Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Yuval Noah Harari introduces his new book Sapiens:

We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but are we much happier? Historians seldom stop to ponder this question, yet ultimately, isn’t it what history is all about? Our understanding and our judgment of, say, the worldwide spread of monotheistic religion surely depends on whether we conclude that it raised or lowered global happiness levels. And if the spread of monotheism had no noticeable impact on global happiness, what difference did it make?

Let me just put my cards on the table and say that this entire paragraph is so nonsensical that it’s not even wrong. It is so conceptually confused that it has not, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, risen to the dignity of error.

To begin with, what in the world might it mean to say that happiness is “what history is all about”? History, as I and everyone else in the world except Harari knows, is “about” what has happened. And many things, I think it is fair to say, have happened other than happiness.

I truly can’t guess, with any confidence, what Harari means by that statement, but if I had to try I’d paraphrase it thus: The chief reason for studying history is to find out what made people happy and what didn’t. Lord, I hope that’s not what he means, but I fear it is.

And as for “what made people happy,” Harari wants to define that in terms of “global happiness levels.” And how are we supposed to evaluate those? Where would we get our data set? And — to ask a question that goes back to the earliest responses to Bentham’s utilitarianism — how do we count such stuff? Does one person’s horrific misery count the same as another person’s mild pleasure? Or do we add an intensity factor? Also, on the unhappiness scale, how might we compare a quick and painless death at age 19 to an extended agony of fatal illness at age 83?

I suspect Harari hasn’t thought much about these matters, but let’s try to go with him. Instead of considering something as amorphous as “monotheistic religion,” let’s focus on the militant Islam of today. It has clearly made many people very miserable; but it has equally clearly given other people great satisfaction. If the number of people who delight in militant Islam exceed the number of people made miserable by it, then do we conclude that militant Islam is a net contributor to “global happiness levels” and therefore something to be applauded? And what if the balance sheet comes out pretty level, so that global happiness has been neither appreciably increased nor appreciably decreased by militant Islam? Are we to conclude then that it really hasn’t “made a difference”? 

This little thought experiment also raises the question of whether happiness might be defined differently by different people in different cultures. Harari has this one covered. Some people, he tells us,

agree that happiness is the supreme good, but think that happiness isn’t just a matter of pleasant sensations. Thousands of years ago Buddhist monks reached the surprising conclusion that pursuing pleasant sensations is in fact the root of suffering, and that happiness lies in the opposite direction…. For Buddhism, then, happiness isn’t pleasant sensations, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Finally, time for a serious consideration of rival views of happiness! So here’s Harari’s response: “True or false, the practical impact of such alternative views is minimal. For the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Full stop.”

Full stop. The “capitalist juggernaut” has decided what happiness is — and, needless to say, resistance is futile — so we don’t need to think about it any more. We don’t even need to ask whether said juggernaut is equally powerful everywhere in the world, or whether, conversely, there are significant numbers of people who live in a different regime — even though the scale of the book is supposed to be global.

So here we have an argument that happiness is “what history is all about,” and that therefore everything that we do should be evaluated in terms of its contribution to “global happiness levels,” but that can’t be bothered to ask what happiness consists in. As I say: not even wrong. Miles from being even wrong.


  • This reminded me of the photo essays that show what families around the world ate for a week. The families posed with their groceries. Some of the families with the most food looked less happy than some of the families with very little and simple fare.

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