Formula for What? Aggregation v. Coordination

The BBC has been running a six part documentary called The Happiness Formula that appears to buy in almost completely to Lord Layard’s technocratic Benthamite vision. I’ll be putting up several posts responding to a number of the articles posted on the BBC website. For now, here is Daniel Ben-Ami at Spiked Online, who begins with the fundamental objection:

The critical flaw of the BBC’s new six-part documentary on happiness was apparent from the start. It assumed that happiness should be the key goal for society and then set out to illustrate the contention. . .

A crucial distinction that I’m willing to make over and over is the distinction between aggregative and coordinative conceptions of social goals.

In an aggregative or summative conception, the goal is simply to maximize the amount of something valuable, such as happiness or pleasure. Aggregative conceptions of the social good run into Rawls/Nozick separateness of persons problems, since individuals are treated primarily as little containers for value. We should want individuals to contain as much of THE VALUE as possible not primarily because that’s what makes their life go well from their point of view. Indeed, it may not be; we may wish to dispassionately contemplate significant form, to exhaust ourselves in pursuit of an elusive, recondite truth, or to achieve purity of spirit through mortification of the flesh. Well, too bad. Our projects have worth only insofar as the advance THE PROJECT—maximizing the balance of pleasure over pain.

Ben-Ami rightly notes that “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration names a right, not a duty. In the basically Lockean conception of agency common to many of the American Founders, it was taken as a basic psychological truth that action is motivated by the prospect of our own happiness, because that’s the way God made us. Interference with the pursuit of what God created us to pursue contravenes the laws of nature, and not even Kings have authority to do that. Given that we are each motivated by happiness, given that we will seek our self-interest, how can a society’s institutions coordinate thousands of individual happiness-oriented pursuits. Whan Adams says “the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government,” he has in mind the way constitutions structure or coordinate individual behavior. “Social happiness” is a not a sum of individual utilities. Social happiness is a well-ordered system in which millions of acts of individual self-interest are harmoniously coordinated.

Now, Enlightenment psychological hedonism is false. People can and are motivated by all sorts of things. However, it remains that individuals are motivated almost entirely by their individual projects, if not by happiness or pleasure. We can bracket the questions of what motivates us, and of what is ultimately valuable, and find that the question of social happiness—the question of the “divine science of politics”—construed as the problem of creating a stable set of institutions that coordinates and orders the pursuit of our individual projects, remains in full force.

Now, happiness is a primary goal for very many people, and so knowledge of what contributes to happiness will be useful indeed. But it is a giant mistake to assume that happiness is the sole value, that science says so, or to extrapolate from millions of happiness-oriented projects to THE PROJECT, which is a pernicious myth. The divine science of social happiness is not the science of summation, it is the science of coordination.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]