Richard Layard in a professor of economics, and he wrote a book on happiness and how we should achieve it. As you might expect, it is a very rational, logical book. But stop there just a moment – he’s an economist! What would you make of it if a psychologist wrote a book advising us on the economy? Yet his words were strongly heard by the ears of the last government, as well as this. It led to the launch of the national happiness survey by the government’s Office of National Statistics (ONS).
Layard’s BIG IDEA is founded on a principle belonging to the 18th century, and long since discredited. It goes like this:
- everything you do should be evaluated solely on the value of the results it produces - in this case, happiness
- every kind of happiness, whatever you do to achieve it, is equal
- all decisions, all policy, should aim to achieve the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
As regards the first principle, Bentham urged us simply to question the usefulness, or utility, of what we do in delivering either “pleasure” or “pain.” Nothing more, nothing less. No Morality. No Ethics. No need to consider consequences for others, the world or anything else. Simply, “feel good, or feel bad?” - Just do it (didn't Nike ads say that?)
Now add the policy that we should aim to maximise this, for the greatest number of people. So if a crowd decide they want to lynch you, it’s fine. The greatest number get the greatest happiness. Are you okay with this? Could it sound just a little like rule by the lowest common denominator? Or mob rule? Some say that’s precisely what democracy amounts to (Plato took this view).
Darrin McMahon, who wrote the superb book “A History of Happiness” said it was potentially dangerous, and could result in sacrificing the few in favour of the many. John Stewart Mill, back in 1863, famously challenged Bentham’s central theme that all pleasure or happiness is equal, arguing that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied that a fool satisfied.”
Let’s update it a little. Is the happiness experienced by footballer Wayne Rooney in scoring a goal as valuable as Churchill’s satisfaction over the defeat of Hitler’s Wehrmacht? What do you think? You can easily make up your own comparisons.
In 1843 Thomas Carlyle queried why we have not yet found happiness despite all the promises of the new liberty from control by the church and divine principles. He attacked the Benthamites for failing to deliver their “greatest happiness for all”, and that in fact this policy was achieving the very opposite. Some might say that we are still seeing increasing unhappiness. Statistics seem to support this.
A final thought: it is an ancient Hindu principle that happiness should always include an element of looking after society, religion, family and your profession, which in turn contributes towards a broader stability in the cosmos, nature, and society. In short, it is a goal of both personal and universal equilibrium, and a very high level and significant kind of happiness. Just an idea to wonder about.