Richard Layard's blend of Benthamite utilitarianism and modern psychology suggests a new mission for politics. It's a pity he can't call it what it isby Tom Nuttall / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard (Allen Lane, £17.99)
In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Jeremy Bentham describes his “felicific calculus”—an algorithm for working out the amount of happiness likely to be caused by a given action. Under Bentham’s utilitarianism, the right action is that which leads to the greatest happiness. So the felicific calculus—including such variables as intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity and purity—provided people with a scientific method for determining how to behave morally.
This approach to an aspect of human existence as apparently intangible as happiness seems anachronistic, a curious artefact of late-Enlightenment optimism. And this is how many 20th-century moral philosophers have seen it. But Richard Layard, Labour peer and labour economist, has reheated Bentham for the 21st century.
According to Layard, Bentham’s notion that levels of individual happiness can be objectively measured, and can be taken to lie upon a single dimension from very unhappy to very happy, has been vindicated by modern psychology. Combine Bentham’s philosophy with our modern understanding of the causes of individual and collective happiness, argues Layard, and you can generate a radically new approach to policymaking.
Layard is interested in policy rather than philosophy, and his book brushes over the philosophical objections to utilitarianism. One of the most common objections is this: if we are concerned simply to maximise happiness, then we should have no difficulty with the idea of distributing a drug which delivers perfect happiness to all who ingest it. But such an idea leaves us uneasy—which is why we find Huxley’s Brave New World so alarming. Layard equivocates here, suggesting “if someone finds a happiness drug without side effects… most of us will sometimes use it.” But the Brave New World example reveals the role that authenticity plays in our everyday moral calculus, and Layard’s utilitarianism has no interest in authenticity, only happiness. Any persuasive account of utilitarianism needs to show us why our reservation is wrong, or at least how it can be co-opted into the quest for happiness.
But focusing on happiness as an aim of policy is a perfectly proper objective. Layard’s book is a first stab at outlining what kind of results such an approach could lead to. The first half sets out the case against an obsession with economic growth. We are told that the model of human behaviour on which modern economics…