0

I assume utilitarianism to be the doctrine that one should act to maximize the overall amount of "happiness".

Next to the fact that it's not quite clear

  • what happiness is supposed to be and how it could be measured (to maximize it)

  • what the target group should be (whose overall amount of happiness is to be maximized)

it's also unclear

  • what the overall amount should be and

  • if this is the relevant target size.

Maximizing the overall amount means maximizing the arithmetic mean. But this is possibly not what one wants to achieve. As more often than not, the median would be a better target size, i.e. the "happiness in the middle".

But maybe this still isn't the whole story: happiness - even when the median is maximized - could nevertheless be distributed unfairly, e.g. in the case of too many or too extreme outliers or possibly measured as some kind of Gini coefficient.

Is there a modern version of utilitarianism that takes all of this into account?

  • As for target group - here it is pretty clear that we should maximize happiness and minimize the suffering of everyone who is able to experience happiness and/or suffering (therefore including animals). It would not be logical nor meaningful to talk about maximizing happiness of a rock or a cellar door because they can't experience these states. – kukis Jun 14 at 14:08
  • 1
    It really makes little sense to fuss over means and medians when cross-personal comparisons of "happiness", and values generally, are largely seen as hopeless. Even defenders do not profess to give a workable calculus, see e.g. Klocksiem's 2009 thesis On the Measurability of Pleasure and Pain. – Conifold Jun 14 at 15:07
  • @Conifold: There are lots of attempts to measure happiness and life satisfaction today. – Hans-Peter Stricker Jun 15 at 10:47
  • 1
    @Hans-PeterStricker Sure, if self-reporting happiness or lack thereof amounts to "measuring" it. Even taking this at face value, it is unclear what different factors contribute to this overall happiness, and how self-reporters compute the "score", or whether "very happy" and "rather happy" denote comparable things for different people. Which is exactly what a calculus would have to explain, at least theoretically. – Conifold Jun 16 at 9:29
  • 1
    "Maximizing the overall amount means maximizing the arithmetic mean." - This is only true if the population size is held constant. But people can choose whether to have children, and we might want to evaluate the moral weight of that choice. This inference is invalid in that case. – Kevin Jun 18 at 16:48
0
what happiness is supposed to be and how it could be measured (to maximize it)

We can't measure it directly so we use voting instead in democracies

what the target group should be (whose overall amount of happiness is to be maximezed)

The group is the total number of people impacted by the action you're considering

But maybe this still isn't the whole story: happiness - even when the median is maximized - could nevertheless be distributed unfairly, e.g. in the case of too many or too extreme outliers or possibly measured as some kind of Gini coefficient.

Unfair distribution of happiness is only a problem if it creates jealousy. So ideally you'd take jealousy into account when making a choice

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.