Faculty Profile: William Gorton
Public policy designed to alleviate human suffering rather than to increase happiness should be the goal of policymakers, argues William Gorton, an assistant professor of political science at Alma College.
"We know that certain factors such as unemployment, poverty and attenuated social connections make people unhappy, but we don't know much about how to make already happy people happier," says Dr. Gorton. "Research indicates a person making $50,000 is just as happy as one who makes $3 million. But people who are genuinely poor are not likely to be very happy," he says.
Alleviating human suffering, misery and unhappiness is the focus of 'negative utilitarianism,' a political theory that originated with 20th century philosopher Karl Popper. In contrast, standard utilitarianism calls for public policy aimed at increasing overall human happiness.
Popper wrote that we aren't very good at predicting how to make people happy," says Gorton. "And ratcheting policy to make already happy people happier has the potential of being dangerous to democracy because it could reinforce the power of government to an unhealthy degree.
New research findings in the field of positive psychology reinforce Popper's ideas, says Gorton, author of the academic book Karl Popper and the Social Sciences.
"Popper's concept has much to recommend it, especially given the finding from positive psychology that most efforts to increase happiness are likely to prove fruitless if the targets of such efforts are already mostly happy, as most people are," says Gorton.
"In essence, people seem to reach a happiness saturation point," says Gorton. "People in the Middle Class are nearly as happy as the wealthy, but poor people are often miserable."
Efforts have begun to create a gross national happiness index to measure factors that influence a nation"s happiness, says Gorton.
"There are different ways to measure happiness," says Gorton. "One is to simply ask people on a scale of 1 to 10 to identify their happiness level. On these scales, the average is usually 6 or 7. Another way is to rate all the factors that correlate to happiness, such as access to healthcare, economic mobility, unemployment rate, job security and aggregate wealth.
"But comparing the happiness of different societies can be difficult because different cultures have different expectations," he says. "The United States is pro-happiness. But in Eastern Europe, for example, there"s a stigma associated with expressing happiness; it shows a shallow person. China downplays individual happiness and emphasizes community happiness."
Gorton presented Rethinking Popper's Negative Utilitarianism in Light of Positive Psychology at the 2007 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association.