What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

In this post, I explore the meanings and worths of two phenomena recognized by our language as  ”happiness”, in reply to remarks by James Gray on my most recent post.  For a little background for those joining late and who would like to catch up: I have been arguing in several posts now that goodness factually means effectiveness, that this definition of goodness extends to things well beyond just those which are of interest to us as morally good, and that pleasure, desire, attitudes, utility, and all other features of our experience which we typically call “good” as a matter of shorthand must be objectively understood as “good” only insofar as they are analyzable into the ways in which they embody intrinsic effectiveness or effectively contribute to another effectiveness beyond themselves.

James responds to some remarks I made on what happiness requires in order to be objectively desirable:

Your argument looks like the following:
1. Either happiness is desirable only because we are capable of desiring it or something makes happiness desirable.

A little more clearly, when we say that happiness is desirable that refers either to one or both of two things:

(1) Descriptively speaking, it could at least refer simply to the fact that some sort of being is minimally capable of psychologically desiring it.  Happiness is clearly desirable in this way, since people clearly desire it.

(2) Normatively, it is an objectively good thing for a being to desire.  For this to be so, for it to be a good thing, by definition it must be analyzable as some form of effectiveness on some essential level, since that is all “goodness” can mean, from a factual standpoint, from the standpoint of truth.

Therefore, if happiness is to be a worthwhile end for a conscious being, it must effectively contribute to that being’s functions or actually constitute or be comprised of one or more of them itself.

2. If something makes happiness desirable, then it is most plausibly due to a kind of Aristotelian teleology (function).

Yes, happiness’s desirability for a being in the normative, objective sense must be due to some form of contribution it makes to a broadly Aristotelian effectiveness of functionality for that being.  In keeping with tradition, this can be referred to as teleology, as long as it is always understood to be a teleology of evolved functionalities which formally resemble consciously purposeful activity but which are not actually created according to intelligent purposes.

Happiness’s relationship to effectiveness which makes it an objective “good” can be conceived in one of a couple ways depending on what we mean by happiness.  If by happiness we mean something like a combination of feelings and attitudes of emotional fulfillment, satisfaction, and contentment, then the value of this general psychological state can be understood relative to its contribution to our proper functioning in the activities which would rightly warrant feelings of success.  The warrant of these feelings comes from the fact that we have certain excellent functionalities which are intrinsic to us and when we are effective in them the pursuant feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment properly reinforce us in our psychological investment in these objective goods.  To the extent that the effectivenesses which bring us contented pleasure are those which are objectively the ones in which we best fulfill our naturally characteristic and ideal functions, such pleasure is wholly appropriate and advantageous.

Our contented pleasure and sense of fulfillment in our properly functioning is itself a functional contributor to both our present and our future functioning insofar as psychologically entices us to continue in activities (either the same ones or new ones) in which we function well.  This is the functional effectiveness of these pleasures and attitudes which justifies them normatively according to the objective standard of intrinsic effectiveness, i.e. intrinsic good considered from a factual standpoint.

Now, we may like, want, and actively pursue pleasures of all sorts, including the kinds of contented satisfactions often referred to as happiness, for their own sakes and there is nothing wrong with that as long as such focuses do not distract or undermine our ideal functioning and, ideally, as long as these desires are oriented in ways that lead us towards our maximal realizations of our powerful functional possibilities rather than away from them.

But strictly speaking, the objective value of pleasure, including the coveted sorts often called “happiness”, is in its ability to help us function well through its contributions to motivating our functional pursuits on a practical level when it functions in its enticing and reinforcing reward function. Its value is a different matter from our 1st-order love of it for itself.  And rationally when we understand this we can set about deliberately using pleasure as the tool it really is for aiding our objectively valuable endeavors of maximal flourishing according to our objective powers.

Now, all of this I have just said considers happiness as just a special, more rewarding and enduring, kind of pleasure.  But there is another way to define happiness.  Aristotle defined happiness as an activity—and not just as any activity but the activity of living life itself well overall.  To put this in my terms, essentially happiness conceived of as an activity refers to effectively living in the highest, most encompassing, and completest sense.  Happiness as an activity is functioning according to the maximal possibility for a human life, with all the particular functional possibilities maximized and integrated into a life of maximal human effectiveness.

Regardless of what we want to call such encompassing, total human effective activity, it is our highest ethical good.  I am personally happy to call this highest human functional effectiveness and activity “happiness” since it is our highest and most intrinsic good and people usually mean by happiness that which is most objectively desirable for humans.  I also am proud to keep continuity with the Aristotelian tradition in this way.  I just am somewhat wary of referring to happiness in unqualified ways as our intrinsic and highest good since a good many people would assume (as I do when reading others who are not specific) that I mean only the mere pleasured contentedness which also goes by the name “happiness”.

Whereas the feelings and attitudes called “happiness” have value only as means, contributing to larger effective activities, obviously happiness in the activity sense is an intrinsically valuable effectiveness itself—and our highest and most essential one at that.

3. If nothing makes happiness desirable, then it can’t have the moral relevance (of a moral realist variety) that we want.

Well, as I now have hopefully made much clearer, if happiness is an activity then it makes itself desirable for us through its own effectiveness in its own characteristic function according to its own activity, which is itself our own highest and most excellent functioning.

First, I think this is a false dichotomy. Why can’t happiness be desirable precisely because it is good just for existing? Isn’t intrinsic value exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t need to be “made good” by something else? If happiness is intrinsically good, then nothing makes it good.

Define “good”.  If by good you mean “effectiveness” I understand you.  If you mean something else I am totally lost.  What does your sense of “good” here mean in terms of objective facts.  For happiness to be “good just for existing” it would have to be “effective just for functioning well according to its characteristic activity”.  And since “its” characteristic activity is our functioning well according to our most integrated and maximized human powers,  yes, it is intrinsically good for us.  It does not, in that case need to be made good by anything else.  That does not mean that “nothing makes it good” but that its intrinsic effectiveness makes it good in itself for the kind of thing it is and its being synonymous with our own total overall functional effectiveness is what “makes” it good for us.

Second, there might be natural laws that make happiness good just like there are natural laws that give us consciousness. No “goal” or “teleology” gives us consciousness. Happiness itself is a conscious state, so it probably exists due to natural laws just like consciousness itself.

Happiness exists due to natural laws—there is no doubt about that, whatever happiness happens to be.  But when you say natural laws make happiness “good” what does the word “good” mean?  This term is not basic, it must be cashed out in fact terms lest it just be a projection of our preferences and nothing more.  If it means anything objective, it means effectiveness.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Happiness exists due to natural laws—there is no doubt about that, whatever happiness happens to be. But when you say natural laws make happiness “good” what does the word “good” mean? This term is not basic, it must be cashed out in fact terms lest it just be a projection of our preferences and nothing more. If it means anything objective, it means effectiveness.

    One, “good” does not have be defined in non-good terms. I don’t know that moral realism should be reductionistic and entirely understandable in non-moral terms.

    Two, “good” of pleasure means something like the “how it feels” of pleasure. Other people “feel” pleasure as good as well. Pleasure isn’t good because we desire it — we desire it because we know how it feels. Same goes for the badness of pain. We understand that we ought to give strangers aspirin because their “pain matters.” The underlying health problem that causes the pain is certainly important — but we should cover up the “symptoms” of that health problem because of how pain feels.

    This is also why torture is wrong. Because it feels so horrible. We might be able to function perfectly as human beings after being tortured, but functioning well is irrelevant because torture would still be wrong even if it didn’t hinder functionality.

    I argue that pain is intrinsically bad in more detail here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/an-argument-for-moral-realism/

    The view that goodness can be a simple property is highly intuitive and supports the view that esoteric Aristotelian teleology is not necessary for everyone to understand morality. They understand morality prior to Aristotelianism. I suppose that Aristotelian ethics could be implied by our moral beliefs, but I am not yet convinced of that.

    Three, what do you mean by being “basic?” If you mean self-evident, yes it might be. That is what Robert Audi argues. If pleasure is good because of the concept of pleasure that the word refers to, then it is a conceptual truth. We might be able to then prove that it is “good” in the sense of having intrinsic value.

    Four, natural laws make happiness (or pleasure at least) good because natural laws make pleasure and the conceptual meaning of pleasure entails that it is experienced as good. As a moral realist I take that experience also entailing pleasure to be “intrinsically good.”

  • http://nfactor.ca mikmik

    Certainly personal happiness is the very foundation of every decision we every make. But immediate returns, or payoffs, of pleasure, for instance, can be overwhelmingly destructive to the individual.
    “As a moral realist I take that experience also entailing pleasure to be “intrinsically good.”
    Sure, pleasure is a ‘good’ feeling, but as an ex opiate addict, both the pursuit of it, and even the immediate consequences of it’s attainment, are intrinsically bad, involving breaking the law and death. The purpose for attaining this good feeling is also a desperately necessary, for the individual, for escaping reality, and it is good for that, and perhaps even necessary, psychologically and momentarily, but it can be immediately bad and good at the same time. It is almost always self destructive, which is not good, teologically and/or immediately.
    The relief of pain, and the pleasure of contemplating accomplishing it, is the sole purpose of suicide. While the pain is certainly bad, worth sacrificing life to get relief from it, where does that lead us as far as good, or bad, of accomplishing it, or desiring to accomplish it?
    To revisit: “Four, natural laws make happiness (or pleasure at least) good because natural laws make pleasure and the conceptual meaning of pleasure entails that it is experienced as good. As a moral realist I take that experience also entailing pleasure to be “intrinsically good.””
    Never could I disagree more, and I want to include hedonism as intrinsically neutral. You seem to be committing the naturalistic fallacy here, James. I understand your statement to mean ‘maximal pleasure is maximally good,’ which I think is easily demonstrably false, as I think I have argued.
    I’m with Aristotle all the way here, and of course, Dan.

    Now, “Second, there might be natural laws that make happiness good just like there are natural laws that give us consciousness. No “goal” or “teleology” gives us consciousness.
    I actually fail to see the relevance here. There might be? The only thing these two things have in common, is the word naturally. ‘Might,’ in one case, at that. I’m not saying that they aren’t natural, just that this is illogical, thus is your premise.
    Your second premise, “No “goal” or “teleology” gives us consciousness.”
    This may be true, but I point out that teleologically, our consciousness, our awareness, the state of our consciousness, can, and is, greatly expanded, in the sense that we are conscious of much more, and our conscious is necessarily a more effective one. Teleologically, this is obvious. The pursuit of the goal also entails learning and improvising, in order to make it more efficient at least, and this enhances our consciousness, I would think?
    So, that “no goal or teleology gives us consciousness” is a tautology, as Dan seems to indicate, this premise is pointless, and adds nothing to your argument.

    “Happiness itself is a conscious state, so it probably exists due to natural laws just like consciousness itself.”
    You said that already! ‘Probably’ is also subjective here, but I would like to point out, that everything exists due to natural laws.

    “The view that goodness can be a simple property is highly intuitive and supports the view that esoteric Aristotelian teleology is not necessary for everyone to understand morality.”
    Sorry, that’s a non sequitur. And I am assuming that by “highly intuitive”, you mean “intuitively obvious.” Other wise, you just contradict yourself.
    They understand morality prior to Aristotelianism” So? How they understand morality is what Aristotle argues. Just because they did this prior to Aristotle writing about it, I mean, I don’t see your point. Just because Aristotle coined this term, then what it represents is therefor not valid beforehand? I very highly doubt that Aristotle, or anyone, would ever think that way, and your assumption that “They understand morality prior to Aristotelianism.” is just more circular reasoning, in addition to what I’ve pointed out just above.

    “I suppose that Aristotelian ethics could be implied by our moral beliefs…” In for a penny, in for a pound!
    “…but I am not yet convinced of that”. Personally, I still don’t see why not. I mean, ‘suppose,’ and ‘maybe’ only gets you into theoretical territory, not logical. Not necessarily, I mean, and I use ‘theoretically’ in the layman’s understanding – basically ‘guess.’

    Working up, “This is also why torture is wrong. Because it feels so horrible. We might be able to function perfectly as human beings after being tortured, but functioning well is irrelevant because torture would still be wrong even if it didn’t hinder functionality.”
    Now let me get this straight. You go on to argue that pleasure is intrinsically good, so isn’t the sadist satisfied in this situation and those parameters? And, personally, I have met people that like being tortured, they are called masochists(I know you know that, I’m not trying to be condescending), but further to that, I’ve known, known well(a boss and a friend), two people that have been tortured. One was in Vietnam, and the other, Somalia. Even giving that they were normally functioning beforehand, these two, while having good intentions, were highly anti-social to this day. I would almost automatically assume that to survive this type of torture, would leave one with an egregious case of PTSD. But I see your point here, that no matter the consequences, torture is wrong to subject anyone to against their will. For the recipient. I would imagine this is intrinsically true, unless, of course, you are the enemy, and have valuable information that could spare many, or even a few, innocent lives and suffering.
    So, the pursuit of torture may be for the pleasure of the sadist and masochist, and it may be for the pleasure of following orders and/or gaining critical information that will save lives. Is torture bad? It depends on who you talk to. For the prisoner, it is not a pursuit anyways, and for all other individuals discussed, it is the pursuit of, and the attainment, of pleasure. Didn’t you say this is intrinsically moral?
    For all intents and purposes then, torture is moral, and in interrogating enemies, ethical(again, it depends on whom you talk to). I mean, non teleologically speaking. It can all be boiled down to achieving that one moment of pleasure, for the individual. If I am to understand your other arguments, the natural and intrinsic part.