Minimizing unpleasantness

The point of morality has always been attainment of the good life, which since the time of the Greeks had been defined in terms of “fulfillment” or “happiness.”  In the old days, the moral side of this equation was dominant:  when Jefferson wrote of the pursuit of happiness, he meant a life spent in the perfection of virtue.

In our day and generation, the requirement for happiness has become increasingly detached from virtue and every other constraint on behavior.  Happiness, after Nietzsche, means satisfying as many desires as possible, and we are not supposed to judge either the means or the consequences.

My favorite economist, Arnold Kling, tells us of an alternative definition of happiness now being pondered by his fellow practitioners in the dismal science:  minimizing unpleasantness.  Two well-known economists, including a Nobel-prize winner, are apparently proposing that government aim at just this goal, rather than anything so crass an unfulfilling as, say, growing the GDP.

Kling doesn’t think much of this approach, which, as he rightly observes, would lead to a horrific combination of hedonism and totalitarianism if pushed to its logical conclusions.

For example, it now appears that having children reduces happiness, in the way this condition is now (quite scientifically, we are told) measured.  If we concede the point, then the moral thing to do would be to stop having children.  If we concede that point, the duty of the government becomes to do everything to promote childlessness.  But why stop there?  The Romans never counted children as people before the age of one.  Who would condemn the sacrifice of infants on the altar of minimized unpleasantness?

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