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 email@example.com with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.
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.