Why happiness is of marginal value in ethical decision-making

Journal of Value Inquiry 39 (3-4):325-344 (2005)
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In the last few decades psychologists have gained a clearer picture of the notion of happiness and a more sophisticated account of its explanation. Their research has serious consequences for any ethic based on the maximization of happiness, especially John Stuart Mill’s classical eudaimonistic utilitarianism. In the most general terms, the research indicates that a congenital basis for homeostatic levels of happiness in populations, the hedonic treadmill effect, and other personality factors, contribute to maintain a satisfactory level of happiness over the long run for a large percentage of any population, and relatively independently of the circumstances of the population. Consequently, although there are certainly ethical reasons to address the conditions of persons and populations, it is of marginal value to base such decisions on improvements in their levels of happiness. The happiness of others is not a sensible criterion for ethical decision-making.

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James Liszka
State University of New York, Plattsburgh


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