Whose Pleasure? Whose Pain? Applying the Hedonic Calculus to Public Policy

“We must, therefore, pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.”

—Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Religious attacks on civil rights and liberties oftentimes constitute, in essence, attacks on the right of individuals to pursue happiness. The most obvious example is the battle for marriage equality, but other struggles—like legalization of marijuana and the struggle for the right to die with dignity—should make us think about the best ways in which humanism can coherently influence policy.

Many nations recognize that wanting to add to our pleasure and take away from our pain is a sign of compassion and humanity on the part of government and on the part of a society. While most Western countries measure societal wellness strictly in terms of national production—a measurement that might work for Wall Street investors but doesn’t tell us much about the real quality of life of the average citizen—Burma and other Buddhist countries have for many years utilized a national happiness index. Some South American countries have incorporated into their constitutions the indigenous sumak kawsay code (the “good life”), which guarantees not only the right to happiness, but also gives concrete details about what such a life entails in terms of access to education, clean air and water, time for human relationships and for creativity, and other practicalities.

Recently, the Friends of Epicurean Philosophy (of Greece) submitted to the European Union an initiative known as the Declaration of Pallini that would guarantee the right to happiness for all European citizens. The declaration cites trends that show Europeans are discontented and notes the recent adoption by the United Nations of March 20th as International Happiness Day. In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Epicurean thinker Thomas Jefferson added the right to the pursuit of happiness, and Brazil in recent years added the right to happiness to its constitution.

But how can the right to happiness be implemented? Jefferson didn’t elaborate on this aspect, but we may infer from his choice of words—the right to the pursuit of happiness—that perhaps such a right cannot be secured by the state, or that it is inconsistent with freedom. People are free to be miserable, to wallow in abnegation and self-loathing, and to deny themselves every pleasure available to them. No policy can help them achieve happiness if this is their choice.

To those of us in the Epicurean tradition, the answer to most ethical questions lies in the hedonic calculus, by which issues boil down to figuring out how to maximize pleasure and how to minimize pain for the long term. Perhaps one of the most important sources on hedonic calculus is the eighth of Epicurus’s “Principal Doctrines”:

No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.

The hedonic calculus does not necessarily make public policy issues easier to navigate. Cassius Amicus, who writes for the NewEpicurean.com, argues that it’s difficult, and often counterproductive, to attempt to legislate hedonic calculations for society at large:

[W]hile hedonic calculation is essential for every individual in his own life, a misuse of hedonic calculations to apply over too wide a group of people—people who for whatever reasons have too divergent a view of what makes them happy—is a prescription for disaster… The “greatest good for the greatest number” analysis…is extremely fraught with danger, because you are depriving the individual of his own right to decide how he wants to value his time, and saying that “one size fits all” regardless of the individual’s preferences.

Cartoon by Larry Wright, CagleCartoons.com

Cartoon by Larry Wright, CagleCartoons.com

French Epicurean philosopher Michel Onfray—who has argued that the hedonic utilitarian covenant seeks to maximize the pleasures of the other in order to secure one’s own—may not agree with Cassius, but he may have been sympathetic to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s incorporation last year of the hedonic calculus into its policy. A Reuters article published this past March detailed how the FDA’s incorporation of an analysis of lost consumer surplus—which helps economists factor lost pleasure into their calculations—reduced projected benefits of tighter regulations for tobacco and e-cigarettes, and also reduced the benefits of posting calorie counts on fast food menus and vending machines. For example, in assigning a monetary value to the loss of pleasure people experience as a result of tighter regulations on nicotine products, FDA economists reduced the projected benefits of such regulation by 70 percent. That figure certainly seemed to exaggerate lost pleasure and drew understandable criticism, resulting in a demand by the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services that analysts scale back the use of lost pleasure in their calculations.

In ordinary instances, where consumers are rational, consumer surplus is simply the difference between the price a consumer would be willing to pay for a certain product or service and its actual price. But there are many problems with what appears to be a misuse of the hedonic calculus in this case. Namely, how do we measure values as subjective as loss of pleasure? The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Health Research and Policy (IHRP) has argued that the FDA’s calculations assume consumers are perfectly rational, but addiction and dependence are irrational, so there is no equation that can be accurately used here. It’s no different from having bad bacteria in our guts, or yeast that makes us yearn for sugary foods; it’s not us but what’s in our gut that craves things that are bad for us. Similarly, like a parasite, an addiction distorts our palate.

Addiction introduces a further concern: hedonic adaptation, whereby people lose the ability to experience the same heights of pleasure from a product or good once they get used to it. They then need to innovate or add variety to their pleasure. If we attempt to create an economic model that allows for hedonic adaptation, ultimately we may end up with an unsustainable equation.

There’s also something to be said about control of desires, and the need to differentiate (as Epicurus did) between natural and necessary desires, those that are natural but unnecessary, or are neither natural nor necessary. Epicureans classify desires in this manner, but these considerations were not incorporated into the FDA’s calculus, and it’s clear that ingesting nicotine falls under the last category. Some may argue that nicotine is natural but unnecessary, however, when we speak of natural and necessary desires in Epicureanism we are generally speaking of things like protection, shelter, food, health, and human association. These are known in Greek as the kyriotatai, or chief goods.

The IHRP also argues that the FDA’s misuse of hedonic calculus could limit future health policy by allowing tobacco companies to misrepresent how harmful their products are. Most people become addicted to nicotine at a young age, when they are most vulnerable to addiction. These considerations raise questions about what happens to the credibility and usefulness of humanist ethical concepts, like the hedonic calculus, when corporations appropriate them in their lobbying strategies.

While we would like Epicurean humanism to influence public policy, it is imperative that the teachings are properly understood and used. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who’s been a strong critic of the FDA’s lost-pleasure analysis, is right to advocate incorporating long-term effects—like obesity and heart disease—into tobacco policy calculations, even if some of us still find it difficult to attach monetary value to individuals’ shortened life spans and the ability to live pleasantly. (Then again, an inability to breathe certainly hinders the enjoyment of life’s pleasures.)

It seems the hedonic calculus works best as a guide to making ethical choices at the individual level. At the societal level, we should omit its use, and instead simply recognize the right to happiness, leisure, clean air and water, and other basic rights.