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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.

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The greatest happiness – Harriet Martineau

8 Dec

harriet_martineau_by_richard_evansThe early sociologist Harriet Martineau became a hero of mine a few years ago, when I was writing a play about The Crystal Palace. Since Martineau was a great defender of ‘The People’s Palace’ and its educational potential, I decided to make her a major character in the drama. As a strong and outspoken woman, I found her a delight to work with.

Now I discover that she was also a disciple of Bentham and his philosophy of utilitarianism. For her, as for Bentham, the greatest happiness of the greatest number was a guiding principle in her prescriptions for economic and social reform.

In her work Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, she announces that ‘the ends of life are virtue and happiness’ (vol.2). The promotion of happiness was a duty which should be undertaken by all governments. Want, she says, chills people’s affection for their country, and ‘hardship is fast breeding hatred to the powers which have not hitherto succeeded in securing the happiness of the people’ (vol.4).  

Never a proto-socialist, Martineau’s aim was to popularise the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism.  ‘Where consumers abound in proportion to capital,’ she writes, ‘it is obvious that the way to bestow most happiness is not to take away one man’s share to give it to another, but to do what is possible towards creating another share in such a way as not to cause more want.’ (vol.9) She was living in an age when increasing industrialisation and the expansion of the British Empire meant that she identified capitalist growth as the cure for poverty at home. She was wrong, in my view – after over 170 years of capitalist growth we are still experiencing the hatred that is generated by government’s abject failure to tackle hardship. But I do admire the way in which Martineau places ‘the greatest happiness’ firmly at the centre of her political programme. 

Martineau ends Illustrations of Political Economy with these words: 

The last and best principle which has been professed, if not acted upon, by our rulers, because insisted on by our nation, is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Was there ever a time before when a principle so expanding and so enduring as this was professed by rulers, because insisted on by the ruled? While this fact is before our eyes, and this profession making music to our ears, we can have no fears of society standing still, though there be brute tyranny in Russia, and barbarian folly in China, and the worst form of slavery at New Orleans, and a tremendous pauper population at the doors of our own homes. The genius of society has before transmigrated through forms as horrid and disgusting as these. The prophecy which each has been made to give out has been fulfilled: therefore shall the heaven-born spirit be trusted while revealing and announcing at once the means and the end —

THE EMPLOYMENT OF ALL POWERS AND ALL MATERIALS, THE NATURAL RECOMPENSE OF ALL ACTION, AND THE CONSEQUENT ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE GREATEST HAPPINESS OF THE GREATEST NUMBER, IF NOT ALL

 

Hedonism part 2: Jeremy Bentham. Sport or opera houses – which should we be promoting?

15 Sep

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is associated with the brand of hedonism known as utilitarianism. He argued that happiness was the ultimate good, and that pleasure and the absence of pain were its chief ingredients.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

But happiness for Bentham was not a purely egotistical exercise. In his view the maximisation of collective happiness was the true basis for moral behaviour.

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong …the obligation to minister to general happiness was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other. (A Fragment on Government)

For Bentham, then, only an action that appears to maximise the happiness of all the people likely to be affected by it is the morally right action. He may have borrowed the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’  from the Ulster philosopher Francis Hutcheson.

Each person’s happiness depends on the aggregate balance of pleasures over pains, and this balance is the end which individuals, moral leaders, and legislators must have in mind when they establish rules and make judgements about moral conduct. Basically self-interested individuals should be encouraged and directed to perform actions that promote the greatest happiness of both themselves and others. 

To help achieve this, Bentham devised a Hedonic Calculus, a method of measuring the value of the pleasures or pains that would probably be caused by specific actions. In the Calculus he identifies  certainty, propinquity, intensity, duration, fecundity, purity, and extent as factors which determine the value of any anticipated pleasure or pain. Taking these into consideration will help us decide whether we should  perform the action or not.

Looking at each of these factors in turn:


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Certainty  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will  be caused by the action?

Propinquity How long will I have to wait for pleasure or pain to occur?

Intensity How strong will  the pleasure or pain be?

Duration How long will  the pleasure or pain be felt for?

Fecundity  Will this particular pleasure or pain lead to more of the same?

Purity  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will lead to some of the opposite sensation, pain or pleasure?

Extent   How many people will  the pleasure or pain be likely to affect?

Bentham measured all pleasures by the same criteria.  He didn’t  give intellectual or sophisticated pleasures a higher value than basic ones. According to him,  the pleasure gained from the parlour game push-pin is just as valuable as pleasure derived from music or poetry.  If games bring the population in general more pleasure than going to the opera, then it is vital that society devotes more resources to promoting games than to running opera houses.

Some of  Bentham’s ideas were anticipated by Epicurus. He believed that we have to take into account the pains which our pleasures may cause us in the future. He also took duration into account. “Continuous bodily pain does not last long,” he writes. “Pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.” (Principal Doctrines 4)

Bentham saw his Calculus as something that people who were aware of their own interests would be able to use; but others have insisted that it is quite impractical. Bentham, however, did not expect either individuals or legislators to follow the process to the letter. Rather, the Calculus was a model of an ideal calculation, offering a set of guidelines for those attempting to maximise pleasure and promote the greatest happiness. 

Bentham’s influence is still felt in the field of economics, where the Calculus provided the basis for the development of policies based on cost-benefit analysis. And his collectivist conclusions, though modest, influenced later reformist thinkers who paved the way for modern welfare economics.