What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good? January 24, 2011

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”


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

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