How to count well-being
In the wake of some discussions of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape I’ve been dipping into a few other books on morality, all of which are (frankly) much more rewarding to read than the Harris book. Mary Whitlock Blundell’s Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: a Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics, for instance, the title of which is self-explanatory. Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue, which summarizes a lot of research in a number of fields. And Bernard Williams’s Morality. From the chapter on Utilitarianism:
For we are going to be able to use the Greatest Happiness Principle as the common measure of all and everybody’s claims, only if the ‘happiness’ involved is in some sense comparable and in some sense additive. Only if we can compare the happiness involved for different people and over different outcomes, and also put them together into some kind of General Happiness, can we make the thing work.
Just what I said, only of course not so well.
Bentham’s version, pleasure and the absence of pain, didn’t do the job, not satisfying the conditions of being calculable, comparable, and additive, or the condition
of being an indisputable objective: the more it looked like the sort of pleasure that could conceivably be dealt with in those quasi-arithmetical terms, the less it looked like something that any rational [person] must evidently be aiming at…Apart from anything else, there is the difficulty that many things which people actually include in the content of a happy life are things which essentially involve other values, such as integrity, for instance, or spontaneity, or freedom, or love, or artistic self-expression…
Well-being is not sufficient.