Objective Utility Research Paper

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Utility is value. Objective utility is nonrelative value. It may attach to a good for a person without being relative to the person’s attitudes. For example, a baby’s health has high objective utility although the baby is too young to value health.

Utilitarian moral theorists such as Jeremy Bentham ([1789] 1996) and John Stuart Mill ([1861] 2006) formulated accounts of objective utility. According to Bentham it is pleasure, and according to Mill it is happiness. Some contemporary utilitarians such as Fred Feldman (1986) accommodate pluralism about values. They recognize nonhedonistic basic values such as justice.

Objective utility contrasts with subjective utility. Subjective utility is a person’s rational strength of desire at any time. It varies from person to person because of differences in goals and information. John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944) define subjective utility in terms of coherent preferences concerning gambles. Such preferences ground quantitative comparisons of a person’s attitudes toward the gambles’ possible outcomes.

The relation between objective utility and subjective utility is twofold. First, subjective utility is a component of objective utility. It is good that a person satisfy sensible desires. Second, a person should desire the good and have an aversion to the bad. If an event is good, then a person has a reason to desire its occurrence. Objective utility influences subjective utility.

Information and rationality make subjective utility respond to objective utility. Consider the role of information. A person’s desires depend on her information. Giving a person full information moves her subjective utility assignment closer to an objective utility assignment. Next, consider the role of rationality. Rationality regulates basic preferences and information’s generation of derived preferences. It imposes structural constraints such as consistency of preferences, procedural constraints such as the requirement to taste flavors before forming preferences among them, and substantive constraints such as the requirement to prefer happiness to unhappiness, other things being equal. An informed, rational, cognitively ideal agent whose basic goals are intrinsic goods has a subjective utility assignment that matches an objective utility assignment.

Fields such as welfare economics use objective utility to evaluate public policies. As W Kip Viscusi (1998) explains, government regulatory agencies seek cost-effective means of reducing risks of injury and death. A good regulation increases objective utility by promoting the public’s interests rather than by catering to the public’s wishes. For example, consumers want labeling of genetically modified food. Nonetheless, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling because its benefits do not compensate for its costs. Objective utility guides regulation.

Applications of objective utility often use a function that assigns numbers to objects evaluated. The higher the number is, the more value the object has. In some cases numbers assigned represent only a ranking, but in other cases they represent quantitative comparisons. The value of saving two lives may not only be greater than but may also be twice as great as the value of saving one life.

Measures of objective utility vary. One measure uses contribution to realization of basic goods. Life is a basic good. Water is necessary for life. So water has high objective utility using this measure. Market-value is another measure of objective utility. That people want an object is a sign that it has value. Market-value may not indicate contribution to basic goods, however. Water has low market-value because it is plentiful. The labor invested in a product is a common measure of objective utility. According to this measure, a hand-woven rug has more objective utility than a gold spoon if more labor went into its fabrication. These methods of measuring objective utility have limited ranges of application and yield only approximate results. To formulate an account of objective utility, Amartya Sen (1985) uses capabilities to function and Daniel Kahneman (2000) uses momentary pleasurable experiences.

According to some theorists, objective utility attaches to physical objects such as land. A parcel of land’s objective value depends on factors such as fertility. According to other theorists, objective utility attaches to realization of a proposition’s truth, that is, an event or a state of affairs. The objective utility of a person’s owning a parcel of land may replace the objective utility of the parcel of land. Because the value of a peasant’s owning a parcel of land differs from the value of a land baron’s owning the same parcel, attributing objective utilities to states of affairs involving the land’s ownership makes objective utility sensitive to the variety of factors affecting value.

Value theory distinguishes intrinsic and extrinsic value, as Michael Zimmerman (2001) explains. An object with intrinsic value is good for its own sake. An object with extrinsic value is good because it leads to objects with intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is basic, and extrinsic value derives from intrinsic value. Traditional examples of intrinsic values are pleasure, justice, liberty, knowledge, beauty, and achievement. Traditional examples of extrinsic values are money, time, and power. A proposition’s realization has intrinsic value in virtue of features that the proposition’s realization entails rather than features its realization causes. Objective utility depends on both intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Being good for a person is not the same as being good according to a person. Health is good for a person even if he is indifferent to his health. Promoting a person’s interest, well-being, or welfare is good for the person. Some accounts of objective value claim that it rests exclusively on value for sentient beings. Hedonism supports this view because all pleasure resides in a sentient being. Pluralism accommodates objective value that is independent of value for sentient beings. For example, social equality may have objective value without being good for any person.

A common criticism of objective utility is that non-relative value does not exist, or is unknowable. Persistent disagreements about values are grounds for this criticism. Another criticism is that some values are nonquantitative and incomparable so that a quantitative representation of all values is impossible. For example, one person’s delight in music may not be comparable to another person’s recovery from a cold. Then objective utility’s interpersonal comparisons of value lack a foundation. Objective utility, despite criticisms, maintains a role in moral theory and the social sciences.


  1. Bentham, Jeremy. [1789] 1996. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds. James H. Burns and Herbert L. A. Hart. Oxford: Clarendon.
  2. Feldman, Fred. 1986. Doing the Best We Can: An Essay in Informal Deontic Logic. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel.
  3. Kahneman, Daniel. 2000. Experienced Utility and Objective Happiness: A Moment-Based Approach. In Choices, Values, and Frames, eds. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, 673–692. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Mill, John Stuart. [1861] 2006. Utilitarianism. In The Blackwell Guide to Mill’s Utilitarianism, ed. Henry R. West, 61–113. Oxford: Blackwell.
  5. Sen, Amartya. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  6. Viscusi, W. Kip. 1998. Rational Risk Policy: The 1996 Arne Ryde Memorial Lectures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. von Neumann, John, and Oskar Morgenstern. 1944. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Zimmerman, Michael. 2001. The Nature of Intrinsic Value. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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