The Happiness of Others

Is there any necessary connection between our actions and the happiness of others? Disregarding for a moment the murkiness of the definitions of "actions" in philosophical literature - two types of answers were hitherto provided.


Sentient Beings (referred to, in this essay, as "Humans" or "persons") seem either to limit each other - or to enhance each other's actions. Mutual limitation is, for instance, evident in game theory. It deals with decision outcomes when all the rational "players" are fully aware of both the outcomes of their actions and of what they prefer these outcomes to be. They are also fully informed about the other players: they know that they are rational, too, for instance. This, of course, is a very farfetched idealization. A state of unbounded information is nowhere and never to be found. Still, in most cases, the players settle down to one of the Nash equilibria solutions. Their actions are constrained by the existence of the others.


The "Hidden Hand" of Adam Smith (which, among other things, benignly and optimally regulates the market and the price mechanisms) - is also a "mutually limiting" model. Numerous single participants strive to maximize their (economic and financial) outcomes - and end up merely optimizing them. The reason lies in the existence of others within the "market". Again, they are constrained by other people?s motivations, priorities ands, above all, actions.


All the consequentialist theories of ethics deal with mutual enhancement. This is especially true of the Utilitarian variety. Acts (whether judged individually or in conformity to a set of rules) are moral, if their outcome increases utility (also known as happiness or pleasure). They are morally obligatory if they maximize utility and no alternative course of action can do so. Other versions talk about an "increase" in utility rather than its maximization. Still, the principle is simple: for an act to be judged "moral, ethical, virtuous, or good" - it must influence others in a way which will "enhance" and increase their happiness.


The flaws in all the above answers are evident and have been explored at length in the literature. The assumptions are dubious (fully informed participants, rationality in decision making and in prioritizing the outcomes, etc.). All the answers are instrumental and quantitative: they strive to offer a moral measuring rod. An "increase" entails the measurement of two states: before and after the act. Moreover, it demands full knowledge of the world and a type of knowledge so intimate, so private - that it is not even sure that the players themselves have conscious access to it. Who goes around equipped with an exhaustive list of his priorities and another list of all the possible outcomes of all the acts that he may commit?


But there is another, basic flaw: these answers are descriptive, observational, phenomenological in the restrictive sense of these words. The motives, the drives, the urges, the whole psychological landscape behind the act are deemed irrelevant. The only thing relevant is the increase in utility/happiness. If the latter is achieved - the former might as well not have existed. A computer, which increases happiness is morally equivalent to a person who achieves a quantitatively similar effect. Even worse: two persons acting out of different motives (one malicious and one benevolent) will be judged to be morally equivalent if their acts were to increase happiness similarly.


But, in life, an increase in utility or happiness or pleasure is CONDITIONED upon, is the RESULT of the motives behind the acts that led to it. Put differently: the utility functions of two acts depend decisively on the motivation, drive, or urge behind them. The process, which leads to the act is an inseparable part of the act and of its outcomes, including the outcomes in terms of the subsequent increase in utility or happiness. We can safely distinguish the "utility contaminated" act from the "utility pure (or ideal)" act.


If a person does something which is supposed to increase the overall utility - but does so in order to increase his own utility more than the expected average utility increase - the resulting increase will be lower. The maximum utility increase is achieved overall when the actor forgoes all increase in his personal utility. It seems that there is a constant of utility increase and a conservation law pertaining to it. So that a disproportionate increase in one's personal utility translates into a decrease in the