Universal Ethics > Research > Happiness > Measuring > Across a Population

Happiness across a population

If a person wishes to "spread happiness," then it is helpful to know which initiatives would be most appreciated. Similarly, for leaders in charge of social organizations or nations, they may wish to make choices that bring satisfaction to their electorate. However, the difficulties associated with measuring success of a population are even greater than trying to determine it for an individual. Here are some of the challenges:

Differences between individuals

Any creature is motivated to satisfy physical needs, for food, water, sleep, etc., but for motives in other categories there may be wider variations. Among humans, the extent to which a person is motivated by as curiosity, enjoyment of music, and all other motives may vary. As a leader of a group of humans, one might try to plan a society to suit the "average human", but it would be more effective to have some flexibility in the plan to accommodate variations.

Equality? What about laziness and greed?

As a leader, you may wish to build a society in which each person is equally happy. That seems fair, doesn't it? However, you might discover that some people are hard to please! If one person requires twice as much of everything in order to be as happy as someone else, would you allocate more resources to that person?

The answer to that is "it depends." An adult may require twice as much food as a child, because the adult is bigger. So, if some natural disaster falls upon them that destroys their food supply, a kind society may indeed offer more food to the adult than the child during their rescue. But on the other hand, if we find that among two adults, one demands twice as much in order to be "happy" we might instead judge that adult as being greedy. In such a situation they would not likely get enough sympathy for others to supply them with the extra amount.

Another example is a person who could supply food for himself, but who has an extreme distaste of work, so that he wouldn't be very happy if he had to take care of himself. Will others in society supply him in order that he can be as happy as everyone else? More likely they would judge him to be lazy, and they would not transfer food to him.

We can see from these examples that a society will typically not try to produce equal satisfaction across every person in their society. Rather, they will make some collective value judgements about what assistance they believe to be appropriate in various circumstances. Those judgements will depend a lot on what most people would hope to receive if they were in similar circumstances, or that they would wish for those who they judge as worthy (such as their children, family, or friends).

Malevolent motivators

Here is another scenario. Let's assume that a person has a cruel streak in their nature, whereby they love to torment others. We'll call the cruel person Jill and her victim is Jack. Jack didn't just fall down the hill to break his crown: Jill pushed him! So they go to the judge, and here is Jill's argument:

"Judge," she says, "we are both people and therefore we are entitled to equal happiness. Jack is only mildly hurt by falling down the hill, but I get intense joy by tormenting him. If we were to score his displeasure at being hurt, it would only score a -1, whereas my intense joy from cruelty scores a +3 for me. This results in a net score of +2 overall. If you had stopped me, Jack would be back to 0 and so would I be at zero, which add up to a lower score overall. Therefore, in order to optimize happiness in our society, you ought to let me continue behaving as I do."

Do you think the judge will accept this argument? Would you? Most people don't wish to be victims, and therefore they will not support cruelty, no matter what malevolent joy it might give to the cruel person. Typically we only support "cooperation-compatible" motives, but not the "incompatible" motives.

When people in a society seek to "spread happiness" they are not willing to spread any kind of happiness, but only happiness that meets socially acceptable criteria. Fortunately, most people find that they can indeed have happiness in socially compatible ways.

Infinitesimal contribution to an infinite good

If someone is suffering from a lack of food, clothing, or shelter, of course others will want to help them, because kindness is in the nature of most people. Moreover, when people live in a society where people help each other, each person feels safer because they know they will receive help too if they need it.

We might assume, therefore, that it would make sense to optimize happiness across a society. Those with surplus capacity will help those need, and everyone will support that because this arrangement protects them from misfortune.

So, as a simple example, let's imagine a small agricultural society with 11,000 farmers. One year a tornado wipes out the crops of 1000 farmers. We can see that hunger and misery could be prevented if the remaining 10,000 farmers donated about 10% of their crop to those who were hit by disaster. Let's assume further that each of the 10,000 farmers grows double what they actually need. So we see that this action would sustain the happiness level of the society, with resources to spare.

That sounds pretty good, but what if the problem is infinite? Suppose this farming society is adjacent to another nation of 10,000,000 impoverished people, half of whom are so badly starved that they teeter on death. So if we map out the "happiness levels" overall, we would see millions of "double-red" status and a small island of "green." To the small society, the problem appears to be practically infinite when compared to their "infinitesimal" capacity. Should they optimize satisfaction overall by donating the maximum of their own food, bringing themselves to the brink of starvation in the process?

Keep in mind that it isn't totally futile to help the impoverished nation, even though they can't solve the problem immediately. They wouldn't just transfer food, but also education and tools. Soon a few people of the rescued people in the impoverished would be helping others. It would be like a ripple in a pond that spreads out from a small pebble that splashed into the water. I call it the "expanding wave of generosity." It could eventually cover an entire nation, no matter how big it is.

Perhaps you are considering maybe to recommend that donation by the small society, but consider this. Starvation is not the only problem in the world, there is also disease. Ocasionally people die from disease, but a few scientists among the small nation have an idea. With sufficient research, they think they could cure the disease, thus helping future generations. We don't know how many people that could be, but we assume that time is infinite, so over time it would help an infinite number of people. The scientists recommend retraining as many farmers as possible to be scientists, leaving only a few to grow food. This would optimize happiness of all people across time. Again, this would leave today's small society on the brink of starvation.

I think you can see a problem here! If the current generation must sacrifice all but bare needs in order to help the people of the future, shouldn't the next generation do the same thing? And also the one after that? And the one after that, without end? Because there will always be an infinite number of people to help in future generations beyond them.

But the goal was to increase happiness. How can one increase happiness if every generation lives in poverty?

Clearly, it doesn't make sense to try to "add up" happiness of a population in this situation. Instead of defining an obligation on people based on the need that exists, an alternative and more practical approach is to define it based on the capacity of the potential donors.

So, for the agricultural society of 11,000 farmers, that grows double of what they need, they would keep a comfortable supply, not just for subsistence but for an enjoyable life. They would help each other, in order to provide the guaranteed benefit that I described in the tornado example. And that would leave them a comfortable surplus that they could apply to worthwhile projects. For that, they would decide among themselves how much of their spare resource to devote to science and how much to apply to help the neighboring nation.

In this solution, you will notice that for this solution we don't have to calculate the overall happiness of everyone forever. So we don't have to worry that we can't calculate it.

Including Satisfactions for Animals

By now it should be obvious that there is no practical way to "optimize happiness" for people if you include an unlimited number of people over time and space. If we also include animals, we also run into difficulties if we try to "add up happiness" across everyone.

Humans are not the only species in the world or in the universe. On our own world, animals have motives too, and they may be happy or unhappy. We see this most clearly in our pets, such as dogs, who have many motives like humans, so that often we think of them as people or almost like people.

If you wanted to "maximize happiness" for a society, wouldn't you also want to include pets or other animals?

Let's ignore the problem of future generations or unlimited external populations that can't be measured, and limit ourselves to a finite population of animals alive today within our own nation.

If you want to tally the happiness of the overall population including pets and farm animals, do you treat each of them as equivalent to one person, and add up their happiness into an overall score along with each of the humans? If not, then how much weight would you give to each animal in the overall success formula, as compared to each human?

In practice people don't do either of those things. Here's why:

If we counted each living thing as equal in value to a human, human interests would be vastly outnumbered. Consider the idea of a wasp nest containing 1000 wasps. Now consider a family that wants to rid themselves of the wasp nest by poisoning the wasps. Clearly the happiness of 1000 living wasps outweighs that of 4 family members, if we count the satisfaction of each living thing equally. But the family will probably not agree with that assessment! If even one family member gets stung, they will have a different opinion about whether it's OK to leave the wasps there.

Of course, people value some animals more than others. Killing a hive of wasps might be considered acceptable in the above example, but killing 1000 pets such as dogs as casually as killing the wasps would not be deemed acceptable. Still, if people are asked to rate a pet such as a dog compared to a human, they can't do it. If the happiness of a dog is less important than that of a person, what is the ratio? Does one dog have half the value of a human, or is it one third, one quarter...? Suppose you set it at one quarter. In that case, killing four dogs would be a crime as serious as murder.

People have a lot of difficulty doing comparisons of that sort, so instead of trying to measure the value of an animal against that of a person, the typical solution is to grant rights to animals. Both humans and animals are given rights by a society, and typically the animals are granted fewer rights.

So, for example, it is considered immoral to torture a pet; that is the same right that is granted to people.

However, animals are not always given the right to live. For example, if animals are reproducing to such an extent that they would starve if not killed, people are permitted to kill them. This is a justification that is given for deer hunting, for example--and also the deer becomes food for the hunter. But because of the torture prohibition, if a hunter kills a deer he must do it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Using the "animal rights" approach, in some circumstances the rights of an animal can override the wishes of a person. This is particularly evident in protection of the ecology, and in the safeguarding of species so they don't become extinct.

Instead of wasps, let's use an example this time of Whooping Cranes. At one time there were only a few dozen of these in existence, and although their population has increased over the last half-century, they are still rare. Now suppose that a police officer spots a hunter who is shooting down Whooping Cranes with his shot gun. The hunter plans to put them all in his freezer for plenty of tasty dinners.

Does the officer say to himself, "Clearly a happiness of a human is of greater importance than the happiness of any number of Cranes. Therefore I best let him do it."

That is not what we would expect. The police officer will arrest the hunter. If the hunter refuses arrest, the officer will apply force. Perhaps the hunter disagrees, and he pulls a knife on the police officer. The police officer, however, has a gun, and the hunter could end up dead.

Does the officer then say, "Oops, I shouldn't have done that. Clearly the life of the human is worth more than any number of animals."

Again, that is not what we would expect. It is not a matter of who is more valuable than whom. If the police officer was serving a parking ticket on the person, and they drew a knife while refusing the ticket, the police offer would act in a similar way. It is a matter of a rule rather than a value judgement, and the rule is that police are to enforce the law that the members of society have agreed to, and each individual is to comply.

The "rights" method does not require us to measure the happiness of people or animals, nor to compare them. Instead, rights are designed in such a way as to protect the abilities of humans to find happiness for themselves, and for the animals whom we value or respect, we grant rights for the same purpose.

Do you have any comments? If so, click below.

Go to the Universal Ethics home page