Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number: A Fair Notion?

As child the best way to make your friend do something he or she didn’t want to do was to cite the fact that the other 3 friends in the group also wanted to do it: “You have to do it, because... majority wins”. But this notion that what the majority decides is what has to be done and what is ‘right’ is something that I have seen a lot of people carry into their adult lives. The ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is an attractive notion. But it is it always fair?


Many believe an action that produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (the majority) is the action worth pursuing. An action that makes 6 out of 10 people happy is seen as more worthy than an action that makes only 4 out of 10 happy. Indeed, what could possibly be wrong with wanting to make more people happy? While the answer to this question might seem obvious to some, for others it is still contestable. Indeed, the need for minority rights is not universally obvious. Many believe that a greater number of happy people in the world would mean more ‘overall happiness’ and such a world would surely be a better, more desirable world. But would it? 

A principle that strives towards making the greatest number of people happy ignores a very simple but extremely important question: what is making different people happy? First consider just 2 people – Samira and Tanya – who are equally happy. But while Samira derives happiness (say 10 units of it, for argument’s sake) from social service, Tanya gets the same from torturing animals [For those who don’t care for social service, replace this with Samira getting 10 units of happiness from developing Apple products]. While Samira and Tanya are equally happy, there is a huge difference in what makes them happy. In such a situation, if the state had to choose to endorse either Samira or Tanya, would you say that it didn’t matter who the state endorses because in each case it is making one person happy? Or would you choose one person over the other? If you chose Samira over Tanya then you have made a value-judgement about what actions and values you think are worth endorsing and what are not, even though endorsing either would produce the same amount of happiness (10 units in each case).

Now apply the same logic to a group. Imagine that in a group of 10, 8 are like Tanya and 2 like Samira. You are the state. In such a case, would you choose to make the greater number happy? This would mean choosing more overall happiness in the group of 10 people; you would choose what produces 80 units of happiness over what produces just 20 units. But would choosing to endorse 8 people who derive happiness from torturing animals be better for society than choosing 2 people who are made happy by providing social service (or developing Ipads)?  If your answer is no, then again you have made a value-judgment, choosing one action (social service/developing Ipads) as more valuable than the other (torturing animals).

My point is simple: those who strive for the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ ignore the question of what is making the ‘greatest number’ happy. Moreover, those who think they are being ‘neutral’ in letting the ‘greatest number’ decide must recognise that they inevitably endorse certain actions over others and certain values over others (in this case, torturing animals over social service or developing Ipads). While they themselves are not making the judgement, they are letting a random number make it for them. And the result may be that the actions and values chosen by ‘the greater number’ might not be fair or just.

Suppose there is a group of 10 people in which 8 persons derive happiness from beating up the other 2 persons who look different from them just because they ‘look different’ (you are one of the ‘different-looking’ ones). Following the principle of ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ would mean that you are physically thrashed simply because this makes more people happy. You suffer because “majority wins”. But is it really fair to make a smaller number of persons unhappy for the sake of creating happiness in a larger number of other persons? This is a question about justice, and most societies are still grappling with it.

Often one hears talk not just of ‘greatest happiness’ but the ‘common good’ (most policies are formulated for the common or ‘greater good’ of society). This is a way of speaking about the majority’s happiness in terms of welfare: what is in the ‘greatest good’ of society as a whole (“overall”). Like ‘overall happiness’, the ‘common good’ is an aggregative concern i.e. it aggregates the preferences of each person and decides the ‘common good’ according to what the ‘greatest number’ prefers or thinks suitable. 

This seems impartial and egalitarian: each person really does count as one, and no one counts for more than one. However, any principle that aggregates preferences and gives supremacy to those of the majority is problematic when it comes to the principle of rights. Suppose the general consensus in a community is to forbid its women from stepping outside their house. Would it be fair to deprive women of their right to move freely? Or, to take another example, suppose ‘the greatest number’ decides that it is in the ‘common good’ of the community or the nation to expel or exterminate members of another race or religion. Is it fair to deprive another race or religious community of its right to reside in a region or of its right to life? Think of Kashmiri Hindus in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Historically, rights have often been trampled upon by aggregating preferences of the majority and coming up with an overall measure of what is in the ‘common good’. This is especially dangerous when the aggregated preferences are sexist, ultra-nationalist or racist. Consider the majority in Germany condoning the persecution of Jews by citing an overall ‘common good’ for Germany (the purity of the Aryan race and Greater Germany). This was also what was so egregious about totalitarian regimes – heinous crimes were not opposed because they were believed to be for sake of the aggregated preference (the ‘common good’/’overall happiness’) of the nation. In Stalin’s Russia, people sacrificed the lives of their loved ones (and often their own lives) for the sake of the ‘common good’ (in this case, their rights were subordinated to their aggregated preference which was the ideology of Communism).

But rights (especially fundamental ones) are considered indefeasible i.e. they must not be violated or overridden under any circumstances. They cannot be compromised for the sake of any ‘larger goal’, and this includes the goal of ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and the ‘common good’. In fact, rights must - as philosopher Ronald Dworkin argues – trump the ‘common good’ or the general measure of ‘overall happiness’. Otherwise, justice itself gets subordinated to it.

The problem is that most laws and policies are formulated according to this very logic of the "overall" good of society! This does not mean that all laws and policies are bad or unjust, only that they can be and sometimes are,  and that one must recognise this if one seeks to safeguard rights and justice.

One is also not saying that the ideal of the greatest good of everyone is attainable, but merely pointing out that justice requires that when laws and policies are made for the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ they have clauses which protect the rights of the ‘smaller number’ who are ‘left behind’ or are complimented by other policies which recognise, compensate for and rectify the injustice done to them.


Tapeesh Sood said...

an interesting read....

Vanya said...


Mustafa Caglar said...

Totally off topic, but I enjoyed the Apple references.


Vanya said...

hahah I thought of you and another friend Akshay while giving that example. So gadgetty, you are.

Sharad Raghavan said...

hmm. well written, and it carries on nicely from what we were talking about last night. The way I see it, yes, minority rights are important, but they shouldn't supersede what the majority wants (except when it comes to fundamental rights, of course). The best-case scenario is when the majority is happy, and you still have resources left over to then cater to the minority. but majority always first. it would be unfair for a system to be any other way.

Shivani Singhal said...

Hi Vanya, a couple of thoughts :-) In many senses, this argument can be defeated by taking a longer term view of happiness. What you discuss in the example of Samira and Tanya are two short term actions, and we do not see the longer term consequences of the actions on the respective people's happiness. I think that once the support is given based on what will be best for the group over a longer time period, the value judgement becomes seems to fall in line with our intuition.

But, that said, I think that is a somewhat idealised view and can still be easily contorted and as Sharad has said, we do still have to take account of fundamental rights (though I think these lines will be very hard to draw). I guess utilitarianism is (like many other things) the best of a non-ideal bunch of options to govern from.

Vanya said...

sharad - It Would be unfair to have a system where the minority always 'comes first'. No one's denying that. But that doesnt automatically need to mean 'majority always first' either. Cuz the majority can be wrong. Like the e.g. i mention - Muslims in Kashmir wanting Hindus out? WHAT IF- instead of violating their right to reside wherever they want, Kashmiri Muslims had asked them to stay but only if they agree on getting a purely Islamic education and in urdu? only if they 'assimilate'. would that be fair?

Gaurav Malik said...

lol. carrying on from last night i see. :) i fear Sharad, you and I are going to be debating this till we have walking sticks (me getting my walking stick last, of course). speaking of which, when will walking canes become a fundamental right; after all, house gets one and he's in the MINORITY. :P

Sharad, dude, i hope u finished your work. nerd.

Vanya said...

actually its carrying on from even before that hahah. last time i was in Sharda's house.

Vanya said...

‎Shivani - helloooo! :) Yeah, I get what you're saying about the longer term happiness... but as you yourself say its an idealised view :) - even unrealistic? the 'support' is often provided in retrospect only with the unfolding of history when many years later people begin to think "Yikes, I can't believe Hitler did that. And why did people put up with it..It didnt give them happiness in the long run" (cuz the Allies screwed their case eventually or whatever). But thats the scary thing, that at that point (for years and decades, even) it made sense to all those people.

A lot of crimes have been committed in the name of 'what will be best for the group in the long run', right? crimes against humanity that at that time were justified in the name of such a goal, and which - in retrospect - dont exactly fall in line with our intuition (Stalin/Mao/Hitler etc)?!

The example of the two luwly ladies was just meant to show that making 2 people 'equally happy' people might have different meanings and consequences for society. One is to assume that what they are asking the state to endorse is going to give them long term (not short term) happiness (though even they can never know that i guess). thats how policies are made, right?
I think utilitarianism is the most pragmatic, I don't deny that. But its not always the most fair/ethical (and a lot of the time people dont see that)- thats my only point.

Am i making sense?!?! hahaha its confusing.

Aranyani Bhargav said...

I was thinking undergraduate colleges to hire you to give your views to 2nd year philosophy students being introduced to utilitarianism and JS Mill as a part of their module on western philosophy. :)

Vanya said...

yikes woman, I am a student, not a teacher! main kya gyaan batoongi? though I do think I could get a good vibrant discussion going with them (if they are not too scary in life). We never had those in college or school. Hmph.

Sharad Raghavan said...

so wait, let me get this straight. the system you are calling for strives to keep everybody happy, minorities, majorities, everybody? A bit idealistic, no? Also, that is what our current system strives to do anyway. The problem is, you can't keep everybody happy, there will always be some who don't like what the government is doing. A good system is one that makes sure not too many people are unhappy, but it can't be faulted for catering to the majority, even if it does leave some minorities out in the cold. Ideally, that shouldn't be the case, everybody should be happy. But this is the real world, after all.

So, I agree. Policy shouldn't be majority-oriented only. But, unfortunately, given scarce resources, it is the best system we have. The aim is always to keep as many minorities happy as possible, though.

Vanya said...

no i dont think it can be dismissed as idealistic or utopian. after all, our constitution DOES enshrine safeguards against this - special cultural, linguistic and educ rights for minorities. and we do have separate personal laws (though that is a controversial topic). and polices which look after the majority's interests Can be complimented by other policies that compensate for the injustice done to the 'smaller number' (not saying its easy peasy, just that its not impossible). Like people displaced by a the building of a dam being given an alternative livelihood through another long-term policy. Anyyway, who said anything about our system not striving for it? I was only talking at a conceptual level, right? the Indian constitution is a very sophisticated document which actually does take into account a lot of what i think should be taken into account of in a system.

But firstly, everyone in India is not aware of the fact - and many are willing to trample on even the rights of others for a policy is in the good of the majority (as were you and chaitu hahah :P). second, our policies Dont always strive for that, our policymakers often forget that. third, all constitutions in the world are not like the Indian constitution and they dont take this into account. Havent really read Pakistan's constitution, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't!

Muthuvelan KP said...

Utilitarianism's basis for justification is individual rights. And it would not tolerate violation of liberty/rights/freedom of individual. But, as you said its difficult in implementation. Even Mill doesn't say much about what he means by "harm principle". He thought its fine to take away liberty and be paternalistic, when the people lack self direction. He thought Indians are lucky to have East India Company tell them how to "be".

If you look further, utilitarianism is a very egaliatarian principle that leads to redistribution of happiness. Again, its not implementable, Jeremy Bentham has given his thoughts on why its not possible.

Pluralism is the answer to your concern regarding majority making decisions for the minority. Pluranism cuts the society along different lines so an individual falls in both majority and minority based on different issue. Its pluralism that makes democracy function in a better way - "uncertainity of outcome". Robert Dahl gives good insight in this area.