Hedonic Psychology, Political Theory and Law (I): Is Welfarism Possible?

83 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2002  

Mark Kelman

Stanford Law School; Stanford Graduate School of Business

Date Written: September 2002


I address a foundational question: to what extent is the concept of welfare meaningful and coherent? Subjective welfarists have adopted two strategies, historically, to determine whether a person is "better off" with one state of affairs than another, and each ultimately subtly undermines the other. The first, associated with Benthamite "hedonic" utilitarians, is to (try to) look directly at sensation: from this perspective, a person is better off if she feels more pleasure and less pain. The second, associated with "preference" utilitarians and with modern economics, is to declare that a person is better off if (a certain class of her) preferences are met or realized.

Not only is hedonic utilitarianism impracticable given the incommensurability of emotional reactions, it is conceptually bankrupt. It does not seem to take adequate account of subjectivity: there is no reason for any particular subject to care about whether she experiences any particular set of sensations, like "pleasure" or "pain." A group I dub "the new hedonic psychologists" purport to measure hedonic states directly, but they are ultimately no more successful than Bentham was. There is no particular reason to believe that all people value what the "new hedonic psychologists" describe as positive experience, and reflection on the philosophical literature, particularly the literature on personal identity, as well as a careful reading of both the psychological literature on the varieties of happiness and the biological literature on the role of happiness help us see that.

But preference utilitarianism is just as problematic. There is a fundamental conceptual problem in connecting the satisfaction of desire with experienced utility or well-being: desires are prospective and intentional while well-being is experienced. Our preferences are merely predictions about the hedonic states that we will experience if certain end-states occur; like all predictions, they can be wrong. Thus, sophisticated preference utilitarians try to solve the problem of "error" by respecting only the sub-class of preferences most likely to be "correct" - those that are adequately "informed" and "prudent." But what is critical to understand both at the philosophical level and with careful consideration of the empirical evidence adduced by hedonic psychologists that bears on this issue is that it is impossible to know when a desire is either prudent or adequately informed unless we know whether meeting it turned out to be hedonically satisfying and we eschewed hedonic utilitarianism precisely because we thought we could not determine directly what is and is not hedonically satisfying.

Suggested Citation

Kelman, Mark, Hedonic Psychology, Political Theory and Law (I): Is Welfarism Possible? (September 2002). Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 242. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=332300 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.332300

Mark Kelman (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

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Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
(650) 723-4069 (Phone)

Stanford Graduate School of Business ( email )

655 Knight Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5015
United States

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