Utilitarianism is defined as follows:

Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, but is usually related to the well-being of sentient entities. Originally, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. John Stuart Mill expanded this concept of utility to include not only the quantity, but quality of pleasure, while focusing on rules, instead of individual moral actions. Others have rejected that pleasure has positive value and have advocated negative utilitarianism, which defines utility only in terms of suffering. As opposed to this hedonistic view, some define utility with relation to preference satisfaction whereas others believe that a range of values can be included in its definition.


So we see that happiness is very important in utilitarianism, but Esterlin Paradox states that:

The Easterlin paradox is a key concept in happiness economics. It is named for the economist and USC professor Richard Easterlin, who discussed the factors contributing to happiness in a 1974 book chapter. Easterlin argued that while within a given country people with higher incomes were more likely to report being happy, this would not hold at a national level, creating an apparent paradox.


Also, from Tibor Scitovsky Joyless Economy, we know that:

Tibor Scitovsky’s first four chapters present what remains one of the most artful and accessible summaries of what psychologists know about human motivation. Economists will learn that the concept of utility in economic models corresponds to the psychologist’s notion of comfort; and they will see substantial evidence against the idea that people are comfort maximizers. This book remains a major critique of modern and especially economic values Based on “Happiness Paradox”, in this essay, the author advised that we should spend our money on things that we will not adapt to (“stimulation good” or “relational good” , such a beautiful scenery or meeting good friends – things that can continually fascinate us and provide a degree of fulfillment) rather than wasting our time and money buying things which we get adapted to (“comfort good”, such as a newer and fancier-looking sofa, etc. – the pleasure of which is temporary and fades with time).


Did these results disprove utilitarianism based on happiness?

  • 1
    Can you explain why you think these (may or may not) disprove utilitarianism?
    – E...
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 17:18
  • @EliranH because happiness cannot be optimized at a national scale. If these results are correct, you cannot base politics or economy on happiness. Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 17:46
  • 1
    I always wondered how Mill and Bentham imagined performing all this arithmetic on pleasures and sufferings even for a single person, let alone across masses of people, regardless of specifics of defining utility, or how utility of consequences is supposed to be reflected back on utility of actions since by and large we have no clue what their cumulative consequences might be, especially to the detail envisioned in the subtleties of pleasure "calculations". Compared to that happiness paradox seems like a trifle.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 21:27
  • If this is a bunch of quotes stapled together, tell us their sources. If this is just from your own head, state that.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 22:06
  • 1
    Both the complexity and ultimate inconsistency of the imaginary calculations (and their consequent impossibility) and the biological pointlessness of endless bliss (and its consequent nonexistence) are great arguments against utilitarianism, but there is a more basic one -- happiness is impossible to define. I am too lazy to write this again: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/26553/9166
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 17:26

1 Answer 1


Answer: No, Scitovsky's view does not disprove utilitarianism. On the contrary, utilitarianism, interpreted appropriately, vindicates that Scitovsky's intuition in Joyless Economy is correct.

I take it that the point of Scitovsky's Joyless Economy is that economic policy of a nation that aims to increase material wealth (e.g. GDP) will eventually lead to the people of ennui: happiness obtained from consuming material goods will reach a satiation point, and once reached, people will become bored or pervertic in their preferences to gain more pleasure out of their consumption (like the guy in the 50 shades of something on carnal knowledge). Scitovsky thus asserts that the govt should guide the consumption habits of the people to the direction of unbounded joy: the enjoyment of arts and nature, which lacks the satiation point.

You are right if, by utilitarianism, you mean Benthamite utilitarianism that identifies happiness with hedonism. The pursuit of hedonistic pleasures will eventually lead to joyless pleasures. The utilitarianism is susceptible to Scitovsky's criticism.

But Mill's utilitarianism is not hedonistic. Mill maintains that hedonistic pleasures are pleasures fit for pigs. The kind of pleasures that properly belongs to human beings is not derived from sensations or mental states. To Mill (a la David Brink) pleasures appropriate for humans are activities rooted in rational capacities. The human-proper pleasures obtain when we are deliberating on the good, writing a novel, or running a super-marathon. This view of human happiness actually coincides with Aristotle's notion of happiness (it is well established that Mill's existential angst resulted in taking Aristotelian view of happiness, despite his father's Benthamite indoctrination)

Mill and Aristotle's view of happiness, when applied to political philosophy, is called the perfectionist public policy. The goal of the perfectionist policy is to help people to live a good life. To this end, the gov might guide the consumption habits of the people by imposing the soda tax. It might encourage people to go to classical music concerts and discourage them watching *Rick and Morty."' Rawls criticized perfectionism for being illiberal and paternalistic. The debate between perfectionists and Rawlsians still continues.

Thus, Mill's utilitarianism actually explains why welfare economy can lead to joyless economy and provides different policy directions as delineated by Scitovsky.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .