Tl/Dr: Video (and if you do have time to read, it might be a good video to have playing in the background while you read)
My my, what a short yet poignant phrase. The first step towards creating a perfect society is the really difficult one you left out: defining happiness. We've spent tens of thousands of years trying to nail that one down -- the quest certainly reaches way back deep into prehistory. Sure, it's easy to capture the giddy happiness caused by a kiss from one's crush in high school, but what about the difficult ones. What about the happiness desperately entwined with other emotions such as sadness or anger. What about the happiness from justice being served, as a criminal is punished for their wrongdoing? What about the happiness of a soldier's last kiss from the love of their life before marching off to war? What about the happiness of a mother feeling blessed that their child, dying of cancer, went in her sleep without any pain? Surely these are emotions we don't want to deny from our perfect society, but they're far more nuanced than the simple emotions from our young years.
I don't think I'm going to define happiness successfully today. I don't have that much hubris. I'll leave that question to the poets and sages for the next few millennia. However, as an engineer, merely not being able to define the problem is not an insurmountable impediment. We don't have to define happiness here to answer the question, we merely need to quantify it and give it some properties describing how it behaves. So let's just put our neck out and declare that there are some things that have an attribute called "happiness," and see what comes of it.
One of the more evident attributes of happiness is that we are terrible estimators of what makes us happy. We gorge ourselves on material values which we all recognize do a terrible job of making us happy, and yet we do it anyway. We miss out on the small things that make others happy.
An aside, since I have a soap box, and I intend to stand on it until someone boots me off: back in 2011 there was a global study on happiness. The study was simple. It had one question: "do your perceive yourself as happy or unhappy. The most happy nation in the world, with a score of 85% happy, was Fiji. I was blessed to go there on a dive trip and experience it. We Americans, of course, went to the one resort on the island, where everything is kept in proper trim shape. The two towns on the island, where everyone lived, were a completely different story. I don't often visit third world nations, so the raw destitute living these people experienced was a bit of a shock. Despite a lack of roofs over their heads, and sometimes floors under their feet, they were happy. Everyone else had a spark of life to them. It's just how they were.
On Fiji, the traditional greeting is "Bula!" said with the proper diaphragmatic enthusiasm. I asked what it meant once, and they basically said "everything." You'll use it as a greeting, as a goodbye. You'll thank people with it. You'll sometimes even just use it to get someone's attention. I finally got my hands on an actual Fiji-English dictionary and looked it up. It turns out that "bula" is a verb. It means "to live."
No wonder they are so happy. Literally every time they meet, they toast to life.
Something to think about.
Anyways, back to us not knowing what happiness is. We know we're bad at estimating what things will make us happy, but what else can we say about it. I think everyone will agree that when we are happy, its a state that we want to continue experiencing. When we are unhappy, we want our current experience to change. However, we have to be careful. If you talk to the happiest people you can find, you discover that they are happy about things that are transient. They can appreciate a sunset with their significant other, sipping wine, knowing full well it will not last. Yet they can be happy anyway. So clearly we can be happy with change. Blast it, even quantifying happiness is tough!
Okay, time to wax poetic. When we are happy, we are happy to let the situation change smoothly, flowing the value from one moment into the next. We see that that value is good, and we want it to stay that way, but we're willing to let it grow on its own, and discover it's own purpose. When we are unhappy, we want the situation to change drastically. We want the content of this moment to cease, and new content to fill in the next moment. I'd be a fool to say I can prove those statements, but it sure feels right to me, and that's the best I can do here.
So we know that we are bad at estimating what makes us happy, we know that when we're happy we want this moment to flow into the next, while when we're unhappy we want the next moment to replace as much of this moment as possible. One last assumption: we want to be happy. There's plenty of arguments about depression that suggest we don't always want to be happy, but I think that's beyond the scope I'm going to address. We'll just assume that this society consists of only individuals who pursue happiness.
Let's assume, for a moment, that the society got close to everyone being happy. Maybe this society spawned from Fiji or only consists of Tibetan Monks. Let's assume that this society got close enough that trying to create perfect happiness is actually a reasonable goal. This is helpful because it lets us simplify our options. We can optimize based on the "do no harm" policy. Any action that we, or our citizens undertake, should strive to do no harm. This is in stark contrast of how we often act in more unhappy societies. In unhappy societies, it's often meaningful to compare happiness and make trade-offs. However, as you approach maximum happiness, that sort of approach isn't effective. Trying to analyze the trade-offs gets more and more time consuming, and that can make people unhappy. So we're only going to consider actions which do not make someone less happy.
Almost. We almost forgot about the first assumptions. We're not very good at estimating what will make us happy and what wont. This is a rather interesting nuance. It's well known that its hard to predict what will make someone else happy, but that's okay because they may not know what will make them happy either. Thus we come to the first rule of this society:
Imperceptible harm - Individuals should only take action if one believes any harm another individual will undergo will be imperceptible to them and to yourself.
This gives us a little wiggle room for trades. We're no longer paralyzed by inability to act out of fear of doing harm. It suggests that there will be a natural cast system that emerges from those who truly understand what makes them happy (and thus are very good at perceiving unhappiness) down to those who really don't know what they want. Those that know exactly what they want, will rapidly trade for it. Those that do not will likely seek more vague sources of happiness. It also provides room for learning. Babies don't understand what makes others happy. Children have to learn it as they grow up. As they become more aware of the happiness of others, they are more compelled by this rule to act on it. Until then, kids will be kids. And I think that's a good thing.
Of course, there's a loophole here. If you become numb to what others feel, it's easy to abuse this system. We need something to catch people before they fall into this trap. Time to bring in an oldie but a goodie, albeit with a small modification:
The Platinum Rule - Do unto others as they would have done unto them.
The Golden Rule - If you are not certain what others would want done to them, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
These rules, in varying forms, have been the corner stone of societies for a long time. It would be silly not to include them.
One final rule that I think I'd add, and I'd say the society would have the potential to find its own happiness. Resources exist in the world, and they can be fought over. That's reality. However, if you can make a living off the resources that nobody is fighting for, you don't have to fight. We've got 4 billion years left of resources burning away in our sun. Let's not waste that energy.
Waste not, Want not - Take advantage of any resources which would be squandered if they were not taken advantage of.
Would this make a perfect society? Well, I like to think it's a decent scaffolding for erecting a perfect society. The truth is that each perfect society will be perfect in its own way, and we'd be foolish to think they'd pigeon hole themselves into fitting into our mold. That's why the rules I picked give as much room as possible to flex within them. There's something unique about each society -- giving it up in exchange for happiness is a poor trade.
One last rule, though I hate to call it a rule. It's more of a policy.
Live life in the moment.
I'd love to say I fully understand what that one means. I'm still striving for it. However, it strikes me as this is fundamental to any long term stable happy society, so I include it regardless. I'll leave it to you to figure out what it means to you.
There's only us, there's only this
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss
No other path, no other way
No day but today
There's only us, only tonight
We must let go to know what's right
No other road, No other way
No day but today
- No Day but Today, Rent