Two Alternatives to the Economic Measurement of Utility

Though the problem of measuring utility is important for both act utilitarians and rule utilitarians, it is also important for deontologists who take utility into account in determining, for example, when, as in the case of lying, violations of moral rules are justifiable. However, the widespread use of economic consideration to measure utility is unsatisfactory. Besides being limited to our economic interests, it relies on the kind of interest theory of value that does not require them to be capable of surviving critical scrutiny. We will consider two alternatives, as well as a limited use of economic considerations based on the law of diminishing returns.

An Alternative to Economic Measurement

It counts in favor of the possibility of measuring utility that measuring utility always involves amounts of time, since such measurements are objective and can be fairly accurate. Furthermore, the amount of time of a good or bad period counts as much as the extent to which it is good or bad. For instance, sixty minutes of pain is sixty times as bad as a minute of pain. In contrast, it is much harder to determine the extent to which experiences are good or bad. For instance, if a person works at a disagreeable job it is easy to determine the number of hours a day, but difficult to determine how disagreeable it is. Nevertheless, we can cope with the problem by asking such question as how many days a person would be willing to spend working one job to avoid having to work for a day at another more disagreeable job.

It counts too that the problem of measuring the extent to which experiences are good or bad does not apply to hedonically neutral periods and applies far less to periods that are hedonically neutral save for small amounts of pain. This is important because such periods constitute a large and valued part of our lives.

A Second Alternative to Economic Measurement

The following provides another rough way of weighing the good parts of life against its bad parts. Days count as the parts, and days on which a person would prefer to be unconscious count as bad, while days on which that person would prefer to be conscious count as good. Our initial response to longer intervals, such as years, would often be less confident. For instance, apart from lost pay, a seamstress working in a sweat shop might prefer to spend her work days in dreamless sleep and most of her other days awake; and the same might unfortunately apply to a large proportion of other workers, even including many supposedly fortunate professionals.

We could, for example, ask a seamstress to keep a record in which she counts each day that was just bad enough so that it would be worth avoiding, rating it as minus one; a day where she could not decide which was better, the new day or having two minus-one days would be rated minus two; or a day where she could not decide which was worse, having the day or having three minus-one days would count as minus three. The same sort of measure could be used to rate pleasant days. A plus one day would be one where she would be indifferent between having two days, one of which was a minus-one day and the other which was sufficiently pleasant so that being conscious on such a day plus having a second day which was minus one or, alternatively, sleeping through both days.

Using this system, we could determine whether a life had been worth living, aside from its effects on others, by calculating whether on the whole the person’s life had been worth living through or avoiding and the extent to which one or the other had prevailed. The test is not hedonic. Some people would choose to be conscious on days that have much more pain than pleasure, despite the fact that most people are concerned to a large extent with pleasure and pain.

It is commonly held that promoting pleasure is far less important than preventing pain. This might perhaps be true in the sense that we can be more effective in preventing pain. However, the reverse might be true, and there could be lengthy empirical arguments on both sides. Let us consider the claim that it is more important to prevent pain because pleasure is not as important as pain. Here there is the short and simple refutation that we are sometimes willing to undergo pain to get pleasure. We stand in a long line in the cold rain to see a movie we expect to enjoy. For most people, aside from benefits to others, a life of pain with no pleasure would not be worth living.

It is worth noting a confusion regarding the nature of pleasure. The fact that much more may be required to distract a person from experiences on which the person is intensely concentrated than from pleasant experiences is largely responsible for the common confusion of intense concentration with enjoyment. For instance, movies are often praised on the grounds that they are horrifying or evoke other emotions that would usually be regarded as disagreeable, even though horror from a movie is less bad than real life horror. There is also the confusion of excitement with pleasure and therefore the degree of excitement with the degree of pleasure, as in the promotion of movies on the grounds that we will be sitting on the edges of our seats the whole time we watch them.

Besides pleasure, we also value periods that are hedonically neutral and even periods that include some pain but no pleasure. A good way to see if a person values periods that involve hardly any pleasure but a significant amount of discomfort or pain is to ask the person whether he or she would prefer to sleep through such a day. Our evolution-based dread of death makes this better than asking if the person would prefer to have such a day, a week, or some longer period instead of dying. This is important because a large part of our lives fall in the two categories. A seemingly fortunate philosopher once observed that he knew of no one who had more pleasure than pain, and many of us, perhaps even a majority, have more pain than pleasure. Nevertheless, the value of periods in the two categories can both outweigh a considerable excess of pain and add to the value of the lives of more fortunate persons. Furthermore, there are also extra-hedonic values, and though here there is far less agreement and concern for a given value might not retain a person’s approval after critical scrutiny, the opposite is often the case. Extra-hedonic values and the value of such periods provide a response to the view that an end to mankind would not be bad because a majority of lives are unhappy in the sense of involving more pain than pleasure.

A more plausible claim is that once our physical needs are satisfied, other things provide very little pleasure. It is true that consumerism involves the multiplication of objects designed for enjoyment, objects which are often costly and ineffective. However, the arts, both fine and popular, including movies, are surely important sources of pleasure, and there are relatively inexpensive ways of providing access to them. This applies particularly to the various forms of classical music, jazz, popular music, and movies, all of which should be readily available and free of commercial interruptions on radio or television. Furthermore, these sources are particularly important for people who cannot afford other expensive forms of access. It is true, unfortunately, that pleasure is intermittent more often than pain, and that pain is often longer lasting than pleasure. However, pleasure can distract us from both physical and mental distress, and its anticipation can have an overall effect on the emotional tone of our lives.

Economic Measurement

In the economic interpretation of utility, not only is utility limited to an individual’s economic interests, but individuals are not required to be subjectively rational in the sense of being capable of retaining a person’s approval after critical scrutiny as well as having a vivid idea of the matter in question. The notion of subjective rationality may seem to be the same as Richard Brandt’s, despite his use of a different term.

However, a desire can survive what he calls cognitive psychotherapy, yet, like the innate desire for retribution, not be subjectively rational, because the kind of freedom needed to justify it is incompatible with indeterminism as well as determinism. Thus, for example, an individual is likely to retain to some extent a desire for retribution but disapprove of the desire because nobody can have the kind of freedom needed for such approval. Furthermore, the same holds for desires based on indoctrination or conditioning. This is a version of emotivism, but it is different from the original version since it requires a person’s approval or disapproval to be subjectively rational.

When utility is measured economically, its maximization is correlated with the maximization of consumption. It consists in getting what we want even if it provides little or no satisfaction and is often a matter of keeping up with our peers. If we choose instead subjectively rational interests, pleasure and pain are likely to play a far more prominent role. There is room too for extra-hedonic values, but, like other values, they are not, as G.E. Moore believed, objective, and even after critical scrutiny they would vary for different individuals. Although extra-hedonic values exist, most people are more concerned with pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and if we were subjectively rational there would be even more agreement.

Nevertheless, economic measurement can be useful because of its relation to utility in the law of diminishing returns. This applies particularly to the poor, since their welfare depends on such things as food, clothing, lodging, medical care, and sources of happiness that are more efficient and less costly than individuals encouraged by consumerism. More specifically, the law of diminishing returns offers a reason to eschew a sales tax, because of its impact on the poor, in favor of much more progressive taxation than in most countries. It also offers a reason to favor means for raising poor children, which as well as improving their prospects, benefit the rest of society by making them less likely to become criminals. There should also be heavy gas taxes to support more and cheaper public transportation. This would have the advantage for drivers of decreasing traffic and would do something to decrease whatever disadvantages the poor face in doing without a car. There is also an advantage of reducing pollution, which can be especially bad for the poor who cannot afford to move to areas with less pollution.

It is true, nevertheless, that the poor would still be unable to afford expensive clothing, expensive paintings, and attendance at expensive concerts or sporting events. They can, however, acquire used clothing that was expensive when new, as many more prosperous people know enough to do; they can afford reproductions of all sorts of art at thrift stores; they can hear music on the radio; and they can enjoy sporting events that are free and watch others on second hand television sets. Though they are unable to afford cars, they can afford bicycles and even take trips beyond what a bicycle generally allows with the aid of public transportation. Furthermore, education can show them the advantages of all of this. In fact, when added together, these considerations suggest that the poor can have happier lives than many of the rich.

The military draft has several advantages for the poor as well as for the rest of us. It does not discriminate in favor of the rich; it does not impose an undue hardship and strain on the existing forces; it does not discourage future enlistments; and still more important, it provides a reason for even the rich to oppose unnecessary wars.

Still another point in regard to the law of diminishing returns is that, although poverty is harmful, increases in wealth beyond a certain stage may not be beneficial and may even be harmful. It is worth adding that these considerations coupled with the law of diminishing returns provide a response to the main objection to utilitarianism raised by John Rawls, that utilitarianism leads to unjust outcomes because maximizing utility does not give sufficient weight to the interests of the lowest class of individuals. If the distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism can be maintained and act utilitarianism is too demanding to be useful, the most beneficial morality might well be a kind of rule utilitarianism that is more demanding with respect to refraining from harming than avoiding harmful side effects, and more demanding with respect to avoiding harmful side effects than providing help. For example, someone can live a normal life without ever killing an innocent person, but an obligation to save all the lives could be saved would leave almost no time for anything else. Furthermore, some rules should be strict in the sense that they should not be violated, except in extreme cases. This applies to promising. A person should not, for example, violate a promise to have his house painted to give the funds to a considerably more beneficial charity. It is also plain that someone should not kill an innocent person, even if she would gain more than the innocent person would lose.


Two Alternatives to the Economic Measurement of Utility
Richard I. Sikora
J Value Inquiry (2011) 45:169–173
DOI 10.1007/s10790-011-9271-3
Published online: 12 June 2011
(c) Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011