Utilitarian Happiness: How It’s Measured

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How does utilitarianism define happiness? What does utilitarian happiness have to do with morality?

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that prescribes actions that maximize welfare or happiness. Utilitarians argue that happiness and pain are the only ways we can measure morality—morally good things make people happy, while morally bad things cause people pain.

Keep reading to learn about the utilitarian conception of happiness and how can be measured.

Measuring Happiness

To understand how much happiness or pain an action creates (a crucial part of determining what’s most ethical), utilitarians believe they can measure happiness on a consistent scale. Sandel explains two main perspectives on how to measure utilitarian happiness:

1) Quantitative method: Some utilitarians (including Bentham) value all pleasures equally in their measurements of happiness. This non-judgmental approach makes it easier to measure pleasure and pain—they just consider how many pleasures a decision will create rather than which pleasures are lesser or greater. For example, a quantitative method would value pleasure from viewing the Mona Lisa as equal to pleasure from viewing The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

2) Qualitative method: Other utilitarians like John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argue for a hierarchy of pleasures instead of valuing them all equally. They suggest that general consensus can create this hierarchy—if people generally agree that one pleasure is better than another (focusing on what they actually like, not on what they think they should like), then society will value that pleasure more highly. For example, if people generally accept that they enjoy The Real Housewives of New Jersey more than the Mona Lisa or that it’s “better art,” then a qualitative scale would value Real Housewives above the Mona Lisa.

Happiness as a State of Well-Being

Some philosophers argue that instead of measuring happiness on a case-by-case basis (like Bentham and Mill do in their quantitative and qualitative approaches), the best way to judge human well-being is through a set list of objective standards—if someone meets all of these standards, then we can accept that they are living a happy life. 

This system goes against quantitative measurement, arguing that some things (the essential standards of happiness) offer more utility than others. However, it also goes against qualitative measurement, as it suggests that all of these essential standards are objective and not up for public debate or ranking.

Contemporary American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Women and Human Development) attempts to create a list of standards essential for happiness, which we’ve condensed into three main categories:

1) Physical well-being: This category includes access to health care, shelter, and a healthy diet. It also includes protection from physical and sexual assault as well as autonomy in matters of personal health.

2) Mental well-being: This category includes access to education, access to recreational and relaxing activities, freedom of thought and expression, and overall healthy mental and emotional development unhindered by excessive fear, treatable mental illness, abuse, and trauma. 

3) Social well-being: This category includes a say in political matters, freedom of speech and association, loving and being loved by others, access to political and economic opportunities, equal rights, and being respected as someone of equal worth to others. 
Utilitarian Happiness: How It’s Measured

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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