This is a bit of a shot in the dark, but I'm doing a Ph.D. on the philosophy of welfare economics, and I have a chapter dedicated to interpersonal comparison. I am eager to discuss the topic. Let me know if this area interests you- I'd be keen to have a look at anything you've published- to discuss ideas, and potentially to collaborate on research.

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I’m an econ grad student and I’ve thought a bit about it. Want to pick a time to chat? https://calendly.com/pawtrammell

I'm a MA student in formal philosophy, and I have an unpublished paper on the topic, defending interpersonal comparisons of decision theoretic utility against Hausman and others, who see this view defeated by VNM utility theory.

(More precisely, I defend the view that the relation "agent A desires outcome X to degree x, and Y to degree y, and x is is larger than y" is more basic than the relation "A prefers X to Y". Basically, the theory is that utility (more precisely, degree of desire) is more fundamental than preference, not the other way round. This opens up the possibility of absolute intra- and interpersonal utility strength comparisons.)

How do you do interpersonal comparisons of the degree of desire?

I have some ideas of degree of desire based on its effects on attention, i.e. motivational salience or incentive salience and threat salience, but I'm not sure those can be compared interpersonally in general. I also doubt pro-attitudes and con-attitudes as beliefs, judgements or representations are in general interpersonally comparable.

(I'm publishing a post that will discuss these issues in a bit more detail soon.)

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Kaspar Brandner
1mo
We can treat being indifferent between outcomes p and ¬p as implying utility (degree of desire) zero: U(p)=U(¬p)=0. This is also a provable consequence of Jeffrey's utility theory where we assume that tautologies have utility zero. Then, insofar preferences can be observed (reports, choice behavior), we can compare the "sign" of desires. If you prefer outcome q to outcome p, and U(p)=0, then U(q)>0. That is, you desire q to a positive degree. Then we can compare desires between different people based on sign (positive, neutral, negative). This rules out utility functions being equivalent under addition of arbitrary constants. It is not the case that for arbitrary constants b, U∗=U+b. Moreover, humans are neurophysiologically similar to each other. Which makes it plausible that similar behavior indicates similar desires for different people. E.g. similar reactions to equal pain stimuli indicating similar aversion to pain, desire for drinking water after 24 hours without water being similar, etc. If we accept that some desires are likely similar for certain situations, we can use them for interpersonal comparisons. E.g. Alice desires x as much as Bob, Alice desires y two times as much as x, Bob desires y four times much as x, so Bob desires y two times as much as Alice. This rules out equivalence under multiplication with arbitrary positive constants a, i.e. it isn't the case that U∗=a×U. The interpersonal comparison problem is similar to the problem of other minds: The fact that other people a structurally similar to us suggests, by inference to the best explanation, that they also have inner lives. The same line of reasoning makes it unlikely for there to be large differences (utility monsters) in desires with similar observable physiological correlates (behavior, brain activity).
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MichaelStJules
1mo
Hmm, I guess I also had in mind extensions to other animals, artificial minds, etc.. I don't think you can use the same argument about similar neurophysiology and behaviour to rule out rescalings for them. I agree that you can probably rule out arbitrary rescalings between typical humans based on an argument like yours, specifically using brain activity in specific brain regions responsible for desire. I think other responses could be more or less strong somewhat independently of brain activity, although won't typically vary too much. For example, some people could tolerate stronger desires (or stronger desires) of a certain kind before acting compared to others, or try harder to or find it easier to mute their responses. Also, some apparent pain responses don't even require processing in the brain, i.e. the withdrawal reflex, and those could be more or less strong independently of pain intensity. People could interpret pain scales differently, too, so we can't match pain reports, either.

I've been reading From Darwin to Derrida by David Haig, which touches on interpersonal comparison and intrapersonal comparison from an evolutionary genetics perspective & a philosophical one. You might like to check it out. 

There's a guy in my (Econ) PhD programme with a working paper relevant to this - I can put you in touch with him if you life: https://arxiv.org/pdf/2203.10305.pdf