It’s not science. At the most lofty level of scientific method, the hedonicists cheekily and with foreknowledge mix up a “non-interval” scale with an “interval” scale. If you like the temperature in Chicago today better than the one on January 15, you might be induced by the interviewer to assign 2.76 to today and a 1.45 to January 15. But such an assignment is of course arbitrary in God’s eyes. It is not a measure in her view of the difference even in your heart (since to her all hearts are open) between a nice day and a cold day. By contrast, an interval scale, such as Fahrenheit or Celsius temperature on the two days in question, does measure, 1-2-3. God doesn’t care which scale you use for hedonics as long as it’s an interval scale. Non-interval scales merely rank (and classifications merely arrange). We couldn’t base a physics on asking people whether today was “hot, nice, or cold” and expect to get anything quantitative out of it.
It is like the pre-election surveys that ask people now to “vote” for or against President Obama in 2012. The sampling “error” is always 2 or 3 percent (because the sample size is always about 1,000 or 1,500 and the probability of a “yes” is about 50 percent: The math of the binomial calculation is left as an exercise for the reader), which is carefully reported by the journalists as though it were the error in predicting the actual election. But the error in the important prediction has nothing to do with mere sampling error. If unemployment gets below 8 percent, Obama will win, whatever the “significance” of the survey results now. If he is discovered to practice adultery, he will lose.
And the literature simply strides past the problem evident since the first criticisms of Bentham—that utils cannot be compared among people. This is not merely a technical matter. It is also a matter of human dignity. Suppose that Connor and Lily have the same happinessproducing circumstances of income and health and so forth. Yet Lily’s reported “very happy” value of 2.8 exceeds Connor’s meager 1.4. Well, then: Lily must be a better machine for making happiness than Connor is. Never mind that Lily-utils have nothing to do with Connor-utils. We are in the realm of “Why is a mouse when it spins?” (The answer, of course, is, “The higher the fewer.”)
There is in fact substantial biological and psychological evidence that some people are more cheerful than others—just in case you didn’t already know that. So, let’s see: What are the “policy implications?” Shoot the Connors? Give all the money to the Lilys? “A Brahmin,” noted a Hindu lawyer, “is entitled to exactly five-and-twenty times as much happiness as everyone else.” If it would please 99 people to feed on the hundredth, then util-maximization says, get out the cooking pot.
The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.
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