Happiness, Kant, and Buddhism

One conception was common to all the philosophical schools: people are unhappy because they are the slave of their passions. In other words, they are unhappy because they desire things they may not be able to obtain, since they are exterior, alien, and superfluous to them. It follows that happiness consists in independence, freedom, and autonomy. In other words, happiness is the return to the essential: that which is truly “ourselves,” and which depends on
us.

- Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p.102, writing about ancient Western schools, emphasis added.

Kant and the Buddha

Kant (1724 – 1804 CE) and the Buddha (c. 480 – 400 BCE)

It has been a running theme of this blog, and my studies for over a decade now, to examine the fundamental theme of the human search for happiness. The word ‘happiness’ has become a bit abused in recent decades, much like ‘spiritual’, but it can perhaps still be saved if we keep asking: what does it really mean to be happy? The happiness industry has its answers, mostly revolving around ‘think happy = be happy’; consumerist society has its ideas, mostly, unsurprisingly, revolving around buying things. And philosophy – including Buddhism in this case – has its answers as well. To borrow again from Hadot:

The practice of spiritual exercises implied a complete reversal of received ideas: one was to renounce the false values of wealth, honors, and pleasures, and turn towards the true values of virtue, contemplation, a simple life-style, and the simple happiness of existing.

And, finally, before moving on to my own thoughts (emphasis added),

…the Stoics did attach a great deal of importance to words, and carefully distinguished between hedone – “pleasure” – and eupatheia – “joy”.”… they refuse to introduce the principle of pleasure into moral life. For them, happiness does not consist in pleasure, but in virtue itself, which is its own reward. Long before Kant, the Stoics strove jealously to preserve the purity of intention of the moral consciousness.

For Kant, in many ways following the Stoics, happiness is something we make ourselves worthy of by following the moral law. That moral law, importantly (and oft misunderstood) is not something ‘out there’ – as in religious or political laws or rules. The moral law comes from us. But it is also not subjective, it is objective (and universal) because it is based in what we all share as humans: reason. Reason for Kant is a term of art. It isn’t used as we use it today, in the instrumental sense: ‘he reasoned his way through the situation,’ or ‘accountants are very reason-based people.’ There, reason can be replaced by ‘calculate’.

In Kant, reason is the faculty which takes us beyond ourselves as subjective, limited beings. It is what compels us to do the right thing even when we cannot explain this to others. It is the faculty by which people saw that slavery was wrong even when religion and politics sanctioned it. It is the faculty through which we see the dignity and irreducible value of every other human being (and, some would say that it eventually reaches to non-human animals as well).

You can see why Kant is so easily and often misunderstood. It is easy to read him without understanding his use of terms.

In any case, that is Kant on Reason (in a nutshell). By employing our reason we learn to see things from others’ perspectives, we learn to see the good and dignity in others, in short, we quit being so selfish. For Kant it is our selfishness, and our selfish use of reason (here as mere calculation) that is the main cause of suffering in the world. The second cause of suffering is merely following the dictates of others. (read his popular essay on the topic, What is Enlightenment, here)

The ‘good Christian’ for Kant was the one who, using his reason, determined that there must be a God and that one really ought to act for the benefit of all people as much as possible, utterly regardless of whether this will bring you benefit or not. A good Christian was not one who worked to please or impress the priests or fellow parishioners or to merely master the dogma.

Similarly, a good citizen realizes, through his or her reason, the importance of a flourishing and stable society and the danger of revolution. The good citizen is not the one who carefully or mindlessly follows political rules. Sure, impressing people and following rules have their place, but for Kant, doing the right thing (morality) would always trump either of these – and morality is the proper aim of all of us.

~ Buddha ~

It is in this fathom-long carcass, (which is) cognitive and endowed with mind, that, I declare (lies) the world, and the origin of the world, and the stopping of the world [nirvana], and the way that goes to the stopping of the world (S.I.62). {in Harvey, p.75}

Harvey comments on this thus:

Within the confining parameters set by a certain meaning-world, one has some freedom of action in accordance with one’s degree of awareness and reflection. A more full and accurate meaning-world, closer to seeing things as-they-really-are and thus less affected by ignorance, opens up new possibilities, which are closer to the experience of nirvaana-the unconditioned (asankhata).

My Kantian-Buddhist angle on this would say that our degree of awareness and reflection can be understood as analogous to Kant’s use of Reason (in the non-calculative sense). The more irrational we are, the more we are slaves to a very narrow meaning-world, generally determined by our religion or political persuasion and the people we have regular contact with. Our use of reason (generating awareness) allows us to rise above this, giving us a ‘more full and accurate meaning-world.’

Our suffering is so much a result of our concepts – our attempts to box in the world and make it predictable. And where do we get these concepts? From other people and social, political, and religious institutions.

But this is not to deny the importance of institutions and other people. We need both of these. The problem only arises when institutions and people claim to give us some sort of certainty, or we seek certainty in them. This is a problem because change or flux is fundamental to reality. And flux (anicca) is fundamental to seeing-things-as-they-really-are (yatha-bhuta).

Nirvana, it would seem, is the fullest acceptance of flux – or fullest recognition thereof. It is a rising above the happy-one-moment, sad-the-next that dominates samsaric existence. This is a true happiness, one unconditioned by the vicissitudes of daily life, one which runs much deeper.

So for both Kant and Buddha it seems that happiness is a result of disentangling ourselves with the ways of the world around us in search of something deeper. This ‘something deeper’ was for Kant the ‘moral law’ and for Buddha the Dharma.

For both this was the goal of a good life. For both, bad things could still happen – living morally or according to Dharma is no guarantee that things will be just fine from that time forward. The Buddha still had to confront angry elephants, a serial killer (Angulimala), and his jealous and murderous cousin Devadata. In recognizing this, Kant was quite clear that living a moral life is no guarantee of happiness - stuff will still happen – but it does guarantee that we are worthy of happiness, that is, we can rise above the stuff as it assails us.

Through this, we can better read some of the contemporary debates about happiness, which today is an industry in itself. It’s okay, I think, to seek happiness or want happiness in life, as long as one knows what kind of happiness is attainable and how to attain it. It’s not a matter of ‘getting something’ (wife, car, kids, retirement, etc) and then being happy. Happiness is a bi-product of living well, whether that is through the cultivation required in the Buddha’s 8-fold path or the kind of intellectual and moral progress advocated by Kant. So long as you understand that, you can seek happiness in the correct way.

Further Reading: 

Peter Harvey’s article on Free Will [here].

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736353377 Jayarava Attwood

    Hey Justin.

    “In Kant, reason is the faculty which takes us beyond ourselves as subjective, limited beings.”

    And yet as recent research has shown reason does not do this at all. Kant was a man of his time which saw reason in unreasonable ways. We might even say in self-deluded ways. I don’t think it was the faculty by which people saw slavery was wrong at all. It seems to me that reason was the faculty used to justify slavery and that it was emotion – empathy and disgust – that moved people to argue against slavery and pursue abolition.

    The idea that morality is based on reason seems laughable in this day and age. Not only are most of us demonstrably hopeless at abstract reasoning (falling quickly and easily into a variety of cognitive biases and logical fallacies) it seems clear that if morality has a basis it is in empathy – our ability to feel what others feel on the basis of physically imitating their facial expressions and body language. I see hints of this in early Buddhism as well.

    (If you haven’t read that article on reason by Mercier and Sperber you might want to). My long summary is here: http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/an-argumentative-theory-of-reason.html

    I think you missed a trick here in linking Buddhism to the stoics in terms of our shared attitude to the pursuit of pleasure. Well, that is what I would have done which is not quite the same thing I suppose.

    “Our suffering is so much a result of our concepts”

    Is it? I thought we suffered because of craving and hatred. Not concepts, but primarily hedonic responses to vedanā with an overlay of concept. I think we over-emphasise the conceptual because it’s where we are comfortable. Right-view is certainly an important first step on the path, but only a first step.

    I suspect that Harvey has missed the point of that way of talking about the world. It is synonymous with the pañcakkhandhā and both with dukkha (as per Sue Hamilton’s observations). Also it seems to be synonymous with that Vedic idiom ‘idaṃ sarvaṃ’ which is given a Buddhist spin in the Sabba Sutta – ‘all this’ is just the sense objects and sense faculties. The world is just and only the world of experience. The focus is on the senses and our addiction to and obsession with sense pleasures. It’s not about concepts as distinct from emotions (and such a distinction is impossible to make in Pāli anyway as I’m sure you know)

    I think we can tell a lot about the concept of happiness by looking at the etymology. It’s from hap ‘chance, fortune’ in Germanic, but ultimately from PIE *kob- “to suit, fit, succeed”. Happiness might thus be found when we behave in a way that suits the situation; when we are generally fit for the life we lead; and when we succeed in living that life. But our Germanic linguistic forebears saw this as having an irreducible element of luck. Happiness is something one can cultivate, but whether one gets it or not is in the lap of the gods. As you say “Happiness is a bi-product of living well”.

    • justinwhitaker

      Many good points here, Jayarava! In my limited time… I wonder what definition of ‘reason’ the article you cite is using. I think it’s possible to suggest that Kant would have ‘extended’ his understanding of reason (he calls ‘respect’ a rational faculty, if I remember correctly) to more aspects of mirror-neuron-based emotion if he had known about them…

      However it is still all too worrisome that so many humans could see other humans suffer without a single bit of emotion; drowned out perhaps by an ideology of superiority (whites over slaves, Nazis over Jews, and on and on)…

      I’ll stick with my assertions on concepts for now – papanca vs … Pali has lots of words for emotions; but I do think we can at least begin to discuss the differences between the two. I think….

      Thanks for the Germanic/PIE background on happiness… I hadn’t looked into that yet :)

      • mufi

        Justin: I came across this Hume quote this morning:

        “…when the injustice is so distant from us, as no way to affect our interest, it still displeases us; because we consider it as prejudicial to human society, and pernicious to every one that approaches the person guilty of it. We partake of their uneasiness by sympathy; and as every thing, which gives uneasiness in human actions, upon the general survey, is called Vice, and whatever produces satisfaction, in the same manner, is denominated Virtue; this is the reason why the sense of moral good and evil follows upon justice and injustice.” (A Treatise on Human Nature, Book III, Part II, Section II).

        Given the many ways that these moral instincts (and the social norms that emerge from them) can disappoint (“whites over slaves, Nazis over Jews…”, to use your examples), it’s no wonder that we would seek a “higher authority” in Reason, the Dhamma, or somewhere else. Whether anyone has actually succeeded in finding it, however…well, let’s just say that I deem the search to be a work in progress, and that whereas the Buddha’s contribution warms my heart, Kant’s has thus far left me cold.

        • justinwhitaker

          Hi Mufi! Thanks for the Hume quote. I always appreciate Hume as a writer, and of course his ‘bundle theory’ of self is fun for Buddhists. And yes, Kant tends to leave a lot of people cold. He did for me for a long time, but something about my ‘root for the underdog’ mentality kept me coming back until I started to like him… Cheers – jw

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736353377 Jayarava Attwood

        I think we need to update our examples of uncaring. Slavery was abolished 200 years ago in the UK, and Hitler has been dead for 60 years. What is current for you?

        And I don’t think you can be correct that slavers and Nazi’s had no emotions. One might argue that both groups may well have felt positive emotions at the time since they believed they were doing the right thing (many were unrepentant I gather). Some of them may have felt negative emotions but over-ridden them with rationalisations like ‘I was just following orders’.

        What you’ve done there is dehumanise slavers and Nazis. The big challenge of such discussions is to acknowledge the humanity of those who do inhuman things. Most of these people were not psychopaths. But perhaps we cannot imagine how they felt because it is so very far from our own experience. And on the other hand we wish to create an absolute moral gulf between them and us. This rather distant, hypothetical approach certainly fits your conceptual analysis, but I wonder if it would be sustainable when applied more realistically? This nicely illustrates the problems I have with abstract philosophy. And why I find your account of morality quite unconvincing.

        The point about Pāli and emotion is that emotion is not a separate category of experience. It is a kind of citta. Thus any discussion we have in Western terms which sharply distinguishes thought from emotion cannot be easily projected onto Indian Buddhist thought. For instance we tend to see papañca as conceptual but Indians had no idea analogous to “conceptual”. If it involved citta (i.e. was cetika), then for them it was both emotional and conceptual without any distinction. Similarly if Kant’s pre-scientific views of the mind still have relevance to a discussion that takes in mirror-neurons, it is hard to see how.

        It’s a shame you don’t have more time. Or perhaps a shame that I have too much :-)

        • justinwhitaker

          Oops, I’m late coming (back) to this, but…. to be all too brief yet again….

          1) Slavery/nazis are still alive and well in some form and form enough of a shared cultural history for most people that they still serve as good common starting points for discussion.

          2) I didn’t say they lacked “all” emotion – which would obviously be absurd; but -again appealing to shared cultural history that you, somehow, might not have access to- it’s clear they lacked emotion, or we might -being very British- say they lacked ‘proper’ emotion with regards to slaves and Jews, respectively.

          3) Regarding the whole “what you’ve done” paragraph, once you see that I *haven’t* done that, I agree with you up until the end – abstract philosophy only works when we connect it to our lives, which, admittedly, is difficult for some people; not all though.

          4) Linguistic problems can be resolved; we’re not going to find many easy one-to-one translations of terms, but for any term(s) we can give context and usage + the etymology, showing similarity/dissimilarity…

          5) Kant is alive and well in discussions of mind-body/cog sci etc issues today. He’s not front and center, but if you look, you’ll find him in the midst of some interesting discussions (e.g. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0198238975?ie=UTF8&camp=213733&creative=393185&creativeASIN=0198238975&linkCode=shr&tag=montanafreethink – Karl Ameriks is no light-weight in contemporary philosophy).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736353377 Jayarava Attwood

    Link to Harvey’s article is 404 Not Found in both cases. JBE has moved all it’s articles to a new server.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks! Fixed….

  • Michael Schapers

    Thank you, your blog-size explanation of Kant’s views on reason was quite clarifying for me, its an eyeopener to realize that his understanding of Reason goes way beyond analytical rationality.
    But the Stoics, Buddha, Kant or Hadot: did they really solve the riddle of happyness?
    Starting with Hadot: “people are unhappy because they are the slave of their passions. In other words, they are unhappy because they desire things they may not be able to obtain, since they are exterior, alien, and superfluous to them. It follows that happiness consists in independence, freedom, and autonomy. In other words, happiness is the return to the essential: that which is truly “ourselves,” and which depends on us.”
    Is this really a conclusion born out of logical necessity (‘it follows…’)? Are unsatisfied desires really deprived of happiness (the laws of erotica seem to disprove this I would argue)? And why could a solution not be found in giving up (or mastering) those desires that cannot be satisfied, rather than giving up on passionate pleasure altogether? And what is the alternative for passionate happiness? Abandoning flawed passionate happiness would perhaps prevent unhappiness, but isn’t there a logical fallacy in claiming that the absence of unhappiness assures the presence of happiness (rather than, lets say, a state devoid of both happiness and unhappiness)? Can Kant (or the Stoics for that matter) really explain why and how virtue in and by itself provides happiness, rather than merely declaring that it should?
    (PS I would not at all be surprised if Buddhist tradition dealt with similar questions extensively – and Kant himself probably as well!)

    Personally, perhaps the biggest hindrance I have in coming to terms with Buddhist and/or Stoic morality is this ultimate rejection of passionate happiness – the unreasonable rejection of everything that is not part of what I would call the ‘Reasoned Self’. It seems a rejection of reality for ideality. In this regard, I find nirvana an informative concept. You seem to follow a dual interpretation of nirvana here: ‘stopping the world’ (‘unconditioned’) and ‘the fullest acceptance of flux’. Isn’t this ‘flux’ exactly the ‘conditioned world’ any ideal of non-passionate happiness tries to negate, rather than accept? Isn’t a better way of ‘accepting’ this flux embracing the imperfect possibilities of passionate happiness, rather than trying to ‘stop’ them?

    Many questions desiring unobtainable answers, but already my mind experienced definitive satisfaction from reading this blog!

    • urownexperience

      Morality leads to a calm mind. A calm mind leads to very deep states of calm called jhanas. Jhanas lead to tremendous shifts in consciousness. Shifts in consciousness lead to transcending materiality. That’s the road map, Bud. Trying to reason it out is a waste of time and energy.

    • justinwhitaker

      “But the Stoics, Buddha, Kant or Hadot: did they really solve the riddle of happyness?” – a very tough question. And I suppose it is one that can only be meaningfully answered through one’s own experience. For Buddha and Kant at least, passions or passionate happiness might lead to great highs, but they always come down to ‘base level’ or worse.

      This has been my experience as well. Even JS Mill conceded that it’s better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than an ordinary man satisfied. So there is a sort of hierarchy of ‘satisfactions’ acknowledged at least. So I try to discern what the higher (and higher) sorts of satisfaction might be.

      Nirvana is notoriously difficult to pin down; perhaps because it is just too abstract (http://www.sati.org/wp-content/upLoads/Synonyms-for-Nibbana.pdf). But, as Mufi suggests below, perhaps it is a level of abstraction toward which we can work, discovering ever more subtle states of joy along the way. Then again, I cannot say categorically that passionate happiness is ‘lower’.

      • Sudhir Tewari

        We do the shaving, can’stop it’growth

  • Pete Hoge

    Since “Dharma” can be translated as “moral law”, I wonder if both Kant and Buddha are describing the same phenomena? You might have answered that question already but I made a comment anyway.

  • urownexperience

    Happiness?? Anyone can be happy! Few, however, can become enlightened.


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