“People want to maximize utilization.” This is the basis of many modern economic theories. So what is the benefit? According to British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the inventor of utilitarianism, many people think of utility as happiness or pleasure. But according to modern economists this is not so. Their definition of utility is how much a person wants something. According to economists, if a person works hard and makes sacrifices to buy a house, this house is very beneficial for that person.
When modern economists
talk about the concept of consumer surplus, they only describe the utility that consumers receive when they get a good deal on consumer goods. Welfare economics, which is concerned with how much the economy benefits humanity, perceives social welfare as a function of the extent to which people satisfy their wants. Economists, who are more egalitarian, tend to value the benefits and disadvantages of the poor more than the benefits of the wealthy. However, the basis is still to give people what they want.
There are also aspects to criticize this philosophical approach. First of all, people sometimes make choices they regret. For example, smokers know that they should quit, but they procrastinate all the time. But when they look back, they say, I wish I dared to quit then. So, should society care about people’s present selves or their future selves?
Everyone knows that smoking is harmful. But cigarettes also bring happiness to people. In this case, should the state prevent the sale and use of cigarettes?
There are more important reasons to question whether society should always nurture human desires. Bentham’s utilitarianism refers to a good society that makes its people happy. But what if the things people desire don’t bring them happiness?
There is no clear consensus on how happiness can be measured. Some neuroscientists have tried to relate this to various measures
of brain activity. But economists tend to use a much cheaper and faster method. They send out surveys to tell people how happy they are.
Happiness research has produced some surprising and disturbing findings. People approach things that will make them unhappy more confidently. One of them is Facebook, which everyone uses. In 2019, a group of economists conducted a study
. They asked Facebook users how much money they wanted to disable the app for a month or two. The average price was found to be $180. This shows that users benefit greatly from Facebook, which is free. This supports the argument of those who believe that free digital services add too much unmeasured data to the global economy.
Another finding of this trial was that those who disabled Facebook reported happier, higher life satisfaction, and lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Another example of the disconnect between happiness and utility would be commuting. According to a study
, being on the road for a long time also makes people unhappy. However, people still pay too much to live in remote areas. At the same time, living in big houses does not bring happiness. But people are always working harder to live in big houses.
Another finding is that what people pay for is predicted to increase their happiness. If a person pays for something, he or she is happier than having it for free. Of course not always.
So what should society do about the disconnect between utility and happiness? It can be misleading to base surveys on happiness because the measures of true happiness depend on culture, socioeconomic status, living conditions, etc. It can vary depending on things.
But just because happiness is hard to measure, it’s also unwise to keep it independent of utilitarianism. If people are making mistakes that will make society more miserable, these issues need to be addressed.