This blog aims to spread happiness, and at some points may convey the impression that happiness is the only thing that counts. So let’s ask the question directly and explicitly: is happiness (as defined here) the only goal we should be striving for?
Let’s go back one step and think about whether happiness is relevant at all. If it was not, it would imply that states of severe pain and those of joy or satisfaction are not better or worse, i.e. given the choice we would be indifferent which to choose. I believe most people would disagree, and confirm that happiness at least plays some role in their lives.
The more difficult question is: now that we have confirmed happiness plays a role, does it share its place with any other goal? In other words: what could be another goal besides happiness which would justify that happiness is not always maximized (for the sake of that other goal)?
Getting to the Bottom
In summary, so far I’ve not come across other goals which are not connected to happiness in some form and still worth pursuing. For all the candidates I’ve screened, be it freedom, friendship, honesty, peace, healthy environment or other, a series of “why”-questions always lead me to happiness again.
For example, for “healthy environment”:
The Evolutionary Perspective
Another way to look at this question is from an evolutionary perspective. At the beginning (when only atoms where floating around in space) there were no values per se. Then, life began to exist, and with it “consciousness” and an incentive system for the individual to behave in a way which is good for reproduction, i.e. pleasure and pain. If we now have to declare a “goal” to strive for – what else could it be than the positive part of this incentive-system?
Other Values are Important Too – as Practical Guidelines
So does this mean we should evaluate all of our options only on the account how much happiness or unhappiness they cause (as proposed by utilitarianism)? In theory yes, but in practice we don’t have enough time to make a full-blown analysis before taking decisions. Instead, we need other easy-to-understand values which guide us like “lighthouses” or landmarks to make the decisions which lead to most happiness and least suffering.
There are many of those “practical values” which should be held up high, including friendship, honesty, respect for others, and many more. These values, which are propagated by many institutions which influence community life (rules within families, national law, religion etc.) incorporate humanity’s experiences gained over thousands of years. Ignoring those (often) leads short-term hedonism which is in conflict with long-term happiness.
The Tricky Cases
That said, it is important never to forget the role of these practical values (means to the end of happiness), so that they don’t develop a life on their own, or become “untouchable”. In theory no value or rule is untouchable (however in practice it may make sense to position some in this way1).
What about the cases where we need to break with our practical values for happiness sake? For example, would it be justified to torture the captured terrorist to find out where the bomb is hidden, even though it would be in conflict with our practical value to “not inflict pain on others” (see ticking time bomb scenario)?
A straight “yes” or “no” to this question is not possible, at least not without a detailed analysis (which, by the way, I have not seen yet, neither from those who believe it is justified in some cases (such as The Economist2), nor from the ones who rule out torture completely). Time allowing, I will try to provide such an analysis in one of my next posts.
As far as I can see, happiness is the only end-in-itself goal we should be striving for. Or did I miss anything? Which other goals would justify that happiness is not always maximized?
1) One examples with kids: the rule “only cross the road in case of a green light” is a useful mandatory rule which should be positioned as “untouchable”, but only because kids’ assessment skills are limited. Later on, when we have a broader view and see things in context, we may occasionally break that rule (e.g. a long road with no cars in sight and no kids watching ;-)).
2) See The Economist, Sep 20th 2007: “Is torture ever justified?”