Humanist ethical concepts applied (and mis-applied) to public policy

I recently wrote Whose Pleasure? Whose Pain? Applying the Hedonic Calculus to Public... for the latest issue of The Humanist, where I discuss whether it makes sense to apply the Epicurean ethical method of hedonic calculus at the collective level. After some considerations, in the piece I argue

These considerations raise questions about what happens to the credibility and usefulness of humanist ethical concepts, like the hedonic calculus, when corporations appropriate them in their lobbying strategies. While we would like Epicurean humanism to influence public policy, it is imperative that the teachings are properly understood and used. 

I then praise Senator Dick Durbin for including factors like obesity and heart disease among the long-term considerations in his calculus of benefit and loss, but in the end I conclude

It seems the hedonic calculus works best as a guide to making ethical choices at the individual level. At the societal level, we should omit its use, and instead simply recognize the right to happiness, leisure, clean air and water, and other basic rights.

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Comment by Hiram on April 26, 2015 at 9:58am

The connection with Libertarian ideas was mentioned by one of my book reviewers who literally traced libertarianism back to Epicurus, and Arizona philosopher John Thrasher wrote a piece on contractarianism that evaluates it further and why it mattered within the original context of how Epicureanism emerged. The key thing is that these contracts emerge from our individual sovereignty, they can only be entered by free men and women.

As to Epicurean hedonism being about "ethical egoism", I don't think you can trace back to the sources. Loving and pleasing another person can be a huge source of pleasure for many, and it's also pleasure that consolidates the bond between mother and babe, between lovers and friends. Hedonism is also a social lubricant, and a piece of research that I cited in the chapter on happiness in my book had to do with how happiness is contagious, so that working on our own happiness is also a public service and something that we do for the sake of others. I guess you could probably make the case that hedonic calculus can be purely selfish, but I think our tradition does not encourage selfishness and values the sincerity of a friend too much to be considered "about egoism", as it's this sincerity that maximizes tha pleasure and safety we get from friendship (the founders taught that a true friend is willing to die for a friend). The most that I've said is that you owe yourself at least as much compassion as you owe others, and also that YOU and no one else is immediately responsible for your own happiness, ergo you have to make it a priority to be happy.

Having said that, I've noticed that we're also not fond of the other extreme (altruism for its own sake) and we're not fond of the idea of sacrifice (unless we calculate that there is greater pleasure to be experienced at the other end). We tend to be loyal and altruistic within our circles and to make "a better world" mainly in our localities.

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