A simple question, right? But as I’ve discovered during my current attempt to get out of my applied ethics ‘element’, and venture into the world of theoretical ethics, it is actually quite complex. I’m hoping to get some feedback from my CMT.com colleagues who know more about this than I do.
Peter Singer also focuses mainly on applied ethics, and has said less and less about theoretical ethics over the years. However, the little that he is saying is, at least in my view, encouraging for the prospect of dialogue. For instance, in the introduction to his just released third edition of Practical Ethics he says, “I am now more ready to entertain–although not yet embrace–the idea that there are objective ethical truths that are independent of what anyone desires.” As we will see below, I think a major part of what of what is driving this change is his understanding of happiness and its relation to the moral life.
From a Roman Catholic perspective, our own Bill Mattison points out that connecting ethical behavior to happiness is:
how most Christian thinkers through history have understood the Christian moral life. St. Augustine assumes in his main discussions of morality that the starting point for such reflections is how to life a happy life, and explains why the love of God and neighbor that Christ commands in all four gospels is the true path to happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle in beginning his most famous discussion of morality with a treatise on happiness, and concludes with Augustine that God alone can fulfill the restlessness and longing that marks all human persons. [Introducing Moral Theology, 25-26]
At first glance this conclusion looks like it sets up quite dramatic common ground between the Church’s ethic and Singer-like approaches. But as MacIntyre points out, happiness conceived merely “in psychological terms” and “in terms of the passions and inclinations” puts one in the unfortunate position of having to reject “impersonal and universal regard for the persons, interests, and needs of others that moral rules enjoin.” The Christian teleologist, in contrast to this approach, will understand that there is no such thing as ‘happiness’ as such. To the contrary:
To be happy—as contrasted with feeling happy—is always to be happy in virtue of something or other, something done or suffered, something acquired or achieved. When translators have supplied “happiness” as the English translation of eudaimonia or beatitudo, they have in mind that type of happiness which supervenes upon and is made intelligible by the achievement of a completed and perfected life of worthwhile activity, the achievement of the human end. [Intractable Disputes About the Natural Law, 48-49]
In the first chapter of his updated Practical Ethics Singer identifies himself as a preference utilitarian of the kind that might fall prey to this critique. But towards the end of the first chapter, in acknowledging some of the weaknesses of preference utilitarianism, he notes the following:
People have very strong preferences for winning lotteries, although researchers have shown that those who win major lotteries are not, once the initial elation has passed, significantly happier than they were before. Is it nevertheless good that they got what they wanted? Faced with such reports, preference utilitarians are likely to grant that people often form preferences on the basis of misinformation about what it would be like to have their preference satisfied, but it is the preferences we would have if we were fully informed, in a calm frame of mind, and thinking clearly, that preference utilitarians seek to satisfy.
This more objective concept of happiness even ends up being Singer’s reason to be ethical in the first place. Indeed, in asking ‘Why Act Morally?’ in the final chapter of Practical Ethics Singer locates himself firmly in a philosophical tradition (encompassing, he says, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Butler, Hegel and Bradley) which argues that “the good man will be happy.” He cites a “growing body of modern research” that explores happiness in human persons and from where it comes. Consider that there is a ‘positive psychology’ center at the University of Pennsylvania, a Journal of Happiness Studies, and that numerous academic books written on the subject in recent years. In fact, a new book on happiness was just covered in the New Yorker:
Over the past three and a half decades, real per-capita income in the United States has risen from just over seventeen thousand dollars to almost twenty-seven thousand dollars. During that same period, the average new home in the U.S. grew in size by almost fifty per cent; the number of cars in the country increased by more than a hundred and twenty million; the proportion of families owning personal computers rose from zero to seventy per cent; and so on. Yet, since the early seventies, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” has remained virtually unchanged. Indeed, the average level of self-reported happiness, or “subjective well-being,” appears to have been flat going all the way back to the nineteen-fifties, when real per-capita income was less than half what it is today.
But what are we to do with these kinds of studies that merely report what individuals say about their own happiness? Consider psychopaths. These individuals often act contrary to ethical norms, but do not appear to suffer from their condition and even often report being quite happy and fulfilled with their lives. In response to this problem Singer asks the following question:
[E]ven if they are telling the truth as they see it, are they qualified to say that they are really happy, when they seem unable to experience the emotional states that play such a large part in the happiness and fulfillment of others? Admittedly, a psychopath could use the same argument against us: how can we say that we are truly happy when we have not experienced the excitement and freedom that comes from complete irresponsibility? Since we cannot enter into the subjective states of psychopathic people, nor they into ours, the dispute is not easy to resolve. Cleckley suggests that the behaviour of psychopaths can be explained as a response to the meaninglessness of their lives. It is characteristic of psychopaths to work for a while at a job and then just when their ability and charm have taken them to the crest of success, commit some petty and easily detectable crime. A similar pattern occurs in their personal relationships. They live largely in the present and lack any coherent life plan.
And it is in response to this insight that Singer begins to reveal what is essential in his understanding of happiness. It does not consist in mere feelings of “excitement and freedom” that come from failing to see one’s self as a person existing over time—“with the present merely one among other times that one will live through.” No, for Singer happiness apparently consists in choosing a life of meaning. And this goes beyond merely satisfying preferences in the present moment, “however enjoyable it might be.” Especially given that Singer connects this understanding of happiness with the reason one should be ethical in the first place, this is similar to the Christian teleology described above by MacIntyre.
I’d love feedback on any of the above, but I have the following specific questions as well. What is the relationship between happiness and ‘human flourishing’ or ‘the good life’? If one constantly or mostly has unpleasant feelings can she be flourishing or living the good life? If so, what would it mean to say that she is ‘happy’? Is this the kind of thing that we can measure in human persons? How is it related to the growing field of ‘happiness studies’? What do we make of the fact that, for instance, one academic says having children doesn’t make one happy and another says that it does?