To Be Happy

A few weeks ago I said that those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural really need to get our act together and discuss our own moral philosophy, given that we don’t have one handed down to us on tablets of stone. We are often charged by “believers” as being immoral or amoral, as if the only alternative to Christian or any other religious doctrine is bestial anarchy. So today I thought I’d air my own moral philosophy for your examination. It’s very simple to state and very hard to implement, and it goes like this:

Each of us should strive to create the most happiness, for the most ‘people’, for the longest time.

That’s it. No detailed list of commandments; no Heaven or Hell as incentives; no advice as to how to go about it, even. But there are several things I need to explain:

First, it’s a variant on something that the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once said, and hence is a form of Utilitarianism. Someone very close to me once described this as “a bleak philosophy”, and maybe she’s right, although at the time she was the innocent victim of my best attempt to stick to it, so it’s not easy to tell. However, just because Bentham and I had a similar idea this doesn’t mean I believe everything Bentham believed. For one thing I don’t think that you can quantify happiness (or pleasure), as he attempted to do, and create definitive rules about it; for another I have absolutely no plans to have myself embalmed and stuck in a glass case.

Perhaps the most important difference from Bentham is that I’ve added “for the longest time” to the end, because without this it is an incitement to Hedonism. He did include this in his “Felicific Calculus” but I think it needs emphasising. In Bentham’s time, global warming, the loss of natural resources to human-induced entropy, and the threat to humanity caused by weapons whose force exceeds our competence, were not recognised issues. But now we can see that we have often given ourselves happiness at the expense of those yet to be born. This is not a good thing. Obviously we can’t account for the consequences of our actions millions of years into the future. Also, our own happiness today is a vital part of future generations’ happiness – if we don’t thrive and prosper then they may not even come to exist, or they may not get a good and enlightened head start in life. Nevertheless, “party, party, party!” is not a good basis for a moral philosophy. In general, there are always more people yet to be born than are existing today, and so future generations must count very highly in our choices.

Notice also that I’ve put “people” in quotes. This is because I don’t know who counts as a person. It’s clearly nonsense to presume that personhood extends evenly thoughout the human species but nowhere beyond. For one thing we don’t even know how to define the human species as it stands today (let alone in the past and future). It seems equally nonsensical to me to go to the other extreme and include all living systems in the category of personhood, for much the same reasons. A bacterium can “experience pain and pleasure”, in the sense that some things that happen to it provide a threat or advantage to its survival, and hence alter its behaviour. But I think few of us would suggest that a bacterium can be happy or unhappy in the sense we mean it for ourselves. To be happy, it seems to me you need to be conscious. Not all living things are conscious. But we don’t know what consciousness is, or which creatures have it. This is why neuroscience, psychology, comparative anatomy, artificial intelligence and artificial life are such important subjects. We need to work this out.

Happiness is also different from pleasure, and pleasure is not always the same as survivability. So why happiness? It seems such a nebulous and selfish beast. But it’s what you want, isn’t it? You want to be happy. You don’t want to be unhappy. I’m the same. I can’t imagine anyone who wants anything different. Some people may say that they want to be unhappy, but in that case the opportunity and right to be miserable is what makes them happy, almost by definition. And happiness is relative. There are millions of poor people, living life on the edge, who nevertheless are happy. There are many rich people, who have all that money can buy, who are desperately unhappy. We should feel as sorry for them as anyone else who is unhappy. We should feel as pleased for the happy poor as we do for the happy rich. Happpiness is what we all want. Wealth, security, comfort and peace are more likely to make us happy, but those aren’t the ultimate goal. Happiness is a strange and ill-defined concept, but it’s overwhelmingly important for the conscious mind. If we aren’t happy then we are suffering, and it seems to me that suffering is self-evidently bad.

But the most important thing about this “most happiness” philosophy is that we simply don’t know how to adhere to it, and almost certainly never will. Even if I knew for sure which organisms can experience happiness, there’s no way I can be confident about which actions will maximise that happiness. You can’t (as Bentham attempted to) measure happiness, and you can’t be certain how any action you take will pan out. Sometimes we do our utmost to make everyone happy and end up making them miserable, because things pan out in a different way than we could have foreseen. But the point is, we should TRY to foresee. It should guide our actions and intentions. And we should be judged according to our intentions and efforts – there’s a big difference between misery caused by malice and misery caused by an honest mistake.

This is where my form of utilitarianism is radically different from, say, the Ten Commandments (it’s far more similar to the “Do as you would be done by” Christian moral principle that I wrote about a few weeks ago). Moral codes like those in the Old Testament and Koran tell people exactly what they should do under specific circumstances. They are definitive. Jews even know for sure when it is “wrong” to turn on a light switch. Sometimes it takes some deep and meaningful discussion to figure out the details but they can rely on clerics to debate stuff like that (and anyway they can usually find a Gentile to switch it on for them). Moral CODES like this are very comforting: you know what you’re supposed to do and you don’t have to think too hard about it. But such codes are also ludicrous. They are absurd. They are often very counterproductive. What we need is not codes but moral PRINCIPLES.

Everyone should know by now how stupid it is to follow the letter of the law and flout its spirit. But detailed laws actually encourage people to act that way. It was a good compromise in the days before education, but now many of us have no such excuse. No codified law can possibly account for every circumstance, and often the letter of the law has the opposite effect to its spirit. The European Union is stuffed full of attempts to codify detailed exceptions to laws that clearly don’t always make sense. And the more exceptions the lawmakers include, the more loopholes and absurdities they actually create.

Sometimes this has only silly consequences. If people really want to adhere to anachronistic rules about eating pork, even after the advent of refrigeration and food hygeine standards, then that’s up to them. But sometimes it’s very, very dangerous. Many young men are killing themselves and innocent bystanders every day because they believe they’re adhering to religious law. Whole wars have been fought because one society’s little rituals don’t agree with someone else’s. Strict adherence to laws, regardless of logic or compassion is what puts the “dog” in “dogma”. It is what gives people excuses to do harm while claiming to do good. It is a dirty, shameful COP-OUT on the part of ordinary people.

The advantage of my approach is that I don’t have a clue how to implement it. I can’t look down a list to find my answers. I don’t have the comfort of pointing at a rule to excuse myself for making a mistake and causing unwarranted grief. I have to think very hard all the time, to work out to the best of my ability what I should do to make the most people happiest, because sometimes that involves deliberately making myself or other people unhappy. It makes it clear to me that every decision I take has consequences, and so, for that matter, do the times when I fail to take a decision. It puts the onus on me to think, instead of acting like an automaton.

But it’s a guide. It’s a goal. It’s something to measure my progress by. And the sheer lack of definitive rules means that I have to be constantly aware that sometimes what seems on first glance to be the right thing to do can actually be the worst thing. It keeps me on my toes and reminds me that the responsibility is all mine and I can’t pass it off onto someone else. I think that’s a good thing. I think that makes me MORE moral than someone who just does what he’s told.

And finally it really screws up some of our cosy little assumptions, and that’s a good thing too. Many jurisdictions, for instance, punish a drunk driver who kills someone by a long prison sentence, but a drunk driver who doesn’t kill someone just gets a fine. How is the latter any less guilty than the former? He just got away with it, that’s all. One caused more unhappiness than the other, but both had the same intentions; the same disregard of other people’s feelings. Surely the punishment should be identical in either case? But what? It’s issues like these that require us all to think a great deal harder about culpability and morality than we currently do, because we’re so used to being able to palm the problem off onto someone else.

Who is more guilty in this example: Person A has been abused by her husband for years, sees him hit their child and later that night stabs him to death as he sleeps. Person B fails to indicate when changing lanes on a freeway, causing an accident that may or may not kill someone. I’d suggest that the second person is more guilty than the first, because the cost to oneself, in terms of happiness, of habitually lifting one finger to indicate is ridiculously trivial compared to the potential cost to others of not doing so, whereas the first person had to go through moral torture to make that decision and carry it out. So how should we punish them? It’s not obvious, is it? Introduce the death penalty for failure to use your indicators?

The more we have to think for ourselves instead of relying on someone else (especially someone living in a completely different kind of society, thousands of years ago), the more we are likely to end up making ourselves and everyone else happy. Even if we’re not so clever as the expert moral philosopher. The important thing is our intention – the intention to make people happy is called kindness and kindness is something we can all understand and recognise. Sometimes we’ll get it horribly wrong despite our best efforts – to my shame I know that I have – but the important thing is to try. Morality is about being responsible, not hiding behind religious dogma.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

13 Responses to To Be Happy

  1. Pius Agius says:

    Hi Steve

    Yes happiness is something hard to pin down. I am very happy today because I retreived all my lost data when my computer froze earlier this week. For a while it was touch and go so when I dug through all my folders and discovered my data I was very pleased. I was so sad at the thought of losing many months work so the feeling of getting things right was good to have.

    Our speech is full of words that can be seen from different angles. What is the ‘right’ thing to do. How ‘good’ is it really?

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance in research in artificial intelligence. We will be able to understand how the mind works and narrow those definitions to useful ones.

    Until then what codes of behaviour should we as individual mature adults live by? Not hurting others is important but we should also have respect for ourselves as well. Is that a moral stand I am taking??

    Life is certainly complicated and as active people we will make some mistakes along the way. It proves that we are alive and we will grow if we take them as learning experiences. I have in my life made some really big mistakes and people still throw me the odd curve. I have learned to duck quickly and sometimes walk away when things get too nasty.

    You have certainly put a lot of thought into this subject and it does my heart good to see that I am not alone in thinking about such things. I am wise in my old age to realize that I do not have the answers to a lot of questions but I am striving, groping for some as I see you are.

    Take care Pius

  2. stevegrand says:

    Hey Pius,

    Very wise words. I’m glad you got your data back – that’s such a big deal these days!

    > Not hurting others is important but we should also have respect for ourselves as well.

    That’s very true. We should maximise everyone’s happiness and that INCLUDES our own. I’ve a feeling I forget that sometimes. I’m working on that. But it’s better to err on that side than to be selfish, I think.

  3. An interesting thought but a challenge to actually live out. You state your core moral value as “Each of us should strive to create the most happiness, for the most ‘people’, for the longest time.” Okay, now who gets to decide the details of this extension of happiness? You see, if there is no eternal moral center upon which all human beings are fashioned, then each of us gets to be the judge of what is right and wrong and you stand powerless to criticize it since each is a god unto himself. For example, Margaret Sanger and Ruth Ginsburg will decide that the “most hapiness for the most people” will be the fulfillment of their eugenic dreams since the poor and the challenged will be “happier” not suffering through their lives. I’m sure both of those women will have “maximized their own happiness” and certainly will not care if one of the poor finds that their own happiness has been minimized. Bummer.

    • stevegrand says:


      I don’t deny it’s a challenge, and you do have a point, or rather you would have if you were right about your axiom.

      However, for a start that’s the situation we are ALREADY in. Nobody can agree on an “eternal moral center”. Muslims disagree with Christians disagree with Hindus disagree with everybody else. Where the great religions DO agree with each other, it generally comes down to “do as you would be done by”, which is just a variant of what I’m saying too. I disagree very much with the fundamentalist Muslim position on “killing infidels”, for instance, but I’m powerless to do much about it. If someone chooses to blow me up in the name of Allah then I’m in no better position than I would be if someone decided I was unfit for the master race and should be eugenically removed from the gene pool.

      I am more powerless to criticise a religion than I would be to criticize an individual. I am more powerless to criticize a moral stance that is simply claimed to be God’s Truth, rather than standing or falling on its own logic.

      I’m not saying that people should be free to decide right from wrong, just held responsible for those choices that we all inevitably have to make every day, and encouraged to execute that responsibility by thinking for themselves. Following choices that were made by semi-nomadic tribesmen thousands of years ago is a way of AVOIDING that responsibility.

      Now, I think you may disagree that these rules were invented by humans at all. You are very probably suggesting that there IS an externally imposed moral position, decided by somebody’s god. But whose god? Why should I believe what you tell me your god says? I don’t believe in your god. I don’t believe in anyone’s god. That’s the point.

      Your blog is entitled “Love, accept, forgive” and I think those are EXCELLENT things to do. I agree with those sentiments. But I don’t need a god to tell me to do them (particularly one that is reported to have held very different views at other times). And I don’t think they stand or fall on the basis of whether you believe a god has told you to do them either. I think all of us understand that love, acceptance and forgiveness are good things to do (even those of us who don’t do them). They are some of the things that fulfil precisely the moral principle I have told you is my guiding light (and unlike religions I am not trying to force this down anyone else’s throat – I’m simply telling you what I think). Love is another word for kindness, and kindness is the desire to make people happy. Acceptance and forgiveness admit that there are many ways to live and that one should be careful in making judgements about others or their culpability on the basis of one’s own beliefs or desires. I think those things are self-evident. I don’t need to be ordered to behave like that.

      Moreover, those people you think would abuse that common fellow feeling will abuse it regardless of what religions tell them to do. And, in my opinion, a lot of people who are religious (in a fundamentalist sense) abuse it IN THE NAME OF religion. Better not to give them that excuse.

      It may be that some people are too socipathic or too stupid to think for themselves, and hence need rules handed down from on high (whether that means from a supernatural source or not). However, that also encourages people NOT to think for themselves, and it’s a moot point whether the former or latter turns out to create the most happiness. Your god doesn’t actually seem very concerned with people’s happiness, as it happens. He certainly creates or permits a dreadful amount of suffering. And a great deal of suffering is caused in his name, too. Love, accept and forgive is something we can all think hard how best to do – we don’t need to be told to do it and it is unhealthy to do it for ulterior motives, such as a place in heaven or the avoidance of hell (that’s why some people become suicide bombers). It’s self-evident that these are good things to do.

      The reason I wrote my post was that I am an atheist, and atheists are often accused of being amoral. I’m not amoral – I think about morality a great deal and always work hard to do the right thing. And I’m pretty sure that most people, religious or otherwise, would think I’m trying my best to do something that they, too, would consider to be right. I’m a kind person. I love others, I forgive them and I accept them, and I can do this without external pressure and without having to believe in an imposed moral absolute. Atheism is NOT anarchy.

  4. Vegard says:

    The theoretical problem with utilitarianism is that it allows for doing bad things because they have the best outcome overall — the McClosky example [1], simplified: A sheriff has the possibility of framing an innocent man which the public believes to be guilty, in order to prevent a brewing mass riot (which would lead to many more victims than just the one innocent man).

    Charles Fried argued that it is wrong to kill and lie because we suppress another person’s ability to make their own choices and live their own lives. He also writes that “our first moral duty is to do right and avoid wrong” [2]. This appeals to me much more than utilitarianism. I therefore highly recommend his book “Right and Wrong” [2], even though there are parts of it which are very difficult and perhaps a bit too theoretical.

    (As an aside, I think that the problem is not that the moral philosophy not tied to religion is non-existent, I think the problem is that most people don’t _know_ that it exists, where to find it, that it is not usually taught in schools, etc.)


    [1] McCloskey, H.J. 1957. “An Examination of Restricted Utilitarianism”. The Philosophical Review, 66 (4): 466–485

    [2] Fried, Charles. 1978. Right and Wrong. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  5. David HJ says:

    Hi Steve,

    I recall you writing in one of your books that you suspect that some of your ideas might align with Buddhist teachings. Reading this blog entry, it was almost like reading an entry of a buddhist! From the understanding that strict laws rarely work all the time (Buddhism has virtually none, and even those that do exist are debatable), through to distinguishing the important difference between happiness and pleasure (which I think is something far too many people confuse). Pleasure is often fleeting and can be equally as distructive as it can be enjoyable, but happiness can last a lifetime.

    I might suggest that you would enjoy reading up a little on Buddhism but I get the impression through your books that you prefer to start with a few basic facts and work things out for yourself, which, again, is a very buddhist principle!

    I am not religious: even with Buddhism I feel there are a few things that don’t quite pan out in my mind. But buddhism encourages free thought, open debates and most importantly how to make one’s own life less unhappy by making others happy.

    A very noble cause: I wish you all the best in your continuing and endeavours to make those around you happy.

    Now hurry up and get back to making robots so you can continue to make me happy!

  6. tim hutton says:

    Hi Steve, nice post.

    With our daughter approaching 2, the question of how to teach morality has become quite pressing for us. And less theoretical!

    As she has become able to understand more of what we’re saying to her, the key to it all seems to be empathy – if we can get her to empathise with the child whose toy she just took then our job is done. As she gets older and wiser she can formulate whatever framework of moral theory she wants, if any.

    Of course what we’re really doing is harnessing the work of evolution, since it hard-wired us for empathy when we became social animals. Who are we to argue with the conclusions of evolution?

    If we’re to find a non-religious way to ground moral philosophy (and I applaud your ambition) then my strictly amateur approach would be to start with questions, not conclusions. Perhaps this pre-empts the inevitable “but why?” that I expect to become familiar.

    Here are some questions:

    1. What if you’d been born as someone else?
    2. What if everyone acted the same way as you?
    3. What if you’d never been born?
    4. What if I’m wrong?

    Number 1 is John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance, of course. 3 and 4 are there to help avoid the pressing guilt of not devoting your life to solve everyone’s problems.

    Just some thoughts.

  7. Terren says:

    Hi Steve,

    First, thanks for writing about this. I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics myself lately so this is good food for thought.

    I do have a problem with one aspect of your point of view. You wonder whether the relative guilt of the drunk driver who kills, versus the one who doesn’t isn’t equal. You make a similarly counter-intuitive comparison involving the abused-murderer and the non-turn-signal-using driver. In both of these cases you dismiss the outcome of the act, focusing only on the intention of the act.

    I think that would be okay if we could know what our true intent was in each moment. But most of the time we act and then justify our actions later in terms of a model of ourselves, grounded in some context, and that model may or may not fit with reality. Addicts are good examples where the model doesn’t fit.

    So I think there’s good reason that our perception/judgment of someone’s intent is bound to the outcome of the act, because much of the time we are either unable or unwilling to predict the consequences of our actions. So in the course of living, we try things, sometimes we cut corners, flaunt the rules a little bit. We drive home after having had a few beers. We text-message while driving. Of course, on some level, we know we shouldn’t do these things but ethics is not a black-and-white proposition. We justify these transgressions as balancing acts. The mom who puts makeup on in the car knows she doesn’t have time to do it when the kids were screaming and needed to get on the schoolbus on time. Each of us finds some fuzzy line in the gray area between right and wrong. That line moves forward and backward depending on the outcome of our actions.

    Do you think that the hidden nature of our true selves is an important component to ethics? If so, how does that fit into your ideas of ethical behavior?

  8. Alon says:

    Great philosophy, Steve. Really enjoyed reading it.

    For some reason, last night after reading this post, I was inspired to write down my own thoughts on morality. (I guess you’re just an inspiring kind of person. :))

    My opinions on morality:

    “There is no such thing as right and wrong, and especially no good and evil.
    There is only what we like and what we dislike, which ultimately determine our level of happiness.
    Hunger satisfication, sexual gratification, pride of social achievement, conservation of our body’s energy, intriguing or surprising mental stimulation, and freedom from sensory distractions (like pain) or emotional distractions (like fear and anxiety). These factors determine what we like. The direct opposite is what we dislike.
    As emotional beings, we are pushed past the regular eating, multiplying, and resting. As social beings, we surpass just fearing death, and instead we also strive to fit in among our species’ fabricated reality. Why? Because among those who did not, they have no descendants to show for their lack of effort.
    Yet our core sense of morality tends to focus on our most animalistic emotion: fear.
    As humans we have a choice. Will we live by the social contract, agreeing to respect each other’s right to live as we please, working together to protect our overall freedom from fear? Because your other option is to pursue a greedy agenda; however, as a threat to everyone else in the community, you are bound to be destroyed (which is what fear is mainly there to protect you from).
    In regard to morality, Disgust, the emotion that basically protects us from germs and illness, has also been a guide for many cultures in deciding right from wrong.
    The omniverous hog, who has no problem rummaging through sewage, is deemed unkosher. The idea of sexual relations with someone who is not your preference becomes detested, essentially because there is the danger of disease without the sexual pleasure that comes from hereditary desires or society’s views on either beauty or hierarchy.
    Other than the basic maternal instincts and familial ties, Empathy drives morality into what it is today. Why does it matter if another living organism ceases to have its life-pattern continue? People care about the death of other animals (including other humans) for two reasons: they fear it happening or imagine it happening to themselves, or they fear losing that organism from their own life. Empathy enables us to feel the pain of others, and act on it. We know how terrible it is to suffer, so we never wish it on those who have done us no harm.
    We will only understand the concept of morality when we finally understand what it means to be human. No person desires to live in a world full of the “dislikes” mentioned above. As a person who wants the same exact thing as everyone else, you have a “moral” obligation to respect the freedom of others. If you choose not to, then you give up your own secured freedom of happiness, and shall be removed from society accordingly.”

    Woops, I just realized that I forgot about “love.” Now I’m left wondering how that would fit into what I just said… Any thoughts?

    • stevegrand says:

      Oh, this came in too late to be included in my new post – sorry.

      Goodness you’ve been thinking hard! Regarding love, I think you’ve already covered it, haven’t you? If empathy is evolution’s way of enabling us to feel the pain of others, then presumably it’s also a way to enable us to feel the pleasure of others. Acting on both of those is loving someone, isn’t it? You want to prevent them feeling pain and allow them to feel happiness, because that’s what you want and you recognise they’re like you. At least that’s “love” in the Christian sense, as “charity”. Romantic love must be a bit more complex because it favors one person over all others.

      Thanks for that evolutionary psychology perspective! I think you’re right – there’s nothing intrinsically noble about any of it – we should just do those things that help ourselves and others to avoid negative emotions and maximise positive ones, because that’s what we’re all programmed to want, for good reasons.

      And robots, of course, will have entirely different moral criteria. If you’re a robot designed to learn how to clean sewers you’ll presumably be given emotions that make s**t smell attractive and desirable. Taking that robot out to a five-star restaurant would then be cruelty and morally wrong!

  9. stevegrand says:

    Thanks guys – there are so many interesting points there that I decided to create a whole new post about it.

  10. spleeness says:

    We got into a discussion at work once during a how-can-we-all-get-along workshop where a similar subject emerged. Someone complained about bad behavior from a fellow coworker — how they rolled their eyes whenever they had to answer the phone. I was thinking what causes this? Well they must be dissatisfied. Most people don’t start out a job with a bad attitude, so what happened? And what could people do in the workforce to affect others’ attitudes? It’s not so different than society.

    I believe if people treat others with respect, that could help. But it’s not enough to treat people how you want to be treated, you have to treat them how *they* want to be treated. That’s part of the pursuit of happiness; for each it’s different. As you already said. 🙂

    BTW, laughed at your comment on my blog. Yours looks interesting as well. I’m glad you found me via Flagstaff info — what a great city! Do you belong to any meetup groups? Where did you hail from?

    • stevegrand says:

      > As you already said.

      Hmm, I guess I did, didn’t I? But to be honest I hadn’t thought of it that way. I could see that “do as you would be done by” is a subset of “make people happy” because it’s a way of figuring out what makes other people happy – hmm, they’re like me; I like coffee; perhaps I should offer them a drink. But dammit it never occurred to me simply to ask them!

      > Most people don’t start out a job with a bad attitude, so what happened?

      That’s a nice model – I like that. For one thing it shows that responding to the here and now of people’s behaviour isn’t always the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to look deeper. I think all people are nice at heart, and if they’re not and they have a bad attitude then there must be a reason why they were unfortunate enough to end up that way. Nobody actually wants to be miserable and grumpy – there’s always some pain behind it somewhere. Sometimes I admit it’s hard to believe, and sometimes people don’t want to change, but more often they don’t even know they’re doing it – we all habituate and lose touch with how we come across. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!” (I had to look that up – Burns had a talent for spelling that I lack…)

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