Why Happiness Has Nothing To Do With Morality

5 05 2009

Let us, today, stop using happiness – or its analogue pleasure – as the end of morality. To think such is to put the cart firmly before the horse. Yet such thinking is rife in moral philosophy today (I’m looking at you utilitarians).

Why is it backwards to seeing happiness as an intrinsic good? Let’s take a quick excursion into the evolutionary psychology of emotion,  care of a recent TED talk by philosopher Daniel Dennett:

To apply this strange inversion of logic, as Robert Beverly MacKenzie so beautifully put it, to morality:

An act does not make us happy because it is good.

An act is good because it makes us happy.

Happiness is an emotion, and according to recent research in psychology, emotions are the product of evolution. Far from being the wild and untameable phenomenal states of past theories, emotions are actually quite easy to categorise at the top level. Emotions tend to have a valence, either positive or negative. From the paper linked to above:

Positive emotions motivate the organism to take advantage of environmental opportunities and to recognize when it has succeeded in doing so. Negative emotions motivate the organism to avoid misfortune by escaping, attacking, or preventing harm or by repairing damage when it has already occurred.

What about happiness? Or its more broad cousin, pleasure? We have evolved to engage these emotions in order to encourage us to seek certain stimuli. The stimuli themselves are not hard wired by evolution – one person might draw pleasure from Philip Glass concerts, another from Dolly Parton. But the role of pleasure is the same for both people: “more of the same, please!”

The same can be said for pain. Pain is an aversive emotion. “Less of the same, please!” Experience pain in relation to a certain stimulus, and you’re sure to be compelled to avoid it in future. What causes pain, and the intensity of the pain, can vary between individuals. But pain tends to indicate damage to the body, and it works as a very effective mechanism to caution us against preventable damage.

Pleasure Isn’t Necessarily Good

However, that’s not the whole story. Pleasure and pain are not, themselves, either good or bad. Both are simply tools that lent our ancestors a selective advantage. So, depending on your view of natural selection, in some sense both are good.

Should we eliminate pain from our world, we might be eliminating a very useful tool to help us avoid physical damage. Certainly, most utilitarians would not advocate the blanket adminstration of pain killers – or their inverse, drugs that induce pleasure, if a clean example of such could be made.

So the proper formuation isn’t even “an act is good becasue it makes us happy.” In fact, an act could be bad and still make us happy – or the greatest number happy. Take Ursula K. Le Guin’s great short story,“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Or an act can be good and can cause pain, such as learning to avoid leaning on a hot plate. Situations such as these have been the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth by utilitarians, often spawning strange sub-clauses or twists of logic to attempt to maintain the primacy of pleasure and pain.

Well, please, no more. Enough’s enough. Let’s see pleasure and pain for what they are: evolved mechanisms to attract/repel us from certain stimuli, not intrinsically good and bad. They may be contingently related to good and bad acts, but their definition they’re most certainly not.

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2 responses

26 05 2009
Alive & Seeking

Maybe the problem isn’t that happiness is not connected to morality, but that pleasure is not connected to happiness. Happiness is human existence at its best. Whether a human grown into his full potential happens to be on a good or on a bad mood, that makes no difference there.

I’d suggest you get a hold of Aristotle’s book Nicomachean Ethics. You can leave the modern confusions such as utilitarianism behind and go back to the basics; it’s the best book on happiness I’ve ever read myself.

14 06 2009
The Problem of Cardinal Values « Ockham’s Beard

[...] from an evolutionary perspective, it’s not. For happiness is simply one of our many emotional heuristics – quick and dirty motivating shortcuts that encourage us to seek out things that benefit our [...]

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