The Pursuit of Happiness

The idea of the pursuit of happiness as a basic human right and as the key to ethical questions has been a great liberalizing force in ethical and political thinking. It is the guiding idea in the classical defenses of liberty written libJohn Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill. These thinkers maintain that concern for common happiness of all people is the proper guiding principle of government, and they proclaim the right of the individual to be free to pursue his own happiness in his own way. This type of philosophy, however, is faced with theoretical difficulties of two kinds. One is the ethical difficulty of maintaining both the right of the individual to pursue his own happiness and his duty to pursue the happiness of the community. The other is the psychological difficulty of showing how an individual presumed to be concerned with his own happiness can be directed to take adequate notice and positive action directed to the general happiness.

The philosophy which makes the general happiness its ethical goal has generally been known as Utilitarianism, its principle being that the right or wrong of an action is to be judged by its utility in the production of happiness. We have seen that both Hutcheson and Hume adopted this view and it was Hutcheson who coined the phrase which became the slogan of the Utilitarians, "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers."

One would have expected that thinkers who accepted this as their ethical goal would have gladly welcomed the refutation of psychological egoism presented by Hutcheson, Butler, and Hume even if they were unable to accept the theories of a moral sense or conscience or emotions of approval as adequate grounds for the assertion that the moral life, or virtue, consists in adherence to the principle of utility, or neighbor-love. But ancient fallacies die hard, especially when they are due to elusive psychological confusions and supported by semantic ambiguities. Instead of the abandonment of psychological egoism after 1725 and 1726, when Hutcheson and Butler published their works, we find that, until the end of the nineteenth century, most of the thinkers who accepted the general happiness as the goal of right conduct also accepted the egoistic view that private happiness is the only goal of desire. Almost the only opposition came from the Intuitionists who, like Butler, denied that happiness is either the sole object of desire or the sole criterion of right conduct. The conflict between Intuitionists and Utilitarians goes on today, but our contemporary Utilitarians reject two of the distinctive doctrines of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century school. They no longer hold either that pleasure is the only good, or that pleasure is the only object of desire. We shall see the reasons for changing these views as we examine the difficulties into which those Utilitarians who held them were drawn.

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