Saturday, September 22, 2007

Happiness

Here’s a short introduction to some of the philosophical issues about happiness. We are going to look at three key questions:

Is happiness just about feeling good, or is there more to it than that?
Is feeling good always what motivates us? And:
Is increasing happiness always morally the right thing to do?

1. ANCIENT AND MODERN CONCEPTIONS OF HAPPINESS


Happiness is elusive – something we work hard to achieve, yet rarely seem to find. Indeed, as T.S. Elliot reminds us, the harder we strive to attain happiness, the more quickly it seems to recede over the horizon.

We see them everywhere, those trying desperately for happiness: pitifully chasing clouds of butterflies, laughing too loud, drinking too much, buying too much, working too hard; hating themselves.


Perhaps one of the reasons happiness is hard to achieve is that it’s not entirely clear what we are after. So let’s begin by asking: what is happiness?

Nowadays we tend to think of happiness as a more-or-less transitory feeling. Take the social scientist Richard Layard - he defines happiness as “feeling good”. But this is not the only possible conception of happiness. In fact happiness as Layard defines it is a comparatively modern notion. The ancients viewed happiness very differently.
According to Aristotle [384-322 BC], for example, happiness, or eudaimonia, is not a feeling. Rather it’s a feature of a complete life. It’s also a moral feature. A happy individual is one that has lived a life of virtue.

The Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue… Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.


Those who are happy are those that have lived lives of good character.

To our modern ears, this sounds odd. Clearly, we no longer associate happiness with morality in quite the way the ancients did. Aristotle believed that a virtuous individual would thereby be a happy individual. This necessary connection between virtue and happiness is no longer assumed to exist.

The link between a virtue and happiness was partially severed by the Christian church, particularly during its more ascetic periods. A virtuous life may eventually bring the reward of happiness, it was thought. But in the next life, not this.

Indeed, some Christians have supposed that the more one suffers now, the better. Not only have they shunned worldly pleasures and preached abstinence, they have even, like St. Jerome, embraced self-flagellation or, like Origen, engaged in self-mutilation (Origen, an early Christian father, actually castrated himself).

Nowadays, we Westerners are more relaxed about seeking happiness in this life. But the link with morality that you find in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics has almost entirely been lost. The suggestion that the best way to achieve happiness is to live a virtuous life is rarely, if ever, made.

2. IS FEELING GOOD ALWAYS WHAT MOTIVATES US?

Let’s now turn to a rather different question: is happiness our ultimate aim in life? Many assume it is. The only reason we do anything, they say, is to make ourselves feel better, to maximize our own happiness. Richard Layard, for example, says that “From the various possibilities open to us, we choose whichever combination of activities will make us feel best.”

This psychological theory of why we do what we do is easily refuted.

Achieving a feeling of happiness and contentment is not always what motivates us.

Suppose, for example, that, after seeing the suffering of starving children on TV, you decide to give generously to a charity dedicated to helping them. Surely you’ve acted to increase the happiness of others, not yourself? “Not so” comes the reply. “The real reason you gave to charity was to make yourself feel better, to salve your own conscience and make yourself feel noble. So you see? Your motive for acting was to make yourself feel good.”

As an explanation for why anyone ever acts selflessly, this won’t do. Suppose I could offer you a magic pill that made you believe you had given generously to charity when in fact you hadn’t. Then you could both enjoy feeling happy about giving to charity, and also feel good about spending the cash. Would you take the pill? Of course not. Most of us would reject the pill and still to give to charity. Yet if feeling good were all we were after, taking the pill would be the obvious choice.

True, acting to help others does often make us feel happier. It doesn’t follow that making ourselves feeling happier is our motive for doing it. It’s reassuring to discover Layard is mistaken – that we aren’t quite as self-obsessed as he would have us believe.

3. IS MAXIMIZING HAPPINESS ALWAYS MORALLY THE RIGHT THING TO DO?


Now to another question concerning happiness: Is maximizing happiness always morally the right thing to do? Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832], the father of utilitarianism, famously declared that ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation’. Utilitarianism, in its simplest form, says that the right thing to do in any given situation is to act to produce the happiest outcome - that which produces the most pleasure and the least pain.

Bentham himself developed a “felicific calculus” into which factors such as intensity and duration of pains and pleasures could be fed to calculate the right course of action.

Here’s a simple example of such a utilitarian calculation – should I steal that child’s sweets? Doing so might give me the pleasure of eating them. But it would deprive the child of the same pleasure and cause her considerable unhappiness to boot. So the right thing to do, on this simple utilitarian calculation, is not to steal the sweets.

The “happy-drug”

One glaring problem with the simpler forms of utilitarianism is that they seem prone to an obvious sort of counterexample. What if we could make everyone feel wonderfully happy by constantly injecting them with a happy-drug? Would that be the right thing to do, morally speaking?

No. Turning everyone into blissed-out drug zombies would be wrong. Making people “feel good” may be of some moral importance. But it’s not of overriding importance.

Higher and lower pleasures

One way in which a utilitarian might respond to this sort of counterexample is to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. J.S. Mill (1806-1873) does precisely this. An intense, drug-induced reverie may be agreeable. But it produces a pleasure of a very shallow sort compared to, say, the pleasures of the intellect - which, according to Mill, include the appreciation of poetry and philosophical debate. Doping people up to the eyeballs may induce an intense sort of pleasure, but it deprives them of the opportunity to enjoy higher, more important pleasures. Which is why it would be the wrong thing to do.

This distinction between higher and lower pleasures may get the utilitarian off the hook so far as the “happy-drug” objection goes, but it strikes many (including Layard) as objectionably elitist and paternalistic. Is the pleasure of engaging in philosophical debate or listening to Mozart really superior to that of filling ones belly with chocolate ice-cream? Aren’t such distinctions mere snobbery?

Mill thought not. He argues that only those who have experienced both the higher and lower pleasures are in any position to judge which are best, and those who have had the luxury of experiencing both tend to prefer the higher.

But is this true? Actually, many of those in a position to enjoy both kinds of pleasure like to be seen to enjoy the higher while secretly over-indulging their taste for the lower.

Transplant case

Another classic counterexample to utilitarianism is the transplant case. Suppose you’re the doctor in charge of six patients. The first has a minor medical condition easily cured. The others have failing organs and will soon die without transplants. No replacement organs are available. But then you discover that the first patient can provide perfect donor organs. So you can murder the first patient to save the rest. Or you can cure the first and watch five die. What is the right thing to do?

A simple utilitarian calculation suggests you should kill one patient to save the rest. After all, that will result in five happy patients and only one set of grieving relatives rather than one happy patient and five sets of grieving relatives. Yet the killing of one patient to save the rest strikes most of us very wrong indeed.

What this case of brings out, it’s suggested, is that the right course of action is not always to maximize happiness. Indeed, it’s said that such cases demonstrate that human beings have certain fundamental rights, including a right to life, and that these rights ought not to be trampled, whatever the consequences for happiness.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Here’s one last apparent counter-example to utilitarianism from the contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick. Suppose a machine is built that can replicate any experience. Plug yourself in and it will stimulate your brain in just the way it would be stimulated if you were, say, climbing mount Everest or walking on the Moon.The experiences this machine generates are indistinguishable from those you would get if you were experiencing the real thing.

For those of us that want to experience exotic and intense pleasures. this machine offers a fantastic opportunity. Notice it can even induce higher pleasures - the pleasure gained from engaging in a philosophical debate or listening to a Beethoven symphony need be no less intense for being experienced within a virtual world.

Many of us would be keen to try out this machine. But what of the offer permanently to immerse yourself in such pleasure-inducing world?

Most of us would refuse. Someone who has climbed Everest in virtual reality has not really climbed Everest. And someone who has enjoyed a month-long affair with the computer-generated Lara Croft has not really made any sort of meaningful connection with another human being.

The truth is we don’t just want to “feel happy”. Most of us also want to lead lives that are authentic. Someone who (like Truman in The Truman Show) had unwittingly lived out their whole life within a carefully controlled environment might subjectively feel content and fulfilled. But were they to be told on their deathbed that it had all been a carefully staged illusion - that there had been no real relationships, that their “achievements” had all been carefully managed - then they might well feel that theirs was, after all, a life sadly wasted.

Again, it seems that what Layard calls “feeling good” is not, ultimately, what’s most important to most of us. Nor, it seems, is arranging things to maximize the feeling of happiness always morally the right thing to do. Secretly plugging everyone into a deceptive, Matrix-like pleasure-inducing virtual world would surely be very wrong indeed.

4. THE CONSUMERIST MODEL OF HAPPINESS

To finish, let’s take a brief look at the link between happiness and consumerism. In section one we saw how our modern conception of happiness taken a subjective turn – focussing increasingly on “feeling good”, In fact it has also become increasingly consumerist. Often as not, the way in which we seek to feel good is by acquiring more stuff.

We Westerners have become significantly wealthier over the last fifty years or so. We own more colour TVs, microwaves, cars etc. then ever before. And yet we do not appear to be appreciably happier. The proportion of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” has remained about one third since the 1950s, despite their increasing affluence. Why is this?

The psychologist Paul Wachtel believes the explanation lies in a feature of human psychology known as adaptation. We have simply become accustomed to rising levels of affluence. In fact when affluence continues to increase, but not quite so sharply, people end up less happy and perceive themselves to be poorer than they were before.

In judging how well off we are economically… we assimilate new input to our ‘adaptation level’. For many Americans, having one or several color television sets, two or more cars… these and others features of their lives are experienced as the ‘neutral point’. They do not excite us or arouse much feeling. Only a departure from that level is really noticed.

The endless spiral of material acquisition cannot make us more content. Like a drug addict, we simply become accustomed to whatever we’re getting, cease to derive much pleasure from it, and start demanding even more. As a result, explains the philosopher Peter Singer,

once we have satisfied our basic needs, there is no level of material comfort at which we are likely to find significantly greater long-term fulfilment than any other level.

And of course, if the resources on which we’re drawing are finite, ever-rising levels of consumption are impossible to maintain.

Singer argues that we need fundamentally to rethink our attitudes to contentment and reject this consumerist model of happiness that is dragging us all to our doom. He may be right.

Main Conclusions

We’ve drawn three main conclusions:

1. Our modern conception of happiness as “feeling good” is not the only possible conception of happiness. Nor is it obviously the best conception. In losing sight of the ancient notion of happiness, might we have lost sight of something valuable?

2. Those like Layard, who believe we always act to make ourselves “feel good” are simply mistaken. Making ourselves “feel good” is not usually what’s most important to us.

3. Nor, it seems, is maximizing happiness always morally the right thing to do.

21 comments:

A. Thinker said...

This is Kyle, who emailed you once about a pet theory of mine. Anyway, this is a very interesting post. I find that my morality IS based on producing the most happiness for everyone, but also the least suffering. My morality and happiness are pretty well explained in the following (which I did not write):
http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/carrot&stick.html
It's a long read, but a good one. Think well.

Eric said...

It seems clear that there's more to happiness than "feeling good," but isn't feeling good a necessary element of any conception of human happiness? It seems contradictory to say, "S is happy but doesn't feel good." Feeling good isn't sufficient for happiness, but it does seem necessary. This suggests that we must feel good about the right sorts of things if we are to be happy (since feeling good alone isn's sufficient), which further suggests that happiness must be complemented with knowledge, or at least by a certain cultivation of tastes. Perhaps it is here that morality and happiness intersect. If happiness requires that we feel good about the right sorts of things, and if morality consists of choosing the right sorts of things, then only moral or virtuous people can truly be happy.

Ron Murphy said...

The happy pill example is flawed. The same 'cause' of wanting to give to charity - the possibility of the personal feel-good factor as opposed to the real-good effect of the act - is surely driving the intention not to take the pill. To take the pill, or to not give to charity, would both 'cause' guilt, and so not to take the pill, or to give to charity, would conversely both 'cause' happiness.

Ron Murphy said...

Why should a "happiness drug" result in "Doping people up to the eyeballs" and all that that implies: "blissed-out drug zombies". Why not a happiness drug that did no more that making one always feel happy, while at the same time leaving mental acuteness intact - even the capicity to 'understand' and 'appreciate' non-happiness in others while at the same time not 'feeling' it, in the sense the it is sometimes felt that one should 'feel' empathetically the suffering in others in order to appreciate their problems. In some situations this happy state of being may be self-induced, possibly as a protection mechanism. I'm thinking of, say, surgions who play music and enjoy playful banter while in the middle of surgery that may be life sustaining or life threatening to the patient.

Ron Murphy said...

"Truman in The Truman Show...then they might well feel that theirs was, after all, a life sadly wasted. Secretly plugging everyone into a deceptive, Matrix-like pleasure-inducing virtual world would surely be very wrong indeed." I agree. But I can't really say why. If I could voluntarily enter and leave such a system at will, would it be so bad? I love to watch surfers. I tried it when I was younger, but realised that I couldn't give the time to improvement without giving up other interests. Would I be 'happy' to enter an indistiguishably realistic experience without the effort? You bet. What do you think most people get out of roller coasters? Safe thrills.

Ron Murphy said...

"happiness and consumerism" - Why think consumerism has anything to do with happiness. Comfort, interest, one-upmanship, greed, availability, ... may be the direct drivers of consumerism, with happiness a possible but not necessarily primary reason to consume. Is 'happiness' merely a human interpretation of satisfaction, derived from whatever primary motive or instinct?

And what on earth does it have to do with morality, other than the coincidental of smugness when some of us do what we think is morally correct. Do villains feel 'happiness' in the satisfaction they derive from 'immoral' acts?

Anonymous said...

Happiness is a purely subjective experience. A soldier might be happy in the worst conditions imaginable if he sees himself as a protector doing his duty fighting against something terrible. Someone might feel very unhappy living what might seem like an ideal life of indulgence and privalige if they feel there is no pupose in their life. The circumstances of someones life while they are a factor are definately not the most important factor.

Empathy is a strange thing. We may think we can understand how someone else feels but in fact we can have only the vaguest idea which must be based on personal experience. Someone who has never felt particularly bad has no frame of reference to understand the feelings of someone who is feeling very bad and vice versa. This raises some interesting questions.
If a physcologist has never felt depressed, how can he possibly understand the feelings and motivations of a patient with depression.
Take this moral question that might be put to that phycologist:

Is it wrong for someone who is suicidal to kill themselves?

Most people will say Yes as a knee-jerk reaction, but WHY is it wrong?

**by the by, I am not supporting the idea the suicide is a good thing, I just think that many of our 'taken for granted' moral positions are very poorly understood.**

Nyoka said...

I agree that happiness can be realized in the cultivation of a virtuous life. Simple choices can bring happiness when one's actions produce kind and positive outcomes. Even random acts of courtesy can be mood elevators. Something as simple as letting someone else have the last word is a powerful thing...there is a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you have that type of control. Concentrated engagement in art, music, writing, reading, scientific research, whatever the individual can process to surf time, can produce joy in being with one’s self.....never underestimate the miracles of the creative mind to bring joy to the soul. Engagement in physical labor, especially if you are honored to be able to work with a friend, can actually be fun, endorphins can kick in from all over the place. Maintaining good health is intrinsic to feeling good.... putting toxic substances into the human body with the illusion that such will make one feel well is deluded. There is the appearance that techno-man has come to embrace self consciousness, not self discipline. Entertainment and consumerism as singular and mutual activities produce mood altering excitement, but often this is not unlike a gambler’s quest. Virtue has no buyer’s remorse. Virtue is an additive process and culminates from the foundation of the successful art of living. Beauty and peace are the products of such and yes this equates to happiness.

Nyoka said...

I agree that happiness can be realized in the cultivation of a virtuous life. Simple choices can bring happiness when one's actions produce kind and positive outcomes. Even random acts of courtesy can be mood elevators. Something as simple as letting someone else have the last word is a powerful thing...there is a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you have that type of control. Concentrated engagement in art, music, writing, reading, scientific research, whatever the individual can process to surf time, can produce joy in being with one’s self.....never underestimate the miracles of the creative mind to bring joy to the soul. Engagement in physical labor, especially if you are honored to be able to work with a friend, can actually be fun, endorphins can kick in from all over the place. Maintaining good health is intrinsic to feeling good.... putting toxic substances into the human body with the illusion that such will make one feel well is deluded. There is the appearance that techno-man has come to embrace self consciousness, not self discipline. Entertainment and consumerism as singular and mutual activities produce mood altering excitement, but often this is not unlike a gambler’s quest. Virtue has no buyer’s remorse. Virtue is an additive process and culminates from the foundation of the successful art of living. Beauty and peace are the products of such and yes this equates to happiness.

Enrique said...

Just by the by, I'm always surprised that the philosopher who dealt more deeply with what happiness is (and isn't), Epicurus, is as a rule absent from these discussions. Aristotle is always 'in', but Epicurus is not trendy: that comes to show how Christian we still are as regards happiness.

Mike Nicholson said...

"Mill thought not. He argues that only those who have experienced both the higher and lower pleasures are in any position to judge which are best, and those who have had the luxury of experiencing both tend to prefer the higher."

As I sit here reading this I'm eating a rather delicious chocolate pastry. As such I really have no option but to agree with Mill's assessment!

Nick said...

Interesting post. I have just posted something on my blog about morality, and it discusses some of your points on happiness. Perhaps you would find it interesting?

If you have any comments, then I would love to hear them.

http://freethinkingblog.blogspot.com/2007/09/some-thoughts-on-morality.html

MalG said...

I agree with Ron about the 'Charity Pill' - 'Would you take the pill? Of course not. Most of us would reject the pill and still give to charity.' The 'why?' is not explained, though I would hazard that it is something along the lines of 'that would be cheating those deserving of my charity and being entirely selfish' - which would NOT MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD! Thus once again you do not take the pill because you are concerned with maximising your own happiness - or minimising your unhappiness. I have believed for a long time that there is no such thing as altruism - everyone only ever chooses whatever causes them the most happiness, or the least unhappiness.

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Sheae said...

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence ~
Aristotle Quotes

Ethan said...

I think what Marci Shimoff and others like yourself are studying about life and happiness is important. The understanding of how to obtain happiness is something every person has dealt with. Thanks for sharing your information with us all. Happy New Year!

Brady Booth said...

What Stephen Law has put here , everyone should read this is heavy and great for the Soul , we must have a clear mind in our quest for happiness . "Love is when one thinks of two"

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