This series of posts gives a brief introduction to measuring well-being. More detail can be found in Chapter 4 of Michael Plant's DPhil thesis. You can also watch the following talk, given at EAGxAustralia 2019, "On Measuring and Maximising What Matters".
How should we compare the impact of various outcomes, such as improving health or reducing poverty, in terms of how much good they do?
The current method used in the effective altruism community relies on subjective judgements; the value of different outcomes are weighed in the mind. Health metrics such as QALYs and DALYs, which rely on other people’s aggregated subjective judgements, are often used. However, health is not the only item of interest and subjective judgements are still needed to decide how the value of health outcomes should be compared to other outcomes.
The charity evaluator, GiveWell, determines the value of different interventions by asking their donors for their preferences between averting different numbers of deaths at different ages. They aggregate those preferences into a coherent set of moral weights across ages, and combine that with other inputs including the views of their staff and beneficiaries. You can read more about their approach here.
You might think that relying on subjective judgements of value is both unobjectionable and unavoidable on the grounds we are making moral evaluations, and there is simply no other way to do this. However, the claim these are moral judgements is only partly true and, indeed, may not be true at all. Some of what appear to be moral evaluations are judgements about facts and so, in principle, empirical questions.
Facts and values
Here’s an analogy. Suppose you and I are trying to determine which of two oddly-shaped jars contains the most water. What sort of assessment are we making here? Not a moral judgement, but a subjective judgement of fact. We could go on to say the best jar is the one that holds the most water, which would be a moral judgement.
Now, suppose you and I are trying to assess which of two outcomes increases well-being the most: curing health condition A or alleviating poverty by amount B. Suppose we agree on our concept of well-being. Are we making a moral evaluation when we state which outcome we think would increase well-being more? Clearly, as the jar analogy showed, we are not. We need not assume well-being is of any moral importance - perhaps we conclude only liberty has value - to compare the outcomes.
By contrast, deciding (a) which thing or things are intrinsically valuable and thus constitute the good(s), and (b) how to aggregate the good(s) to determine overall value (in philosophical jargon, an axiology - the method of ranking states of affairs in terms of their ultimate value) is, certainly, a moral judgement.
Suppose, for example, we decide the value of an outcome is the sum total of well-being in it. That is a moral judgement. However, now we’ve taken that as given, determining how much good an outcome contains is, in principle, an empirical question. Those will be judgements of fact, not of value.
I hope it’s obvious that we will, where possible, want to measure the good(s) directly, and that objective measurement of the facts ‘trumps’ our subjective evaluations of the facts. If we could measure the water capacity of the jars, there would be no need to guess.
If we want to have productive disagreements with one another about which outcomes do more good, it’s important to make it clear whether disagreements arise from claims about value or from claims about facts.
Suppose you and I disagree about whether option A is better than option B. If we have the same views on value, the disagreement is a factual one. By comparison, GiveWell’s analysis combines the opinions of multiple people who have different views about value, it’s not possible to tell whether one disagrees with GiveWell because one differs about facts or about values. The key question in GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness analysis is “how many years of doubled consumption are as morally valuable as saving the life of an under-5-year old child?” Here is a non-exhaustive list of factors two people could disagree about when answering that question, and whether that factor is a question of fact or value.
At the Happier Lives Institute, our research focuses on how much different outcomes improve well-being. While this has generally been judged subjectively in the past, we believe it is a question of fact, not of value.
Despite long-standing doubts, well-being can be measured through population surveys and therefore we should use data from well-being surveys, rather than relying on our own subjective judgements, to determine what increases well-being. Specifically, we recommend life satisfaction scores, which are found by asking “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” (on a scale from 0 “not at all” to 10 “completely”) as the most suitable (although not ideal) proxy measure of well-being.
The challenges of measuring well-being are explored in more detail in the sections that follow.
 Assuming we mean ‘best’ in a moral, rather than merely aesthetic, sense.
 Technically, (a) and (b) suffice only to give us a fixed-population axiology. A third component (c), specifying who the bearers of value are (i.e. present, actual, necessary or possible people) is needed to give us a variable-population axiology. Perhaps confusing, what philosophers call a ‘population axiology’ usually just specifies (b) and (c).
 Both think the value of a state of affairs is the total well-being of those who exist in that state of affairs (hedonic totalism?)
The Happier Lives Institute (“HLI”) is operating through a fiscal sponsorship with Players Philanthropy Fund (Federal Tax ID: 27-6601178), a Maryland charitable trust with federal tax-exempt status as a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to HLI are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.