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Five reasons why happiness is a bad idea

Five reasons why happiness is a bad idea

Kenny Primrose explains why he is not convinced by Richard Layard’s cure for our unhappy society. 11/02/2020

Richard Layard has committed much of his life to promoting a happier society. In this extract from his recently published Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics, he sets out his view that happiness should be the overarching goal governing our politics, economy, public institutions and of course our individual lives.

There’s a little déjà vu here. In the early 2000s, Layard was made a Peer and earned himself the status of ‘happiness tzar’, advising the New Labour government on mental health policy. At the time, his work represented a refreshing alternative to the politics of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’; longer, healthier, and richer lives had not proved to be happier lives. Wellbeing language was a reminder that there are dimensions of human life of which we were at risk of losing sight, and Layard’s work got more than a nod in Theos’ first report

What features of modern life are at odds with our happiness? Layard seizes on rampant individualism, admittedly low–hanging fruit. He writes that our dominant cultural success story, “…encourages people to aim above all at personal success: good grades, a good job, a good income and a desirable partner”. This conventional view of success engages us in a game of winners and losers, one that leaves many of us – i.e., those that don’t ‘win’ – lonely and depressed. 

While Layard’s diagnosis for what is making us unhappy remains convincing, the cure he proffers is rather less impressive. Where Layard (I think correctly) identifies the retreat of religion with a moral vacuum, he suggests that Jeremy Bentham’s happiness principle (or principle of utility – ‘do what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people’), should come to fill the space religion leaves behind: “We need to address the moral vacuum which has been left by the retreat of religion. Where egotism has replaced it, we need instead the generous philosophy embodied in the Happiness Principle”. 

Really? There’s no doubt that utilitarianism is one of the dominant ethical frameworks of our age, but it’s hardly problem free. As even the agnostic philosopher Stephen Asma opines, religion’s retreat leaves us with a far bigger deficit than just the slipping of a moral anchor.

But even if we assumed it could somehow replace religion, there are some other significant problems with Layard’s ‘happiness principle’ – here are just five. 

1.     It is unclear that utilitarianism would be a net win morally, at least not in a way we would necessarily be comfortable with. Cathy Gere’s book Pain, Pleasure and the Greater Good draws attention to the horrors that have happened when the principle of utility is followed to its logical conclusion (see Nick Spencer’s review of the book here). Pity Mary Rafferty, who in 1874 went to hospital in Cincinnati with cancerous ulcer on her scalp, partially exposing her brain. Rather than treating her, doctor Roberts Bartholow – interested in the effects of electrical impulse on the brain – inserted electrodes into her cerebral cortex. She died, having slipped into a coma, after four days of appallingly painful experiments. These procedures were fully intended to deepen scientific knowledge and provide benefit to many (Bartholow published his ‘results’ later that year). They were also callous, offensive to any sense of human dignity and thoroughly wrong.

2.     Utilitarianism does not deal with the nub of the individualist problem, treating people as consumers rather than citizens (a point Michael Sandel makes here). Even if we were to commit to the greater good of society, the objective is still to instrumentalise the world for our own happiness. We have, in fact, been doing this for a long time, with devastating results on culture, the environment and the individual.

3.     Utilitarians need to be able to measure happiness. How else would we know whether this or that action has increased or diminished happiness over all? But this is not as easy as we might presume. As David Brooks puts it in this interview – by measuring happiness we treat life as more of a quantitative experience than a qualitative one. There is of course much that we value which would not be amenable to any hedonic calculus, even if we had sure–fire ways of getting the right data. And at which point do we measure happiness? Some things that are difficult or painful in the short term will prove the most valuable when we take a long view, and short term happiness can be long term misery.   

4.     Happiness, seemingly by its nature, eludes the person who looks for it, while it sails into view when you are busy doing something else. Iain McGilchrist puts it like this ‘Happiness and fulfillment are byproducts of other things, of a focus elsewhere…We now see ourselves in largely mechanistic terms, as happiness–maximising machines, and not very successful ones at that.” If happiness escapes us partly because we pursue it (as we have been doing through consumerism), would it not be folly to think you can catch it by chasing it down a different alley? Even if utilitarianism provided us with a ‘happiness principle’ worth aiming for, it’s not at all obvious that it would succeed. 

5.     Finally, the real casualty with individualism was not primarily the loss of happiness (though that was a consequence) – it was losing a sense of meaning in life. As Victor Frankl observed in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, people can survive great suffering. The thing which helps them go on is obviously not happiness but a sense of purpose and hope. Put another way, you can survive incredible hardship without happiness; you can’t survive it without meaning found in some ultimate good or love. In David Brooks’ recent book The Second Mountain, he argues that we must commit to things that are bigger than ourselves: a community, faith, vocation and a partner. Happiness, if we mean anything much more than mere pleasure, will come via those rich and complex goods which help create a larger framework through which we interpret life. 

Layard’s work remains a useful provocation to see the flaws in what we assume are obvious goals (a ‘stronger’ economy). Ultimately, however, Layard’s approach is like receiving morphine as the treatment for a broken leg, when actually what’s needed is an operation to set the bone and allow the person to walk again. At best, aiming for happiness might be a containment strategy, but it is one that doesn’t touch the hem of the real human need.

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 Image: Zamurovic Photography/

Kenneth Primrose

Kenneth Primrose

Kenny Primrose teaches RE and works in school leadership in the North East of England. He is a former research assistant at Theos.

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Posted 11 February 2020

Society, Utilitarianism


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