Monday, May 9, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Happiness

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.
Jeremy writes,
Philosophy bro, what the fuck is happiness? Are humans even supposed to be happy and shit? 
And Jason wants to know,
Bro-hammer, what is the fuck is the happiness principle?  Does it give a complete account of the nature of moral judgements? Help a bro out.
Good questions, kids. Obviously anyone who wants to do axiology, the philosophy of what is valuable, better have some shit to say about happiness, since it seems pretty goddamn valuable; if they’re going to tell us to value something other than happiness, they better have a good fucking reason. As a result, tons of bros over the years have had something to say about it.
Now, the happiness principle itself is better known as the greatest happiness principle, which John Stuart Mill formulated in his Utilitarianism. He said the right action out of a set of choices is the one that produces the greatest happiness - and he equates happiness with the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. So happiness is a ratio: pleasure/pain. The higher that number, the more right an action is. Obviously happiness should be the ratio: it would give some people great pleasure to steal millions of dollars, but that would also make a bunch of people fucking miserable. So, no bueno.

Mill thought that the happiness principle did indeed give a complete account of moral judgments, and while utilitarians have argued over whether the best way to promote happiness is one act at a time or via useful, long-term rules, they're pretty much in agreement that the GHP does in fact give a complete account of moral judgments. That ties it up neatly.

But of course, shit is never that simple, and obviously people have raised some flags. For example, how can we quantify the ratio of pleasure to pain? Is that really a thing we can do? Pain is interesting to philosophers because for a subjective experience, its intensity and universality is pretty unquestionable. But some people are stronger-willed than others - if you took a sheltered rich kid and twisted his arm, he might scream in pain, and if asked to rate it he'd give it a 6. What a little bitch. Now, if you took a Navy SEAL and shot him in the foot, he'd kill you and then rate that only a 5. So whose pain was actually worse? If you took the SEAL's pain and somehow put it in the kid's head, he'd rate it, like, a 20. But he's way more, objectively more bothered by the simple arm-twist than the SEAL is by the shot. The kid would beg you to stop twisting, and the SEAL would be like, "Whatever bro. Shoot my other foot at your own peril. Doesn't bother me. …You know I’ll kill you, though, right?" So is pain the transplanted sensation, or our reaction or aversion to it?

But let's say we came up with a way to quantify pleasure and pain and therefore, happiness. Some utilitarians do, after all, have respectably complete systems. Robert Nozick proposed a thought experiment called the utility monster, which is like the Cookie Monster, except it eats happiness. Well, not really. But the utility monster gets way more pleasure, the more pain he causes. So the first unit of pain he causes, he gets one unit of pleasure out. That's not so great - but for the second unit of pain he causes, he gets two units of pleasure. Soon enough you've got this complete dickhead who gets, like, a million units of happiness from the tears of an infant. And if utilitarianism is true, we'd just have to keep feeding this asshole. What the hell, Mill?

This all started, as so much in philosophy did, with Aristotle, who didn't tell us what happiness is so much as tell us what happiness isn't. He would say, "Look, Mill, here's your problem. Pleasure isn't happiness. Every bro in the world has, at some point or another, felt a rush of pleasure and then a wave of guilt over nothing except the pleasure itself. How can we feel pain at pleasure itself, if pleasure is happiness?" He also said happiness wasn't honor, or even virtue. Happiness is just the end goal, that final thing we do all other things for. He shrugs and says, "You know, happiness. That thing that we all want? The... you know... c'mon. Happiness? You're killing me here. You know happiness." He thinks happiness is unanalyzable in terms of other things - you can't point to something more concrete like (pleasure/pain) and say "THAT. That right there, that's happiness." Now, Aristotle will go on to say that to be happy, we must be virtuous, and he has a ton of shit to say about how to be virtuous. But virtue isn't an identity relation with happiness; it's a means to that end.

Mill would say that the wave of guilt example isn't a good one, since obviously the ratio of pleasure to pain isn't very good there. But if Mill is going to call guilt pain, if he can dismiss any counterexample as having a different ratio than we think, has he given as clear a definition as he'd like to claim? It looks like he's just said "happiness is simple. It's the ratio of pleasure to pain." But then he keeps shifting those two things around instead. So unless he gives clear accounts of pleasure and pain, perhaps his definition is as unclear as Aristotle's. 

Aristotle also thought that happiness is our highest end, that which we're always after. Sure, we're often after other things, too - but why do you want that 6-pack of abs? Because you think it'll make you happy in some way. Maybe you'll finally land that hottie from your philosophy class (because - and you should write this down, guys - philosophy departments are stacked with attractive women) and then everyone will respect you and you'll form a bond that will last forever or whatever, and then you'll finally be happy. "But why do you want to be happy?" "Uh... what? I kinda just... do. Obviously." Aristotle thought to be happy we really had to be rational and virtuous, and he thought rationality was the highest function of man. Typical philosopher. So yeah, Aristotle thought we are supposed to be happy in a very literal sense, that being happy tied in very closely with human beings achieving their function. 
But of course, the question of whether we're supposed to be happy really comes after the question of whether we’re supposed to be anything at all. Aristotle thought that everything had a purpose or a telos, but not everyone agrees with that. Wittgenstein famously said, "I'm not sure why we're here, but I'm pretty sure it's not to be happy." Wittgenstein was the quintessential tortured genius, but he couldn't not think or write - he would have been even more miserable if he tried to be, uh, "happy," however he understood it. In fact, he quit professional philosophy to garden and teach kindergarten – by all accounts a pleasant and quiet life - and he was miserable. No wonder he thought we were supposed to do something other than be happy - he had the kind of tortured, angsty look about him that drives the ladies wild, man, like Sternum from Moody's Point, only Austrian and smarter than everybody else. 

If we're not objectively supposed to be anything at all, then some existentialists think that's great fucking news. We get to make our own supposed to be's! But the weird thing is, for some reason they mostly think that we will shoot for happiness, or that whatever we do shoot for, we'll only be happy if we get it; we have to make our own happiness out of greatness or laughter or the crushed skulls of our enemies, or whatever. It's weird because if we're not supposed to be anything, how come so many of them agree that we try to get to happiness after all, or that happiness is a good yardstick? The existentialists who don't want us to get to happiness tell us we really can't get to anything at all - so, you know, fuck it. But they aren’t proposing a lot of alternatives.

And not everyone who agrees that we are supposed to be something thinks that that something is happiness. Kant thinks happiness is a red herring; we should be good-willed and do the right thing, happiness be damned. Sam Harris thinks we're supposed to flourish, and happiness is just one form of flourishing. Wittgenstein's angsty genius might be another. Whatever thing we're supposed to be, we tend to treat happiness as a guide to how close we are to that thing. If that's true, then the GHP is still a good approximation of moral judgments, since if we're trying to maximize happiness then we'll usually end up doing the thing we’re really supposed to be doing, whether or not we realize it.

So, sorry kids, but if you came here to have me lay down the law once and for all with regard to happiness, I'm afraid that I don't have a clear answer to send you away with. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing - perhaps no strict definition of happiness quite pins it down. That doesn't mean we don't know what happiness is. Happiness is just that thing we all want to be, you know? The tough part is figuring out how to get there.
Alasdair MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is his examination of how preconceptions about ideas like "happiness" and "justice" sneak into moral theories, giving them hidden premises, and it's a challenging read.

Robert Nozick, who was not amused with Utilitarianism, proposed the Utility Monster (among other things) in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Peter Singer is one of those utilitarians with a challenging and comprehensive worldview, which he lays out in Practical Ethics.

James Sterba argues that Mill, Aristotle, and Kant are all basically saying the same thing in his The Triumph of Practice over Theory in Ethics, where he argues (among other things) that happiness is a guide to right action for the sufficiently self-reflective person.

For similar questions about what is right, maybe check out my post on Trolley Problems.


  1. Loving the fact you referenced The Amanda Show

  2. Dude, I totally noticed that! I mean, the philosophy department at my uni was a sausage fest, but every women in the department was hot. Every single one. I mean, some of them were cute and some of them were frigging gorgeous, and most were in between, but every one of them was hot.

  3. Why did I study media!? Time to become a mature student

  4. "...and you should write this down, guys - philosophy departments are stacked with attractive women..."

    Bro, being that women constitute a pathetically small fraction of all philosophy departments in the nation, I think you're sort of talking a lot of shit here.

    Female PhD candidates in Philosophy programs top out at 27%, while only 9% of tenured track philosophers in the nation's top programs are women, and only 13 % of those women with philosophy PhD's go on to teach in philosophy programs across the nation.

    Anyway, most philosophy bros tend not to think too much about Feminism or Feminist Philosophy (it seems to be a bit over all your heads), so I'm not too surprised. But I am glad you noticed the nice tits on all those dozens of lady-philosophers in class.

    As a female phil grad (and PhD prospect) I can attest that you were right on the money in one regard: we are all devastatingly hot.

  5. Now, now, Philosophy Bro. No need to get so fiesty!

    If you feel I've pigeonholed you, well, your concerns are noted. However, you've (not-so-adeptly) evaded the main point of my useless little comment (hint: it's about your remark that phil departments are "stacked with women") and focused instead on a (perhaps not-so-pithy) remark about tits.

    Please forgive my grave error in misrepresenting your ability to be attracted to women for substantial and respectable reasons. I'm just ignorant about bromance lingo and naively took "landing that hottie from class" to refer more to attributes like tits than said hottie's position on, say, epistemic anarchism.

    Anyway, what would a philosophy blog for bros (with any cred) be without a few angry comments from at least one little feminist?

  6. Casey,

    You're right, of course, that women are significantly underrepresented in departments, and I'm as disappointed by that as you are. By "stacked" I was referring to the fact that women in philosophy departments are disproportionately attractive compared to the at-large population, rather than the raw quantity of women in departments. Stacked with quality, not quantity.

    Obviously, we've simply misunderstood each other. Consider this a learning experience for both of us.

  7. (My original comment duplicated below; it somehow disappeared.)

    @Casey Keith:

    "As a female phil grad (and PhD prospect) I can attest that you were right on the money in one regard: we are all devastatingly hot."

    So, what I'm hearing you say is, "In the one regard you meant to speak in, you're right on the money."

    Perhaps I haven't summarized as much feminist philosophy as you'd like; I've probably also underrepresented metaphysics, contemporary, analytic, and Eastern philosophies so far, too. It's a shame that my time is so limited to a single lifetime, and I let my general audience guide my selections; your concerns are noted.

    Obviously, if a man describes a woman (or women) as attractive, he must be talking about her "nice tits", because it's inconceivable that a bro find otherthings, like intelligence, humor, depth, thoughtfulness, intellectual integrity and coherence, or any of the other attributes he might generally associate with philosophers, attractive. Nope, just tits.

    Question: Who is pigeon-holing whom here?"

  8. I think what needs to be done is for philosophy bro to have a woman philosopher in the very near future. I love Simone de Beauvior lots and I would like to see "The Ethics of Ambiguity"

  9. It turns out that the primary determinant of average life-time happiness is genetic. Barring actual ongoing suffering (insufficient food, chronic pain, etc), peoples happiness quickly returns to baseline levels.

    A person who is naturally happy is in an accident and loses his legs. This will naturally make him unhappy for a while, but in a few years time he will likely be a happy amputee. Similarly, a person who is naturally inclined to be unhappy will be briefly very happy about winning the lottery, but after a few years will have returned to his unhappy baseline.

    While there are a few things you can do to promote happiness on an ongoing basis (sleep well, smile a lot, be in a relationship) no amount of money, achievement, or even philosophical insight produces more than a quick spike of happiness followed by a depression that then requires an even bigger 'fix' of the same to duplicate.

    Given all of that, it seems to me that utilitarians should support eugenics, encouraging those who are naturally inclined to happiness to breed, while those who are naturally unhappy are sterilised. While they won't like being sterilised, they would be unhappy most of the time no matter what you did, and in the long term you will be maximising utility by removing the biggest cause of unhappiness there is - a genetic inclination to unhappiness.

  10. Utilitarianism is a concept originated by Jeremy Benthem, not John Stuart Mill.

  11. I think he was referring to the work "What Ulititarianism is" by Mill. He didn't attribute the origin of utilitarian philosophy to him.

    Got your back PhilBro.

  12. So Stuart, does the fact that some Bros are more naturally disposed to happiness than others go to show that happiness isn't actually the highest end and it isn't what we should be striving for? Shouldn't the highest goal of a bro be something that can be broptained?

  13. I like your blog. And this post!