Should we put drugs in the water? I think there is something obviously wrong with the idea, as evidenced by the fact that no one actually puts drugs in the water. There is some bit of common sense that says, “no, that is a bad idea.” However this common sense may be hard to defend, depending on what kind of ethical theory that you subscribe to. Don’t we want to make other people happy? If so then what is wrong with a nice treat for everyone?
Of course drugs are bad, but no one is forcing us to put dangerous drugs in the water, or even high levels of them. I’m sure that if we really wanted to we could find a drug with few negative effects and dilute it so that there is a noticeable but safe effect (and, additional, one which people don’t become acclimatized to). If happiness is good for people then how can we object to this? Now some might divide happiness into different kinds, and claim that some forms of happiness are better than others. That claim is, obviously, rather absurd (since it is hard to justify given that they all feel the same, and the fact that happiness feels desirable is the very thing that the idea that it is good is based on), but even if it was true it wouldn’t affect our calculations. Sure, if we could give people some superior brand of happiness they might be even better off, but we certainly aren’t doing them a disservice by giving them an inferior kind of happiness. And thus we would still have a reason to put drugs in the water.
However, our goal when acting ethically is usually thought of as to achieve what is good for people. The only reason that making people happy seemed like an ethically worthy task was that happiness intuitively seems good for people. I would claim the contrary though, that in many situations happiness is bad for people. Which is not to say that happiness is intrinsically bad, as I see it happiness can be good or bad depending on the situation. Happiness is a reinforcement mechanism, when we experience happiness it leads us to keep acting in the ways that brought about that happiness. And consciously this manifests as a desire to be happy. But just because we are built to seek happiness doesn’t mean that obtaining it is good for us; we function best when we are only happy appropriately, when happiness reinforces productive behaviors. Inappropriate or undeserved happiness can reward undesirable behaviors, and is thus to be avoided. Of course by undesirable behaviors I mean from our current point of view; from our current point of view we have various goals, or, in other words, there is a certain kind of future person we would like to be. Happiness is to be desired then only when it reinforces behaviors lead us to become that future person; otherwise happiness may lead us astray, into becoming someone we didn’t want to be. An example of this effect is how video games and TV can kill the productivity of people who enjoy them. If you enjoy them then watching TV or playing games can become reinforced at the exclusion of other activities, because it is easier to achieve happiness through them. But few people’s vision of their future selves includes watching TV or playing games, and so reinforcing these activities may stunt activities that better suit their goal.
So, to return to the idea of putting drugs in the water, making people always slightly happy would diminish the reinforcing power of happiness where it is appropriate (because the difference between the happiness that comes about as a result of certain behaviors and the person’s normal state of mind is diminished). And, at the same time, a constant low level of happiness reinforcing simply doing nothing (if you could thoroughly enjoy yourself just staring at the corner, well, why wouldn’t you). But neither is adding depressants to the water beneficial. Making people less happy also has the tendency to result in them doing nothing, because if it is hard to feel happy then no behaviors are reinforced.
And now we can return to the question of what is best for people, as it certainly isn’t happiness. What it is will probably depend on the person’s individual goals, that is, the nature of the person they want to become. And thus the best thing that we can do for someone else is to assist them. Of course I don’t mean that we should accomplish their goals for them, the whole point of a person’s goals is that they want to accomplish them. Assistance then means helping someone accomplish their goals. It’s possible a hands on approach could work, but we can be equally helpful simply by facilitating them, providing them with the power to reach their goals and eliminating obstacles that would otherwise prevent that. Perhaps that assistance will end up making them happy, but our assistance might very well involve making them unhappy as well, for example if we force them away from a distraction.
Of course this entire discussion is predicated on the idea that acting ethically is helping people have what is good for them. This is not actually a position I would take, I would argue instead that what is ethical is helping society to obtain what is good for it. And often, almost always, helping the people who compose a society is good for society. But not in absolutely every case, because what is good for some people, what they want at a most fundamental level, may be bad for society. And then we must choose whether we are to do what is good for society or what is good for them, with the correct choice being society as a whole.