Archive | September, 2017

Kant: virtue before happiness

30 Sep

Being in touch with our feelings may be important if we want to know whether we’re happy or not. But when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong, we have to rely on reason rather than feelings. This, at least, is what the  eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued.

According to Kant, happiness cannot form a basis for morality. Experience tells us that doing the right thing doesn’t always produce happiness – quite the contrary in some cases. Conversely, pursuing happiness may fly in  the face of virtue: the principle of happiness tells ‘viImmanuel_Kantrtue to her face that it is not her beauty but only our advantage that attaches us to her’ (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy  91). If we base our values on personal happiness, then we are only virtuous when we think we have something to gain from it. A shopkeeper, for example, may be honest because he thinks a reputation for honesty will be good for his business. If he believed he could get away with it, the same consideration – his own advantage – would tell him to be dishonest and screw as much money as he could out of his customers. So morality and happiness are very uneasy bedfellows.

There’s another reason why the pursuit of happiness is so unsatisfactory when it comes to moral values. Although almost everyone feels that he or she wants to be happy, very few people know how to attain this state. For example, a person who imagines that knowledge is the thing that will make her happy may discover so many horrible things in the course of her studies that  on the contrary she becomes deeply miserable. Or take the example of wealth –  this is  notorious for its inability to make people happy. So how can something as unstable as the quest for happiness provide a sure foundation for morality?

Happiness for Kant means getting what we want (Cambridge Edition 240), and this is the reason why it is such a difficult project. We don’t really know what we want. In order to find this out we would need to be omniscient – but sadly we aren’t. ‘The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote the happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble’ (Cambridge Edition 71).

So at a time when British utilitarian philosophers like Bentham were advocating ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, Kant  was maintaining that this was a hopeless goal.  Even benevolence – giving other people what they want  – doesn’t work. Let’s imagine we’re dealing with a drunkard. We give him lots of wine – but that isn’t a good thing to do. Clearly, then, securing either for ourselves or for others what we or they want cannot be the basis for an unchanging and universal morality.

Kant has to admit that human beings do, naturally, seek happiness. And in certain circumstances achieving it is not inconsistent with leading a moral life. We must all the time try to do our duty, accepting that this will often prevent us from being happy. But sometimes happiness and duty will coincide. ‘When a thoughtful human being has overcome incentives to vice and is aware of having done his often bitter duty, he finds himself in a state that could well be called happiness, a state of contentment and peace of soul in which virtue is its own reward’ (Cambridge Edition  510-11). This doesn’t inevitably happen. If we think that virtue is the surest route to happiness,  there’s a good chance that we will be disappointed. But if virtue and happiness do coincide, this is the best thing that can possibly happen to us. ‘Virtue and happiness together constitute the position of the highest good in the person’ (Cambridge Edition 229).

None of this means that Kant saw God as the fount of moral law. We cannot possibly know whether God exists or not – such knowledge is too hard for us. To find virtue we must look, not to a higher authority, but to an inner authority –  to our own rationality. Reason is something that we share with all other human beings, and it is the sole source for our knowledge of what is right.


Are we addicted to pleasure?

11 Sep


It looks very much like it, at least in Britain and the US. According to Robert Lustig, in an article which appeared in yesterday’s Observer, addiction is very much on the increase.  Heroin use in particular has sky-rocketed: although the UK has only 8% of Europe’s population, a third of all European overdoses happen in this country.  Overall death rates are also rising, for the first time in over 20 years. At the same time the incidence of depression has more than doubled. In the UK prescriptions for anti-depressants have gone up by 108% in the last ten years.

Lustig, an American endocrinologist and anti-sugar campaigner, thinks that these phenomena are linked. The things unhappy people do in order to feel better – smoke, drink, take drugs and eat sweet stuff – are killing them. 

 “What’s the connection?” asks Lustig. “Elementary, my dear Watson. Too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s “pleasure” and “happiness” pathways, respectively. Despite what the telly and social media say, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good, I want more.” Yet too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good. I have enough. I don’t want or need any more … Chronic dopamine from your favourite ‘fix’ reduces serotonin and happiness.”

In our society sugar, tobacco, alcohol, pornography and even drugs are all tolerated. The use of social media – which in itself is addictive, and can lead to cyberbullying – is positively encouraged. Combine this with constant stress, the product of the pressure both to spend and to achieve, and the result is an “unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression and chronic disease.” It’s a vicious cycle. “The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get and the more likelihood you will slide into addiction or depression.”

I can only assume that Lustig is right about the science of pleasure versus ‘happiness’. And it’s interesting that his conclusions mirror more speculative ideas about the limits of hedonism and of desire-satisfaction.  It’s a grim picture he’s painting, although we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the thought that withdrawing from the ceaseless round of pleasure-seeking may well make us feel a bit better.  

But that may be quite difficult. “Our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy. Those who abdicate happiness for pleasure will end up with neither. Go ahead, pick your drug or device. Pick your poison. Your brain can’t tell the difference. But please be advised – it will kill you sooner or later, one way or another.”


Happy in the centre of your being?

8 Sep

How happy did you feel yesterday?  Conversely, how anxious did you feel yesterday? These two questions, posed by the Office for National Statistics in its annual population survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the ONS to check the British population’s emotional temperature. We’re not being asked how much pleasure or pain we experienced yesterday, or how many of our desires we managed to satisfy. Just how happy or anxious we felt. 

Dartmoor pic

Most people will have little difficulty in recognising anxiety, but it’s hard to predict how respondents are going to interpret the word ‘happy’. The underlying implication is that feeling happy is the opposite of feeling anxious, and if we respond in that vein, then as Daniel Haybron suggests (‘Happiness and its Discontents’, New York Times 13 April, 2014), we’re telling  the ONS about our emotional well-being. How ‘untroubled, confident, comfortable in our own skins’ were we feeling yesterday? In other words, what was our overall emotional condition? ‘To be happy,’ writes Haybron, ‘is to inhabit a favourable emotional state.’

Pleasure and pain aren’t the issue here. We may have had tremendous fun yesterday – an enjoyable meal, some great sex. Or we may have had some unpleasant experiences, like a bout of toothache, or an argument with a colleague. But did these episodes affect our basic feelings?  Perhaps we felt anxious in spite of the sex, or happy in spite of the toothache. Pleasure and pain aren’t necessarily tied into our emotional well-being, and it’s the latter that the ONS is trying to gauge.

“‘I have a headache.’ Well, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ ‘I’ve got earache.’  Again, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to groan, just that you shouldn’t groan in the centre of your being.” This is a quote from the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (1.18.19). How you’re feeling in the centre of your being is what interests this thinker, and it’s probably what the ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ queries are getting at too.

Haybron thinks that it’s worth posing these questions because ‘our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going.’ So the ONS gets some useful data from our answers. But thinking about these things may be good for us as well, for the respondents as well as the questioners. Instead of scrutinising the day’s events, one by one, we should try looking at the bigger picture. Does the way we are living make sense? ‘Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living – and a happiness worthy of the name.’

Considering these questions doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the ingredients which contribute to our emotional well-being. To think about these we probably need to go back to the theories which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs. According to Haybron, as well as physical needs – food, clothing shelter – we also have needs as emotional beings. ‘Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security, a good outlook, autonomy or control over our lives, good relationships, and skilled and meaningful activity. If you’re unhappy, then there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.’

Aha, there’s a definite sighting of a theory here – it’s the objective list idea (this blog, 20 October, 2016). I’m keen on this strategy myself, so I’m not going to disagree. If only someone could tell me how to acquire the good outlook, then I might be as happy as Larry. This simile, I discover from the internet, may have its origins in the Cornish and later Australian expression ‘happy as a larrikin’.  So give me a better outlook, and I might be as happy as a rowdy and careless young person who’s always larking about. Or possibly … as happy as someone who’s hugging a menhir on Dartmoor, which is what I’m doing in the picture above.