Commentary & sustainability analysis
At the biological scale the ultimate unconscious or implicit goal or purpose of all living organisms is to survive, reproduce, and flourish – or, in Aristotle’s language, to achieve their telos, maximum potential. This is not a conscious aim – we do not in our daily lives consider our behaviour to be directed at the persistence of our genes, nor do we consider the persistence of our genes to be a justification for moral action, but it is nevertheless an axiomatic (albeit implicit) assumption of evolutionary biology. Biologically it appears likely that happiness serves as an evolutionary ‘reward’ that comes to us as a consequence of what Plato and Aristotle would have regarded as the striving to harmonise our inner and outer lives. Biologically this is natural selection in action, biology reinforcing adaptation of organism to environment.
At the scale of human consciousness the ultimate goal of all our behavour, according to many ethicists, philosophers, and religious teachers, is our happiness or wellbeing. If this is correct then striving to attain happiness is part of our human nature, it is embedded in all our behavour including our social and political aspirations.
However, the goal of happiness or wellbeing is rarely made explicit. One major reason for this is the rich semantics of the word ‘happiness’ which can be interpreted in so many ways, making it a vague and impractical tool. This article has attempted to tease out some of the semantic diversity of the word ‘happiness’, distinguishing between short-term experiential happiness and long-term life satisfaction – which is the difference between enjoying a glass of wine and achieving lifetime goals as a consequence of deliberate and rational intention. Social and political happiness or wellbeing falls into the latter category. A clearly defined semantic taxonomy of ‘happiness’ would assist understanding.
As well as the temporal distinction between short-term and long-term happiness there is also the way we use the word ‘happiness’ over progressively more inclusive scales as we place different emphasis on ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ causal factors. Passing from ‘inner’ to ‘outer’ emphasis examples would be: as an individual short-term mental state (‘I am ecstatic‘), a short-term mental state connected to a triggering external factor (‘I am happy being with my friends‘), a long-term individual mental state (‘I am content now that I have completed my exams and found a secure job‘), collective happiness (‘The World Welfare Party aims to maximise quality of life‘), collective happiness triggered by specific external factors (‘The World Welfare Party aims to maximise human wellbeing by seeking a broad consensus on environmental, social and economic policy‘).
These examples illustrate the way happiness places emphasis on different parts of the organism-environment continuum.
Happiness & sustainability
The happiness, wellbeing, or human flourishing regularly referred to in the literature on sustainability is only obliquely concerned with experiential happiness. Aristotle, for example, did not think of happiness as a brief moment of bliss but a consequence of long-term habituated virtuous activity. Plato considered the ‘Good Life’, his state of eudaimonia, to consist of harmonious individuals living within harmonious societies. This kind of happiness is more to do with individuals focused on the attempt to create harmony not only within their individual lives but also within society and the external world. In biological terms it is human beings adapting to their environment in a way that maximises their opportunity to flourish, that is to survive and reproduce.
Following this philosophy to its logical conclusion we arrive at the utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number‘. Our greatest test is to flesh out what this means in political terms and people will wish to achieve the same end in different ways.
The world’s ethical systems are still mostly expressed through religious codes of behaviour. These may have brought people together locally but they have not served as a uniting force between nations. The more traditional route has been via trade and commerce serving humanity well by finding mutual advantage. The exchange of goods and services avoids philosophical abstraction, it speaks a practical language that we can be easily understood and appreciated by all, a language that goes far back in history. Trade opens up the possibility of improving material standards of living together with the freedoms and choices that this entails. But as globalisation gathers momentum so too does the need for a tolerant and pluralist global community. We can hope that shared values evolve spontaneously or we can discuss what these might be.
On 20 March 2014 the United Nations called for an International Day of Happiness to recognise the relevance of happiness and wellbeing as universal goals. In developing a vision for the future the United Nations has adopted human wellbeing (human flourishing, human happiness) as a foundational value as a value that depends crucially on practical policies in relation to the future global management of the environment, economy, and society. Acknowledgement of the desire for wellbeing signifies its important place in human nature and encourages our sense of mutual interest and collective progress. Sustainability (sustainable development), a United Nations initiative launched in 1987, is a program that adopts human wellbeing (happiness) as its ethic; it is a global ethical system that considers the consequences of our actions for the wellbeing of ourselves, the community of life, and the planet and as such it provides a much-needed foundation for global stewardship.
This common value does not conflict with world religions. The Social Progress Index (and similar indices) flesh out the idea of wellbeing (see Morality & sustainability) in terms of social and environmental outcomes including personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health, shelter, sanitation, equity, social inclusion, personal freedom, and choice. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2000) provides a clear outline of the relationship between humanity and the planetary environment, pointing out how human wellbeing depends on natural resources or ‘Ecosystem Services’ and how demand on ecosystem services is rapidly increasing and sometimes outstripping capacity. Our challenge is to overcome as best we can, our personal and vested interests in the interest of best outcomes for all.
As a universal human trait the desire for happiness has found collective social application through concepts like ‘human flourishing’, ‘life satisfaction’, ‘quality of life’, ‘eudaimonia’, ‘wellbeing’; and utilitarian principles like ‘pleasure and pain’, ‘welfare’, ‘the global cost-benefit analysis’, or even ‘the common good’. Such ideas already form the basis of a global ethic.
The problem, however, is to translate ethical ideals into practical realities.
Realism and idealism
More politically-minded action-orintated readers might be concerned about the effectiveness of abstract ideas like wellbeing, happiness, and welfare. Economically, for example, it may be argued that we cannot assume economic decisions are made to maximise their utility: we cannot take constancy and rationality as a given. A better way of seeing what truly motivates us is to study our actual purchasing habits through our ‘revealed preferences’.