Acton Institute Powerblog

Distinguishing Happiness from Pleasure

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In light of Joe Carter’s post on the meaning of the pursuit of happiness earlier today, I thought it would be interesting to bring up the important distinctions between pleasure and happiness. Over in the New Republic, economic historian, Deirdre N. McCloskey writes about the philosophical and economic differences:

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

Decades ago, I was in Paris alone and decided to indulge myself with a good meal, which, you know, is rather easy to do in Paris. The dessert was something resembling crème brulée, but much, much better. I thought, “I shall give up my professorships at the University of Iowa in economics and history, retire to this neighborhood on whatever scraps of income I can assemble, and devote every waking moment to eating this dessert.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. It deserved a 3.0.

The whole thing is here. It’s certainly a long read, but a very interesting one.  The confusion of happiness and pleasure has far reaching consequences, including for those attempting to use welfare economics as a basis for crafting government interventions into market processes.

John MacDhubhain Recent alumnus of Michigan State, future student of George Mason