Virtue, Pleasure, and Paternalism in Happiness Policy

First of all let me say what fun it is to participate in a forum like this, and to thank the Cato Institute for organizing it, and Barry Schwartz, Ruut Veenhoven, and Will Wilkinson for offering such eloquent and stimulating reactions to my own modest proposals. I have to say that I chuckled when reading them, as I was reminded of an interview I came across recently in which the novelist Ian McEwan makes the claim that among “cultural intellectuals pessimism is the style,” whereas scientists, ever curious and upbeat, are more positive and (dare one say it?) happy. He didn’t mention economists, sociologists, or social scientists, specifically, but reading Barry, Ruut, and Will’s essays next to mine, you’d be tempted to think that McEwan has a point. Just for the record, I don’t normally walk around under a cloud.

I grant that it is hard to argue against happiness, especially in the world in which we live. But let me offer just a few thoughts to continue the conversation. Barry Schwartz believes that I have confused happiness with pleasure. I don’t think that is the case, although I would argue that Richard Layard, a self-professed acolyte of Jeremy Bentham, who believed happiness and pleasure were one, succumbs to that confusion. In his Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which Schwartz cites approvingly and which I speak of more critically, Layard defines happiness quite clearly as “feeling good,” which sounds like pleasure to me.[1] For my part, I would point out that the first half of my book Happiness: A History is devoted to showing how happiness, long connected in Western society to virtue, God, and the good life was frequently (though not always) thought of as distinct from pleasure and good feeling. The Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero went so far as to argue that since virtue was the only genuine source of happiness, then the virtuous man could be happy even while being tortured. That is taking matters a little far. And yet most people in the West until at least the eighteenth century agreed that virtue was the principal component of happiness. As Jefferson pointed out — and he was not a man to frown on good feeling — “happiness is the end of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness.”[2]

I confess that I feel a certain elegy for a world that treated virtue and happiness as closely connected. Like Barry, I think highly of Aristotle, who made that connection central to the Western philosophical tradition, as well as to politics. Also like Barry, I think highly of the work of Martin Seligman, the prominent positive psychologist whose teaching about happiness is Aristotelian in its emphasis on developing character strengths — a “value-neutral term,” as Barry says, for virtues. Indeed, Seligman and others’ findings that cultivating gratitude, hope, close friendships, and committed relationships contribute to authentic happiness reaffirms, empirically, what priests, rabbis, and other wise men and women have been teaching for centuries.

And yet for all my elegy for virtue, I also know that when it comes to politics the great distinction between the ancients and the moderns, as Benjamin Constant famously observed in a celebrated oration of 1816, is that we moderns—or at least, we liberal moderns—value individual liberty over ancient freedom. The latter countenanced, in Constant’s words, the “complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community” in the pursuit of its ends.[3] As tempting as it might be to long for the Greek polis, where inculcating virtue and happiness was the central goal of statecraft, moderns wisely leave decisions of virtue to individuals. Where they have not — Robespierre’s France, Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China — the results have been disastrous.

The assumption of virtue, to be sure, is a heavy burden for individuals to bear, and I have little doubt that many individuals today don’t bear it well. One of the dominant themes of the second half of Happiness: A History is how, since the eighteenth century, and above all in capitalist democracies, citizens have increasingly pursued happiness through pleasure, confusing and conflating the two. That development, it is worth stressing, worried Adam Smith, who knew that a beggar by the roadside might be happier than the richest king, because virtue, not wealth or pleasure or power, was the true source of happiness.[4] It worried Mill, for similar reasons, and it worried Tocqueville, who is worth citing from Democracy in America on precisely this issue.

I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world. In the first place, I see a multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest.

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. … It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it.[5]

Tocqueville didn’t like the world of petty and banal pleasures — excessive individualism and materialism — any more than Barry or Benjamin Barber. Yet like Mill and Smith, he understood that it was far better to let individuals make decisions about virtue for themselves — even bad decisions — than let the state step in and make decisions about happiness for them. That was his great fear, and although the invocation of despotism might sound a little shrill today, there is certainly the danger of paternalism, as even Layard admits, lurking in the new science of happiness.[6]

Perhaps it helps to think of it this way. Happiness researchers have found that belief in God and regular church attendance are good for our well-being, that those with religion are happier than those without. Most evangelical Christians in America, who according to a recent poll by the Pew Foundation describe themselves as “very happy” at the astounding level of 43%, probably agree.[7] And yet I suspect that neither Barry nor Layard would feel too comfortable with faith-based initiatives that urged governments to promote religion in the service of greater well-being. I feel similarly about happiness-based initiatives. At the end of the day, I prefer to get my lessons about happiness and virtue, gratitude and hope from my parents, or in church or temple, or by reading Aristotle and Seligman — perhaps even in school, though that would involve a discussion of its own. The point is that there are many ways to promote virtue. But that is not the role of the state.

As for Ruut Veenhoven’s essay, all I can say is that I am delighted to learn that rising GDP in market economies does in fact bring greater happiness, though as I tried to suggest, the defense of capitalism stands, regardless, firmly on grounds of its own. But if Ruut is right, then Barry can rest easier, and Robert Lane and Avner Offer needn’t be so concerned.

I also take Ruut’s point about happiness being an activating force, with many positive correlates, including greater health and better social functioning. I wonder, though, what he thinks about research suggesting that the happy are less objective, more inclined to overvalue themselves and their situations than “depressive realists.” Optimism, to be sure, is a powerful tool — and studies suggest that the more optimistic candidate generally prevails in presidential elections. But if optimism comes at the expense of a clear-eyed appraisal of reality, I wouldn’t be so quick to value it in my leaders or over-value it in my society. It is probably worth pointing out the obvious: that some of the greatest movements for social justice and reform — think of the civil rights movement — have been driven by people who were deeply unhappy with their situations, though not incapacitated by the absence of hope. If my dark allusions to a Brave New World sound a little alarmist, they were meant to. But this is the sort of thing that worries me, particularly when we factor the role of psychopharmacology into the discussion.

The main question I want to ask Ruut, though, is this: Given that he favors, to cite the title of one of his many stimulating articles, “Happiness as an aim in public policy,” what specific policies does he recommend?[8] The data he marshals there, as Will Wilkinson suggests in his own thoughtful response to our essays, seems to indicate that capitalist democracies have been getting it pretty much right all along. Not only does Ruut show that affluence correlates strongly with happiness, but the rule of law, the absence of corruption, economic and personal freedom, tolerance of minorities, and participation in voluntary associations all display positive correlations as well. Those are values and policies I can happily get behind. Would Ruut care to add anything to the list?


[1] Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 12.

[2] Jefferson cited in Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1984), p. 36.

[3] Constant’s classic oration, “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns,” may be found at

[4] See Smith’s fascinating reflections on happiness in Part IV of The Theory of Moral Sentiments

[5]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., trans. George Lawrence and ed. J.P. Mayer (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 2, pp. 691–692.

[6] See Layard, Happiness, 113: “But unless we can justify our goals by how people feel [my italics], there is a real danger of paternalism.”

[7] See the results of the Pew poll at

[8] Ruut Veenhoven, “Happiness as an Aim in Public Policy: The Greatest Happiness People,” available at

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective by Darrin M. McMahon

    In this month’s lead essay, Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History, puts the contemporary obsession with happiness in historical and philosophical perspective. Tracing our current notion of happiness back to “a dramatic revolution in human expectations” in the seventeenth century, McMahon argues that we have come to see happiness as not only something that is possible in this life, but which ought to be the aim of life. Noting that the recent spate of worried meditations on happiness is a luxury of the already wealthy and secure, McMahon argues against the single-minded focus on happiness as both an individual and social goal. Casting a critical eye on the aspirations of the new “happiness research,” McMahon argues that there may be natural limits to happiness, agrees with John Stuart Mill that “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life,” and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley’s warning of a society in which everyone is happy “and yet the world is a nightmare.”

Response Essays

  • Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness by Barry Schwartz

    Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that Darrin McMahon’s cautionary tale is based on the confusion of happiness with pleasure. For Schwartz happiness “rightly understood” is “authentic happiness” centered on the development of virtue and excellence. We should not be afraid to apply such a conception of happiness to policy, for “figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare.” Schwartz suggests we will find that not only does happiness not rise in lockstep with wealth, but that happiness in fact begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. Free-market capitalism, Schwartz argues, tends to turns us into “infantilized pleasure-seekers” not oriented toward authentic happiness. “No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence,” Schwartz says.

  • The Data Tell a Different Story by Ruut Veenhoven

    Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • The Quest for a Scientific Politics of Happiness by Will Wilkinson

    In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.

The Conversation