Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Measuring Happiness

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 22, 2012

In response to the utilitarian school of ethics, people often object that it is impossible to measure happiness, or to weigh the interests of two or more different sentient beings. A previous essay addresses this objection in brief; this essay will examine the issue more deeply.

Even if we cannot evaluate happiness, this in no way invalidates the principle of utility. If I lose the ability to perceive other people, they do not cease to exist; similarly, if I cannot perceive others’ happiness, their happiness still holds importance. It would indeed be tragic if we had no way of knowing how our actions affect others, but if this were the case, it would not constitute an argument against utilitarianism. At best, it could serve as a case for ethical egoism as the best method of increasing utility (see Argument 3 in “Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism.”)

Observing Well-Being

Fortunately, we know a good deal about how our actions affect others. While we cannot precisely feel what another person feels, we can make inferences as to others’ internal states. Animals (human and non-human) communicate their feelings and preferences through their behavior: if you step on a cat’s tail, it cries out and darts away from you. This indicates that it strongly prefers to avoid having its tail stepped on.

Of course, a rock may roll downhill, but is this because it desires to be at the bottom of the hill? Indeed, if you drop a cat off a building it will fall, but is this because it desires to reach the ground? No, because these actions are not voluntary. A cat cries out intentionally or instinctively to express its pain. Some plants let out distress calls when damaged, but this does not indicate pain because plants do not possess consciousness or the capacity to feel pain. It is unclear where the line lies between an unconscious reaction as an evolutionary adaptation and a conscious response to pain, but it is clear that vertebrates feel pain and plants do not. Do insects feel pain or pleasure? Maybe. But the only important facts for the purposes of this argument are that many animals suffer, and they express their suffering in a manner that we can observe.

We can indirectly infer the internal states of others—not just pain, but every emotion on the spectrum. As social creatures, we have evolved to perceive each other’s feelings. We can gain knowledge as to what sorts of actions promote well-being and use this knowledge to increase the total happiness in the world.

Accumulating Knowledge

John Stuart Mill responds to a related objection in his definitive work, Utilitarianism:

Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this- that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand.

Each individual person has spent considerable time learning what makes others feel pleasure and suffering, both through personal observation and through instruction. Parents teach their children how to respect others; “respect others” is another way of saying “do not cause others to suffer.” And throughout our lives, we learn through experience what sorts of behaviors promote others’ well-being. We learn to consider others’ interests and act to help others rather than hinder them.

And most of us become very good at it. You not only know what makes humans in general happy, but you know specifically what to do to make your mother happy, or your brother, or your husband. Perhaps your mother particularly dislikes when you chew your food loudly, or your husband greatly enjoys foot rubs. We accumulate such knowledge about our friends and relations, and can use it to increase utility.

We can also increase the well-being of those people with whom we do not have close relationships. Most people share certain tendencies as to what promotes their happiness. For example, nearly everyone dislikes physical pain [1]; so if I see a complete stranger who is about to walk through poison ivy, I can redirect her and feel confident that I have helped her. There is a small chance that she enjoys feeling poison ivy on her skin, but that is a risk worth taking.

Although we cannot be absolutely certain that a particular action will increase utility, absolute certainty is not necessary. Indeed, we cannot be absolutely certain about any empirical question. Gravity may cease to work tomorrow, but we still behave as though it will continue the way it has. We can make educated guesses as to what will increase utility and we will be correct most of the time.


Some may object that we cannot precisely measure happiness, and thus cannot weigh one person’s well-being against another’s. While there are limits to our capacity to measure happiness, we can indeed measure it (as discussed above), and some sorts of preferences clearly outweigh others. My personal desire to avoid significant injury outweighs my desire to shoot someone in the leg for fun (I do not happen to desire this at all, but suppose I did for the sake of argument); from this, and from my knowledge of other people’s desires, I can infer that another person’s preference to avoid injury outweighs my preference to shoot him for fun. In other words, the happiness I might gain from shooting someone pales in significance to the suffering he would experience if he sustained a major leg injury.

Some cases less clearly reveal which action best increases utility, and such situations are the source of much debate. For instance, does raising taxes on the wealthy improve the general welfare of society? We do not know the answer, but we do have evidence that points one direction or the other and we can collect still more evidence so as to better answer the question. However, irrespective of such cases, in many situations we can clearly observe that one choice increases utility to a greater extent than another. Additionally, people make many choices that clearly decrease utility, and we can improve the world by altering such choices.


Recently, science has begun to directly investigate the question of what makes us happy. Every day, the science of positive psychology wades deeper into the sea of human happiness, and we learn more and more. Many popular science articles have been written on the subject. The field is still in its early stages, but as it develops, I think we will become very good at scientifically measuring happiness.

We know, for example, that many small experiences make people happier than a few big experiences. Money brings happiness up to a certain level of income, and then plateaus. Science has provided many insights into happiness, and will continue to do so. Indeed, this is the thesis of Sam Harris’s recent book, The Moral Landscape.


Science tells us much about how to increase utility. But to effectively support the well-being of our communities, we must understand how our actions affect others on a personal level. Empathy is one of our best tools for this. When we can comprehend others’ positions, we can act in ways that support their interests. Empathy is the primary means through which we understand what makes others happy. If someone claims that we do not know how to make each other happy, she must claim that we have no empathy.

We can measure the well-being of the people around us, whether through science or through our personal capacity for empathy. We cannot measure happiness precisely, but we still know what sort of impact our actions have on the emotional states of those around us.


[1] It may seem that physical pain decreases utility by definition, but this is not so. It is important to distinguish between suffering and physical pain. Suffering does necessarily decrease utility, but some forms of pain are enjoyable. For instance, stretching one’s muscles hurts, but that hurting often brings pleasure—i.e. it hurts “in a good way.”

Masochists get pleasure out of physically painful experiences that cause most people to suffer. It is not inconsistent with the doctrine of utilitarianism to inflict physical pain upon a masochist.

4 Responses to “Measuring Happiness”

  1. phynnboi said

    This argument seems to boil down to the following: “We can’t measure utility precisely, but during our lives we learn vague measures of utility that we can use in our calculations. Thus, utilitarianism stands.”

    Utilitarianism does indeed stand, then, at least for obvious cases. Should I shoot someone in the head for $20? That’s pretty clearly a net negative in global utility. However, for such obvious cases, it’s unclear to me that utilitarianism is really needed! It should be clear to anyone with empathy that shooting people in the head to steal their money is unethical.

    Where it seems utilitarianism can outshine its competitors is in deciding tough cases–those where the balance of utility tips only slightly in one choice’s favor. However, such decisions necessitate precise measures of utility!

    Bonus problem: Is a utility calculation affected if one of the agents involved is guaranteed to seek revenge if he doesn’t get his way? Say we have Alex and Bob. Alex is poor and starving but Bob is rich and sated. We have $20 that we want to give away to them. I think it’s clear that we’d prefer to give Alex the $20. However, say that Bob is exceptionally jealous. We know for a fact that if we don’t give Bob as much as we gave Alex, Bob will murder Alex. Do we still give Alex the $20?

    (Assume the standard thought-experiment rules: It’s a magical situation that admits no creative tampering. Your only choice is how the $20 gets distributed between you, Alex, and Bob. Bob doesn’t care if you keep the whole $20, since then he still gets as much as Alex–namely, $0. Bob’s only concern is that he doesn’t get less than Alex.)

    It seems that Bob’s jealousy would, indeed, influence the utilitarian’s decision. However, it seems that it /shouldn’t/, since that’s a massive back door through which rogue agents could pull the strings of utilitarians with impunity.

    (I don’t think the Golden Rule fairs any better than utilitarianism in this experiment. By the Golden Rule, you wouldn’t want to be given more money if it meant you’d be murdered, so you wouldn’t give Alex more money than Bob. [Unless, possibly, Alex asked for it. Would I want others to honor my reckless decisions?] I presume Kantian ethics would say that you should go ahead and give the $20 to Alex, since Bob is his own moral agent whose actions you’re not responsible for. Alex dies, Bob is probably locked up for life, net utility is seemingly decreased, but you retain your moral autonomy [so maybe net utility is increased in the long term?]. I think Kant might actually win this one, although empathy would prevent me from actually following that course.)

    • Other schools of ethics don’t give regard to cases where utility tips only slightly in one choice’s favor—or at least don’t give them special regard for just that reason. Most schools of ethics agree on certain baseline cases, e.g. murder is wrong. However, utilitarianism differs from other schools in ways that clearly have huge differences on utility. For instance, utilitarianism states that people should donate large amounts of money to causes that can do a lot of good, whereas objectivism says you should keep your money for yourself (or only give it away if it makes you happy). This is a case where utilitarianism disagrees with pretty much every other major school of ethics, but one option clearly increases utility more than another—and utilitarianism is the only school that says to take the option that maximized utility.

      Many such cases exist. In fact, the actions that people can take that best increase utility are generally considered not morally obligatory, and people don’t usually take them. If more people would accept utilitarianism [1], then by definition the world would be a better place, and it appears empirically that it would be a /much/ better place.

      [1] If they accepted utilitarianism rationally and understood its full implications, that is. A lot of people misunderstand it, which could lead to a decrease in utility.

      • phynnboi said

        I must admit, utilitarianism forcing its adherents to donate money is a huge turn-off to me. The Objectivist line makes much more sense to me. If someone has earned their money by “trading value for value,” they should get the final say in how that money is spent, and they should suffer no personal or societal scorn for choosing to keep it all to themselves. Chances are, they only bothered creating that value in the first place /because/ they planned on having the freedom to choose where it went.

        Also, utilitarianism is hardly the only ethical system with such coercion. Several prominent religions include in their ethical systems forced donations (e.g., tithing), although in my experience very few people follow these strictly.

        I disagree that the world would necessarily be a better place if more people were utilitarians. Indeed, as far as I can tell, utilitarianism can be trivially bent to justify /anything/. All you have to do is find out how what you want to do could possibly be for “the common good,” or rather, “the common utility.” Then you can hand-wave away objections with, “Well, it /could be/ that I’m actually helping future generations by blah blah blah,” or “I know better than she what to do with that money!” Wasn’t /Crime and Punishment/ basically about this? Some guy thought he was a genius and felt entitled to kill and loot an old lady because he thought he’d do so much more good with the loot than his victim would? /Atlas Shrugged/ gives this idea a global treatment, although to the same end.

        (Incidentally, Objectivism gets around my bonus problem by not donating in the first place. Granted, it’s more of a “does not apply” kind of answer, but hey.)

        • I think you can legitimately object to a coercive ethical system (not that I agree that it’s a bad thing, but at least it’s arguable). But I think for part of your argument, you’re using utilitarianism to argue against utilitarianism ( If people are only willing to produce goods if they get to keep (most of) the earnings, then the best way to increase utility is to let people keep (most of) it.

          I disagree that the world would necessarily be a better place if more people were utilitarians. Indeed, as far as I can tell, utilitarianism can be trivially bent to justify /anything/.

          Then we have to distinguish between naive and enlightened utilitarianism. If people correctly understand it and actually want to do what’s best according to utilitarianism, they will be wary of using it to justify things that don’t actually increase utility. And it makes sense to enact laws or social conventions that make it difficult to hurt others, even when doing so could theoretically increase utility—because a lot of times it won’t.

          The problem with /Crime and Punishment/ was that Raskolnikov misunderstood what would increase utility. It should be obvious to any serious utilitarian that it’s not worth it to kill someone and take their stuff.

          I’m glad you responded; you offer some of the most thoughtful criticisms to my writing, and I appreciate it.

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