The Place of Happiness in Pluralism

Will Wilkinson notes that happiness cannot be taken as the sole master value and pleas for a “reasonable pluralism” in which happiness competes with other values in the public debate. I agree that happiness is not the only valuable thing, but I also think that happiness has additional merits that go beyond its intrinsic worth. One extra point in favor of happiness is that it matches other humanistic values quite well. A second bonus is that happiness is an indicator of the fit between living conditions and human nature and, as such, informs us about the practicability of various value mixes.

Pluralists look for policies that produce an optimal mix of the various values they endorse. As a result they must consider how well these values match each other when put into practice, and will give priority to values that appear to fit well with others. This requires some insight into synergies and conflicts between values. For years, moral philosophers have tried to gain this kind of insight with mere armchair theorizing, and have typically focused on possible conflicts. In the case of happiness, this kind of theorizing has produced dire scenarios such as Brave New World, which suggest that the pursuit on happiness will violate principles of freedom and human dignity. But now, empirical happiness research allows us to look at actual conflicts and synergies between values, and this creates a different picture.

The available data provide little evidence of conflicts between happiness and other values, but instead show synergies between happiness and the values typically endorsed in contemporary Western nations. People live happiest in societies where humanistic values are put into practice, that is, in societies where human rights are respected, the political system is democratic, the educational system fosters independence, and where a decent material standard of living is enjoyed. So, the means for furthering happiness are typically things we value in themselves as well. Moreover, happiness is also instrumental to several of these values. For instance, happy people appear to be more likely to live up to humanistic values than unhappy people: they are not only more autonomous but also more social and creative.

This is not to say that happiness fits well with all values. For instance, people appear to be less happy in societies where collectivistic values, such as submission to authority and identification with a clan, are endorsed. The main reason seems to be that humans have an innate preference for a fair degree of independence. [1]

This brings me to the wider point that happiness is a sign of human thriving. In most biological organisms, flourishing is manifest only in physical health and survival, but in higher animals it is also manifest in affective experience. In humans, that affective experience is reflected in happiness. As such, happiness carries important information for a moral pluralist. It tells us whether a chosen value mix is workable or not. If people live long and happy lives in a country, then the value mix is apparently viable there. If not, the mix must be failing to meet the objective demands of human nature in some way and must therefore be reconsidered.

For these reasons happiness deserves a prominent role in the theater of value pluralism.


[1] Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner, The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society, (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.