Skip to main content

Philosophy of Happiness - a short introduction



Here’s a short introduction to some of the most fascinating 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?




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”.[i] 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.





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.”[ii]

This cod-psychological explanation 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.




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.




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.[iii]


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.[iv]


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 “feeling good” is not what’s most important to us.


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


[i] Lionel Robbins Lectures 2002/3.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Quoted in Peter Singer, How Are We To Live? (Oxford: OUP) p. 60.

[iv] Ibid, p. 61.


Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o

Suggesting a new named fallacy: the Non Post Hoc Fallacy (or David Cameron Fallacy)

Many of us are familiar with the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy (' after this, therefore because of this) - Post Hoc Fallacy for short). It's the fallacy of supposing that, because B occurred after A, A must be the cause of B. For example: My car stopped working after I changed the oil, so changing the oil caused it to stop working. Or:  I wore my red jumper to the exam and I passed, so that jumper is lucky: it caused me to pass. This fallacy is so common, it gets a latin name. However, there's a related common fallacy that I think also deserves a name. I am going to call it the Non Post Hoc Fallacy (' not after of this, therefore not because of this), or, perhaps more memorably, the David Cameron Fallacy. Every now and then someone desperate to ‘prove’ that X is not causally responsible for Y – e.g poverty is not a cause of crime, will commit the following fallacy. They will argue that as X has often occurred without Y following, therefore X was not the