Bentham from the Crypt Once More is a CGD essay. There is a burgeoning academic literature on happiness polls that has used a range of different measures and approaches across countries rich and poor alike to answer the question, “what makes people say they are happy?” The excitement surrounding this work is well justified. These polls suggest an idea of happiness that would be broadly understood by philosophers from Aristotle to Mill to Rawls or Parfit. Happiness studies also suggest some potential reasons why we appear to act irrationally according to the dictates of revealed-preference-utility-maximization. Subjective-well-being (SWB) polls also help to illustrate some of the absurdities of taking income per capita as our measure of the ultimate good. I discussed some of the ideas with Justin Wolfers and Felix Salmon in Aspen.
At the same time, a lot of things we surely care about are not reflected in SWB poll answers. Crosscountry studies involving economies and societies at distinctly different levels of development suggest a limited role for income, rights, health and social factors all combined in explaining SWB. And all the usual criticisms of and concerns with utilitarianism apply to SWB polls. Polls do not capture a be-all and end-all measure of the good. Both because of the difficulty of interpreting SWB evidence with regard to SWB-maximizing policy and because it appears clear that SWB (on whichever measure) is probably not what we want to maximize, considerable caution is required in the use of such polls for policymaking
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Utility relates age-old philosophical discussions of the nature of a worth-while life to the recent growth of interest among economists in criteria for quality of life. Reflection on the philosophical tradition suggests that there are three key elements in the notion of a good life: welfare, contentment, and dignity. Welfare is capable of objective measurement in terms of such elements as food intake, disease level, expectation of life and so on. Contentment is also measurable, to a more controversial degree, by means of questionnaires eliciting self-ascriptions of subjective well being. Dignity is the most difficult of all the elements of well-being to determine and quantify, but it is related to measures of civil rights, economic and gender equality and measures of the quality of employment. The book discusses what philosophers and economists have had to say about the nature and causes of welfare, dignity and contentment. On the basis of this analysis we draw conclusions for national and international policies.