12 June 2011

Human happiness

As a policy goal. Since I'm generally in favor of hedonist calculus or utilitarian ethics, this is certainly an appealing way to evaluate public policy

Unfortunately I see a couple problems with it instead of just the current proxy of unemployment + GDP growth
First I'm not convinced that "happiness" is an easily quantifiable or aggregated form. Basically this is the same objection most people have to raw utilitarianism, that you cannot easily quantify what is better in a refined enough way to make good choices into better ones. The best we can usually see here is that "bad" choices are not as good as good ones. Aggregating hundreds or even millions of those receptions, across many different experiences, is unlikely to give us a very meaningful statistic. Obviously where lots of people are unhappy, that would be useful. But where they're all just sort of meh (like the introvert-extrovert problem they discussed). Or what if by some miracle everyone is determined to be happy (on average). How do we improve on that?

Secondly, lots of happiness research indicates that human beings are not very good at expressing what it is that makes them happy. Sometimes this is related to status signaling problems (saying you like something because other people who you admire or respect say so also). But mostly this is because we do one thing and say others in life often enough in relation to what we feel that we probably just don't have a very good grasp of what is what and which is which. More pressing for political policy choices, not only are people woefully informed about politics and government action (or inaction), but they are also typically "happier" with policy choices that make them or others worse off. Most Americans, for instance, favor trade protectionism and many favor drug prohibition and criminal penalties. Neither of these are particularly beneficial to anyone, certainly not in the way that advocates of either claim. Yet when these policies are adopted, some people will claim to be happier than not. Assessing whether a political choice is a good option based on how people feel about it as opposed to whether that policy actually produces the outcomes they claim to want is a recipe for lots of useless pandering and symbolism in politics rather than effective governance.

One thing I do think is beneficial is that a focus on happiness creates by extension, a focus on human suffering to be alleviated. We're probably better off starting from a perspective where the public works to avoid harming lots of people, or to correct actions or inactions where harms are greater than not. It is also likely to put a much higher premium on personal liberty and freedom to allow individuals their choices as opposed to using public decisions to impose happier lives.
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