November 08, 2011

Holier and happier than thou?

Utilitarian biscuitHolier and happier than thou? - blog on Practical Ethics about a study claiming ethical people are happier.

The problem is that the measure of being 'ethical' in the study seems more like giving strong lip service to strict deontological rules, not actually thinking of behaving in an ethical manner. A much simpler explanation might be that the study measures conscientiousness, a trait that is known to correlate with subjective well-being.

I think a proper moral system probably has to produce subjective well-being, since otherwise people could become happier by switching to something else and the system would be unstable. Some thinkers like Kant think happiness has little to do with morality (if we have complete virtue, then he thinks we deserve complete happiness, but we are unlikely to reach either of these) - in fact, being motivated to do good because it makes you happy ruins the virtue for a Kantian. But most thinkers would argue the aim of moral behaviour is to achieve happiness, either because the striving for morality makes us happy or because the good is human happiness.

But again, some (e.g. Peter Singer?) might think that we should aim for happiness for everybody, which might leave us lacking in enjoyment as we struggle to help the worst off. I would argue that if that was the true morality, then the best feasible morality would be the closest approximation that makes us happy - that would be the only stable state.

Of course, things are a bit more complicated in that we do not simply optimize happiness. In fact, we are lousy at it, and most people do not seem to make a deliberate effort towards enjoying life better despite the growing knowledge that it can be done. Happiness is perhaps primarily a means rather than a goal - for evolution, and perhaps for morality. But we better learn how to use this tool better.

Posted by Anders3 at November 8, 2011 10:17 PM