More on Morality From Michael Shermer

Having introduced us to the “Ask-First Principle” earlier this week, he now offers the “Happiness Principle” as a way to further help us judge between right and wrong:

The happiness principle states that it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness. My friend and colleague, the social scientist and moral philosopher Jay Stuart Snelson, expressed this sentiment well in his “win-win principle”: “Always seek gain through the gain of others, and never seek gain through the forced or fraudulent loss of others.”

So, for any given moral question, one may begin by asking the moral receiver how he or she would respond, then ask yourself if the action in question will likely lead to greater or lesser levels of happiness for yourself and the moral receiver. The ask-first principle and the happiness principle dovetail because the moral receiver is, presumably, seeking greater levels of happiness; thus, by asking first what you should do, you will also receive feedback on how the moral receiver’s happiness will be affected by your actions.

Category: Morals

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One Response

  1. V. V. Raman says:

    1. It would be commendable to act according to this happiness principle, of course. Who will disagree?

    2. But suppose that an act brings happiness to another while diminishing one’s own happiness.
    Why do some people choose such acts?
    What is the evolutionarily advantage in this?
    It is legitimate to wonder about the ultimate source of such moral behavior in cultural/religious terms rather than in purely genetic explanations.

    3. Or again, consider an act that enhances considerably one’s own or one’s group’s happiness and security while causing some or much pain and unhappiness to a unfriendly person or group.
    I wonder what Shermer would recommend as preferable moral behavior in such instances?
    The point is, moral behavior can be easily defined and recommended when all is going well for oneself (person or group), but when one’s fundamental interests and survival are threatened, it is not as easy to enunciate, let alone act upon, theoretically nice-sounding principles.

    V. V. Raman
    January 15, 2010
    Author of:
    Truth and Tension in Science and Religion

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