Defining Happiness

by Benjamin Studebaker

Utilitarians believe that we should maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness. Sometimes “happiness” is replaced with some other word or phrase, like “pleasure”, “utility”, “living standards”, and so on, but the claim is generally the same. Critics of utilitarianism often accuse utilitarians of being imprecise in their conception of happiness. If happiness is what matters, what makes people happy in the first place? Some utilitarians seem to smuggle in very peculiar conceptions of happiness without justifying or substantiating them. As someone with utilitarian leanings, I think the critics are owed a more comprehensive response than they’ve received, so that’s what I set out to do today.

When utilitarians attempt to give universal objective definitions of happiness, we tend to run into trouble. Some right utilitarians take GDP to be the measure of happiness, but GDP is a measure merely of the amount of money being exchanged, it does not imply that the things being bought make people happy, nor does it take into account all the happiness generation that is external to the market.

John Stuart Mill attempted to offer a universal objective view of happiness in his Utilitarianism. He proposed having judges who had experienced a wide variety of pleasures rule which were the greater and which were the stronger. If this seems manifestly ridiculous to the reader, it’s because it is–Mill failed to take into consideration the notion that individuals might legitimately have different tastes. If I like basketball more than football and you like football more than basketball, it is not because one of us is fundamentally mistaken about which is more enjoyable, but because you and I are different people with different natural inclinations and taste preferences.

Any utilitarian conception of “happiness” should take into account that what makes one person happy will not necessarily make another person happy. Even when two people are made happy by the same thing, the overwhelming likelihood is that one of them will enjoy it more than the other. There are casual basketball fans, and there are season ticket holders. This is the extent to which happiness is a subjective concept, and when we criticize a conception of happiness for failing to consider this, we accuse it of failing to acknowledge subjectivity and/or the extent to which that which makes people happy is a matter of taste.

However, happiness is not purely a matter of taste. There are limits to its subjectivity. Jeremy Bentham, the original utilitarian, conceived of happiness as a purely subjective enterprise in his Principles of Morals and Legislation. What made a person happy was whatever that person reported made him happy. If that person had a very narrow or otherwise uninformed understanding of his own happiness, that understanding could not be challenged. It was in response to Bentham that Mill attempted to make utilitarianism more objective about what happiness entailed, but the way he went about addressing this problem was misguided. Instead of proposing that utility is objective, we need to recognize its “objective subjectivity”. By this I mean that there is no one correct answer to the question of “how much happiness do Chicago Bulls season tickets produce in a human being?”, but that the question of “how much will Bob enjoy Chicago Bulls season tickets?” has a factual answer in relative terms.

Importantly, Bob can be wrong about the answer to this question. We can be mistaken about the happiness outputs of the goods we are considering. For instance, if you support Obamacare, you presumably think that there are a large number of Americans who stand to benefit from the new law who are unaware of this due to ignorance. By the same token, if you’re opposed to Obamacare, you presumably think that there are a large number of Americans who  think they will benefit from the new law but who will actually be made more unhappy by it. This question is contested, but there is a right answer to it. There is an answer to the question of “what will the effects of Obamacare be?” even if one group, or perhaps both, does not yet know what that answer is. Obamacare will not effect every person in the same way, but we can come to know how Obamacare will effect any given individual, and we can add those individual effects to get a larger sense of what it will do nationwide. This we do not by individual reporting, but by learning about what the law does to/for various kinds of people. If Obamacare will reduce costs for poor people, it will benefit them whether they realize this or not. By the same token, if Obamacare will raise costs for young people, it will harm them whether they realize this or not. It may simultaneously be true that Obamacare benefits the poor and harms the young. It may have an entirely unique effect on someone who is both poor and young, and so on.  Plus, different people will view these changes differently, depending on whether they are healthy or unhealthy or what their perception of their individual risk of health problems is. This, by the way, is all example–I’m not claiming that Obamacare has any specific effects of any kind, at least in this particular piece.

Whenever we are trying to consider different people by kinds and types, we are considering them relative to one another. There are three ways in which people are relatively distinct from each other:

  1. Taste Relativity–some people happen to have a natural preference for or against a given good that is greater than that of other people. There are people who don’t like basketball, people who are indifferent, people who like it a little, and people who like it very much. Giving season tickets to people who don’t like basketball leads to diminishing returns.
  2. Material Relativity–some people have much less of a good than they would like, some have as much as they would like, and some have much more than they could possibly use effectively. There are hard-core basketball fans who don’t have NBA season tickets, fans who do have season tickets, and theoretically, there could be a fan with many season tickets, more than he can himself use or even manage to sell online without it consuming more time than he would like. If I have a set of NBA season tickets and I am determining which fan I ought to award them to, even though all three fans have the same level of interest in basketball, I have a reason to give the tickets to the fan who has fewer than he would like as opposed to the one who already has as many as he wants or the one who has much more than he can use. Giving season tickets to people who already have them leads to diminishing returns.
  3. Social Relativity–some people have much less of a good relative to other people, some have about as much as others, and some have much more. Even though I can only drive one car at a time, I might nonetheless resent having fewer cars than other people because of what that says about my social standing or the extent to which I am socially respected or well-regarded. Giving cars to people who already have more cars than others leads to diminishing returns.

I propose that people are different from one another with respect to any given good in these three ways and that their position relative to others is objectively definable. It is factually true or false that Bob likes chocolate more than Bill, that Bob has more chocolate than he can use effectively while Bill does not, and that Bob has much more chocolate than Bill has. A person’s relative standing on these three metrics is sufficient information for a state to determine how it should distribute goods.

To apply this in a more politically practicable way, say I’m trying to decide who should get food stamps and how much they should be worth. There are three pieces of information that can be useful to me in doing this. It’s helpful to know who really likes to eat and who doesn’t (taste),  has enough food and who doesn’t (material), who has less food than others (social). Generally speaking, resources for food stamps programs are scarce, so we’ll ensure first that those who are at a material disadvantage get additional food, then those who are at a social disadvantage, and then, finally, if we have any funding left, those who are at a taste disadvantage. All food aid programs aim to prevent starvation, to help the materially disadvantaged. Food aid in the US and other wealthy countries is often not merely about preventing starvation, but giving those with little food relative to the rest of the population more food options, to help the socially disadvantaged. I know of no food aid program that makes additional provision for the gluttonous, so this would imply that resources for food aid programs are not funded in such a way that we can afford to make that consideration. We offer food aid rather than NBA season ticket aid because having both enough food and sufficient food choice is required for being alive and healthy, and being alive and healthy is a prerequisite for enjoying all other possible goods. Most goods for which the state provides aid are prerequisites for other goods (education, though not concerned with staying alive, is concerned with opening up opportunity to enjoyable and/or high paying jobs). Only a very rich society would have aid programs for luxury goods because they are not prerequisites, though this is not without precedent–the Romans did not merely supply citizens with bread, they also supplied them with circuses. This however, was too uniform. Enjoyment of the circuses likely varied among people. The Romans would have made their people happier still if they had offered a variety of ways to enjoy their entertainment entitlement open to individual choice.

One more thing–we recognize that a lot of people have a strong autonomy preference. That is to say, some of us get more happiness from making the decision  ourselves (or more unhappiness from being coerced) than we do about the actual happiness outcome of the decision. The 1982 film Gandhi puts a quote into the mouth of the Mahatma that gets at the sentiment:

All nations contain religious minorities. Like other countries, our will have its problems. But they will be ours–not yours.

There movie Gandhi rejects British rule even though that rule might be the only thing maintaining the peace between Muslims and Hindus (in reality, the British were attempting to stir up religious trouble in India in order to divide the Muslims against the Hindus and maintain British rule, but that’s beside the point). Point being, he prioritizes making his own decisions over whether those decisions have good or bad outcomes. He resists British paternalism. For this reason, Mill proposes the harm principle in On Liberty:

…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

So, to summarize, happiness is an objectively subjective (or perhaps, if you prefer, subjectively objective?) concept. People deviate in the happiness or unhappiness they get from various things. This happiness cannot be measured except by relative comparison to the happiness or unhappiness others will experience. There are three relevant ways in which those experiences will differ–due to taste, materially, and socially. In every case, my goal is to maximize the happiness generated by the resource I distribute and to avoid diminishing returns. Given that many people have a happiness preference grounded in autonomy, it is wise to nonetheless limit the extent to which we compel them, even though we may believe with a high amount of certainty that they are ignorant or mistaken about their own interests, so long as permitting them this freedom does not cause others to come to harm.