As I mentioned in my previous post, my colleague Tyler Cowen presented a provocative thesis during his Kenneth Arrow lecture at Stanford last month. In brief, Cowen’s thesis is that the well-being, happiness, and welfare of future generations should count just as much as the well-being of current generations. To his credit, however, Cowen spent most of his lecture identifying several blind spots in his thesis. These blind spots can be reformulated as a series of five questions as follows:
1. When? How far into the future should we gaze? (This question can be formulated in different ways: What is the cut-off point? How many generations into the future should we take into account today?)
2. How? Is there a tried-and-true recipe for maximizing human happiness or well-being or “social welfare”? Also, how should we define these highfalutin values? Which takes us to the next question …
3. What? Even if we were able to define these values and discover a reliable recipe for maximizing them, what should we be maximizing–total or per capita human well-being? That is, should we try to maximize the total or aggregate amount of social welfare, or should we instead try to maximize the welfare or well-being of each individual member of a given society?
4. Who? Who are the members of this “given” society? Should we, for example, include animals in the social-welfare function?
5. I will conclude this post with an additional question of my own: Where? Where in the Devil should all this definitional and maximizing work take place? In one’s local city hall? At the State or federal level? At the United Nations?
For his part, Cowen’s humble reply to these thorny questions is, “I don’t know.” In other words, Cowen still has a lot of work to do …