The greatest happiness for the greatest number

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Last updated: November 18, 2019

This statement mainly tackles with the problems arise by ethics. Theory of Knowledge tells us to investigate a problem in four ways: logic, perception, emotion and language. Language could be one of the most important areas of debate.

First of all, how to we define “happiness”? Do we talk about instantaneous happiness, or long term happiness? An instantaneous happiness might lead to a long term regret, so will this still be considered as “happiness”? If long term sadness outweighs instantaneous happiness, how do we place such happiness in terms of importance?We usually define happiness as “the possession of those circumstances or that state of being which is attended enjoyment”1 and it has no time limit. So in both cases we can still define it as happiness. Perception, in this case, is nothing more than the means for us to sense pleasure thus determine our source of happiness. For example, we need our eyes to look at the monitor and ears to listen to background music in order to make us feel enjoyable when we are playing Play Station.Although seemingly unimportant in making decisions, our perception is the only way for us to tell if we are happy or not.

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Emotion leads us to do things that give us the greatest happiness. For example, if sleeping impresses me, I would like to sleep more. If playing Play Station makes me happier, it is good for me to play more. However, the problem is: is it a temporary happiness or a permanent happiness? Since humans have unlimited wants, we are always unsatisfied. Playing a bit more Play Station today does not mean that I will play less tomorrow.But yet this would result in an opportunity cost, which is the time I would have used for studying and allow me to get a 7 in Physics.

If this is so, we have to compare which gives me a greater happiness: playing Play Station or getting a 7 in Physics? Certainly it is the second option which gives me a greater happiness. Therefore we can conclude that happiness comes from our emotion, and the individual determines his/her happiness.Our emotion affects greatly our determination of happiness, even if we know it is not a good thing for us in the long run (e. . taking illegal drugs).

Almost everyone will agree (except employers of Sony) playing too much Play Station is not good for our education because it steals studying time and distract you from education. It is also bad for your eyes. But most students will not care about these consequences when they decide to play it. Logic tells us that, if it is good for us, then it must be done. For example, education gives positive externalities to the economy (from Economics) therefore we have compulsory education for nine years in Hong Kong.This is because once we have more education, we are more specialized in a certain area and the more we know in that area.

Logic also allows us to determine which is more important, instantaneous happiness or long term happiness. Most people will agree that long term happiness will be far better than an instantaneous happiness, because an instantaneous happiness will vanish very soon, and has no real positive influence in our future life. For example, flirting with girls will definitely give instantaneous happiness to boys as an adolescent, but will this be the same when they become adults?They would probably think this is silly and would have preferred not doing it. This is because as we become more mature, we are more likely to be able to control our emotion by our logic. We are able to evaluate the benefits and consequences of committing a particular action2 thus able to commit an action that we believe is best for us. All the above only relates to how an individual determines happiness.

If we are to deal with the “greatest number” part of the statement, then we will have to refer to some other philosophers.Some philosophers believe that, the ends justify the means. For example, if we can get from Point A to Point B, it does not matter which route we took, as long as we arrive at that place safely.

This is what utilitarianism believed. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory, first developed by Jeremy Bentham, which is only interested in the ends and not the manner in which those ends are achieved. The way utilitarianism determines between a right and wrong action is by seeing which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and this is known as the Principle of Utility3.However, even the greatest number is satisfied does not mean that it is ethically justified and makes it a moral action. The problem with Bentham’s utilitarianism is the idea that the manner in which the ends are achieved is not important. For example a child is drugged so that she looses conscience but the drug doesn’t do any harm to her body.

And while she is unconscious a group of paedophiles remove her clothes and photo her nude without abusing her. Once they are done they put her back where they left her, so that she never finds out what happened.These photos that are taken are then distributed over the Internet so other paedophiles can gain pleasure from them. According to a utilitarian their actions would be justified because it brought about the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number, and the manner in which they achieved this is irrelevant. However nearly everyone would agree that this action was morally wrong, and therefore this shows that something that promotes the greatest pleasure for the greatest number is not necessarily morally right.

Fortunately, this is not justified using another kind of thinking – altruism. Altruists do not care very much about personal happiness, but much more on happiness of the others. In this case, altruists (on the girl’s side) will agree that this is not justified because the joy of the paedophiles is not relevant. Maintaining the happiness of the little girl is more important, because this unhappiness will spread to her family, the police force (to get the paedophiles), her teachers and her friends.

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