Happiness Is

Reader Marty, who downloaded the Happiness report, replied to the post, Theodicy and Secularism –

“I thought it was interesting that the Dalai Lama said that we cannot count on religion as the basis for our ethics, since the people of the world cannot agree on one religion–and many don’t believe in any religion at all. (This was in the UN World Happiness Report.) The Dalai Lama said that we need a secular ethics. The World Happiness Report suggested a secular ethics based on the Greatest Happiness Principle. I think the UN has made a great start in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have the plan already in place, if only we would follow it. Ha! Isn’t that always the problem!”

In concert with Marty’s response and in acknowledgement of how important, how critical this concept is, the mariner has reproduced verbatim that portion of the Happiness Report that explains the happiness principle. Further, two other recent posts have focused on this subject. See: Where is our Light? and Sailing One’s Own Ship in a Tumultuous World.

The Greatest Happiness Principle

So, first, what ethical idea based on human need can best fill the moral vacuum left by the decline of religious belief? The answer must surely be the great central idea of the 18th century Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment on which much of modern Western civilisation is based. This can be expressed in three propositions.

 We should assess human progress by the extent to which people are enjoying their lives—by the prevalence of happiness and, conversely, the absence of misery.

 Therefore, the objective of governments should be to create conditions for the greatest possible happiness and the least possible misery. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The care of human life and happiness … is the only legitimate object of good government”.

 Likewise the obligation of each of us is to create the greatest amount of human happiness that we can in the world and the least misery. (Overall happiness of course includes our own.) And in all of this it is more important to reduce unhappiness (or misery) than to increase the happiness of those who are already higher up the scale.

These three propositions are what may be called the “greatest happiness principle”. It was Proposition 1 which inspired many organisations, like the OECD, the EU and many governments, to reassess their answer to the question: what is progress? And it was Propositions 1 and 2 which have mainly inspired the production of successive World Happiness Reports – our hope has been to display enough of the new science of happiness to enable policy-makers to make happiness a practical goal of policy.

But it is Proposition 3 that we wish to promote in this chapter, because we believe it should be the central principle which inspires those billions worldwide for whom religion no longer provides the answer to how we should live.

The principle is frequently misunderstood. For example, it does not assume that people are only concerned about their own happiness. On the contrary, if people only pursued their own happiness, this would not produce a very happy society. Instead the greatest happiness principle exhorts us to care passionately about the happiness of others. It is only if we do so that true progress (as we have defined it) can occur.

But what is so special about happiness? Why not judge our progress by our wealth or our freedom or our health or education, and not just our happiness? Clearly many things are good. But different goods are often in competition. My spending more on health may mean spending less on education. Or wealth-creation may require some limitations on freedom. So we have to ask why different things are good? And in most cases we can give sensible answers. For example, ‘Wealth makes people feel good’ or ‘Ill health makes people feel bad.’ But if we ask why it matters how people feel—why happiness is good—we can give no answer. It is just self-evident. So happiness is revealed as the overarching good, and other goods obtain their goodness from the fact that they contribute to happiness. And that is why an “impartial spectator” would judge a state of human affairs by the happiness of the people.

The greatest happiness principle has a universal appeal. It has the capacity to inspire, by mobilizing the benevolent part of every human being. In the language of Jews, Christians and Muslims, it embodies the commandment to Do as you would be done by, and to Love your neighbor as yourself. In the language of Hinduism and Buddhism, it embodies the principle of compassion—that we should in all our dealings truly wish for the happiness of all of those we can affect, and we should cultivate in ourselves an attitude of unconditional benevolence….

….In this context, an ethical system that favours not only others’ happiness but also our own has a much better chance of being implemented than one that is pure hair-shirt. It is therefore a huge advantage of the greatest happiness principle that it requires self-compassion as well as compassion towards others.

Reprinted from Chapter 3: Promoting Secular Ethics, Fourth World Happiness Report 2016 in behalf of the United Nations.


It behooves the reader to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentioned in Marty’s reply, see: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html

To see the World Happiness report, http://worldhappiness.report/ for a free download or purchase a printed copy at: https://shop.un.org/search/Universal%20Happiness%20report  $17+shipping.

Ancient Mariner

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