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Nat Rutherford, a moral philosopher and lecturer in political theory at Royal Holloway, University of London, talks with Annika Loebig about the connections between morality and happiness.
I contacted the London-based philosopher Nat Rutherford after reading an article he did for the BBC earlier this year. In line with Rutherford’s PhD on ‘Moral Pluralism and Political Disagreement’, we dug into the moral pluralism of happiness, and what happens when our happy vices oppose morality.
“I just don’t think that happiness is very valuable. It’s not something I pursue,” he tells me. “But the value of happiness is also something I don’t really consider, because I don’t think it’s very effective. One of the important things about happiness – and I think Aristotle had this insight over two thousand years ago in a way that the utilitarians in the nineteenth century didn’t – is that we’re often hostage to fortune. How well your life goes, whether you get to be happy, is a matter of luck over which you have no control. And Aristotle saw this. You can cultivate your virtues, you can behave in a virtuous way, but your happiness, or in Greek, your eudaimonia – the term he uses, which is not quite happiness, but something similar – is dependent on luck. And you can’t guarantee it.”
The characters in Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide are all too familiar with the limitations on happiness and the inevitable suffering that’s part of the human condition. After a series of misfortunes, Candide and his friends meet a man who suggests that ‘one must cultivate one’s own garden’ instead of letting one’s potential for happiness depend on other people and politics. To distract ourselves from the constant suffering in the world we need to find a project that satisfies us, for as Arthur Schopenhauer noted in The World as Will and Representation (1818), “if you led the most unrepentant optimist through the hospitals, military wards, and surgical theatres, through the prisons, torture chambers and slave stalls, through battlefields and places of judgment, and then open for him all the dark dwellings of misery that hide from cold curiosity, then he too would surely come to see the nature of this best of all possible worlds."
This might suggest that happiness is a state of ignorance, in which we temporarily ignore the extent of suffering in the world. Schopenhauer’s understanding was that happiness was the absence of pain – merely a brief moment of relief that we’re granted in the liminal space in our minds when one desire has been fulfilled and we’re waiting to begin our pursuit of the next. In contrast to this stance, Voltaire seems to encourage a pursuit of happiness which doesn’t look out to the world but rather actively focuses on what’s within our reach to achieve, be that friendship, love, or perhaps even, literally, cultivating a fruitful garden.
“One of the ways we tend to think about happiness is very individualistically, right? This connects to a kind of medicalised view of happiness as well, which is that it’s a state that exists in your brain,” Rutherford suggests. “But one aspect of Aristotle’s thought is that fundamentally we are not isolated individuals. We are deeply political, and we are fundamentally social. What distinguishes us from other animals is that human beings are ‘political animals’, as Aristotle famously said. And I think this connects to his view of eudaimonia as well, which is that you can only fundamentally achieve happiness through and in relation to and connection with other people. This opens up really difficult questions. As soon as you stop just looking inside yourself, into your own inner state, and start thinking about your relation to other people, you get these questions of morality and justice and how you treat other people, and whether you should sacrifice your own happiness, your own contentment, in order to further their happiness or contentment. These pose much more difficult moral questions, which aren’t really about you at all.” Although admittedly a weird linguistic formation, Rutherford emphasises that ‘the social function of happiness’ suggests that happiness is something we do with other people rather than being a pursuit in which we’re detached from social involvements.
In the same way that our happiness is tied to other people, our vices often are too. Indulgences such as getting intoxicated with friends, whether through legal or illegal means, then ordering a takeaway, may be vices, but at the same time are often valuable because of their social character, Rutherford points out.
But even if our pursuit of happiness isn’t inherently morally flawed, it tends to at least be transgressive at times, or make us blissfully unaware, if not of our own shortcomings, then of the suffering of those around us. So what happens when our indulgence’s ‘social function’ doesn’t protect us from full moral condemnation?
“I think the Aristotelian answer to that is that morality and happiness shouldn’t conflict. For Aristotle ‘the Good Life’ is a life in which you live virtuously, and with a bit of moral luck, that will provide you with eudaimonia. A very simplified version of this concept is: a virtuous life plus good luck equals eudaimonia, or the good life. But really, without opening up a much bigger meta-philosophical question about what we’re talking about with indulgence, we’re talking about morality. And what’s more, I think that often the framework that we’re using to talk about indulgences is a deontological or consequentialist [moral] kind of framework.”
What is Happiness? by Cecilia Mou, 2022
Image © Cecilia Mou 2022. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart
A consequentialist like Peter Singer might argue that we should feel guilty about getting a £4 flat white in central London, knowing that the farmer who provided the café with the beans probably couldn’t afford to buy that coffee himself with his day’s wages. But Rutherford is not a consequentialist:
“I don’t think these things can be resolved in an abstract way. One response is particularism, and you get this in Aristotle. It’s the idea that lives and actions can only be assessed in a very contextual, one-off kind of way. In other words, you can’t come up with any useful very broad rules about how one ought to behave and what the connection between these very abstract things are.”
Part of the problem which makes achieving happiness such a difficult equation to solve, Rutherford suggests, is that we don’t know ourselves very well. While we might receive momentary satisfactions from retail therapy or the dopamine hit from social media likes and retweets, we know deep down that these activities have very little to do with achieving sustainable happiness:
“No one really thinks that those passing momentary pleasures contribute fundamentally to your good life. But all of those things that bring momentary pleasure – whether that be taking drugs with your friends, or drinking, or going shopping, or eating a pizza – any of those things can be connected to happiness. There might be some secondary questions about their morality. But you’re never going to be able to draw that hard and fast line between what constitutes morality and happiness. There’s some connection, but maybe it’s a very unclear one.”
Rutherford opposes seeing immoral behaviour as a failure of personal responsibility, which moralises behaviour in a way that he thinks is often marked by a particular kind of puritanical undertone. He’s also skeptical of the idea that morality overrides all other concerns in life. One of his main interests is moralism in political thought which can have both positive and negative effects. However, rather than implying that politics requires immorality, it’s more useful to remind ourselves that politics is about conflict, and at its best, about compromise. He explains:
“Often in politics you’re not going to be able to do the right thing. What you’re often trying to do is avoid the worst thing. We get this idea from the twentieth century Harvard philosopher Judith Shklar, who wrote about this in relation to modern liberalism, which she called ‘the liberalism of fear’: so the point of liberalism is not to achieve justice, perfection, freedom for everyone; it’s to avoid the worst things that humans do to each other. So cruelty and hypocrisy, and these kinds of standard vices – that’s what liberal politics should be about tackling. So I would kind of want to separate morality and politics a little bit.
“That kind of goes against what I said earlier, right? That happiness is political, or at least that happiness is social. But I think these contrasting ideas can both be true. I wonder whether we could draw a spectrum where we’ve got hedonism at one end – pure pleasure – a view of happiness as some thing in the mind that’s very individualistic, a positive emotion with no morality involved whatsoever. And near the other end of the spectrum, I think we’ve got something like Moralism, which is a condemnatory attitude towards all spontaneous joy. And out of Moralism you get asceticism: all pleasure is regrettable and sinful, and the only way for you to be morally pure is to refuse pleasure or to lead an ascetic life of self-abnegation.
“I think both of those extremes are wrong. Neither of those are the right way to approach either happiness or politics. And so it’s about where you find the midpoint between pleasure and moral responsibility. I think it’s in the recognition that pleasure and morality do kind of coincide, even though the relationship isn’t very clear.”
The American political theorist John Rawls’ circumstances of justice say that justice is only truly operative in a society in which there is sufficient prosperity for all. One corollary of this would be that the more prosperity we have, the more justice we should expect. It might even be easier for people to act ethically in their pursuit of happiness if they were wealthy.
However: “I think it’s plausible to say that you can live in a society which is extremely just, and yet the people in that society are deeply unhappy, have very low levels of eudaimonia – very low levels of well-being, very low levels of satisfaction. And maybe they will also be individually unvirtuous and treat one another badly, even though the society itself is just in some way. Again, I just think that the choices most people make are guided by forces that are beyond their control – which may well be genetic forces, but may also be social-economic forces.” It makes intuitive moral sense not to blame a starving family for stealing, or a person for acting violently in self defence. These can in certain contexts constitute necessary behaviours in order to simply survive. So the idea of ‘the just society’ in the context of limited resources would also need to be examined.
Rutherford also argues that fundamentally we lack a degree of self-knowledge that’s necessary to answer what behaviours will make us happy in a way that also aligns with our moral compass: “I think that a lot of philosophical accounts, both of happiness and morality, assume that we know ourselves a lot better than we actually do. And if you recognise that you don’t know yourself that well, but also that you’re not in that much control of how you behave, that kind of realisation is probably quite beneficial for you for having both a happy life and a moral life; because, for example, if you can recognise those limitations in yourself, I think you’re also more likely to recognise them in other people. When people treat us badly, or do something selfish, we all have this emotional reaction to it and think ‘’What a bastard! Why do people behave so awfully? Why are they so immoral? Why are they so selfish?’’ Actually, they’re probably guided by the same forces you are, which will be beyond their control a lot of the time. Therefore the right kind of response to that behaviour is not judgment of any kind; it’s compassion.”
In an attempt to conclude our conversation with an alternative to the individual pursuit of happiness, I asked Rutherford a perennial question of existential philosophy: When are we at our happiest?
“Fundamentally, humans are creative animals, we produce things; so what’s a good life?” Rutherford asks himself. If you were to ask me how to be happy or how to live a good life, my answer would be ‘Do things with other people’. And if those things bring you pleasure, fine. If that makes you happy, great. That’s a nice by-product. But that’s not the point. The creativity and the other people are the point.”
• Annika Loebig is a freelance writer and recent journalism graduate from London College of Communication, UAL.