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Dan Egonsson: Preference and Information.

Dan Egonsson Preference and Information. Burlington, VT: Ashgate 2007. Pp. 163. US$99.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-5725-5).

Discussions of well-being often tread on well-worn tracks: they present the main alternative theories, reject all but one of them by appealing to well-known problems, and then sketch the author's favorite version of the one remaining theory. There tends to be little critical analysis of the rejected alternatives. These alternatives usually include the full information account, on which, roughly, well-being consists in the satisfaction of informed and rational preferences, which are specified by an information requirement.

Egonsson's book is a welcome exception to this trend. It is an in-depth study of the information requirement, showing not only that a full information account has more going for it than it might seem, but also that its problems are much more interesting than they are often presented as being.

The book begins with one of the standard problems. Suppose that after careful consideration you choose to become a philosopher. Your life goes well and your career turns out to be as you expected. Nevertheless, as the years pass, you become more and more dissatisfied. This example poses a problem for preference satisfaction theories, since even though your preference is satisfied, your life does not go as well as it could.

A careful formulation of the information requirement should be able to avoid this problem. Egonsson offers a number of useful distinctions and discusses at length different ways the requirement can be developed. For instance, any adequate formulation must specify both quantitative and qualitative elements of the requirement. Quantitatively, the body of beliefs on which a preference is based must contain all relevant true beliefs--you must have knowledge of all the relevant facts. Qualitatively, the information must be represented in a manner that is sufficiently vivid. But sometimes too much or too vivid information can cause problems: you may rationally prefer not to have all the information when you attempt an achievement in the face of great adversity, since an accurate knowledge of all the difficulties may put you off. If you imagine the workings of human metabolism all too vividly, it may produce a neurosis such that you find yourself unable to attend and enjoy dinner parties.

The first few chapters of the book proceed by presenting such examples and refining the information requirement in their light. Soon, however, Egonsson is led to broader issues. There are short discussions of value incommensurability, the moral relevance of future desires and discounting future preferences, different conceptions of rationality and practical reasoning, as well as many other topics.

Indeed, therein lies the greatest difficulty with the book. Egonsson covers a lot of ground at a very fast pace that often leaves the reader lost and disoriented. It is sometimes difficult to see the direction in which the discussion is heading. Some threads in the argument are dropped and picked up later without reminder to the reader of the details. As a matter of fact, it might be worth beginning the book by reading the first section of Chapter 11, which provides a summary of the main arguments. Even though it assumes familiarity with the ideas of the previous chapters, it may give some sense of where the book is going.

In later chapters, the discussion is broadened even more, and these problems are exacerbated. For instance, Egonsson makes the well-known distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value, and argues that there is a further distinction between weak and strong intrinsic value. If something is strongly intrinsically valuable, then it's valuable for its intrinsic properties; if something is weakly intrinsically valuable, then, in Egonsson's definition, 'we value them for their intrinsic properties, but only in certain contexts and under certain circumstances' (150; also 86-90). But this seems to overlook the distinction between the questions of what it is in virtue of which something is valuable, and what it is for which we value something. Something can be intrinsically or extrinsically valuable on the one hand, and it can be valued for its intrinsic or extrinsic properties, on the other. These are different. The aim of Egonsson's distinction is to show that intrinsic preferences can also be irrational, but the distinction between weak and strong intrinsic value does not provide a stable foundation for this.

Worse yet, some of the examples Egonsson uses to illustrate the distinction are puzzling. For instance, he suggests that human beings who are not persons have intrinsic value in virtue of being human--and that value depends on these humans' lack of personhood. Humans who are also persons, in contrast, lack this value (although they have value as persons). Thus, humans who are not persons have weak intrinsic value (82-4). But it is entirely unclear why being human confers this sort of value on those who are not persons, but not on those who are also persons. Why don't persons also have value as human beings, in addition to the value they have in virtue of being persons? And why is the lack of personhood supposed to be an extrinsic property? The lack of a property is not an extrinsic property.

The final chapters consider what Egonsson calls the problem of hypothetical approval, which concerns the normative role of informed preferences. For instance, should we take into account the preferences that a terminally ill and incompetent patient actually has, or the preferences that she would have if she could form preferences, or the preferences that she would have if she was informed and rational? Egonsson argues that there is a conflict between the information requirement and autonomy, that we have to distinguish between preference and consent, and that we should give precedence to rational consent, rather than informed preference. But it is already widely accepted that there can be conflicts between what a patient autonomously wants and what would best promote her well-being. Why is hypothetical approval supposed to pose a special problem for the full information account?

Nevertheless, there is a lot to recommend in Egonsson's book for the reader interested in well-being and rationality, despite its breakneck speed and often careless argumentation. Perhaps it is best to see it as a starting point for further development of the information requirement, rather than a polished account of it.

Greg Bognar

Harvard University
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Author:Bognar, Greg
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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