Theft and violence always lead to...
Very interesting column and I agree with the general concept. As for the comments of J. Ketchum, I think people actually do act in a manner intended to benefit them somehow. The soldier who throws himself on a grenade values saving the lives of his comrades at least 1 degree more than he values saving his own life. Jumping to one's death at the Twin Towers means jumping had at least 1 degree more utility than burning to death. A famous trader once said "everybody gets what they want out of the market. Some people seem to like to lose, so they win by losing money." People are getting some benefit from their behavior though the rest of us may not fully understasnd what the benefit is.
If we keep forgetting about the "sin" problem, we will keep forgetting that people are basically selfish. One might assume that they are just trying to gain happiness, but the question is whether they are doing it just for themselves or for the benefit of all. That difference makes all the difference. If it were possible for all to follow Jim's good principle, then there could be no sociopaths, psychopaths or narcissists. Since we cannot fix ourselves, we will never rid ourselves of these problems.
On the other hand, the principle is a very good one to follow in our own, individual lives. It sets a good example and it makes life better for those around us.
I doubt that people always pursue happiness--or always act in a manner intended to benefit themselves in some way either psychologically or physically. Consider the soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save the lives of his comrades. Surely, he must realize that being blown up won't make him happy or in any way enhance his well-being.
In a philosophy class I proposed the following scenario: Suppose you could be connected to a happiness machine. For the rest of your life, you would be in a dream state, not knowing that you're asleep, and you would live a normal life span, being kept alive by artificial means. And for the rest of your life, you would be happier than you would be if you were not connected to the machine. Then I asked how many students would be willing to be connected to the happiness machine. Very few raised their hands.
A more plausible hypothesis than the one you proposed is that people always act with the intention of maximizing the excess of their positive values over their negative values (disvalues)--as by doing work they don't enjoy in order to earn a living-- or of minimizing the excess of their negative values over their positive values--as by jumping out a window of one of the Twin Towers to their instant death on the street below in order to avoid being burned alive. Different people have different values.