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From the timbered shores of the Pacific Northwest to the marble halls of Washington DC, the choices about how we use our rich natural heritage are filled with.
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One is to focus on how people feel: are they happy and contented? This idea goes back to philosophers of the Enlightenment , such as Jeremy Bentham. The other is to focus on people's objective circumstances: do they have the capabilities as Amartya Sen calls them that are conducive to human flourishing? The commission does not choose between these approaches, and both are infinitely superior to GDP.

But it matters greatly which way we choose. This is not just a technical question. The answer should reflect our deepest beliefs about what matters in life. That is an ethical question. We want our rulers to make the world better by their actions, and we want to do the same ourselves. The criteria for judging both types of action must be the same. It would obviously be convenient if we could identify one overarching good and, together with many Enlightenment philosophers, I believe that good is happiness. There are many things that are highly desirable: health, freedom, love, and so on.

But if we ask why they matter, we can have a discussion: if you are ill, you feel bad.

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The same if you are enslaved or unloved; it makes you unhappy. But if we ask why it matters if you feel bad and unhappy, there is no answer. It is self-evident. So it is time to reassert the noble philosophy of the Enlightenment.


In this view, every human being wants to be happy, and everybody counts equally. It follows that progress is measured by the overall scale of human happiness and misery. And the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness in the world and especially the least misery. I can think of no nobler ideal. The focus on happiness is not self-contradictory, because modern psychology shows that people who care more about the happiness of others will themselves become happier. So policymakers should take as their objective the happiness and misery of the people. In previous centuries this would have been difficult to implement.

But in recent decades there has been a huge increase in our ability to measure happiness and in our knowledge of its causes. This new knowledge is important: as the commission points out, it is not enough to measure progress separately on many fronts. We also need to know how to add them up: otherwise we have no common currency with which to compare different types of improvement. If we accept overall happiness as our criterion with more weight attaching to the relief of misery , this overarching criterion will give us an empirically defensible system of weights. If you originally registered with a username please use that to sign in.

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Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Abstract Gifford Pinchot's proposition that actions should be taken to provide "the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time" has been criticized as being internally inconsistent. Issue Section:.

Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good

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The Greater Good - Mind Field S2 (Ep 1)