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Is it better to maximize my own happiness or maximising the happieness of others around me so that I can feel happy for and with them?

  1. Everybody makes sure they are happy --> Everybody is happy
  2. Everybody makes sure everybody else is happy --> Everybode is happy

Is there a way of distinguishing which approach is better?

Constraint: This would be if happiness was the only important thing in the world. You either are happy because you feel like it or you are happy because others feel like it.

Would there be a difference? Or is this far to abstract to matter?

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    Why are you supposing that it must be one or the other? Are you suggesting that this is always true - or that you want to consider this question when this condition is in fact satisfied? – Mozibur Ullah May 7 '14 at 11:21
  • It probably is more of a theoretical mind game. If happiness was the only thing to care about I'd guess there should be no differences in the outcome. – DisplayName May 7 '14 at 11:24
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neither approach works because individuals have conflicting definitions of happiness. e.g. Plato's thumotic individual, which has been a major theme pertaining to conflict between individuals manifesting in some way or another in the work of every great political philosopher. i.e. People who make themselves happy at the expense of others. e.g. the tyranny of the strong over the weak or the domination of the intellectually superior over individuals of lesser intelligence. Some philosophers such as Socrates, Lao Tzu, the Buddha and the aristocratic ruling class of medieval Japan (Samurai) have advocated the abandonment of the pursuit of happiness for a life dedicated to the pursuit of virtue in the belief that virtue alone can sustain a person and that the attainment of virtue can be the most fulfilling experience a person can have.

  • Sounds reasonable. But if some like to make themselves happy and others are happy if others are happy would that not be a win win situation? (as long as the selfhappy person is virtuous of course…) – DisplayName May 7 '14 at 11:21
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You will find persons who live variants of both these lifestyles (catering for one's own happiness vs. catering for others' happiness).

If one were to think of the self in terms of finite resources while taking the use of these resources to attribute benefit to the target (whether self or others) then one would face a few scenarios:

  • Benefit the self greatly
  • Benefit a few others significantly
  • Benefit many others (relatively) insignificantly

Each while expending all or most of one's resources.


Furthermore if we were to think of the world that 'everybody' lives in as being itself a pool of finite resources from which each individual's benefit is sourced, then the picture grows less clear. Yes in a perfect world with plenty of resources it is feasible for each person to be completely selfish or selfless since the drive of competition for resources is low.

However in a scenario of middling-to-mediocre resources where few individuals achieve their dreams and many live lives of quiet desperation as the sands of time slip away - that is when the individual interest needs to be safeguarded while opening the self up to the concept of synergy in terms of the fashion in which resources are utilized.


Furthermore one can also consider the natural structure of allegiance in terms of the social and familial bonds that tie individuals' interests to each other. This is the force of sympathy where acts of benefaction towards a select few others serves to satisfy the self (in a round-about way)

It is in light of the natural force of sympathy and humanity's gravitation towards the familiar that requires that I suggest option 1 in the question (Everybody makes sure they are happy) to be the better approach - requiring less ethical gymnastics on the part of the individual practicing it.

However it is also true that once an individual is 'happy enough' that they may choose to allow some excess happiness to spill over upon those around them - fanning outwards through and beyond their familiar connections.

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You are framing your goal in a way that will make it very difficult to achieve no matter what you do. You are framing it in terms of a subjective feeling, happiness, when what is necessary to improve your life and the lives of others is that you should understand the world around you and fruitful ways to cooperate with other people and that sort of thing. Happiness may be a byproduct of that but it should not be assumed to be the aim.

Some commentators have suggested that different people have different definitions of happiness, which illustrates the folly of taking happiness as your aim. People will claim to be happy about different things and so you can't accommodate everybody if you take satisfying whatever preferences they happen to have now as you aim in order to make them happy. A murderer and his victim can't both be made happy unless at least one of them changes his preferences. But people can come to agree with one another on right course of action, provided they are willing to change their preferences in the light of criticism.

A further problem with the happiness aim is that you can't actually know whether another person is genuinely happy. People can pretend to be happy when they're not and they can pretend to be unhappy when they are happy. The way to deal with people is to cooperate with them when it benefits you and when they consent to deal with you, and not otherwise. People who can develop good ideas about what to want and how to get it will be able to take care of their own happiness and will be useful to you. You won't have to measure their happiness.

On this topic you could do a lot worse than read Ayn Rand, e.g. - The Virtue of Selfishness, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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