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Thursday, 6 December 2007

Challenging the Paramounce of Happiness

In my last post on morality, I mentioned that I am approximately utilitarian, and promised to explain how my viewpoint differs from utilitarianism at a later stage. So, while there are further responses to some of the points LL brings up that I could mention, and a whole host of related subjects that might keep me blogging for weeks if I wanted to stick to a single subject, for now I shall give you the post that I have actually promised.

I quite like to break utilitarianism down into two propositions:

(1) We should act in that manner that produces the greatest good.

(2) Happiness is (the only thing that is) intrinsically good.

Do you agree that happiness is intrinsically good? Do you agree that it is the only intrinsic good? I'm not going to give you my answer just yet. Still, I will tell you that just about any utilitarian will agree that 'happiness' is meant in a very broad sense here, encompassing anything from sensory pleasure to refined artistic taste and even spiritual fulfilment (although those of us who are atheists might have a slightly different definition of the word 'spiritual', of course, and some of us, mindful of the connotations, prefer to avoid it entirely). Some, notably John Stuart Mill, have argued that 'higher' notions of happiness should be given greater weight than mere pleasure. Personally, at least insofar as it only affects the person having the experience, I think it ought to be a matter of taste.

Proposition (1) has been challenged on the grounds that you can use it to justify nasty trade-offs. Ursula K. LeGuin's quite marvellous short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (PDF) illustrates this problem almost as an abstraction, describing a beautiful city where everyone lives good and happy and fulfilling lives -- but the reason they are happy is because of a single, frightened child kept in a cellar, spending its life in confusion and misery and self-hate. Is the happiness of others worth unbroken pain and despair for a single person? LeGuin doesn't seem to think so.

We might answer LeGuin's problem by requiring a rule in our utilitarian calculus which states that unhappiness is generally better shared around; a week's unhappiness for a hundred people is better then a hundred weeks' unhappiness for a single person. We might justify it with the idea that happiness can actually be appreciated better when you have been through a small amount of pain, and spreading the pain around in small bits thus maximises the trade-off in the resulting appreciation of the happiness that follows (but if you agree with that justification, then of course the rule is actually not inserted into utilitarianism but rather derived from it -- just a note). Other answers are also possible, of course; if you'd have preferred me to bring up some other answer, please do write it in the comments so we can all see it. For now, however, I am mostly interested in challenges to the idea that what is good is defined by what makes us happy.

I once attended a philosophy seminar (been to a few of those in my time) where the speaker was defending the Aristotelian notion that the purpose of human beings is to reason. Aristotle thought that everything had a purpose (telos, final cause). The purpose of a pen is to write. The purpose of rain is to water the fields so that plants can grow. And the purpose of human beings? Human beings exist so that they can reason, says Aristotle. That is what human beings are for.

Somewhere in the course of a very informal discussion after the seminar, the speaker challenged the notion that we should be aiming for happiness, with reason only as a method of getting there, using the following interesting illustration:

Look, orgasm is the highest form of happiness, right? Are we agreed on that? So suppose you had this machine -- call it the Orgasmatron -- and you could sit in it, and you'd have an IV drip or something, your life wouldn't be shortened at all, and you could just sit in it for the rest of your life and be continuously and orgasmically happy. Think seriously about this. Can you honestly tell me that you would just give up everything in your life to go sit in the Orgasmatron?

Well, would you?

I wouldn't. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don't want to die.

So here is the answer I gave at the time, after I had thought for a bit. Part of what makes us happy in this life (outside the Orgasmatron) is being engaged with the world. We have to have things we care about in order to make life worth living. But then, because we have things we care about -- goals, hopes, caring for other people -- we don't want to give those things up. Not even to be continuously, orgasmically happy.

Now that's a good answer, but it's not necessarily a utilitarian one. Should we want to be continuously, orgasmically happy, over and above other purposes? If everyone already has the option of the Orgasmatron, I suspect the utilitarian answer is yes (but, please, feel free to argue). Still, I have to say, that's not my answer. Here and now, outside the Orgasmatron, I would fight to be excused the fate of being continuously, orgasmically happy for the rest of my life.

Still, I don't agree that the purpose of human beings is to reason. I think we make our own purposes. I think we should make our own purposes, weaving ourselves into the world with tireless urgency (sometimes I suspect this makes me diametrically opposed to the Buddhist notion of detachment from the world; on the other hand, trying to be detached is a purpose, so maybe not).

I think that purpose is an intrinsic good. That's not to say that there are not evil purposes, purposes which aim to destroy the happiness and purpose of others. But purpose is an essential part of what it takes to live a fulfilled, happy, successful life. And so, I think our view of morality ought to respect that, placing purpose and story right up there with happiness in the things we try to aim for -- indeed, aim with, in the case of purpose!

Thus is my utilitarianism diluted.

18 comments:

the chaplain said...

"Happiness" is a slippery term. I think, as you appear to do also, that in utilitarian thought it encompasses much more than joy, or contentment, or even orgasm. Happiness is not just one of those things, it is all of them plus many more. I see no reason why "purpose" could not be included as a component of "happiness."

Why do you think your utilitarianism, or mine as sketched herein, is diluted? Even Mill acknowledged that he had in mind something more than pleasure. I think clarifying what comprises that "something more" enriches utilitarianism rather than diluting it.

Stentor said...

Actually, "Happiness is (the only thing that is) intrinsically good" is not inherent to utilitarianism, though it was held by the founders (Bentham and Mill). It's just one form, usually called hedonistic utilitarianism. There's also "preference utilitarianism," in which what's good is giving people what they want/value (this is the position of most contemporary utilitarians, like R.M. Hare and Peter Singer). From what you've said, your view could potentially be interpreted as a form of preference utilitarianism.

The unifying thread between hedonism and preferences is that the good is defined from individuals' perspectives, rather than being an external/objective goal (like Aristotle's ideal of reason or most religions' ideals of the proper form of life).

Alon Levy said...

What you say about happiness being shared around seems a lot like Rawls' justice as fairness system: the most moral course of action is the one that maximizes the well-being of the worst-off individual.

Lynet said...

Chaplain:
I think clarifying what comprises that "something more" enriches utilitarianism rather than diluting it.
and Stentor:
There's also "preference utilitarianism," in which what's good is giving people what they want/value (this is the position of most contemporary utilitarians, like R.M. Hare and Peter Singer).

I guess I stand corrected :-)

Ted M. Gossard said...

Lynet,
I so much respect(I believe) your philosophical knowledge and ability.

I see all of us as Eikons of God and that the Triune God is radically relational. All is directly or indirectly related to that. That is the purpose out of which the Biblical idea of shalom, meaning goodness and well being for all- comes from.

I fear I'm not interacting well with your thought here. Happiness is about the good of all and participation in that. I see good as occurring "naturally" in many ways, yet in other ways it seems good is an uphill battle all the way. And that in that uphill battle we often have to sacrifice the naturally occurring goods to some extent- more or less, such as an orgasmatron.

Like Jesus, living for the greater good by sacrificing his own immediate good.

The Exterminator said...

Lynet:
Your answer about the Orgasmatron makes sense to me, but I think you could amplify it to make it jibe with utilitarianism. In real life, as opposed to philosophizing, the triggers of happiness change from person to person, and, even within one person, from hour to hour. The Orgasmatron thought-experiment is unsatisfying to us because it doesn't represent happiness at all; it merely represents the idea of continuous, extremely pleasurable sensations. However, many of us would consider freedom to be necessary for our happiness, and being "hooked" on the Orgasmatron for life, regardless of how great it makes us feel, deprives us of our freedom. So, in a much deeper sense than the mere experiencing of pleasure, we would not actually be happy.

Another unrelated point about your post: As an atheist, I'm concerned -- and put off -- by your use of the word "purpose" in regard to one's life. I agree that humans make their own purposes, but only for specific actions or intentions -- not in regards to "Why am I here?"

Why is a cockroach here? Why is a rose here? We're all here because, for each of us, our own particular blend of DNA has survived to this specific moment in eternity. None of us has a "meaning" in the cosmic sense; we're just vessels for self-replicating cells. That may seem bleak or barren, so we talk about our "purpose." But I think it's very important to distinguish what one's purpose is in one's own mind (a purpose which can be grandiose, indeed) and what one's purpose is in the cosmic scheme of things. Which basically brings us around to exististentialism again, doesn't it?

Ted:
I read your words but some of them sounded like they were selected at random, without regard to meaning.
I think that's because you had no intention of responding to Lynet's post at all. You just used a few Christian buzzwords and pseudo-intellectual terms (like "Eikons" and "Triune") in order to end with an inappropriate, and inapropos, plug for Jesus.

I'll tell you one term you ought to drop from your vocabulary immediately because it makes you sound very ignorant: "the Biblical idea of shalom." There is no biblical idea of shalom, as any person who speaks Hebrew could tell you. "Shalom" is a word, not an idea, from the language in which the so-called "old testament" was written. It can be translated in many ways, not the least of which are "hello" and "goodbye." In certain contexts, it's translated as "peace," which I take it is what you mean by "well being for all," but it's also often used in the sense of personal wellness, as we might say in English "may you be well." I've never heard of it being used for the concept of "goodness." (There are a number of Hebrew words, which can be so translated. In English transliteration, two of the more common words for "goodness" are "tov" and "chesed.")

Of course, I'm no Hebrew scholar, nor am I a native speaker of that language. So I could be wrong about "goodness." But you'd have to prove that to me, if you're willing and able.

Alon Levy said...

I wouldn't translate chesed as goodness... I think the most common translation is charity. There's another word for charity, tsdaka, which is used more often to talk about specific charity, as in "I gave five hundred shekels to charity," whereas chesed is more the concept of doing charity. A retiree empowerment party running for the Knesset used as its slogan, "B'zchut v'lo b'chesed": "by right and not by charity."

Ted M. Gossard said...

Exterminator,
I would arrive to seeing shalom in context as meaning God's recreation of the world.

As to philosophy, I think it is great to get in depth with it, and I really appreciate Lynet's work in it. I know I could in no way do well in entering into a philosophical discussion with Lynet, and the likes of you. You would run circles around me.

Nevertheless, I think utilitarian ethic should be looked at by any professing Christian such as myself, through the lens of Scripture, which we hold to fulfill what that word "goodness" means in life and the world of things.

Perhaps I shouldn't comment here. I did read Lynet's post, and I really appreciate her grappling and thinking through these things, and I'm sure I can learn much from her.

(kind of hurried here at work, even on a saturday)

Lynet said...

Ext:
However, many of us would consider freedom to be necessary for our happiness, and being "hooked" on the Orgasmatron for life, regardless of how great it makes us feel, deprives us of our freedom.

That's also true. I don't like taking on 'freedom' because it feels like a sticky concept, but I have to concede that in this case the meaning of the word seems clear, somehow, and yes, it's important.

Another unrelated point about your post: As an atheist, I'm concerned -- and put off -- by your use of the word "purpose" in regard to one's life. I agree that humans make their own purposes, but only for specific actions or intentions -- not in regards to "Why am I here?"

I'm not afraid of words with theistic connotations, Ext. Provided that I'm using them in a context which makes it clear that I don't mean them in the way that theists do, I'll happily -- even determinedly -- use words like 'spiritual' and 'purpose'; I'll even toy with 'faith', believe it or not. And, well, there have been times when I've looked for an overarching purpose for my life. Not an overarching purpose for all human beings, just a purpose for me. For a while, I thought 'learning' was it. Even then, of course, I knew that what I really needed was several purposes; lots of things tying me into the world. That way, if one stops feeling purposeful to you, you still have the rest.

Why do you find this bothersome? I know perfectly well what I mean, and I don't think my manner of conveying it is so very unclear. The first time I endorse the idea of purpose in this post is in the sentence "I think we make our own purposes". Surely it's clear that the theistic idea of God-given purpose is most definitely not what I am referring to?

To be frank, I think religion inserts God and absolutism into a lot of things that ought to be more personal and relative: purpose, meaning, aesthetic joy, hope . . . . To my mind, the best way to fight that isn't to stop using those ideas, it's to show how they can be used more sensibly.

Which basically brings us around to exististentialism again, doesn't it?

You betcha :-)

Lynet said...

Ted,

We cross-posted, there.

Nevertheless, I think utilitarian ethic should be looked at by any professing Christian such as myself, through the lens of Scripture, which we hold to fulfill what that word "goodness" means in life and the world of things.

Thereby tying yourself to Scripture deliberately, of course. But they are your own chains, and I can't take them from you, much as I would like to make you see that goodness is far more fundamental than the words of any book, or, indeed, the commandments of pretty much any religion.

Perhaps I shouldn't comment here.

You're welcome to comment. Try to stay on-topic, though. Believe it or not, Jesus is basically irrelevant to this post. I realise you may find that almost blasphemous, but it's kind of, well, true . . .

Ted M. Gossard said...

Okay, Lynet. Thanks.

I believe there is much value in human reasoning alone. I ought to reread your post before commenting again, if I should choose to.

But offhand I am for a utilitarian ethic that takes into account the good of all. If I'm valuable, then all are valuable, and if relationship is important to me, than it is important to seek good relationship with others. And in that framework, it's never all about just MY good and feeling good, etc.

I apologize for not sticking to the post. I want to do this better, and really do it, if I comment in the future.

Lynet said...

But offhand I am for a utilitarian ethic that takes into account the good of all. If I'm valuable, then all are valuable, and if relationship is important to me, than it is important to seek good relationship with others. And in that framework, it's never all about just MY good and feeling good, etc.

Okay, now there are some very interesting, on-topic points in that :-) For example, the way in which moral behaviour towards others becomes easier when we consider ourselves somehow in contact with them and able to care about them.

Ebonmuse said...

A thought-provoking post!

As a utilitarian myself, I believe that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically good. I don't see what else possibly could be. However, that doesn't mean that the ideal state would be to spend your whole life hooked up to a machine that produces mindless bliss, even if we invented such a thing. I think there are good utilitarian reasons why we shouldn't want to live like that.

It occurs to me that the machine you're describing, Lynet - call it the Orgasmatron or whatever else - is just a special and extreme case of recreational drug use. After all, people who abuse drugs have the same goal as users of this hypothetical machine: to exist in a state of pure, undiluted pleasure for as long as possible. And in the real world, I think it's pretty obvious that this plan rarely works out. People who are drug addicts invariably end up going through far more pain, suffering and misery than they otherwise would have.

I see two problems that such a machine would produce. First, pure happiness would become addictive. People who are used to a baseline level of extreme pleasure will soon be unable to focus without it, and whenever you have to disconnect yourself from the machine - to eat, to use the bathroom, to go to work so you can pay your electric bill - even those ordinary activities will be unbearable. Unless we can come up with a scenario where people will continue to pay your bills and support you for free indefinitely, you'll eventually have to disconnect, and then you're likely to crash back to earth and experience misery far worse than the happiness you had before. I don't see a problem with the occasional use of those substances by mature, informed adults. (Maybe we could all use the Orgasmatron for five or ten minutes each day.) But relying solely on it is dangerous and won't truly make you happy in the long run.

Secondly, and I think more importantly: just because happiness is the highest good doesn't mean we should aim at producing it directly, without any intermediary cause. Paradoxically, the best way to get what you want can sometimes be to aim at something else. (Richard Chappell insightfully calls this "indirect utilitarianism"). I think most of us can intuitively agree that a life of variety and exploration can truly be said to possess a deeper and more genuine kind of happiness than a life that focuses on one pursuit to the exclusion of all else. If nothing else, the more you know about what's out there, the better a position you're in to appreciate the things you really like. I believe that the best kind of happiness is the kind that has this rich texture of experience and knowledge. As you said, living in a void of pure pleasure would be a lot like being dead. The kind of happiness that comes from true interaction with the world seems to me to be far more worth seeking.

The Exterminator said...

Lynet:
To be frank, I think religion inserts God and absolutism into a lot of things that ought to be more personal and relative: purpose, meaning, aesthetic joy, hope . . . . To my mind, the best way to fight that isn't to stop using those ideas, it's to show how they can be used more sensibly.

I agree, I agree, I agree. However, "purpose" is such a loaded term that I had a reaction to it. My reaction wasn't built in to what you had written, which clearly tied "purpose" to the existential concept.

But the difficulty with using a word that has been co-opted by religionists is that sometimes we have to start by making our definition absolutely explicit. Perhaps when we atheists use "purpose" we should state that we're not talking about something planned by god: My purpose as I see it, and most definitely I'm not implying that I have any earthly "mission" whatsoever imposed on me by a non-existent being.

That's a big pain in the neck, but it keeps theists from twisting what we've said.

The Exterminator said...

Ebon:
The kind of happiness that comes from true interaction with the world seems to me to be far more worth seeking.

Yes, I agree, and I'd guess that Lynet does, too. But none of us has explained how we have the impudence (or arrogance) to decide what happiness is except for ourselves.

And that happiness changes a lot, doesn't it? Right now, since I'm in the throes of giving up smoking, I'd be truly happy if I weren't thinking about cigarettes every waking moment. In fact, as I'm writing this, I can't think of anything that would make me happier than either having a cigarette or being freed from my craving. But I'd never include that fleeting, trivial joy in a definition of universal happiness.

So it strikes me that the difficulty with utilitarianism as a workable system is just that: We have to zero in on what we mean by "happiness" -- and then everyone would have to agree. It wouldn't be sufficient to have a majority concur, because then the mob could easily tyrannize all others in our utilitarian society. Rawls wouldn't like that, and neither would any of us, I suspect.

Lynet said...

An equally thought-provoking response, Ebonmuse! Although I think it might be unfair for you to point out certain kinds of practical problems in a thought experiment. For example, I can get rid of this objection:

Unless we can come up with a scenario where people will continue to pay your bills and support you for free indefinitely, you'll eventually have to disconnect, and then you're likely to crash back to earth and experience misery far worse than the happiness you had before.

No, you're not supposed to disconnect. Presumably what we do is amass enough resources (and a few robots) to keep us all happy inside the machine until we all die. The lack of children might bother us if it wasn't for the machine, of course, but I'm imagining it sort of acting directly on brain functioning. Hypothetically, we can get it to makes us feel anything we like. Maybe it can even calculate the sort of feelings that feel best to us and give us that.

Richard Chappell's post is excellent, I agree (I know him IRL, BTW, which makes the periodic realisation that we're in not-too-separate corners of the blogosphere feel a little strange, sometimes. It's not that I'd mind him knowing, as long as he didn't make me googleable or inform my mother or anything, but . . . ).

I think most of us can intuitively agree that a life of variety and exploration can truly be said to possess a deeper and more genuine kind of happiness than a life that focuses on one pursuit to the exclusion of all else.

Well, yes. But part of that is because I care more about variety and exploration than I do about happiness. And I'm not sure I want that care to be respected only insofar as it makes me happy. I'd rather give human beings the room to care for whatever they like (as long as that includes caring for each other, or at least respecting others). I think I'm leaning towards a notion of what is good that reflects that care directly rather than respecting it only in the name of happiness.

It seems to be a fairly theoretical disagreement, I admit.

Ebonmuse said...

This discussion reminds me of a comic series by Jhonen Vasquez, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, in which the title character (through a bit of a mix-up) dies and ends up in Heaven. Once there, he finds that the inhabitants sit around, motionless and silent, all day every day for eternity. It's not that they can't move or speak if they want to. It's just that since they're all engulfed in perpetual heavenly bliss, they see no need to do anything else.

(By the way, Lynet, it's pretty cool that you know Richard! I believe he's in my neck of the woods now. Maybe I should see if he wants to meet up sometime.)

Brad said...

Hello, Lynet and others. (And EM, again.)

I think that a realist and a pessimist would agree that happiness is not necessarily the greatest or universal "good." (I believe "intrinsic" good is an oxymoron.) The realist would like to know truth, no matter how grim the facts may be, no matter how disturbing the implications are, and no matter how empty it will make the realist feel after knowing. The pessimist (or more generally, any persons who are in a very bad mood) would like to think dark and gloomy thoughts that feed into depression, in spite of the obvious fact it will not help towards anybody's personal happiness. These are self-directed purposes that are not fully aligned with Bentham's "greatest happiness principle." The fact is we are only partially rational animals and we do not unfailingly search for our own happiness. We are existential creatures, with whims, with "Wills," with changing and flowing and flawed minds.

This discussion of alternate reality utilitarianism reminds me of the Red Pill / Blue Pill dilemma in The Matrix. The difference between that and this dilemma is, everyone in the Matrix doesn't know the grim reality of a world run by machines. Humans reproduce still, but they do not get out of their shared artificial world. So, the bipartite problem (at face value) is: (a) should you take the blue pill or the red pill by Morpheus?, and (b) should you endeavor to tell other people about the truth? The latter part can be split further into (b1) who should you tell? and (b2) should you attempt to liberate humanity and overthrow the machines?

"Happiness" is so subjective it gets ambiguously tangled in a mesh of objective reality and uncertain futures. The knot is made even gnarlier by the fact we are all threads in this moral web.