I have studied ethics for many years, but it still seems puzzling to me that some ethical views are as widely accepted as they are. I am aware that the utilitarian foundation that happiness is the only thing that ultimately matters is not something which can be “proven” or “demonstrated”, but I still find it hard to see a rejection of happiness as the purpose of life as a reasonable sentiment. Perhaps it becomes more “reasonable” if we are talking about a truly religious person who sees some other divine plan for life on this planet; but when it comes to holding a secular outlook on ethics, how could anything else have ultimate meaning than happiness? How could one oppose the idea that it’s a good thing if people would be happier – that there is as much happiness as possible in this world, and as little unhappiness as possible?
Among the most common objections to utilitarianism is that it may require some people’s happiness to be sacrificed for the sake of increasing happiness for others. But why is it bad to “sacrifice” other people’s happiness in the first place? Because they lose out on happiness – they are less happy than they could be (although others are made happier at the same time). In other words, it is till for the sake of happiness the objection is made. If the person sacrificed is not made unhappier by the sacrifice, then what cause could he or she have to object?
In other words, although one cannot reasonably reject that the purpose of life is happiness, one could somewhat more reasonably accept that all people have some basic “right” to keep their happiness and not be sacrificed for the sake of the happiness of other people. Such a view would endorse the fundamental utilitarian value of happiness, but not accept the aggregative part of utilitarianism, i.e., that people’s happiness should be added together to achieve the highest possible sum (or average) of happiness. The alternative view would only say that it is good if each person is as happy as possible, but each person’s happiness can only be related to that person. You can’t steal from person A to give the stolen object to person B if it makes A only slightly more unhappy, even if B would be much more happy by receiving the object. A’s and B’s levels of happiness cannot be added together.
Even though this view concedes the fundamental value that happiness is what gives ultimate meaning to morality, it rejects one of the most common notions in ethical thinking, namely impartiality. One component of utilitarianism is its impartiality: one person’s happiness is not more important than that of another. Claiming that I have a right not to sacrifice any of my happiness to increase other people’s happiness seems to violate this ethical ideal of impartiality in favor of egoism. Thought experiments that seek to refute utilitarianism often describe scenarios where one person must be killed to save many others from dying. However, refusing to sacrifice the life of one person to save many others appears to imply that the “value” of the sacrificed person’s life is put above the value of the other people’s lives.
Anyway, egoism built on happiness as fundamental value is, to me, an understandable (although highly objectionable) position. But I do not really understand views that flatly reject happiness as the ultimate purpose of life and morality. What is, for instance, the point of setting up a rule-based morality, with certain principles like “don’t steal” or “don’t lie”, if these rules have no connection or relevance to happiness or unhappiness? If no one is made unhappier by being stolen from or lied to, then what is the point of such rules? The same can be said regarding holding up certain virtues as morally fundamental. What is the value of courage, loyalty, or generosity if these things do not contribute to make people happier (or to make them less unhappy)? And what is the value of liberty, equality, tolerance, or the collective ownership of the means of production, if these things have no relevance for happiness? If “oppression” does not make the oppressed unhappy, then why object to oppression?
Then one must, of course, discuss what is meant by “happiness”. Here, again, there are some views which are more reasonable than others. As a hedonist I take pleasure and pain as synonyms to happiness and unhappiness, but there might be other accounts of happiness which seem more intuitive to other people, and which I can’t reject out of hand. But some accounts of happiness are really just circular, like happiness just meaning fulfilling the virtues or doing that which is “right” (following the correct abstract rules), and these meanings of happiness just seem ethically meaningless (as discussed above).
All this does not mean that it is impossible (or morally “wrong) to perceive something else than happiness as morally fundamental. Indeed, many people seem to do just that. But it does mean that I am going to have a tough time feeling or understanding what they are trying to convey. I simply can’t help “perceiving” pleasure as something good and pain as something bad, and I can’t really perceive something else as inherently good or bad. I can’t see anything positive about a completely unhappy world (a “hell” if you will), regardless of how much liberty, equality, or virtue there is in it, and I can’t see anything negative about a sublimely happy world (a “paradise”), regardless of how little liberty, equality, or virtue there is in it.