Reply to Tyler Cowen’s ‘Stubborn Attachments’

Disclaimers! First: I (somewhat indirectly) work for Tyler Cowen.

Second, this is a reply, not a review. My review is simple: Stubborn Attachments is a fascinating, thought-provoking work of political philosophy. Given its depth and originality, it’s also remarkably accessible. I strongly recommend it.

Third: there is plenty of interesting material in the book that I will not address at all. This includes narrow arguments about redistribution and environmental policy, as well as more abstract arguments about ethical disagreement and decision-making. I will not touch on these because I either simply agree, or if I have reservations, they’re not all that interesting.

Onto the fun stuff.

Introduction: Cowen’s argument in a nutshell, and map of my response

Essential to Cowen’s position is the claim that the discount rate for the value of the wellbeing of future people should be zero. In other words, the fact that someone doesn’t exist yet does not at all diminish the ethical value of their wellbeing. John, who is alive today, living a life of, say, 100 net utils, is worth exactly the same as Linda, who will live two hundred years from now, living a life of 100 net utils.

Presumably, there will be many, many more people alive in the future than are alive today. So, when we think about hard things like public policy and social organization, we shouldn’t aim to maximize the wellbeing of people alive today. Instead, we should maximize the wellbeing of all people—present and future. Given that there will be so many more future people, in practice this means our focus should be on maximizing the wellbeing of future people.

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My First Philosophical Theory


When I was a kid, I had a dog. I’d take him out for a walk at night. He usually took care of his business within a few minutes, but I’d walk him for 2 hours, sometimes more, circling the same few blocks over and over. I’d just think. My thoughts tended to go to the nature of reality. I’d look at streetlights and wonder what the hell light was anyway.

I must have been around ten or eleven when I put the name “philosophy” to my growing interest. I remember telling my mom and aunt about it. They laughed, and my aunt made a snide remark about how much money that was going to make me. But a few weeks later, she bought me a book. It was a collection of one-page summaries of the views of important philosophers throughout history. I’d read through it and only partially understand. The philosophers got harder to make sense of with time. Once the book got to twentieth-century philosophers, I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about. But I knew it was exciting. The prospect of eventually understanding them was thrilling to me. I felt as if learning reasons why the world might not be as it seems would give me some special kind of power.

I was about thirteen when I started thinking rigorously about what the purpose of my life was. It seemed obvious that it should be – broadly – happiness. I developed the following way of thinking about it: at any given moment of experience, I am always happy or unhappy to some extent.…

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