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The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number of People


The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. What can we learn from this famous utilitarian catch phrase that will help us find a solution to the serious and difficult energy- and environmental problems that we are facing? In our search for practical guidance from this phrase, we immediately notice that the meaning of “happiness” must first be defined.

The utilitarian image of the word happiness is very clear. Happiness can be measured by the amount of pleasure a person can enjoy. The pleasure, in turn, is proportional to the utility one can obtain, so that a more straightforward expression of the utilitarian principle might be the phrase “the maximum utility for the greatest number of people”. Aside from the debate about whether happiness can be measured by the amount of pleasure, since the advent of the utilitarian philosophies of J. Bentham, J. S. Mill and other scholars many people have questioned making utility the end of social activity. Nevertheless, utilitarianism has been the foundation of the world’s capitalistic economic activities ever since it was explicitly stated in early 19th century.

What was imaged by the word “utility” in the days of Bentham and Mill, the days when the industrial revolution was still underway and neo-classical economics had yet to emerge, was the real utility of things or services. Due to the industrial revolution, with the drastic increase in productivity supported by the full use of the coal-generated energy, the supply of utility and the output of goods and services quickly became more than enough for all the people in Europe and America. Why then didn’t people in western countries become happy, as Bentham and Mill dreamed?

The neo-classical economists started to explain that what people seek is not the real utility of a good or service but its “marginal utility”. A glass of water does the same good to the body in one’s dining room or in the desert, so the real utility is the same in both places. However, the “marginal” utility is much higher in the desert. In the marginal analysis theory, the cost of anything is determined by the degree of scarcity. In short, in the classical economy, utility is scaled by the value, but in the neo-classical economy “marginal” utility is evaluated with reference to the cost. The well-known epigram “ economists know the cost of everything but the value of nothing” applies to the neo-classical economists. The neo-classical economists converted the utilitarianism into what may be called the “marginal utilitarianism”.

Thus, when the scarcity of the basic utilities for subsistence disappeared, instead of seeking the metaphysically- and spiritually advanced enjoyment of life (as J.S. Mill himself dreamed) the society found itself with new scarcities, the scarcities of “marginal” utilities. Due to the nature of human beings, scarcity of “marginal” utility can never be eliminated. As is exemplified in a children’s song “ my dog is better than your dog,” people’s competitive minds prevent society from becoming contented. It must be remembered that providing more can never satisfy wants in economics. It is odd that the economists have overlooked such a simple mechanism of unavoidable economic growth.

Even today, the majority of famous economists stress that economic growth is imperative for the achievement of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”. Providing more, however, not only fails to satisfy wants but ─ as the so-called Say’s law “the supply creates the need” cleverly states -- it also stimulates consumption. The exponentially growing economic system of today is a natural consequence of a capitalistic system founded on a utilitarian philosophy.

There are two arguments for the need to completely change the present economic mechanism-- that is, the pursuit of sustained economic growth. One is that the earth’s capacity cannot accommodate the extravagant use of fossil and atomic energies that drive such ever-increasing economic activities without causing imminent harm to human beings. We must remember the eternal truth of Clausius’ statement, which was made at the end of 19th century: “ human beings are destined to live on the energies coming from the sun since there is no way of creating new energy no matter how much science advances”.

The second argument is that the “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people“ will not be attained even if the real or marginal scarcity is eliminated. When one gives some serious analysis to the word “happiness”, one will realize that happiness may exist even in real scarcity, or in any kind of miserable situation for that matter. It may sound odd to find happiness in a state of suffering, yet it is a philosophy propounded in most of the religious scriptures the world over. It is clear that happiness is not some state of mind that economists or anyone else can “offer” by eliminating scarcity, or by any other actions or explanations. Buddhists call this world saha, which in Sanskrit means, “to endure suffering”. We all try to avoid suffering but fate might bring suffering to any one of us at any moment. We should realize that without suffering there is no happiness at all.

Therefore, if one seeks the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, it is imperative that contemporary people avoid decreasing the scarcity of utility and keep the earth’s environment in conformity with human survival. One must realize that, assuming continued human survival, our future generations will enjoy great happiness regardless of the state of scarcity. When counting the greatest “number of people”, one must take the future number of people into account. As A. Pigou has pointed out, short-term exploitation of nature for the sake of an easy life for today’s limited human population will decrease the years allowed for the survival of the species. An easy life cannot be a chaste life, wrote A. Chekhov. Modest consumption of energy is now also an ethical problem.

One should remember that human beings can’t survive alone. We are a part of the totality of earth’s living creatures, and the “human centered” way of thinking should automatically lead us to consider better living conditions for other creatures as well. We should also keep in mind that we know very little. Allowing our belief in the capability of science and technology to let us tamper with nature is very dangerous. Immediate apparent good may bring an irrecoverable adverse effect in the future.

What practical action should we take, then? It is vain to preach to people about lives of chaste energy usage since the price of energy is presently so cheap. But it is cheap because we are using “forbidden” energy; forbidden, that is, if we are serious about “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”.

In the economic world where the utilitarian principle prevails, everything is measured in terms of money. The control of money flow is the most effective way for guiding society in the right direction. Thus, taxation on energy would be the most straightforward way. Economists who talk about environmental taxation often mention the level of taxation that will “not” affect the growth of economy. No rational person would talk about taking medicine in a dosage that does not show a marked effect. Taxation must be made at a level that will, for instance, make the price of gas or electricity rise three-fold or more.

The current excessive use of energy and the very slow adaptation of natural energy (energy from the sun and biological sources) are simply due to the extremely low price of fossil fuel and nuclear-generated electricity. How much taxation will cause how much effect on the economy is something that must be tested step by step. As Baumol and Oats suggest, the relationship between the amount of taxation and its economic effect must be tested step by step. This is because the factors influencing the effect of large taxes are so complicated that it is best to follow the trial and error method. It should be remembered that taxation inevitably brings economic slowdown, in the sense that current “mainstream” economists, politicians, and people in charge of the economic society use this expression. However, when one is truly serious about the chances for our “happiness” and that of generations to come, it is quite clear what kind of action is truly “realistic”. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse said that “great virtue might often appear wicked”. In the case of environmental problems, however, we cannot afford to say that Lao Tse’s saying holds true.

Key word: happiness, utilitarianism, energy, environment, economics, ethics, marginal utility, marginal utilitarianism, environmetal tax, energy cost

Written by Shingu : April 15, 2001 01:09 AM

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