# In a utilitarian calculus, where do I find the values that I assign each "feeling" or action?

I'm to do a utilitarian calculation but nobody mentions where I find the values that I assign each "feeling" or action? Where can I find these values? If I don't find them, do I just make them up myself?

• As in e.g. economics utility may be measured, but is not comparable between individuals, as it is representable only in an ordinal scale (a BIG problem for economics, actually), yes, values are the same. The order sometimes is forcefully shared within societies, though. One example is the german constitution where the values are ranked through the number of the article in the first 19 ones (human rights). But it's not like you will ever find an utilitarian saying "Oh well life preserving 10 points, preserving from torture...err...6,8734 and helping grannies like 3,2!". Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 0:45
– Paze
Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 0:56
• It may be easier to start from negative utility or the "summum bonum," as with Hobbes (who takes fear of untimely death as a near-equal value between individuals) or the avoidance of suffering, as in Epicurus or Singer, than with the positive goods as in, say, The Republic or marginal utility consumerism. We like to say that people behave freely and differently and with incommensurable values. But it is a safe prediction that 99.9% will run out of a burning house. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 21:22

As per my comment above, a bit improved:

In e.g. economics utility may be measured, but is not comparable between individuals. That is because it is representable only in an ordinal scale (a BIG problem for economics, actually). That means you can express 'x is better than y', but not 'x is by the factor of k better than y'. Ethical values are the same.

The order of values often defines destinct societies and sometimes is forcefully shared within societies, though. One example of the latter is the german constitution where the values are ranked through the number of the article in the first 19 ones (human rights). In general, juriciary is the most reliable source regarding that.

But it's not like you will ever find an utilitarian saying "Oh well life preserving 10 points, preserving from torture...err...6,8734 and helping grannies like 3,2!".

• I am always annoyed when my friends insist that "utility" is equal to "number of dollars one is willing to spend." Nobody seems to understand that this was a oversimplification out of necessity for economists, and not some truth that anybody actually decided. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 4:14
• The cool thing is that even though ordinal scales are used, game theory can make interpersonal predictions. But yeah, big difference between utility and welfare. The latter is what usually is measured in currencies and is oversimplificating a lot by this, especially negating any substantial ethical notion of the word. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 4:37
• @Daniel A line of reasoning you may be able to take with your friends: if you start from the assumption that there is only one type of "value," you can argue there must be an exchange rate between utility and dollars, as they suggest. However, it does not imply that you have that number in your head, when deciding how much one is "willing" to spend. In fact, in some constructions, it may be impossible to calculate such an exchange ratio, even if you can prove the ratio must exist. Thus, for most people, "utility" is often tracked in a much more complicated way than dollars, even if dollars Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 20:43
• might be a valid minimal way of notating it. The more complicated value systems prove beneficial to people, especially when dealing with unknowns or when dealing with non-liquid things of value. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 20:44

I always assumed that those numbers were to be approximated as well as possible -- short of coming up with a machine for measuring Intensity of pleasure and pain, how else could we know? I think this is evidenced by the fact that the equations typically used for a hedonistic calculus are a. always symbolic and b. never quite right. For example, I tend to see that intensity should be multiplied by duration, when anybody who understands basic calculus understands that it must, rather, be integrated over time.

I don't think the development of the calculus serves as anything more than a thought experiment -- "here's how you should think about ethics. Think of ethics as an equation, a mathematical function that spits out a 'do X' or a 'do not do X.'" The details of the equation are only there to show you that such an equation can take many details into account, and appear quite valid on its face -- it does not seem that it is for actual use.