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Politics as Hedonism

As someone who's sympathetic to old-school Benthamite utilitarianism, I would be remiss in not linking to Richard Layard's cover story in British Prospect (not to be confused, of course, with The American Prospect) arguing for a Benthamite reconceptualization of politics and policy. Unfortunately, I think Layard's conclusions and mode of argumentation are pretty off-base. I fear that the main result of his current efforts (he also has, I think, a book out) will merely be to discredit the general approach and convince people that if you reject Layard-ism the only appropriate thing to do is to go become a utilitarian. So let me note a couple of things.

One is that Layard seems to have the view that insofar as a person has a preference that, if satisfied, will actually make a person less happy that this gives us sufficient reasons to adopt policies aimed at preventing the person from trying to satisfy the preference. Even within a Benthamite framework, however, this doesn't follow. If John really, really wants to do something, then preventing John from doing it is likely to make John pretty unhappy (frustrated, alienated, etc.) even if actually doing whatever it is John wants to do would actually make him unhappy as well. What you want here is a Magic Preference Wand that will make John not want to do whatever it is he wants to do. But since you don't have one, merely preventing John from doing it may or may not be the way to go depending on the situation.

Layard's larger point concerns the fact that, once a society reaches a certain level of wealth (about the level enjoyed by the poorest rich countries like Greece and Portugal) more wealth doesn't make the society happier. He thinks that rich countries are stuck in a misery-inducing spiral of hard work and economic growth that we should try and slow or stop with tax policy. Granting Layard's value premises and his empirical facts here, he's still ignoring a lot of relevant issues. For one thing, though the median person in a low-tier rich society may be no less happy than the median person in a high-tier rich society, it's still possible (indeed, I would say likely) that people living in economically stagnant, growth-free societies would be less happy (ceteris paribus) than people in more dynamic ones. I think we're all familiar with the phenomenon where some new, previously unavailable gadget (a cell phone, an iPod) really thrills you when you first get it. After you've had it for a while, though, you pretty much stop appreciating it. Indeed, after a long enough time the gadget becomes a net utility destroyer.

I'm now at a point where if for some reason I can't use my cell phone or iPod (because I forgot it somewhere, because it ran out of batteries) I miss it, even though before these gadgets existed, I managed to get along just fine without them. One might think, then, that there's no point in ever acquiring such things. The happiness boost is merely temporary. But while that's true of each individual gadget, the fact that new cool stuff is being invented and brought to market all the time is an ongoing process that creates many happiness-enhancing moments over the years. A growth-free society would be one in which people were basically deprived of such moments.

There's also an economic dimension to consider here. Most of the world's population does not live in Layard's rich countries. Indeed, an extremely large number of people (on the order of two billion or so) live in extremely dire poverty. For all the hype about rapid economic growth in India and China, that growth will have to be sustained for a very long time before those countries (to say nothing of poorer ones in Africa and so forth) get rich enough to pass the Layard point. Growth in the developing world, meanwhile, can't simply be unhinged from growth in the rich world. If North America, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australasia all simultaneously stopped growing economically, the result on economies elsewhere would be devastating. It would be nice if you could somehow directly transfer potential GDP growth from the United States to Chad in a way that would let over-worked and quite wealthy Americans relax a bit, and let desperately poor Chadeans accumulate more income, but this only works as a thought experiment, it's not a real economic policy.

Last (and also, I think, least) the very same treadmill effect Layard identifies with regard to individual actors inside a wealthy economy also obtains on the economic sphere. Even if, say, Canada's GDP is beyond the point where getting richer makes your population happier, the Canadian population can't be viewed as a group that's hermetically sealed off from the United States. Just as no one individual can get off the work-growth treadmill because people do care about comparative wealth and status effects, so, too, would it be very hard for an individual country in an interconnected world to do so, for basically the same reasons.

Okay, that wasn't actually last. But this other point really isn't least. It's just extremely hard to imagine a society that actually tried to govern itself around consistent consequentialist lines. Policy debates would become totally intractable and get bogged down in disputes about the likely effects of policy when judged in an infinite time horizon. Chou en-Lai (I think) said it was too soon to tell whether or not the French Revolution was a good thing. But of course it wasn't too soon to tell, it's impossible to tell. At least it's impossible if you insist on trying to evaulate things through the frame of hedonistic utilitarianism. Even if I don't really approve of it, the reality is that unless we have some more robust principles at hand than "happiness is good," it's not possible to think clearly about any major decisions.

March 2, 2005 | Permalink


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I was discussing this a while ago with Neil "The Ethical Werewolf" Sinhababu. I thought Aldous Huxley was right -- you can tinker around with external conditions in the hopes that lowered income inequality will lead poorer people to buy bigger houses which will lead to a combination of feelings of higher social status and more material comfort which will lead to higher seretonin levels in the brain, eventually, hopefully. I thought that a far more direct approach would be more effective: direct some resources into the pharmaceutical industry into developing euphoriants to which one doesn't acquire a tolerance, can be cheaply manufactured, and have minimal side effects.

BTW, as long as we're talking about utilitarianism, does anyone know what analytical advantages Peter Singer's preference-utilitarianism provides over more traditional, hedonic Bentham/Edgeworth/Sedgwick-style utilitarianism?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Mar 2, 2005 10:54:16 AM

I vote for Elson's direct approach, advocating additional research into approaches using electro-stimulation.

I am not sure technological innovation should be so directly correlated with general economic growth.

And I finally got around to changing MY's url in my RSS feed. This morning I got a screen saying the account had been suspended and I worried that Matt had pulled a Rimbaud and gone off to sell arms in Paraguay.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 2, 2005 11:36:15 AM

Agreed. Utilitarianism is an intriguing idea -- since in essence it pushes for logical transparency in decision making, which very useful to have -- but quantitative analysis is not developed enough to have good application beyond some restricted spheres like economics or health care.

Presumably as we understand ourselves better, we will be able to expand the domain of quantitative analysis.

But in the present day, it's just a nice ideal-- we're just not there yet. We'll have to continue using clunky old intuition for quite a long time.

Note, though, that we can still push for logical transparency sometimes in moral thinking (and of course we do all the time). This is a good thing, even though it's hazier than "my plan yields 50 utils and yours only 23!".

Posted by: mike | Mar 2, 2005 11:36:50 AM

Thanks for the link, Matt, I never heard of Benthamite Utilitarianism, but much of it seems to be good common sense to me. I chuckled a bit as I read Layard's piece, imagining George Bush or any average American understanding this stuff. ("Me must grab more-more-MORE".)

Where I differ strongly, as you also do, is Layard's idea that government can or should be in the business of promoting happiness. Best for government to have policies that will bring the poorest out of poverty, then let them try to figure out what is their own source of happiness.

You, for instance, believe you can achieve some happiness through the purchase and use of the newest cool stuff. That is a distinctly American take, which is the source of our greatness and also our potential downfall. Our endless need for the new is why this country is always on the leading edge, materially, but in the end, satiation is all we get, not happiness. The new stuff is a distraction from the real stuff and in time, becomes an addiction, which we are witnessing on a national scale.

Sri Aurobindo, who is in my opinion, the greatest sage of the twentieth century, says what we all seek from life is delight. That seems like just the word to me. It connotes a joy in living that transcends the too philosophical "happiness". We have a feeling that delight is somehow our birthright, but getting it naturally is hard and often a rare experience, so the materialists (us) turn to materials. The use of alcohol, opiates and psychotropics are all attempts to get delight. Obviously they do not last and I believe nature demands that artificial highs lead to compensating lows, so the more materials we rely on, the deeper our depressions.

The way to happiness and delight that has staying power? That's much harder than popping a brew. Go inside, to the source. I won't attempt to define that source, but as recent brain scans of meditating monks have shown, the quantity of happiness and delight that can be tapped is vastly greater.

Om, shanti.

Posted by: James of DC | Mar 2, 2005 11:47:03 AM

I'm skeptical that you can base any quantitative analysis on something as ephemeral as happiness. Happiness is not a condition, but an emotion, and, as such, is not subject to logic, reason, or application of cause and effect. If it were, mental health would be much better. Any type of policy springing out of utilitarianism is at best based on someone's best guess of what causes happiness, which clearly is not happiness itself, but based on some concept of "the good".

Further, I'm skeptical, even if it were possible to quantitatively analyze and then act to create happiness, if that is a legitimate goal. A lot of personal growth is gained at the cost of pain, and while that growth may create future happiness that outweighs the cost, or the cost may come with benefits that outweigh it(for example, the benefits of having been in love outweighing the pain of losing a lover), that's not always the case, but sometimes we're more fully human for experiencing something that less than maximizes our utility.

Posted by: flip | Mar 2, 2005 11:58:52 AM


I understand from various surveys that my poor Filipino countrymen are the worlds happiest people, collectively speaking.

Now, these people are both very poor and pretty much in an economically stagnant condition, at least compared to their neighbors. And yet they are as prone as anyone else to accumulate and obtain the latest gadgets, given the opportunity.

Could it be that personal happiness is a cultural artifact not directly linked to economics ? I think that is entirely possible.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 2, 2005 12:27:52 PM

Too much choice makes people unhappy.

"Unlimited choice, I believe, can produce genuine suffering," says Barry Schwartz, whose work explores the social and psychological effects of free-market economic institutions on moral, social, and civic concerns. "Here we are, living at the pinnacle of human possibility, awash in material abundance. As a society, we have achieved what our ancestors could only dream about. But it has come at a great price."

In his new book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Ecco Press, January 2004), Schwartz finds that many modern Americans feel tyrannized by choice.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 2, 2005 12:39:50 PM

The problem with utilitarianism, of course, is that it completely ignores justice. If tossing an innocent man to the wolves every so often satiates the public's lust for blood, then a-tossing we will go.

- Josh

Posted by: Wild Pegasus | Mar 2, 2005 1:32:57 PM

A couple of points. First, Josh, your criticism of utilitarianism as unconcerned with justice is true only for pretty crude accounts of the theory. If we take utilitarianism seriously, then we must consider not just the effects of individual actions on overall utility, but also the consequences of having policies of a certain type. I don't think it's all that implausible to say that a society that has a policy that says something like, "It's okay to kill someone whenever doing so will create some extra happiness" is unlikely to have a higher overall level of happiness than is a society that says, "I ought to treat everyone equally."

And Julian, the biggest difference btn preference utilitarianism and hedonism lies, I think, it its plausibility. Specifically, Bentham's hedonism has difficulty handling certain types of things that we generally think of as good. What sorts of sense does it make to talk about, say, the pleasure of friendship or the pleasure of a good book. We talk that way informally, but it's not entirely clear what exactly we mean by 'pleasure' in those senses. There isn't exactly some physical feeling that I can associate with friendship or with a book. Clearly these things are good, but it's not so clear that 'pleasure' is the proper way to capture that feeling. (That, by the way, is the intuition that led J.S. Mill to distinguish higher--or intellectual--pleasures from lower physical pleasures. Mill's hedonism is more plausible than Bentham's, but it has its own difficulties.)

Posted by: Joe Miller | Mar 2, 2005 2:07:04 PM

"The problem with utilitarianism, of course, is that it completely ignores justice."

Nah, ideally justice is subsumed under the quantitative analysis. What you're really saying is "our model may not be good enough to capture all the important things." This is true, and it's vital for people to remember that a model of reality is not reality. (So, for example, optimizing corporate profit is the "best path" according to a standard economic model, but most likely that model doesn't say anything about the "moral cost" of killing its patients, or whatever-- so you have to use common sense & intuition outside of what the model tells you.)

On second thought though, utilitarianism is more than quantitative analysis-- it's also some kind of statement about the ultimate end of that analysis.

So I take your point: utilitarianism can be bad to the extent that people (wrongly) assume right off the bat that they know exactly what they're trying to optimize (they might say "happiness" or "pleasure", as colloquially understood). That can lead them to make bad models.

But moral absolutes can clearly be accommodated in a quantitative framework, just assign a really really bad negative utility to a moral evil.

Posted by: Mike | Mar 2, 2005 2:20:31 PM

" Mill's hedonism is more plausible than Bentham's, but it has its own difficulties."

Such as? ( Not being cocky by being pithy, I'd like to know what you think ).

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Mar 2, 2005 2:20:43 PM


I'm not sure that I can do justice to your question in this particular sort of forum. The quick answer is that Mill's hedonism is more plausible because it recognizes a distinction in types of activities. What Mill terms 'higher pleasures' seem really to involve two parts. First, they are the result of activities that require that we exercise our ability to make choices. So, for example, poetry is a higher pleasure because when I consider a poem, I have to decide which among the many features of the poem I should focus on. That leads directly to the second feature of higher pleasures, namely that they are the result of activities that require us to express our individuality. So I can appreciate a poem becuase I choose to focus on the parts that are important to me based on my individual set of circumstances.

Mill then claims that the types of activities that lead to this kind of pleasure result in a kind of pleasure that is more valuable than the pleasure that one gets from, say, drinking a beer. For Mill, this is an empirical claim that we know by asking people who have experience with both higher and lower pleasures.

Mill's qualitative hedonism has important implications. Because the exercise of my choice-making ability is a necessary condition of experiencing higher pleasures, it will be the case that society must protect individual liberty (hence the protections of On Liberty). That means that Mill has much better justification for, say, not throwing people to wolves; doing so is a pretty significant infringement of their liberty, after all. It also provides utilitarian cover for the harm principle, something that Bentham's utilitarianism can't do. Or rather, Mill provides cover for treating the harm principle as absolute, where Bentham will have to concede that violations might sometimes be justified.

The drawback to Mill's account is that it's not exactly clear what it means to say that the pleasure from reading a book is qualitatively better than the pleasure from drinking a beer. Mill's claim is that there are two kinds of pleasure involved, not just that one provides more pleasure. I'm not quite sure how to make sense of that notion. There is also the worry that Mill's empirical claim rests on elitist assumptions.

Sorry to wax pedantic. That's the danger of asking an academic questions about his dissertation.

Posted by: Joe Miller | Mar 2, 2005 2:38:46 PM

Well I'm pretty ignorant of all sorts of utilitarianism and should do some reading.

Here's a question. If torturing one person, or holding one person without trial, could without any shadow of a doubt save the lives of 3,000 people and thereby increase the sum of human happiness would it be ok? I say "no."

Posted by: Abby | Mar 2, 2005 2:41:19 PM

I vote for Elson's direct approach, advocating additional research into approaches using electro-stimulation.

Done: Brain Stimulation May Curb Persistent Depression - 21 minutes ago

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Individuals with severe depression who do not respond to standard types of treatment may be helped with an experimental treatment called deep brain stimulation, Canadian investigators report.

Four of six severely depressed patients who underwent deep brain stimulation, which involves surgically implanting electrodes in a targeted area of the brain thought to be involved in depression, experienced a "striking and sustained" let-up in their depression, investigators report in the medical journal Neuron.
"We need new treatments so that a patient does not go through 5 years of drug cocktails and every possible combination of pills and electroconvulsive therapy before coming to the conclusion that you need something else," she said. "Why should people suffer that long, when maybe we can do something that will give true relief?"

Way to go, man!

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 2, 2005 2:43:42 PM


Would you change your mind at 30,000? 3,000,000? At some point, choosing the destruction of the world over the scratching of my finger (to paraphrase Hume) starts to look implausible. Why think that rights must be so rigidly absolute that nothing can override them?

Posted by: Joe Miller | Mar 2, 2005 2:52:23 PM

Much of this isn't on the mark. I just read Layard's book.

>It would be nice if you could somehow directly transfer potential GDP
growth from the United States to Chad in a way that
>would let over-worked and quite wealthy Americans relax a bit, and let
desperately poor Chadeans accumulate more income, but
>this only works as a thought experiment, it's not a real economic policy.

The economic policy is higher taxation and increased international aid,
which is what Layard prescribes.

>Policy debates would become totally intractable and get bogged down in
disputes about the likely effects of policy when
>judged in an infinite time horizon.

In principle, economists accept an infinite time horizon. Economic policy
still gets made. Like economists, utilitarians are obliged not to get bogged
down in disputes about infinite time horizons!

Posted by: AlGore | Mar 2, 2005 2:59:28 PM

As a fan, I'm sorry to say this, but this isn't one of your best posts.

You claim "I think Layard's conclusions and mode of argumentation are pretty off-base." But you don't really state his main conclusions. Instead you infer claims from his endorsement of Benthamite Utilitarianism and then attack those. My impression is that you were too rushed to give the article a careful and thorough read.

You argue: "What you want here is a Magic Preference Wand that will make John not want to do whatever it is he wants to do. But since you don't have one, merely preventing John from doing it may or may not be the way to go depending on the situation."

This unfairly buries one of the good points of the article, namely that people's preferences are shaped by political and social institutions, and so if we value personal happiness and its promotion, we need to examine the role of these institutions and their effects on people's preferences.

When you go on to argue that he's missing some "relevant issues," I think you're picking at details that really don't take away from the article's general points (points which you don't bother to state). The article is programmatic.

Please just read it again.

I'm not a Utilitarian, but I do think Utilitarian intuitions are broadly shared as part of our basic moral sense and haven't been given due consideration in the crafting of public policy. If Layard's views gained a broader acceptance, it would be an improvement.

[As a swipe at Layard, though, he should drop Bentham and his rather crude hedonism in favor of a broader Utilitarian approach or the neo-Aristotelian capabilities approach of Sen and others.]

Posted by: David | Mar 2, 2005 3:54:03 PM

I just want to say that if we could see an innocent person thrown to the wolves about once a year, that would rock.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Mar 2, 2005 5:05:45 PM

Walt, we need to use the Magic Preference Wand on you.

AlGore is right that we won't get bogged down by talking about infinite time horizons. As long as we accept that our ability to predict gets worse and worse the further into the future we look, we won't spend too much time worrying about far-future impacts of policy.

If anyone's interested, the comment where Julian suggests massive research into euphoriants and I endorse it is here.

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | Mar 2, 2005 6:02:11 PM

Oh, and I just thought I'd take an oppurtunity to post A Non-Philosopher's Guide to Philosophical Terms. I think I originally got it from MY, a long time ago.

Utilitarian: one who believes that the morally right action is the one with the best consequences, so far as the distribution of happiness is concerned; a creature generally believed to be endowed with the propensity to ignore their own drowning children in order to push buttons which will cause mild sexual gratification in a warehouse full of rabbits.

Benthamite: Someone who really would ignore their own drowning child in order to push the rabbit-gratification button.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Mar 3, 2005 1:13:16 AM

I think much of the discussion misses what I think Layard's real contribution is, particulary in his just-published book "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science". This is in part Layard's fault, because he uses the book and his article to push his own personal utilitarian philosophy. However, I think that the scientific findings reviewed in this book should be highly relevant to any philosophy, theology, or applied social science. Even if you don't think happiness is the be-all or end-all of social policy, recent research on the determinants of happiness should at least be taken into account. For example, page 64 of the book has a facinating table, attributed to research by John Helliwell, which reports that being divorced, rather than married, has about two-and-a-half times the depressing effect on happiness of losing one-third of your family income. Being unemployed, rather than employed, has about three times the depressing effect of a one-third loss in family income. Even if you are employed, if the general unemployment rate goes up by 10 points, this reduces happiness more than a one-third drop in family income. These findings are surprising and important to take into account.

Posted by: Tim Bartik | Mar 3, 2005 1:19:07 PM

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