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SVS: What About Happiness?
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The focus on happiness as the primary value, and reduction of suffering as its compliment, seem to be a favorite centerpiece of many attempts at secular moral frameworks.

Most recently, in The End of Faith, Sam Harris says:

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.

So what's wrong with this formulation? For one, happiness and suffering are often transitory, while the core values outlined here are enduring and universal.

Scientists have stuck electrodes into parts of the rat brain associated with pleasure and given the rats access to a bar that stimulates them. What happens is fairly predictable. Rats tend to press the hell out of that bar, sometimes until they collapse with joy.

If an increase in happiness and decrease in suffering are the highest virtues, why not give every person a government-issue skullcap/electrode/pleasure-bar setup?

Then one might object that there's a qualitative difference between the type of crude pleasure one would get from an electrode cap as opposed to the transcendent happiness that comes from, say, rescuing a child from a burning building. But what if the electrode setup could be made more sophisticated, so that it created exactly the same sensation as the purer forms of happiness, rather than the more base ones? Or we could posit the "brain in the jar" scenario, popularized in films such as The Matrix, where everything one sees is simulated. At that point, situations could be programmed to give the person the illusion having done the sort of things that cause them to feel purer forms of happiness. Wouldn't that be great?

Well, no. Primarily because happiness is a subjective signal, a reward programmed by evolution for achieving a goal. Happiness is a metric, not a mean in and of itself. So while happiness is important, it's just not the most important thing, and certainly should not be used as foundational for a code of ethics.

Based on the value system presented here, the following maxims contradict the notion that happiness should be the basis of a moral system:

An uncomfortable truth is better than a pleasant lie.

The burdens and responsibilities of a free citizen are preferable to being a happy slave.

Being alive and unhappy is better than not being alive at all.

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