Unhappy Times?

8 December 2010 by Jeremy Bentham, posted in Uncategorized

Greetings my friends,

It has been brought to my attention that no less an authority than The Times newspaper (on 16 November) has damned my philosophy because I ‘never managed to define a “felicific calculus” with which to quantify the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”’. (N.B. I would gladly have provided the relevant link to a virtual copy of the article, but am bound to report that it lies behind what I believe is termed a ‘pay-wall’.) The sagacious leader writer informs us that happiness is not the only important end in life, and lists religious contemplation, scholarship, and justice, presumably as other important ends. On the one hand, I confess that, to my understanding, happiness or well-being is the sole rational end of conduct. Why? because sentient beings prefer the experience of pleasure to that of pain. Pace the Times leader column, in my view of the world, insofar as these other ‘goods’ are pursued, it can only be because they contribute to well-being. When it is opined that ‘to posit happiness as the end towards which public policy should be pointed is a strange diminishing of possibility’, I am tempted to respond that the only consistent alternative to the adoption of well-being as the goal of conduct or policy is the adoption of ill-being! In this regard, it may be pertinent that the leader closes with an appeal to the authority of a poet who identified deprivation as an inspiration to his verse. Are we to embrace general distress because it facilitates misrepresentation in metre, itself understood as a good?

On the other hand, it was consistently my view that the particular idiosyncrasies of human beings were such as to render signally unwise any government which should seek directly to maximize happiness. The potential elements of happiness are indeed manifold, and individuals will ascribe their own values to those elements. This is one salient reason for forbearance on the part of government from seeking to maximize happiness through its own actions. Instead, the care of providing for his enjoyments ought to be left almost entirely to each individual: the principal function of government being to protect him from sufferings. Yet the feelings of men are sufficiently regular to become the object of an art and science. In taking steps to prevent suffering – to obviate avoidable pains not compensated by greater pleasures – the duty of Government is to secure to each the conditions necessary for the living of a good life, whatever the particular nature of the individual good. I identified these conditions as subsistence, security, abundance, and equality. These are the proper ends – subordinate to happiness – of legislation. First, to be assured of sufficient food and shelter to maintain health and strength; second, to be secured against the depredations of both hostile powers abroad and – by the restriction of their liberty – of our fellows at home, and – as far as possible – against natural calamities; third, to develop and pursue one’s plan of life in a society possessed of a sufficient – and self-replicating – social surplus to finance the achievement of the two first ends; fourth and last, to pursue that plan in a society where legislation tends gently towards equalization, insofar as is compatible with the three first ends.

To the penetrating eye of our leader writer, the object of the First Lord of the Treasury, in incorporating a measure of happiness in the government’s household survey, appears to have been the provision of an additional yardstick to that of the maximization of wealth for the measurement of the progress of society. I dissent not an iota from the view that the idea of the good – permit me to insist on the happy – life is poorly captured by exclusive reference to Gross Domestic Product: indeed, had our author read my own communication on the subject which appeared in this very space he would not have been obliged to resort to the dubious authority of Aristotle for the opinion that wealth was not the end of life. Should the summary dismissal of both happiness and wealth as the ends of life leave us anxious to know what the proper object of government is, we need not fear, for enlightenment is at hand. We are informed from the editorial pulpit that ‘the task of government is to protect liberty’, as if the very notion of government were not essentially and irreconcilably antithetical to that of liberty – as if the anarchical notion of natural liberty were not incompatible with any government whatsoever.

Such unreflective pontification, in which degree of certainty is matched only by incoherence of initial premise, was ever the characteristic of ‘The Thunderer’. But, if simple declamation should fail to carry the day, it is always more than ready to deploy fallacious reasoning. Thus we further learn that in ‘Bhutan, which has an official happiness measure, plastic bags, MTV and televised wrestling are all banned’. Unendowed with expertise, or indeed the most basic familiarity, in regard to any of these things – though I understand that the disposal of plastic bags has become a significant problem in modern societies – I decline the attempt to determine whether or not, all things considered, they are goods. Let us assume, simply for argument sake, that they are. Note well, however, that we are here invited to conclude that the adoption of a happiness measure will result in the prohibition of a variety of valuable things – why? Because one place where there is such a measure has indeed prohibited them. Is not the fallacy in the groundless inference of causation pretty obvious? If it were to be pointed out that in this country, which has no official happiness measure, the frequency of pregnancies among adolescent females is very high, would it follow that these two facts were related as cause and effect?

Happiness is certainly difficult to measure, and whether any purported metric for so doing is an useful tool or a mirage, depends upon its capacity to reflect the degree to which the above ends are satisfied. I must needs confess that I am at present qualified to comment on neither the form of the measure of enquiry into happiness indicated by the First Lord of the Treasury, nor the matter of the particular interrogations therein contained. Rather than pretend to knowledge which I lack, I prefer simply to note my happiness at the indications thus far given that the recently increased public funding of Improving Access to Psychological Therapies appears poised to escape the fatal blow from the retrencher’s hatchet. As Richard Layard, the theorist of ‘happiness economics’ has consistently argued, immense national damage – in terms both of avoidable pain endured and productive labour lost – is sustained in consequence of the scourge of melancholy. Talking treatments promise the rightly-prized union of efficacy and economy, so that their public funding offers the prospect of a significant reduction in unhappiness at a remarkably small cost. Whatever the measure used, it seems to me very likely that spending coercively-levied tax on such policies is overwhelmingly likely to diminish national suffering, and thereby to make addition to national happiness.

Your servant,


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