A number is not an explanation

by Neil

It’s almost old hat these days to bash the concept of utility.” Thought experiments like the utility monster and the repugnant conclusion show the problems with generalizing utility into an ethical framework (and Peli Grietzer has some interesting recent tweets on the subject). But cutting deeper, pieces from @interpretantion (if you’re reading this, Alex, please update your SSL certificate) and our own Collin Lysford ask: in what sense is utility actually, like, a thing?

It’s revealing, I think, that we would never assert the predictions of a utility model over reality. Take Collin’s example of Hazard getting more utility” from jumping higher and higher on a trampoline. When Hazard jumps too high and hits his head, we wouldn’t say to him: no, you must be mistaken, it says right here that was the highest-utility jump yet. Are you sure you don’t feel happy?”

If I don’t enjoy my second apple as much as my first, that’s diminishing marginal utility, of course. But maybe I enjoy my second apple more than my first — maybe I needed some time to get into the right mood for apple-eating. Well, there’s a utility function for that too.

But if we’re just going to fit and re-fit a utility function to any possible statement of my preferences, then what’s the point of having the utility function at all? It seems to have literally zero predictive power. Somehow, making the problem a number seduces us into thinking we’ve explained something.

The concept of status” runs into similar problems. Now, I do have to give some credit to the concept of status, because there are a cluster of body-language behaviors that can be identified as things confident people do.” Shoulders relaxed, take up space, don’t speak too quickly, and so on. I do recommend learning healthy posture, and ideally, you can be be integrated enough with your body that these behaviors come naturally when you feel comfortable.

But status, like utility, is liable to being used as a post-hoc explanation that gives the illusion of being pre-hoc. In any situation where one person owns” the other, we can say that the first person is higher-status — note how we’ve sneakily made status quantitative. But we’ve just restated the fact; it doesn’t explain why the situation played out the way it did. Nor does it provide any pragmatic value. Be confident” is famously terrible advice.

Evo-psych explanations, in particular, tend to stretch status past the breaking point, using it as a catch-all for body-language, institutional prestige, reputation among peers, games of etiquette, even media recognition — all feeding into sexual success. But then the sentence women prefer high-status men,” for all its red-pill mystique, collapses into either a tautology (women prefer men they prefer) or an uncontroversial platitude (women prefer men who are, like, good at stuff). And just like with utility, any specific formula for status must be endlessly caveated in the face of new data. If status is about power and wealth, how come broke musicians get laid? Now that must somehow also be high-status: well, actually, in the evolutionary environment…”

Obviously, it’s possible to do things to present yourself more successfully in social situations, and obviously, it’s possible to make decisions that make you more or less happy. But assigning a number to these things does nothing for us; it’s a kind of Wittgensteinian self-bewitchment. We make up a number because, we think, well, there must be a number — but must there, really?