Chapter 42Happiness as a Priority in Public Policy



Attempts to improve the human lot begin typically with treating compelling miseries, such as hunger and epidemics. When these problems are solved, attention shifts to broader and more positive goals; we can see this development in the history of social policy, the goal of which has evolved from alleviating poverty to providing a decent standard of living for everybody. The field of medicine has witnessed a similar shift from assisting people to survive to, in addition, promoting a good quality of life. This policy change has put some difficult questions back on the agenda, such as “What is a good life?” and “What good is the best?” The social sciences cannot provide good answers to these questions, since they have also focused on misery. Yet, a good answer can be found in a classic philosophy, and it is one that is worth reconsidering.

The Greatest Happiness Principle

Two centuries ago Jeremy Bentham (1789) proposed a new moral principle. He wrote that the goodness of an action should not be judged by the decency of its intentions, but by the utility of its consequences. Bentham conceived final utility as human happiness. Hence, he concluded that we should aim at the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Bentham defined happiness in terms of psychological experience, as “the sum of pleasures and pains.” This philosophy is known as utilitarianism, because of its emphasis on the utility of behavioral ...

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