Contemporary Procedural Utility and Hume’s Early Idea of Utility


An appealing concept developed by economists in contemporary happiness studies is that of procedural utility: people’s tendency to value the processes that lead to outcomes in addition to the outcomes themselves. This paper identifies David Hume as an early forerunner of a very similar idea. Moreover, it demonstrates just how Hume used this idea to justify the very idea of commerce. The significance of this is twofold: demonstrating just how Hume is a forerunner of the later concept on the individual level (micro-level), but also pointing to a different approach to the concept of utility on the social level.

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  1. 1.

    Over the last two decades, scholars with interdisciplinary research interests—primarily economists—have developed ideas that establish and expand upon the scientific relevancy of happiness, not only in the context of studies focused upon the psychological-individual level, but as a social phenomenon and as a legitimate goal for political economy and public policy. See for instances: Dutt and Radcliff (2009), Frey and Slutzer (2002), Frey (2008), Bruni (2006).

  2. 2.

    This argument goes hand in hand with and complements other recent attempts to disconnect Hume from the later tradition of neo-classical economics and its assumptions concerning the economic agent, while recognizing the profound connections that exist between Hume’s thought and contemporary behavioral economics and happiness studies. A prominent example is Robert Sugdens’s recent interpretation of Hume. See Sugden (2005, 2006).

  3. 3.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, with the emergence of neo-classical economics and utility as a key concept in microeconomics (i.e. the economic agent as utility maximizer), Bentham’s utilitarianism—with its reliance upon the quantitative maximization of aggregate utilities—became a dominant path of justification for economics. The emergence of the concept of Pareto optimality and new welfare theorems at the beginning of the 20th century are not in contradiction to this observation.

  4. 4.

    See Fred Rosen’s argument that, in this context, the core of the idea of the ‘invisible hand’ is also, when referring to the system of political economy, derived from its utility in the Humean sense (Rosen 2003: 99–104). In Smith thought, nevertheless, the concept had not been as central as in Hume's.

  5. 5.

    In a letter, Bentham refers to Hume’s writings on utility as “Hume… in all his glory”. Bentham manuscripts at University College London (10. 129), quoted in Harrison (1983: 110).

  6. 6.

    For a discussion of Hume’s and Bentham’s concepts of utility see Long (1990).

  7. 7.

    Scholars have recognized the deep connections between Hume’s philosophical writings, primarily his Treatise of Human Nature, and his own later political and economic writings. See, for example, Rotwein (1970), Immerwahr (1991), Skinner (1993), Wennerlind (2011). Nevertheless, here I am focusing on a particular connection not hitherto emphasized in this literature.

  8. 8.

    Frey et al. (2004).

  9. 9.

    Frey (2008: chapter 10), Frey et al. (2004), Frey and Stutzer (2005).

  10. 10.

    The authors emphasize the tricky relationship between procedural utility and outcomes: "Procedural utility as proposed here has the flavor of an outcome in the sense that procedures are supposed to importantly affect human well-being. However, in our view procedural utility is a new concept, because it clearly defers from what economists considered to be relevant outcomes… In general, outcomes in economics are understood to be instrumental…" (Frey et al. 2004: 381).

  11. 11.

    Frey et al. (2004: 379).

  12. 12.

    Kahneman et al. (1997).

  13. 13.

    Diener (1994).

  14. 14.

    Frey et al. (2004: 380–381).

  15. 15.

    Frey, Bens and Stutzer recommend, for instance, some implications in the spheres of consumption and fair pricing, income policy, democratic procedures, public good allocations, treatment of tax payers, organizations and law (Frey et al. 2004: 383–392; Frey 2008: 113–122).

  16. 16.

    Placing utility and social happiness as the basic criteria of morals stood as an alternative to the two major ethical approaches of the time, to both of which Hume was opposed. On one side were the religious and moralistic preachers, who put at the center of their moral theories such values as benevolence and goodness, thereby degrading happiness and utility to consequential and contingent concepts that could not be regarded as pivotal values of any sort. On the other side were the Epicurean philosophers of the time who regarded self-love as the central value from which all morality actually derived. Hume explicitly addressed both groups in his Enquiry while advancing his own moral philosophy as grounded upon the notions of utility and happiness. See Jerome B. Schneewind, “Introduction” to Hume (1983), Harris (2015: 256).

  17. 17.

    Following Rosen (2003: chapter 3) and Harris (2010: 43; 2015: 253–258), it is assumed here that the idea as presented in the Enquiry is significant and was seen by Hume himself as an important refinement of his previous work (the book Hume regarded as, "of all his writings, historical, philosophical and literary, incomparably the best". See 'My own life', The Life of David Hume (1777: 16). Quoted in Harris (2015: 253) The idea, nevertheless, was more dominant in the Enquiry than in Hume's previous Treatise. Hence, some discussions in the Treatise were pushed aside in the Enquiry, including for example: the theory of sympathy, the distinction between artificial and natural virtues, the origins of justice, as also the psychological background that book II of the Treatise had provided for book III. Some scholars have interpreted this as simply an inferior simplification of the complex ideas presented in the Treatise (see for instance Baier 2011: 71). The focus here, nevertheless, will be on the idea of utility as presented in the Enquiry with the discussions of the Treatise merely in the background. Put another way, the idea of utility will be at the forefront of our discussion while the debate about morality and the nature of virtues in the background.

  18. 18.

    Despite this general characterization, there is controversy over whether or not Hume is truly a "moral anthropologist", i.e. whether he commits only to a descriptive view of morality or has actually accepted the morality he describes, and, by that, performs normative judgments (see Mackie 1980 for the former interpretation and Crisp 2005 for the later).

  19. 19.

    The empirical method was considered by Hume as the most scientific, progressive, and appropriate to the study of human nature (Hume 1983: 16).

  20. 20.

    For Hume, generality of application of one criterion was to be welcomed as it suggested an analog to the general laws of Newtonian science. "Where any principle has been found to have a great force and energy in one instance, to ascribe to it a like energy in all similar instances. This indeed is Newton’s chief rule of philosophizing" (Hume 1983: 34).

  21. 21.

    A branch of philosophy that studied the nature of the mind long before the development of psychology as a distinct discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century.

  22. 22.

    See Schneewind's noteworthy description of Hume's concept of sympathy: "Sympathy is an animal capacity enabling the feelings of others to reverberate within us. Because of it we can grasp what the beneficiaries of justice or generosity feel, no matter how remote from us they may be. Benefactors appear in a pleasing light to the beneficiaries, whose view we spectators sympathetically share." (Schneewind 1998: 364).

  23. 23.

    Schneewind (1998: 362–364), Rosen (2003: 33–39).

  24. 24.

    The mechanism of approbation is also related in Hume's thought to discussions of motives for actions, so that the kind of pleasure resulted from the utility and happiness of others also has a special impact on directing decisions and actions, but this is beyond the scope of this paper. See Lapidus (2010), Diaye and Lapidus (2012).

  25. 25.

    In referring to individual happiness in Hume’s thought a glance at some of his earlier essays is in order. Hume’s Four Essays on Happiness (1742) illustrates the diversity of categories and roads to individual happiness found in the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Platonist and the Sceptic philosophies. Thus, as reflected in these essays, social happiness is obviously far from being the only source of individual happiness; nevertheless, it is (especially as reflected in the last essay, dealing with the philosophically most straightforward of the four, the Sceptic) superior to the other sources. See Hume (1987: 138–180), Immerwahr (1989).

  26. 26.

    Haakonssen (1989: 41).

  27. 27.

    Rosen (2003: 32), Mackie (1980: 152).

  28. 28.

    Sayre-McCord (1995: 282).

  29. 29.

    Sayre-McCord (1995: 286–287).

  30. 30.

    Spector (2014) discusses the particular way by which the idea of utility is connected with the evolving rules of justice. These latter respond to "a sense of common interest that progressively tames the destructiveness of self love and expands the action of natural moral sentiments" (Spector 2014: 47). Harris (2010) presents another discussion of justice’s source in moral obligation.

  31. 31.

    This assumption appears particularly reasonable when we take into account the fact that Hume's essays in political economy were written and published during the same phase in his life as the Enquiry. See Harris (2015: chapter 5): "The two years at Ninewells".

  32. 32.

    Hume (1983: 24, 28, 61).

  33. 33.

    Frey et al. (2004: 393).

  34. 34.

    Harris explains just how the tension between free trade (and the state of the balance of trade) and the strength of the state was a fundamental issue in the political discourse of the time, around which the diverse opinions in political economy were reasoned. See Harris (2015: 265–273).

  35. 35.

    Notice again Crisp's view of the complicated relationship between the descriptive and normative elements in Hume's thought and argumentation (Crisp 2005).

  36. 36.

    Hume (1987: Part II essay I).

  37. 37.

    In his Treatise, in a section titled ‘the influencing motives of the will’, Hume commented critically upon approaches that attribute reason with a motivating force in human behavior: “In order to show the fallacy of all this philosophy”, he writes, “I shall endeavour to prove first that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.” Thus, in Hume’s account it is only the passions—of various kinds, some more ‘violent’ and others more cultivated and calm, some self-regarding, and some social—that can really affect humans and motivate action. See Hume (1956), Book II (‘Of the Passions’) and Part III (‘Of the will and direct passions’) Sec III.

  38. 38.

    Thus, an individual enjoys his labor and then fulfils his passions (including any new passions) by consuming not only the fruit of his own labor, but the fruit of that of many others as well. Such ‘fruits’ include luxuries. See Hume (1987: 256).

  39. 39.

    “To be entirely occupied with the luxury of the table, for instance, without any relish for the pleasures of ambition, study, or conversation, is a mark of stupidity…” (Hume 1987: 269). The same view is expressed in the Enquiry: “And in a view to pleasure, what comparison between the unbought satisfaction of conversation, society, study, even health and the common beauties of nature, but above all the peaceful reflection on one’s own conduct: What comparison, I say, between these, and the feverish, empty amusements of luxury and expense?” (Hume 1983: 82).

  40. 40.

    Moreover, industry, in Hume’s words, is linked with knowledge and humanity “by an indissoluble chain”. There is a positive connection between a prosperous economy, the development of the liberal arts and scientific ideas, and the flourishing of social sympathies and solidarity. Furthermore, industry is a promoter of social order (Hume 1987: 273) and of a liberal spirit and government (Hume 1987: 277–278). These positive effects on society as a whole complement the other more direct impacts on happiness and the strength of the nation. Similar ideas are demonstrated by contemporary scholarship (see, for example, Frey's discussion of happiness and democracy; Frey 2008: chapter 14).

  41. 41.

    As readers of this journal are well aware, in the modern project the complex connections between wealth and happiness are scientifically scrutinized by way of all kinds of correlated data, demonstrating a rejection of previous approaches that took this connection to be a simple one.

  42. 42.

    This argument goes hand in hand with a wider and ongoing attempt to disconnect Hume from the tradition of neo-classical economics and recognize connections between Hume's thought and contemporary behavioral economics and happiness studies. Robert Sugden, for instance, has emphasized the empirical aspect of Hume’s ‘decision theory’, commonly neglected by studies too quick to ascribe an ‘instrumental rationality’ to Hume. Sugden (2005, 2006) explicitly connects Hume’s methodological approach to current developments in experimental psychology and behavioral economics.

  43. 43.

    See for instance Angner (2009: 149–158).

  44. 44.

    See Angner’s (2009) clarification on the similarity of total aggregates in utilitarianism and the use of averages in happiness studies. Frey and Stutzer (2009) are exceptional in this respect, rejecting the idea of maximizing aggregates as imperative for public policy.

  45. 45.

    Frey and Stutzer cite Sen (1995: 11–12) and Buchanan (1986: 22) as representatives of such an approach.

  46. 46.

    Frey and Stutzer (2005: 393).


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Correspondence to Shiri Cohen Kaminitz.

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Kaminitz, S.C. Contemporary Procedural Utility and Hume’s Early Idea of Utility. J Happiness Stud 20, 269–282 (2019).

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  • Procedural utility
  • David Hume
  • Happiness
  • History of ideas