The second major concept of the happiness principle holds that all people are equal before the throne of the happiness principle.
This is a radical, perhaps revolutionary statement. It runs contrary to fundamental values inherent in many of the world’s leading contemporary societies. Most of us have been taught to believe that talented, hardworking people can possess more happiness than those less well endowed because they have more resources to purchase the things that will supposedly satisfy their needs and wants. Modern economics has been rooted in this idea for a long time.
As the merchant class came to replace the old nobility, the idea that the most virtuous in society ranked at the top (because of their proximity to God) was replaced by a more technocratic one: those with greater abilities would, like cream, rise to the top of society. Hence, a society ranked by the type of work one performed. Higher level jobs commanded higher pay because they supposedly deliver greater value to society. There is a moral justification that should be noted: those with higher level jobs deserve more happiness because they give more to society than workers below them.
Money may not be able to buy love, but the merchant class’ vision of society definitely believes that it can buy happiness. Capitalism the way it’s practiced today requires this belief in order to function properly. For example, financial exchanges depend on the fiction that profits can infinitely grow because they result from the sale of goods and services that are supposedly demanded by an unquenchable desire for more happiness. This fiction suspends the disbelief of much of society in general–not just the financial community–even though economists recognize the law of diminishing marginal utility.
It’s essential that most members of society believe the fiction. Just imagine for a moment what would happen to the global economy if everyone suddenly believed that packaged mass marketed foods were no longer desirable and should immediately replace those that are locally produced? Or if everyone stopped watching tv? Either one of these actions would make the recent financial crisis look like a walk in the park.
We’ve just defined two fallacies necessary for developed nations’ economies to continue to function as they have up till now: 1. that markets enable people to perpetually pursue and realize a higher conception of happiness; and 2. that society, by and large, fairly rewards members based on their contributions to it.
But does anyone really believe this claptrap? Show me a man who believes he can buy happiness in a store and I’ll show you one doomed to a life of disappointment. And if society fairly recompensed its members based on the value they bring to it, teachers and social workers would be millionaires.
All people are equal before the throne of the happiness principle.
This means that all human beings, regardless of their physical or mental characteristics pretty much share the same capacity for happiness. Whether someone picks strawberries for a living or someone else trades stocks, they each were born with relatively the same potential to experience happiness. This begs the question whether there are any conditions that justifiably limit a person’s ability to obtain happiness based on social ranking? Furthermore, if both types of workers have equal capacities, what exactly will most significantly impact their ability to experience happiness? What is justifiable on a moral basis? If the acquisition of goods beyond a certain point has no real impact on happiness, isn’t much of our economy and resources wasted on unnecessary production?
These questions will be examined. But first we need to ask about the types of things that make a person happy. That will be the subject of the next post. All we’ve done in this one is allude to some things that don’t.
For now, suffice it to say that as long as conditions affecting all people’s capacity for happiness are equal, there is nothing individuals can do to experience more happiness than their peers. In other words, once an optimum state is achieved in relation to your capacity, the happiness principle won’t let you go beyond. All attempts, no matter how much is consumed or purchased, will be in vain. No matter how many wild parties, exotic places, or sensual pleasures. All will be wasted once a point is reached.