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Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

11. Objection: Happiness Can't Be Measured

Book cover: Empiricism and Ethics by D. H. Monro

The final critique against the prospect of utilitarianism grounding human rights is that happiness cannot be measured. If we cannot at least roughly quantify the extent to which satisfying a basic human need contributes to a person's happiness and life satisfaction, then my argument based on happiness fails.

Ingelström and van der Deijl [2021] offer a substantial methodological critique while Baggini [2018] makes a different kind of complaint. For my purpose here, I will restrict my response to Knutsson's [2016] criticisms. Knutsson objects on a number of fronts. One criticism is that happiness and suffering are so different in nature that they are incommensurable. As Knutsson puts it:

One can believe that because happiness and suffering are so different, it does not make sense to compare magnitudes of happiness and suffering on the same scale.

My response to this criticism is that Knutsson's contention belies our everyday experience. We put up with the discomfort of waiting in a queue for two hours for the pleasure of experiencing a great concert. Women bear the pain of childbirth for the many satisfactions gained from parenthood. Our legislators levy taxes even on begrudgers in order to build roads, schools and power utilities. We often trade a discomfort for a later happiness and most times without much effort we evaluate how much future happiness is worth the trade.

A second objection is that it is highly doubtful that happiness and suffering 'are (in principle) measurable to the required degree in an objective, non-arbitrary, scientific way that does not involve value judgements on the part of the person doing the measurement' [Knutsson 2016]. Knutsson explains:

I try to avoid saying that the magnitude of an instance of happiness is equal to, greater than, or smaller than an instance of suffering, but if I would say that, I would think of my statement as being partly a value judgement. It would be colored by how bad I believe that the suffering is compared to how good I believe that the happiness is.

What we need to appreciate here is that all of our statements about how happy or how sad we feel with something are expressions of the value we put on that thing. By their nature, happiness and sadness are our affective responses to situations. This expression of value does not mitigate against the objectivity of a scientific description of the degree of value that a person puts on a situation evoking the happy or sad response. An observer can remain entirely objective in reporting a subject who experiences the elation from winning a marathon as twice as significant as the discomfort from stubbing their toe. The subject themself, likewise, can maintain the same objectivity in self-reporting their valuations, as long as they are not lying, not deceiving themself, and so on.

The situation is akin to reporting on someone's likes and dislikes. Mary says, 'I like live theatre a lot'. She is expressing the high positive value she places on live theatre. When John reports Mary's high regard for live theatre, he is objectively reporting Mary's psychological state. Likewise, there is no impediment to Mary reporting objectively on her own psychological state of valuation. That they are, in both cases, reports of valuations makes them no less objective than reporting that Mary is very tall or that Mary is seeing a friend.

I shall deal here with one final objection from Knutsson. On the psychometric approach to measuring happiness, Knutsson [2016] writes:

The third approach is to postulate the existence of something unobservable such as anxiety, satisfaction or intelligence, and propose a way to measure it. One then checks how the measure covaries with, for instance, behavior, others' judgments, different circumstances and measures of other things. If the measure behaves as expected, that is taken to be good news for the postulate and the measure. . . . With this approach, it seems that happiness and suffering could be measured, perhaps even on a ratio scale, but I find the approach unattractive, partly for the following reason: regardless of whether the approach is used to establish the existence and structure of the postulated unobserved thing, or the approach is used to make a suggestion of how one ought to measure morally relevant things such as suffering for the purpose of making decisions, I do not see that it helps much that the measure behaves as expected. Perhaps the correct measure (if there is one), does not behave as we expect, and perhaps a different postulated entity and measure is more ethically attractive, regardless of whether that measure behaves as expected.

Book cover: Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science by Sissela Bok

It is hard to fathom how a 'correct measure' of happiness and suffering could 'not behave as we expect', and Knutsson fails to tell us how he thinks this is possible. I suspect he does not understand how model-based approaches work and the role they play in the advancement of scientific knowledge (even though he refers to Eran's [2017] description of how this kind of explanation works). Knutsson does recognize how, with this approach, the researcher tracks the variation of the 'unobservable' against variations of known observables, such as 'behavior, others' judgments, different circumstances and measures of other things'. The key here is that the researcher's theoretical model explains how the 'unobservable' and the observables covary. The model is confirmed when it is tested against variations of observables that have so far not been observed. If the model's predictions of degree of covariance are confirmed, that constitutes independent confirmation of the model. If the values of the two variables turn out not 'as we expect', then that is evidence that the model is incorrect.

What progress has been made in objectively measuring happiness? Answering the question, 'Can "happiness" really be measured?', world-wide happiness data collators, Ortiz-Ospina and Roser [2013] note the following:

Self-reports about happiness and life satisfaction are known to correlate with things that people typically associate with contentment, such as cheerfulness and smiling. [Here, the authors provide a scatter plot correlating countries in which people self-report higher life satisfaction with countries in which people tend to smile more.]

Experimental psychologists have also shown that self reports of well-being from surveys turn out to correlate with activity in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and satisfaction. And various surveys have confirmed that people who say they are happy also tend to sleep better and express positive emotions verbally more frequently.

Ortiz-Ospina and Roser [2013] also provide a table, adapted from psychologists Kahneman and Krueger, listing a set of variables 'that researchers have found to be related to self-reported happiness and life satisfaction'. They conclude from the evidence 'that survey-based measures of happiness and life satisfaction do provide a reasonably consistent and reliable picture of subjective well-being'.

Drawing on a wealth of research in many countries and over decades, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a set of comprehensive guidelines for collecting, publishing and analysing subjective well-being data. The authors of the report [OECD 2013: 10] state confidently that in the past two decades 'an increasing body of evidence has shown that subjective well-being can be measured in surveys, that such measures are valid and reliable, and that they can inform policy making'. The results of national and international research on happiness and well-being I reported in §4 above is but a snapshot of the data being uncovered.

This now concludes my support for the final of my three objectives for this essay. Here, I sought to demonstrate that all other appeals for grounding human rights other than to the satisfaction of basic human needs (e.g., to autonomy, dignity, justice) are simply elaborations of those fundamental requirements for satisfying human needs. I also aimed to answer more general criticisms of utilitarianism where relevant to the question of human rights.

Copyright © 2023

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