Bioethics Blogs

Is Happiness the Greatest Good?


By Christopher S. Kovel, M.A.

One of the primary goals for studying ethics (or creating ethical systems) is to find normative ways to live one’s life that would bring about greatest amount of the good. The “good,” dating back at least to Plato, has been consistently talked about in terms of maximizing “happiness” (or subjective well-being).

The creation of large scale social orders is often viewed as one of the most important ethical developments in history. After farming emancipated our ancestors from the living in the state of nature, sedentary social life swept through the world. The advent of agriculture combined with more cohesive social institutions allowed large groups of people to live and work together and created the modern world.

The industrial revolution and rise of liberalism endowed people with unprecedented amounts of freedom and autonomy over the course of their lives. Classical liberal thinking argues that this type of society best maximizes collective happiness by giving people the freedom to pursue their interests and chase after their deepest desires.

One theory, recently developed by the historian of science Yuval Noah Harari, challenges the common conception about happiness. In his book Sapiens, Harari, and others, upset this notion by extending Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection to the human mind and argue that the brain is not well-adapted to be and stay happy in the modern world[1].  According to Harari, “the transition first to agriculture and then to industry [may have] condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.