the proper welfare scale

People can be happy to different degrees. In other words, they can be at different levels of welfare. How should we think about different welfare levels? Should our scale have a ceiling or a floor or both? In other words, can we become so happy that we can’t become any more elated and can we be in the grip of such suffering that things really can’t get any worse? In this post, I want to focus on the floor. Should the floor be zero, or is it possible for our level of happiness to go negative?

I think a plausible utility scale must allow for a descent into negative territory to give the proper weight to people who are enduring extreme suffering.

To see how a positive-only scale is unattractive, imagine a world where the floor for utility is set at zero. On this view, the worst off person in the entire world will have a utility of zero. But this means that we could go on adding zero-level people without affecting the total amount of utility in the world. Take a world with a total utility of 100. If we added a zero-level person to this world, it would still have a total utility of 100. In fact, we could add hundreds of zero level people and from a utility perspective, nothing would have changed. This is an implausible result, and so a negative scale would be attractive because it would allow the addition of suffering people to reduce the world’s attractiveness from a utility perspective.


1 Response to “the proper welfare scale”

  1. 1 mengster
    July 8, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Isn’t it weird to “sum” utility though? You would get situations where a room of five moderately-happy people is preferable to a room of four ecstatic people, etc. There’s also the issue that “adding” suffering people to a world would undoubtedly decrease utility for the other inhabitants.

    I see that you’re going the Yglesias spelling/grammar route too =P.

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