The Importance of Understanding (Un)Happiness-Spreading Effects


As this post deals with ethical and potentially emotional subjects, please read my disclaimer, which was written to avoid misunderstandings, for this type of post: Pre-Note to Posts on Ethical Subjects. Everything said in this article is merely an effort to contribute to the discussion, and does not reflect any unalterable opinions.

Imagine the following (dramatic) scenario: it is wartime, and you are a military general. You know you can end the war with a final strike. You have two options:

  1. You can invade your enemy's territory, which will most likely lead to the death of 10,000 people, or
  2. You can drop a big bomb on a remote village, leading to 11,000 deaths (demonstrating your military strength and causing your enemy to surrender)

Assuming you had to choose one of these two (horrible) options, which would you choose?

This article does not intend to answer this question, but rather to highlight effects which are relevant in the context of happiness and which may not be considered in practice if such a situation should arise.

These effects include:

  • Happiness of the Victims’ Relatives
    In Scenario 1, the victims will most likely represent different families all over the country. Their death will make many relatives fundamentally unhappy for a long time; many of the victims’ parents may never become fully happy again.

    In other words, there are high “multiplier effects” of unhappiness in this scenario: one victim’s fate leads to the unhappiness of many other people.

    In Scenario 2, the multiplier effects are not as strong, because presumably the victims’ relatives are victims as well (they lived in the same village).

  • Physical Injuries
    Scenario 1 will most likely lead to more injuries than Scenario 2. Let’s assume for a moment that Scenario 1 will lead to 10,000 injuries while Scenario 2 will lead to 1,000. How should this information be incorporated into the decision? How do the 1,000 additional deaths in Scenario 2 compare to the 9,000 additional injuries in Scenario 1?

    We face an impossible task: to weigh one goal (saving lives) against another (preventing injuries). It’s an ethical dilemma, but we must answer this question, as our decision (either for Scenario 1 or Scenario 2) implies an answer – we cannot negate the question.

  • Traumatisation
    As with a physical injury, traumatisation can impact the victims’ future happiness considerably, and may even lead to suicide in some cases.1

    Traumatisation is most likely less prevalent in Scenario 2 than in Scenario 1. How can this information be incorporated into the decision-making process?

As stated above, I don’t advocate opting for Scenario 1 or Scenario 2. This is only a thought experiment which illustrates important effects on happiness which may not be taken into account if such a situation arises. I am not familiar with the military’s decision-making processes, but I’d be very surprised if they included a detailed analysis of happiness.

Beyond this example, there are many other decisions in which a detailed analysis incorporating (un)happiness-spreading effects would be useful. Basically, every decision which directly impacts people’s happiness could benefit from such an analysis. For example, consider the following decisions:

  • (Everybody’s) decisions on financial donations and which organizations should receive those donations
  • (Health organisations’) decisions on who should receive scarce medications and treatments
  • (Governments’) decisions on which national conflicts merit intervention
  • Etc.

Conclusion and Proposals

Based on the example above, we may draw the following conclusions:

  • Some effects that are relevant for happiness are not obvious. Time must be dedicated to identify those effects and then include them in the decision-making process.
  • It seems doubtful whether any such analysis is being performed today for all the “big” decisions impacting many people’s happiness (e.g., governmental decisions).2 Therefore, “think tanks” could be engaged to perform this analysis and perhaps provide fresh perspectives.
  • Sometimes we face situations in which one worthy goal has to be weighed against another (e.g., saving lives vs. preventing injuries). Decisions made today imply a response to this dilemma, but are not made explicit in terms of rules or guidelines, leaving the decision up to the personal preferences of the decision-maker (e.g., the military).

    The logical proposal resulting from this conclusion would be to develop a methodology which serves as a guide in case of conflicting goals. However: 

a.) Reaching an agreement on such a guide would be very difficult, and
b.) Even if such a guide were in place, it would be difficult to assess the input variables (which we took for granted in the example above) objectively

Nevertheless, developing such a guide would be a step toward better, less arbitrary decisions.

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1) Suicide is just the tip of the “unhappiness iceberg”: you have to really, really suffer to take such a tragic action. We can assume that many more traumatised victims are considerably less happy with their lives, even if they are not driven to suicide.

2) I believe most western governments do try to maximize happiness implicitly (of course, this also depends on which government we are talking about), but if it is not made explicit and analysed ”on paper,” there is a risk that some (un)happiness-spreading effects are missed and a suboptimal decision is made. 

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