Utility Vs. Wantability

In the course of an interesting post on utilitarianism, Will Wilkinson linked to this old short essay by Irving Fisher on the problematic connotations of the term "utility" used by economists:

The term is a heritage of Bentham and his utilitarian philosophy. It is misleading to every beginner in economics and to the great untutored and naïve public who find it hard to call an overcoat no more truly useful than a necklace, or a grindstone than a roulette wheel. Economists cannot with impunity override the popular distinction between useful and ornamental, much less that between useful and useless, without confusing and repelling the man in the street.

In the last few years a new source of confusion has arisen from the use, in a special sense, of the phrase "public utilities." This phrase must itself be used by economists who now find themselves discussing the marginal utility of a public utility! -- and distinguishing between the marginal utility "in the economic sense" representing the esteem of the political ring or other powers that be for that public utility (which marginal utility imparts economic value to said public utility), and utility "in the popular sense" representing the real social serviceableness of that public utility!

My beef (and Wilkinson's) is somewhat different from Fisher's: because of the word's connection with hedonic utilitarianism, it becomes frightfully easy to blur the distinction between want-satisfaction and happiness, when these two things are not synonymous by any stretch of the imagination. For the sake of avoiding confusion it would probably be better to use a different word. As Fisher remarks, Pareto's ophélimité has a certain elegance to it, but is too alien to have a hope of catching on, and "desirability" has normative connotations that may also want to be avoided. Fisher's suggestion of "wantability" seems to work pretty well to me, but just doesn't sound as sophisticated.

Thoughts? Alternative suggestions? Defenses of the use of "utility"?

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How about the good old

How about the good old English word "preference"? Normally we use this to refer to what people have vis-a-vis preferred objects, not what the objects have vis-a-vis the people who prefer them. But I don't know that that's an iron law. In any case, if you don't like saying e.g. that an additional diamond has greater preference on the margin than an additional unit of water, you can always play with verbs: takes greater preference, commands greater preference, enjoys greater preference, etc.

Or, if you want, there are always "preferred," and thus "preferredness" in noun form. That's an ugly word, but it's certainly no uglier than "wantability."

Why not `importance'? It is

Why not `importance'?

It is the word used by Menger, or at least the word we find in the translation (I don't know German).

Of course we have the problem that `utility' and `disutility' are more concise than `important to get' and `important to avoid' but, on the other hand, the latter make more clear that utility functions are just representations of underlying preference relations.

On in other words, `importance' is Red Geek's `preferredness'.


I agree that the

I agree that the alternatives all seem to be uglier than "utility". "Importance" has other meanings that could be confusing; "preferredness" is probably as good as we're going to get, but I fear its chances of displacing "utility" aren't too good...