B. CONFLATION PROBLEM
Given the harshness of the narrow view, some economic realists will be tempted to retreat to the expansive view. This brings on an issue—the Conflation Problem—that leads us more deeply into ethical theory. To say that some action or policy X is in an agent As interests is different from saying that A is interested in X. The latter usually means that A is positively disposed toward X (e.g., that she wants, desires, or is intrigued by X). However, to say that X is in A’s interests means that X benefits A (e.g., it contributes to her wellbeing, or her good).
These two senses of “interest” are sometimes run together. For example, in endorsing altruism, Posner and Weisbach say:
“Suppose that a climate treaty required the United States to lose, on net, say $20 billion, but the money would aid impoverished foreigners. To the extent that Americans are altruistic [i.e., interesting in, or positively disposed towards, altruism], the United States could consent to this treaty despite this apparent loss. We would say that such a treaty promotes America’s self-interest [i.e., benefits Americans].”24
This claim generates the paradoxical result that altruism promotes the “self-i nterest” of those who are altruistic. Posner and Weisbach do not say why they accept this paradox. However, a popular reason25 would be the background assumption that whenever an agent gets what she wants (i.e., is “interested in”), she is thereby benefited, because getting what one wants is the ultimate grounding of welfare. In other words, what makes getting X good for you is the fact that you want X (even if that X is a benefit for others). Philosophers call this “the preference-satisfaction account of well-being.”
The preference-satisfaction account has many supporters. Nevertheless, we should beware of its invocation here. In general, one shouldn’t move too quickly from wants to benefits. For one thing, people routinely yearn to avoid the gym, or crave that extra drink, without believing for a moment that satisfying such desires benefits them. So wants do not always correlate even with perceived selfinterest. For another, our actual preferences are often badly informed, irrational, or the product of suspect processes
(e.g., manipulative advertising). Hence, wants also do not automatically track real benefits.
Consequently, most philosophical preference- satisfaction theorists claim only that it benefits us to get what we would want if we are suitably well informed, rational, and so on.26 Moreover, this insight fuels rival theories of well-being. These typically claim that other things, such as the quality of our mental states or character, are ultimately what matters for welfare, and that what we happen to desire is only instrumentally important, insofar as it serves these ends.