My main problem with utilitarianism

It seems that in the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity there’s al­most uni­ver­sal ac­cep­tance of util­i­tar­i­anism as ba­sics of ethics. The ver­sion that seems most pop­u­lar goes some­thing like this:

  • Every­body has prefer­ence func­tion as­sign­ing real val­ues (utilons) to states of reality

  • Prefer­ence func­tion is a given and shouldn’t be manipulated

  • Peo­ple try to act to max­i­mize num­ber of utilons, that’s how we find about their prefer­ence function

  • Peo­ple are hap­pier when they get more utilons

  • We should give ev­ery­body as much utilons as we can

There are a few obivous prob­lems here, that I won’t be both­er­ing with to­day:

  • Any af­fine trans­for­ma­tion of prefer­ence func­tion leaves what is es­sen­tially the same prefer­ence func­tion, but it mat­ters when we try to ag­gre­gate them. If we mul­ti­ply one per­son’s prefer­ence func­tion val­ues by 3^^^3, they get to de­cide ev­ery­thing in ev­ery util­i­tar­ian scenario

  • Prob­lem of to­tal vs av­er­age num­ber of utilons

  • Peo­ple don’t re­ally act con­sis­tently with “max­i­miz­ing ex­pected num­ber of utilons” model

  • Time dis­count­ing is a hor­rible mess, es­pe­cially since we’re hy­per­bolic so in­con­sis­tent by definition

But my main prob­lem is that there’s very lit­tle ev­i­dence get­ting utilons is ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing any­body’s hap­piness sig­nifi­cantly. Cor­re­la­tion might very well be pos­i­tive, but it’s just very weak. Giv­ing peo­ple what they want is just not go­ing to make them happy, and not giv­ing them what they want is not go­ing to make them un­happy. This makes perfect evolu­tion­ary sense—an or­ganism that’s con­tent with what it has will fail in com­pe­ti­tion with one that always wants more, no mat­ter how much it has. And or­ganism that’s so de­pressed it just gives up will fail in com­pe­ti­tion with one that just tries to func­tion the best it can in its shabby cir­cum­stances. We all had ex­tremely suc­cess­ful and ex­tremely un­suc­cess­ful cases among our an­ces­tors, and the only rea­son they are on our fam­ily tree was be­cause they went for just a bit more or re­spec­tively for what­ever lit­tle they could get.

Modern econ­omy is just won­der­ful at mass pro­duc­ing utilons—we have or­ders of mag­ni­tude more utilons per per­son than our an­ces­tors—and it doesn’t re­ally leave peo­ple that much hap­pier. It seems to me that the only re­al­is­tic way to sig­nifi­cantly in­crease global hap­piness is di­rectly hack­ing hap­piness func­tion in brain—by mak­ing peo­ple happy with what they have. If there’s a limit in our brains, some num­ber of utilons on which we stay happy, it’s there only be­cause it al­most never hap­pened in our evolu­tion­ary his­tory.

There might be some drugs, or ac­tivi­ties, or memes that in­crease hap­piness with­out deal­ing with utilons. Shouldn’t we be fo­cus­ing on those in­stead?