Question prompted by Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape", where he argues that "well being" can serve as an objective measure for ethics.

If we define "well-being" as the expected value of future happiness, then, in principle, if can we adequately quantify "happiness" to the point where we can order the "expected happiness" of alternative futures, we can use that as a basis for comparing ethical choices (so I guess this is a form of utilitarianism...with all its faults as well).

If you think it can, what could be the possible objective correlates of "happiness" - for example, the metabolic rate of a particular neurological system in the brain. If not, what is preventing "happiness" from being quantified, in principle?

  • Look up dopamine signaling. Dopamine is hugely important.
    – Rex Kerr
    Nov 9, 2013 at 0:41
  • "If we define "well-being" as the expected value of future happiness" -- why do we need to define it in such a way? Cant we just ask for quantization/ranking of "future well-being"? I think the answers below miss the point and focus on the term "happiness" instead on the question whether "well-being as basis for ethical choices". Jan 21, 2014 at 14:09

4 Answers 4


If not, what is preventing "happiness" from being quantified, in principle?

Quantifying whether someone is happy is not the same as being able to stimulate the happy feelings. The experience machine is critical to your question:

Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. Psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. He then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?

Nozick also believes that if pleasure were the only intrinsic value, people would have an overriding reason to be hooked up to an "experience machine," which would produce favorable sensations.

It turns out that when Nozick asked people if they'd like being hooked up to an 'experience machine', most people said no. I found a random poll which has 38% of people wanting to plug in and 62% wanting real life. Note that this is just a forums poll, so take it with a grain of salt.

Assuming 'no' to the experience machine: We are not guaranteed that human thriving has finite 'definition'. Consider an analogous question: will science ever 'finish'? Will we ever discover every physical law, with the only possible research left to be discovering the initial conditions of the universe to finer and finer precision? It's not clear. Using induction, we could say that we ought to expect science to continue finding deeper and deeper laws of the universe. Perhaps human thriving is the same: so far we seem to be finding more and more complex forms of human thriving; who says it will ever cease? Indeed, we know from addiction studies that just about any routine stimulation of the brain loses its effectiveness in creating fulfillment, over time. Our brains seem to get bored of things and want new experiences.

Given this, I would say that no, we will be very bad at predicting future happiness, just like we're bad at predicting future science, unless you're talking only one or two years into the future. We can make very broad predictions—like more greenery makes for more happiness—but there is no evidence that we'll be able to be precise in the way that Sam Harris seems to require.

  • Thanks :) Your mention of the experience machine leads me to ask you a related question: Are people good at predicting our own future happiness? I ask because even though people say they want a "real" life, they are making that decision while living that life. What they should also consider is the opposite...would they want their real after being hooked up to the experience machine? The two answers are not necessarily the same, but the assumption is that we can predict how we will feel in a hypothetical situation, which is known to not be true for extreme or unfamiliar events.
    – user4634
    Nov 9, 2013 at 12:29
  • People are bad at introspection, so I'd be skeptical of the ability to predict future happiness. This line of thought also seems to feed into my question, Are there laws which govern minds?
    – labreuer
    Nov 9, 2013 at 20:08
  • @Eupraxis1981: In addition to the above (which I didn't @ at you), you might like Affective Forecasting. "Generally, however, humans are adept at predicting whether events are likely to be pleasant or unpleasant. [...] People are less adept at predicting the intensity and duration of their future emotional reactions."
    – labreuer
    Nov 10, 2013 at 21:40
  • @labreur: Great link :) It also mentions that people underestimate their ability to adapt. Given that, if they were involunarily hooked up to an experience machine, I'd guess they would be less happy for a time. However, their unhappiess stems from it not being "real" in that their physical body is not in the situations they precieve. However, if they adapt to this new, fluid reality, they may, and probably will, seek to expoit this and acheive expereices of happiness not possible given the lmitations of the real world.
    – user4634
    Nov 11, 2013 at 15:23
  • Given the that both you and Michael have brought up the idea of "artificial happiness" and my response is that I still think there is a case to be made that happiness is happiess, artifical or otherwise. I will post this as a separate question.
    – user4634
    Nov 11, 2013 at 15:25

You are deriving "well-being" from "happiness", which is a fallacy. Does a drug-induced happy feeling sound like well-being to you? There is a lot more to well-being than happy emotions, or even expectation of happy emotions. Otherwise the maximal well-being could be achieved by putting a person in a comatose state and inducing perpetual happiness with a direct stimulations of certain portions of the brain. A Matrix-style perpetual bliss, so to speak.

Or, to put it more succinctly, happiness to well-being is what masturbation is to sex.

So the answer to your question is "yes" for objectively detecting the feeling of happiness by neurological measurements and "no" for objectively measuring well-being with such methods.

  • Thanks Michael. If a person were put in a Matrix-style world (albeit a very happy/pleasurable one) and their physical body kept safe and healthy, then why have they not optimized their well being?
    – user4634
    Nov 9, 2013 at 0:02
  • That's a very interesting question, @Eupraxis1981, more interesting than the original one IMO. I have not found a satisfactory answer to that so far.
    – Michael
    Nov 10, 2013 at 3:28

I think the prior answers miss the point and focus on the term "happiness" instead on the question whether "well-being" could be used as basis for comparing ethical choices.

I believe that this is how we make daily choices - we optimize our future well-being in alternative futures. However we cannot use such technique for resolving ethical choices, because personal well-being may contradict the ethical implications.

We should also factor in our inefficiency of predicting and correctly evaluating the future.


The only way you can really rank future outcomes is by preference. Someone might want the happiness derived from the stimulation and frustrations of a math problem more than that associated with, say, communal drunkenness. These experiences are qualitatively disparate, but are both happy for many people. It is the evaluation of these experiences by the individual after the fact that decides which one was MORE happy; this involves instituting an order on the space of experiences. Because this order is arbitrary (both of the previous experiences simply where, and where not inherently negative if such a thing exists) and because the choice of distance function on the space given the order is even more arbitrary (as it is not implicitly overlaid by the experiencer, but by a theoretician on the outside), the expected value of future happiness for one person is not objective. Additionally, just because we have finally arrived at a number does not mean that it is trivial that the Euclidean norm of the happinesses of all people is the "right" norm for determining the happiness of the population.

Your Answer

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