiny silver car. I’ll drive all over Hollywood…what about you?
CC: New York, maybe Paris. Lot of Champagne, parties. I’ll be a big shot for a while. What about you Ned?
MS: I’m going to start a foundation to help homeless children.
Embarrassed, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin—in their own comedic fashion—quickly respond:
CC: That occurred to me to do that at one point too.
SM: Well…I meant that I would do that first and then get a big shiny car…
As this scene makes clear, we all have different aims in life—ideas about what is good for ourselves or even good for others. If some conceptions of the good life or the good society are better than others, then it is reasonable to conclude that some preferences are better, or more morally appropriate, than others. The more innocuous 3 Amigos example aside, we need only to imagine preferences for a Ku Klux Klan rally, overly sexualized toddlers in children’s pageants, dog-fighting, or violent video games.
Yet is there a place in the economic discourse to recognize the moral significance of the things we prefer?
Economists want to increase utility—the benefit or satisfaction we each get. So, the question is asked: “What conditions are necessary to increase utility across a spectrum of individuals?” To answer this, it is important to first recognize three key economic assumptions:
- The experiences that provide satisfaction vary from individual to individual
- Individuals will rank their decisions in a way that maximizes their satisfaction
- It is impossible to compare satisfaction across different people
Given these assumptions, an open marketplace is the best arrangement to allow individuals the opportunity to express and satisfy their preferences. Why? Because free markets don’t force particular goods and services onto individuals. Rather, the market will facilitate the products that reflect the various tastes and preferences of its participants.
For economists, then, achieving, or increasing, welfare in society has come to be associated nearly exclusively with the satisfaction of preferences.
In many regards, this makes sense. In a world with competing interests and desires, it is logical that the best arrangement is the one that maximizes our total utility. Over a century ago, Economist Richard Ely defined utility as “anything that is capable of satisfying a human want.” However, he makes an important distinction:
Utility is the power to satisfy wants, not the power to confer benefits. Cigars are as useful in the economic sense as bread or books, for all three satisfy wants. Economic wants may be serious, frivolous, or even positively pernicious, but the objects of these wants are all alike “utilities” in the economic sense.
A century later, much has changed in the field of economics. However, Ely’s differentiation between utility as something to satisfy wants and utility as a means to human flourishing (“benefits”) remains an important distinction. Moreover, economics as a field continues to be concerned with the satisfaction of utility (what we call “preference satisfaction”) with admittedly less inquiry into the nature of the preferences they aim to satisfy.
This makes sense if the preference bundle consists of innocuous choices between movies and concerts, trucks and sedans, or tea and coffee—all morally neutral pursuits (and the examples common to most economic textbooks). However, not all preferences share this attribute. Indeed, as Ely makes clear, some are “positively pernicious”—implying a moral dimension to the goods we derive our utility from.
Consider some examples:
Perhaps you have heard of the app Tigertext. This allows the sender to delete private texts sent from the recipient’s phone, allowing users to “say what you want, when you want—while still keeping control and security over your texts.” While some might praise such a program as innovative, it was designed to prevent scandalous or salacious texts from coming into public, or as one article put it, “It’s perfect for cheating spouses, shady politicians, sexting teens, and people who send a lot of stupid texts while drunk.”
What about a preference for cheating? Those in education will be particularly alarmed to come across a website promoting a surrogate “student” to take online courses for less-motivated students. “Wetakeyourclass.com” recruits experts who will take online classes and promise an “A” or “your money back.” Their slogan summarizes their appeal: “Life is too short to spend time on classes you have no interest in.”
Related is “Ashleymadison.com”—a website committed to the facilitation of adulterous affairs. Their slogan reads: “Life is short, have an affair.” The company, which has an international presence, boasts over 8 million users. Founder Noel Biderman recognized that a “fling economy” already existed and therefore mobilized a website for individuals who desired an affair so they could satisfy demand in a more efficient way.
In an interview, Libertarian Economist Steve Horowitz said that when he speaks to those who are skeptical of markets, he points out that no other system has achieved the growth and output per person in human history like the engine of capitalism. However, he also has a response for those who like markets but don’t like the cultural change that comes with it: “You can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. Once you’ve unleashed the dynamism of the marketplace, you’re going to get dynamic cultural change.”
In other words, the marketplace has no apparatus to parse out the moral significance of the very goods and services we desire. That has to be a function of the market participant.
Yet desire, and desiring well, has a fruitful history in the faith tradition. Rodney Clapp, in his book Tortured Wonders, writes: “For Christian spirituality, desire can never be considered apart from its object. A desire is known as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ only when we take account of what is desired—the object of desire.”
This great quote provides insight into a key distinction: human welfare and flourishing is not simply a matter of having one’s various preferences satisfied; it is a matter of desiring well, or “desiring the fulfillment of our human capacities” as ethicist Thomas Jensen puts it.
Markets are the engine for growth, and they are indeed dynamic. Yet that should not preclude us as participants to think carefully and faithfully about what it is we prefer and why we prefer it. Moreover, this should draw us to the relevance of the church. As Methodist Bishop Will Willimon writes in Shaped by the Bible, “The church is a school of desire, teaching us what things are worth wanting, what desires are worth fulfilling.”