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Happiness, Virtue and Tyranny

Matthew Pianalto looks at the difference between psychological and philosophical concepts of happiness.

Several accessible books detailing the history and the psychology of happiness have landed on bookshelves in the past few years. With limited exceptions, contemporary philosophers have only a small voice in this renewed and well-received discussion of happiness. ‘Positive psychologists’ such as Jonathan Haidt are friendly to ancient Greek philosophical conceptions of happiness, but critical of the later abandonment of happiness by philosophers in the modern period. Other happiness researchers, including Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Nettle, warn that the philosophical tendency to moralize happiness beginning with the Greeks may lead to undue confusion, ambiguity and intellectual bigotry. So how do we mediate between the psychological and the philosophical aspects of happiness? How can we engage in a discussion of what happiness ‘really’ is, and what kind of happiness should be pursued, without dragging in considerations that go beyond empirical facts? And how can we do this without becoming the dreaded happiness-bigots?

Bad Psychology and the Neglect of Virtue

In The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), Jonathan Haidt suggests that the Western philosophical tradition lost sight of happiness when the moral philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to reduce morality to a single principle (pp.160-166). Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and Epictetus had all held that happiness involved the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtues. Eighteenth-century Kant, however, rejected the idea that morality could be grounded in the human quest for happiness. In fact, Kant held that if happiness were the ultimate aim of human life, nature would have done better to give us instincts alone and not rationality, as reason is not very good at securing happiness. He said we tend to reason that securing some good will make us happy – say, a bigger house or a job we want. But once we get these things, we find that they have not made us completely happy; they have not made our desire for more pleasures, more goods, or more security go away. In short, we constantly habituate to the things that make us happy, and their happiness-producing effects wane. Thus, happiness is not the sort of thing that we can permanently secure. (Strangely, recent psychological research bears out this claim.) Worse yet, the desire for happiness often leads us morally astray. People engage in all sorts of bad behavior in the name of happiness (or pleasure): infidelity, cheating on taxes, making fun of others, setting kittens on fire, murdering and eating their parents and so on. The morally problematic nature of these activities clearly suggests that other things are more important than happiness. For Kantians, duty and the moral law ought to trump concerns with our own felicity.

Haidt’s contention that Enlightenment moral philosophers lost sight of happiness applies to the utilitarian tradition as well, paradoxically enough. Although utilitarians posit happiness as the goal of all moral action, utilitarianism has had a notoriously difficult time providing an account of what exactly ‘happiness’ is. If happiness is simply pleasure and the avoidance of pain, as Bentham held, then there are scores of objections to utilitarianism: shouldn’t we increase overall happiness by giving everyone soma? Couldn’t we make the majority happier by exterminating an undesirable criminal minority? And isn’t a life of sensory pleasures better suited for pigs than humans? On the other hand, if we follow Mill and try to separate pleasures into the piggish and the non-piggish, the lower and the higher, we run the risk of being happiness snobs: just because a full plate of food, a warm place to sleep and someone to sleep with is not enough to make me happy, who am I to tell someone else who feels happy with these basics that he isn’t really happy?

According to Haidt, the problem with Enlightenment morality is its narrow scope. For both Kantians and utilitarians, morality is a problem-solving enterprise, and the goal of the moral philosopher is to develop handy principles that solve moral dilemmas for us. (Should I give my spare money to UNICEF or buy a Wii? Would it be okay to have an abortion if I’ve already planned a trip to Europe next summer? Should I make this runaway trolley smash one person by pushing a lever, or should I let it run its course and mow down five people?) This narrows the scope of morality by focusing the attention upon particular, often far-fetched cases and the fine-tuning of ethical theories, to the neglect of issues such as character development and the cultivation of moral traits in everyday life. Haidt claims that the Greek concern with cultivating virtue and eudaimonia (usually translated as happiness, but more appropriately as human flourishing) not only puts happiness in its proper place, at the heart of our quest to live well, but also connects morality with our everyday concerns, which typically do not consist in moral dilemmas. Therefore, to answer the question of the Enlightenment philosophers – What should I do? – we really need to address the broader question with which Socrates and his contemporaries were preoccupied, namely, How should I live?

Haidt also contends that a morality of virtue better accommodates moral motivation, and he criticizes the Enlightenment moralities for employing bad psychology on this count. Kant and the utilitarians share an assumption that reasons are intrinsically motivating, and that anyone who grasps the moral law or the principle of utility will find himself bound by reason to obey its commands. Humans are essentially reasonable, reasoning, beings, and the individual, free exercise of reason will lead each of us to live properly. The problem with this assumption is that it presupposes that reason is already in control of our appetites and desires. While it may be true that reason ought to be in control, one of Haidt’s central claims is that reason often finds itself, as Hume declared, “a slave to the passions.” Haidt’s preferred metaphor is that reason is like a rider atop an elephant. It’s possible for a good rider to steer the elephant around, but when the elephant decides it wants something, or wants to run away from something, all the rider can do is hang on for dear life.

The Greeks recognized that it takes more than a sound argument to get people to do the right thing. People need to be trained to desire and be motivated by the right kinds of things, beginning in childhood. Aristotle’s basic insight regarding moral education is that people don’t learn how to live virtuously in a classroom or a weekend seminar, because virtue requires not good lecture notes, but practice. Good arguments might be necessary for justifying our actions or for understanding why our actions are right, but they are certainly not sufficient to transform us into moral people. In addition to praising the life of reason, by emphasizing the cultivation of virtue, involving exercise and practice, the Greeks offer a deeper conception of what it is to live well, and an assurance that striving for virtue is itself the pursuit of happiness.

A Causal Confusion: The Relationship Between Virtue and Happiness

The advice of Haidt and other positive psychologists (such as movement founder Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, 2002), that we need to get ‘back to virtue’ seems reasonable enough. Fans of Aristotle might breathe a sigh of relief at the thought that psychologists have come to embrace the connection between virtue and happiness. Many psychologists who claim to research happiness are usually studying something more precisely called ‘subjective well-being’, which is a person’s sense of how well her life is going, or how satisfied she is with her life. When happiness is equated with subjective well-being, the vast majority of people turn out to be relatively happy. Aristotle and the other Greeks, however, were not concerned with relative or subjective happiness – they wanted to know what the objective features of a truly happy life would be. Greek inquiries into the nature of the good life were really inquiries into the nature of the best life. Thus, when the various Greek philosophers recommended the cultivation of virtue in order to live happily, and since the word we translate as ‘virtue’ really means ‘excellence’, the Greeks were basically telling us that the happiest (and the best) life is the most excellent life.

That sounds pretty trivial until one fills in the details of what excellence consists in. A team of positive psychologists concluded that almost all sets of virtues (at all times and in all cultures) include the following six kinds of excellence: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. (For more information, visit viastrengths.org.) So, a bit less trivially, a virtue theory of happiness says that cultivating and exercising wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence leads to happiness and human flourishing.

However, it is one thing to give an account of what leads to happiness, and quite another to explain what happiness is. Daniel Gilbert criticizes virtue theorists for conflating happiness and its causes: “For two thousand years philosophers have felt compelled to identify happiness with virtue because that is the sort of happiness they think we ought to want. And maybe they’re right. But if living one’s life virtuously is a cause of happiness, it is not happiness itself, and it does us no good to obfuscate a discussion by calling both the cause and the consequence by the same name” (Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, p36). So we still need to ask: Is happiness a good feeling? Is it a specific sense of satisfaction or self-fulfillment? What is this state of happiness which virtue provides?

Aristotle probably would have rejected such questions as confused, because they treat happiness as a mental state. In both Books I and X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasizes that happiness cannot be regarded as a mental state, because someone in a coma or sleeping could possess a particular mental state, and thus count as happy. According to Aristotle, it is counterintuitive to call such people ‘happy’. Flourishing (eudaimonia) requires effort on our part; thus, happiness is best understood as some activity rather than a mental state.

Such a response does not really address Gilbert’s criticism; it simply changes the subject by naming the activity ‘happiness’, and remaining silent on the results of the activity. Gilbert’s complaint should make some sense when we consider the differences between what we 21st Century citizens typically mean by the word happiness and what the Greeks meant by eudaimonia. This exposes the infelicities of using eudaimonia and happiness interchangeably. We often, although not exclusively, think of happiness as a feeling, and talk about feeling happy, being happy, becoming happier, and the like. As Dan Haybron, a prolific philosopher of happiness at St. Louis University points out, “If you ask Americans how happy they are, and Greeks how eudaimon they are, you are asking two different questions, one psychological and one ethical” (‘Philosophy and the Science of Subjective Well-Being’ in Huebner, Eid and Larsen’s 2007 collection The Science of Subjective Well-Being). If you ask us how happy we are, we are apt to think you are asking how we feel about our lives, and if you ask Aristotle how eudaimon he is, you are asking him to make a moral evaluation of his life. But it seems that I don’t necessarily need to invoke moral concepts or objective criteria in order to make a judgment about how happy I am, in the sense of subjective well-being. Rather, I will probably judge my happiness in terms of how well I am satisfying my desires and goals. We might think (or hope) that there is a connection between living morally and living happily; but even if there is, the question remains: what exactly does living morally produce in us that contributes to our psychological happiness?

Aristotle tried to smooth over the gap between cause and effect by claiming that living the life of virtue also happens to be pleasant. Doing good leads to feeling good. But this could only be true as a general rule of thumb, for as Aristotle admits, on the rack it doesn’t matter how virtuous a person is. Dying for a righteous cause at the hands of unjust torturers is not a happy way to be, and probably no amount of mental discipline can make it feel pleasant. However integral virtue might be to a happy life, virtue is not identical to psychological happiness, and a stroke of bad luck might prevent our best moral efforts from leading us to its promised land.

Moralizing Happiness

Aristotle recognized that happiness depends just as much upon our material circumstances as it does upon virtue. A person in extreme poverty, surrounded by death, disease, and misfortune, doesn’t seem like a good candidate for happiness; and we all believe that if we found ourselves in such circumstances we would be exceedingly unhappy. However, whether we secure material goods and avoid great misfortune is often out of our control. This seems to imply that a great deal of our happiness depends upon sheer luck. The pursuit of happiness begins to look a lot like playing the lottery. Nevertheless, all the major Greek theories of happiness and the good life seek to minimize the role of luck and to transform happiness into something we are in charge of. A stroll down the self-help aisle at your local bookstore will reveal that we are still equally convinced that happiness is something that we can control and increase, and that luck has nothing to do with it.

There is a tradition of wresting happiness from the hands of fate by rejecting the idea that true happiness depends upon our external circumstances. This tradition is best represented by the Stoic philosophers, who claimed that the best life is one in which we calmly accept our lot by cultivating an attitude of detachment from both the fortunes and the misfortunes that befall us. Happiness then has everything to do with our attitude – which, according to the Stoics, is the only thing that is really ‘up to us’. Getting into a car accident, losing my child to disease, winning the lottery, and gaining the respect of my peers, all depend just as much upon chance as they do my efforts. My best efforts may fail to turn heads, and the greatest amount of caution may not be enough to ward off accident and sickness. But if I confront my inner life and learn to master my reactions and attitudes, then I will be much happier than any amount of money, praise or fine wine could ever make me.

Epicurus held similar views. While he claimed that the happy life consists in pleasure (and thus was a hedonist rather than a Stoic), he also emphasized that the best pleasures are simple, modest, and mostly intellectual. Many of our material desires are vain, and we would be happier without them, since unsatisfied desires are a source of misery. This call for a life of simplicity, self-control and intellectual striving looks to be another call to a life of virtue. However, supposing that Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicurus are correct about virtue, this implies that those green-eyed entrepreneurs, those hedonists concerned solely with physical pleasure, those politicians striving for political glory, and scores of others who are failing to live up to the standards of moral and intellectual excellence, are not leading happy lives, regardless of what they might think. If you think that money, sensual pleasure, reputation, or simply doing whatever you happen to want to do (without regard for virtue) is what will make you happy, then you’re wrong. Even if you get what you want, you are not really flourishing.

If you are pursuing the wrong kinds of things, it doesn’t matter that attaining them makes you feel happy. Then you’ve simply confused happiness with good luck. True happiness is more than a feeling, and so whatever those satisfied desires of yours produce in you can’t be happiness, in this sense of the term. Equally, if the loss of certain things, or the frustration of certain material desires, is enough to make you significantly less happy, then it may well be that you never were happy – really happy – to begin with. You just had the momentary luck to be surrounded by things that gave you warm feelings.

Put this way, some might take offense with the moralistic position of the Ancients, and may find themselves in agreement with psychologist Daniel Nettle when he writes, “If someone’s life is, to my mind, ugly or pointless but they nonetheless enjoy it, it is hard to see what right I have to suggest that they should be doing something else. In doing so, I would unavoidably be bringing an evaluative agenda of my own to bear, and so would have left the domain of objective science for a kind of tyranny of experts” (Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, 2005, p.24). However, it is one thing to want to avoid snobbery and intellectual tyranny, and quite another to suggest that we have no right to criticize or question the so-called happiness of others. Suppose that Adolph Eichmann claimed to be superbly happy in his capacity as Hitler’s henchman; that he found in his work an enduring source of satisfaction. Would we say that Eichmann was happy? If we are asking whether he felt happy, then of course we have to say yes. But if instead we are asking whether Eichmann’s was a happy life, and whether it is the sort that we should strive for in our pursuit of happiness, then the resounding answer is no. It would be absurd to suggest that there was nothing to be criticized about how Eichmann lived on the grounds that he felt happy. This in itself leads us to suspect that there is something defective about the kind of happiness Eichmann might have achieved – which is just what Aristotle etc were saying. (To be fair, Nettle’s point may simply be that he has no right as a psychologist to make moral pronouncements.)

Which Kind of Happiness Do We Want?

The distinction between a psychologically happy person and an ethically happy life is important, because it pinpoints the division between the happiness psychologists typically research and the happiness philosophers have sought to formulate. We might be better off for the discussion abandoning the term ‘happiness’ altogether, and contenting ourselves with the thought that psychologists study ‘subjective well-being’ while philosophers argue about the nature of ‘objective well-being’. But then, with which kind of well-being should the person pursuing happiness be concerned?

Psychologists can tell us what leads to subjective well-being, and philosophers might be able to outline certain objective moral constraints which limit the ways we should pursue subjective well-being. These are not conflicting projects. They are simply different projects, addressing different aspects of happiness. We can divide the term into as many senses as we like for theoretical purposes; but for practical purposes, we need to note the relationships between these various senses, and how our ordinary sense of happiness is an unapologetic concatenation of both psychological and philosophical needs which blend into the elusive thing, state, or activity we call ‘happiness’. While psychologists can tell us what kinds of things bring pleasure and satisfaction, another question remains: Which pathways to joy and contentment are consistent with a decent life? Unless we think psychological happiness is worth any price, we should reject the idea that the best kind of happiness can be successfully understood, or pursued, without moral consideration.

© Matthew Pianalto 2008

Matthew Pianalto recently completed his PhD at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and beginning this fall will be in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Truman State University.

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