The Happy Human

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The 'Happy Human' is the symbol of the British Humanist Association and humanists often say that the purpose of life is to be happy. The Atheist Bus campaign illustrated this admirably by putting the slogan 'There's probably no god now stop worrying and enjoy your life' on the sides of numerous London buses. But I'm not so sure. A few years ago I devised a thought experiment to see if a hunch I had was right or wrong and I posted it on my web site.

This is how it went:

Alien invaders want our planet. They guarantee perfect happiness for everyone alive in return for the sterility of the human race. When human beings have become extinct the aliens will take the planet for themselves.

A human resistance group can guarantee to defeat the aliens forever but most people now alive will die in the conflict. The survivors will be able to continue the human race.

Would you...

Accept the aliens' offer of perfect happiness in return for extinction?

Support the resistance group although it means the death of most people in the conflict?

Well over 1000 responded to the poll and only 13 percent chose to accept the alien's offer (and would, I suspect, change their minds if confronted with a real situation). Try it on your friends. The rest opted for a life of misery to achieve the survival of the species. 'Happiness' in the ordinary sense of the word - enjoying yourself - doesn't seem to be our purpose in life, except perhaps, for a minority.

Happiness is not merely enjoying yourself. If the human race had decided to accept the aliens' offer we don't really believe they would be happy. They'd be miserable because they had rejected a greater moral good – the survival of the species.

After all, what is happiness? A typical happiness scenario would be lying in the sun on a tropical beach after a good meal looking forward to an evening of lively conversation and romance with a partner. Or happiness could be composed of elements of this scenario. Or it could be an afternoon spent having fun with the kids. Physical comfort shows that all is well in terms of immediate survival and romance and kids show that all is well on this score as far as the future is concerned.

Of course, lot of truly miserable people 'enjoy themselves' in the course of a wild night out. I suppose we could say that these people (the miserable ones) are really simulating happiness rather than actually being happy.

It seems to me that happiness is a means to an end - a pointer that you're going in the right direction. That you're leading a life which will promote the furtherance of the species. And if it's DNA you're thinking of, it's a good explanation for the sympathy many of us feel for all forms of life on Earth - we share a remarkable genetic heritage with even the most humble organisms.

It would seem that happiness and the moral good are equivalent in some way. The ultimate moral good is the survival of humanity, possibly with those who share our genetic heritage, and happiness stems from any move in the right direction.

It is a dangerous philosophy if pursued clumsily. It is no argument for the 'survival of the fittest' or the condemnation of those who do not reproduce. But it is a measure when deciding to separate conjoined twins or carry out stem cell research. It is a principle we can explore, and not a moral straitjacket of religious laws.

Alan Urdaibay

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