But it does not necessarily follow from this that the subjective utilities of different people are totally incomparable even in principle, as one vulgar Austrian suggests here.
If this were so, one must posit that every single person’s emotions of happiness, satisfaction and pleasure (the emotions that subjective utility must be identified with) are utterly unique and in no way resemble anyone else’s. This is a bizarre, anti-scientific, and utterly unconvincing idea: it violates everything we know about human psychology, neuroscience and evolution.
Human beings are all products of Darwinian evolution, and the mind and all its emotions (like utility) are causally dependent on the same underlying brain processes. While there is no doubt individual variation in the way people experience these emotions and the subjective utility any two people might experience from the same good is likely to be different, it still does not necessarily follow that they are incomparable even in principle.
In fact, the sciences of the brain and mind are advancing every day. Non-evasive scanning like MRI is identifying the biochemical and neural basis of human mental states and emotions. It is even conceivable that eventually science can measure the intensity of human emotions underlying “utility” objectively.
For example, already there is some evidence that MRI will one day be used to assess the intensity of pain even with an objective measure (see Wager et al. 2013, with summary here).
Curiously, even an Austrian economist like Robert Murphy admits this possibility:
“It may be that one day neuroscientists come up with an objective way to quantify various degrees of happiness, such that they can coherently talk about Mary being ‘three times more satisfied’ than Bill.” (Murphy 2010: 41).That admission requires that, despite what vulgar Austrians think, at least in principle subjective utilities are comparable, and that it might even be possible to one day obtain a scientific quantification of the intensity and nature of human emotions underlying utility, with some objective unit of measurement.
At that point, the Austrian claim that subjective utilities cannot be objectively measured will have been refuted.
Murphy, Robert P. 2010. Lessons for the Young Economist. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.
Wager, T. D., Atlas, L. Y., Lindquist, M. et al. 2013. “An fMRI-Based Neurologic Signature of Physical Pain,” New England Journal of Medicine 368: 1388–1397.