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Guest Thinkers

Governing by the Happiness Index

I’ve often written about the moral system I advocate, which I’ve dubbed universal utilitarianism. Although people have a broad range of individual preferences, human nature is, in general, fixed and predictable: certain things reliably bring us happiness, while others reliably cause pain and suffering. Through reason and evidence, we can work out which actions are more likely to have these good or bad consequences, allowing us to choose a course of action that’s superior to others in an objective sense.

It’s often asserted that the divide between “is” and “ought”, between factual statements and values, is a chasm that can’t be crossed. However, I think the separation isn’t as wide as all that. Medical researchers studying how to promote health and cure disease are obviously doing science. But at the same time, all medical research has an implicit “ought” built in: we study how to improve human health because we should want to do that. The separation between “is” and “ought” is very small in this case, more like a hairline crack than a great canyon.

In the same way, I consider morality to be a branch of science: the study of human happiness, of flourishing. Although its aims are similar to medicine, morality has a broader goal: not just curing what afflicts people, but actively making their lives better, encompassing all their wants and desires. And I consider morality to be applicable not just to individual interactions, but even more importantly, to the bigger questions of how society should be organized. That’s why I’m happy to read that the concept of gross national happiness, and the improvement thereof, is increasingly being taken seriously as a goal of governance.

The trailblazer is the small Asian country of Bhutan, which uses gross national happiness as an official measure of societal well-being. A similar bill was proposed in Brazil earlier this year. The governments of France and the U.K. have also studied the concept (see also), as have U.S. states like Vermont and Maryland.

Now the obvious, but still necessary, disclaimer: Governing by the happiness index isn’t a panacea. There are real and important questions about how best to measure society’s overall happiness. Governing by the happiness index can become a way of enforcing cultural or religious conformity, rather than genuinely promoting the well-being of the people. (Similarly, governing by gross national product can become a way of further enriching the wealthy few while trampling on the poor.)

However, the most compelling reason for making happiness the goal of government is that it gets people to ask the right questions. Even when prejudiced, regressive beliefs are common among the people, governing by the happiness index helps point the government’s priorities in the right direction – as in this survey, where Bhutan’s government found that a majority of women from that country believe their husbands have the right to beat them. In a society based on improving GNP, this might or might not be considered a problem. In a society based on improving GNH, it can’t be overlooked.

This is a development that humanists should applaud. Humanism considers human beings to be of the highest moral importance and their well-being to be the ultimate standard of value. Yet most widely used economic indicators don’t take happiness into account at all, such that a country’s GNP or other stats can improve even while it’s actively destroying human happiness – an absurd result that shows the irrationality of using those indicators as the sole measure of progress. If it’s true, as the immortal words say, that one of the chief ends of government is securing the pursuit of happiness, then it’s about time that more governments took that mandate seriously and started paying attention to what really matters.

Image credit: Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan. Taken by Douglas J. McLaughlin, released on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0 license


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