Friday 15 November 2013

Happiness vs Meaning

Happiness and meaning are independent of each other, if not negatively correlated.

I’ll define happiness as a person having a high number of utilons and meaning as a person accepting less utilons in order to provide others with more utilons.

Most effective altruists hope to add meaning to their lives by providing happiness to others. Robin Hanson says this could be reasonably called a kind of elitism. If we want meaning for ourselves more than we want happiness for ourselves, then why do we want happiness for others more than we want meaning for others? Why shouldn’t effective altruists add meaning to their lives by providing meaning to the lives of others?

Although intuitive, when viewed in this light, the EA position appears to be inconsistent. It holds that A > B immediately after stating that B > A. This could be justified by saying that meaning > happiness in some situations while happiness > meaning in other situations. Or it could be argued that meaning > happiness for some people, but happiness > meaning for other people. But I don’t think either of these is the case.

I think the argument from elitism breaks down once we consider that effective altruist goals don’t explicitly refer to happiness or meaning. They only refer to the maximization of utility. Unless they explicitly include happiness and/or meaning in their definition of “utility,” then EAs need not worry about which forms of utility go to them and which forms of utility go to others. The EA’s goal isn’t to maximize her own meaning while maximizing everyone else’s happiness; it’s to spread out as much utility to others as possible, which falls under my definition of “meaning” above. If there is a way to spread less happiness around yet cause more utility, then that should be preferable to an EA. 

Living meaningfully is almost a guaranteed consequence of effective altruism. In contrast, I think personal happiness should only ever be a side effect of altruism in order for it to count as altruism. If I’m sadistic and I enjoy stabbing people so much that I gain more utilons than the person I’m stabbing loses – this is hardly an example of me being a good person by maximizing utility. As a rule-of-thumb, we shouldn't value the utility gained by people enjoying the misfortune of others.

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