Why Happiness Is of Marginal Value in Ethical Decision-Making

10224 Words41 Pages
The Journal of Value Inquiry (2005) 39: 325–344
DOI: 10.1007/s10790-005-5451-3 C Springer 2007
Why Happiness is of Marginal Value in Ethical Decision-Making
Department Philosophy, University of Alaska Anchorage, 3211 Providence Dr.,
Anchorage, Alaska 99508, U.S.A.; e-mail: JamesLiszka@uaa.alaska.edu
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.
1. A Review of the Psychological Literature on Well-Being
In a remarkable review of thirty years of psychological research, Edward
Diener, Eunkook Suh, Richard Lucas, and Heidi Smith, provide important in- sights into the nature of happiness. In the psychological literature, happiness is understood primarily as subjective well-being, characterized as an inner, affective, subjective state, constituted by two major components: Global pos- itive affect or sanguine mood, and, a certain level of contentment with life generally, but also in specific

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