Thursday 24 March 2011

Practical problems with hedonism as the basis for public policy


Hedonism is the mainstream modern morality.

This is the idea that the focus of socio-political policy ought to be increasing happiness and reducing suffering.


But, while this sounds hard-nosed and practical (especially in comparison with alternative foci of public policy), hedonism as a basis for policy has serious, indeed insoluble, problems. Here are a few:


1. Uncertainty

Uncertainty about whether and to what extent a person or group is happy or suffering.

After all, these are subjective experiences, individuals lack a basis for comparison and self-reports are of hedonic state are prone to be shaped to enhance a person's hedonic state: when hedonism is the primary ethic, it is rational for people to lie about their hedonic state in order to enhance their hedonic state.

This means that happiness and suffering require to be operationalized in an objective and material sense - in terms of things like wealth, leisure time, and sex being equivalent to happy; and poverty, war, disease being equivalent to suffering etc.


2. Trade-offs

Trade-offs between people or groups whose happiness is increased by a policy, and those whose suffering is increased.

This means that happiness and suffering require to be operationalized in a material and measurable sense in terms of favoured and disfavoured people or groups; those of whom the alleviation of their suffering is a matter of priority; and those of whom the increase of their suffering is a matter of indifference, pay-back or just-deserts.


3. Quantification.

Happiness and suffering are not just uncertain and subject to trade-offs but they are qualitative.

In a sense, the maximum of happiness or suffering is that of which an individual is capable; yet policy is not about specific individuals but about 'the public'. And happiness and suffering do not cancel-out or compensate.

This means that happiness and suffering require to be operationalized quantitatively, in terms of numerical measurements of things like wealth, leisure, poverty, war, disease, gender, race, sexual activity and orientation.


At the end of the process, happiness and suffering are no longer subjective experiences 'owned' by actual human beings; but instead abstract statistical data: owned by those who have the resources and propaganda apparatus to create and disseminate this 'information'.

Public policy then becomes the creation and manipulation of objective, quantitative information pertaining to hedonic variables.


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