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The philosophy of happiness

03 Apr 2011 | Richard Layard

The idea that happiness matters is very British in its modern origins. In the mid-18th century, the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson was the first to describe the best society as the one that had "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Similar ideas were held by his friends Adam Smith and David Hume. But the genius who carried the idea much further was Jeremy Bentham, the English lawyer who inspired so many of the legal and social reforms of the early 19th century. Later in the 19th century the idea was powerfully restated by John Stuart Mill.

It was also widespread elsewhere. It was held by many of the French "philosophes" of the 18thcentury and by Italian reformers like Beccaria. But it took deepest root in theNew World where Thomas Jefferson asserted that "the care of human life and happiness… is the only legitimate objective of good government".Jefferson also drafted the classic phrases in the American Declaration of Independence about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The philosophy of happiness has continued to have profound influence to this day, both in intellectual discourse and in everyday arguments about what is right and wrong. Most of those who espouse it today are concerned not only with average happiness but also with inequalities in happiness: they consider it more important to reduce misery than to increase happiness (though both are desirable). For criticisms of the theory, see our Answers to Sceptics section.

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