An apple and a pear on a balance scale, both with a policeman’s hat

Apples and oranges — part III: Bookkeepers and enforcers

Despite the criticism it attracts (which is mostly aimed at a caricature or at inappropriate application), utilitarian thinking is a valid guide to decision making. But while it can certainly handle pleasure and pain, it does have its limits and, perhaps surprisingly, cannot really be used on its own.

Koen Smets
7 min readSep 8, 2022

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(This is the final part of 3 linked articles — here are the first and the second.)

Here is a simple question: what would you enjoy more, discovering in your jeans, as they come clean out of the washing machine, the unusable remains of a £20 (or equivalent) banknote that you forgot to remove, or spotting the note and removing it from the pocket before it gets mangled? My guess is that you would prefer the latter. That makes perfect sense: having less money is objectively the worse condition to be in.

Yet, every time you go to the shop to buy something, you walk out with less money than you had when you walked in. Are you daft or what? Of course not: you get something in return, and at that precise moment, you value what you are buying more than the money it costs you. You weigh up the pleasure of acquiring and the pain of having to pay.

And that is something we, and our entire lineage of ancestors, have been doing all the time. Evolution has been relentlessly favouring organisms that are able to distinguish what is better for them from what is worse, and that act accordingly. Those that were good at this were able to obtain enough nutritious food, avoid being eaten or get killed prematurely, and successfully procreate to pass on the very genes that made them good to the next generation. The rest, literally, is history.

This mechanism serves us, highly sophisticated evolved beings we have become, quite well in making all our choices and deciding what (not) to do. When there are certain countable or measurable characteristics (like monetary value) that we can map onto pleasure or pain, choosing may be reduced to simple arithmetic without much cognitive effort, but quantifiability is not essential. We don’t have (and don’t need) a…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius