What is Happiness?: Various Scholars Agree that it is not Evil Pleasure – II

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According to Aristotle, pleasure is just not the right thing to focus on in a normative account of the good life for a human being. Some pleasures are bad; evil people take pleasure in their evil behaviour. Happiness, by contrast, is a normative notion: since it is constitutive of what we understand as “the human good life,” or “a flourishing life for a human being,” we cannot include evil pleasures in it. Here’s an erudite debate of various scholars that Prof. Ashoka writes about, in the second part of his three-part article, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Another problem that has troubled economists in the Benthamite tradition is that of evil pleasures. If people get pleasure from inflicting harm on others, as so often they do, should that count as a pleasure that makes society better? Most economists, who follow Bentham, have tried to draw some lines here, in order to rule out the most sadistic and malicious pleasures. In so doing, they complicate the Utilitarian system in a way that Bentham would not have approved, introducing an ethical value that is not itself reducible to pleasure or pain. 

What is most attractive about Bentham’s program is its focus on the urgent needs of sentient beings for relief from suffering. Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of his thought is its great compassion for the suffering of animals, which he takes to be unproblematically comparable to human suffering. But Bentham cannot be said to have developed anything like a convincing account of pleasure and pain, of happiness, or of social utility. Because of his attachment to a dogmatic simplicity, his view cries out for adequate philosophical development. 

Unlike Bentham, Aristotle sees that the nature of happiness is very difficult to pin down. In Book One of the Nicomachean Ethics, he sets about that task. He argues that there is general agreement on several formal characteristics of happiness: It must be most final, that is, inclusive of all that has intrinsic value. It must be self-sufficient, by which he means that there is nothing that can be added to it that would increase its value. (He immediately makes clear that self-sufficiency does not imply solitariness: the sort of self-sufficiency he is after is one that includes relationships with family, friends, and fellow citizens.) It must be active since we all agree that happiness is equivalent to “living well and doing well.” It must be generally available, to anyone who makes the right sort of effort, since we don’t want to define happiness as something only a few can enjoy. And it must be relatively stable, not something that can be removed by any chance misfortune. 

Aristotle concludes this apparently uncontroversial part of his argument by suggesting that there is a further deep agreement: happiness is made up of activity that is in accordance with excellence, either one excellence or, if there are more than one, then the greatest and most complete. Scholars argue a lot about the precise meaning of this passage, but let me simply assert. He must mean, whatever the excellent activities of a human life turn out to be, happiness involves all of these in some suitable combination, and the way all the activities fit together to make up a whole life is itself an element in the value of that life. 

In the remainder of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers the areas of human life in which we characteristically act and make choices, trying to identify the excellent way of acting in each of these areas. He seems to think that there is relatively little controversy about the fact that courage, moderation, justice, etc. are worth pursuing; the controversy pertains to the more precise definition of these excellences–presumably because in each of these spheres we all have to make some choice or another: we have to devise some way of facing the risk of death, some way of coping with our bodily appetites, etc. 

Where in all of this does pleasure figure? Early in the work, Aristotle dismisses the claim that pleasure is identical with happiness, saying that living for pleasure only would be “to choose the life of dumb grazing animals.” Later, he advances some further arguments against the identification. First of all, it is by no means easy to say exactly what pleasure is. Aristotle himself offers two very different conceptions of pleasure, one in Book 7 and one in Book 10. The first identifies pleasure with unimpeded activity (not so odd if we remember that we speak of “my pleasures” and “enjoyments”). The second, and probably better, account holds that pleasure is something that comes along with, that necessarily supervenes on, activity, “like the bloom on the cheek of youth”; one gets it by doing the relevant activity in a certain, apparently unimpeded or complete way. In any case, Aristotle does not regard pleasure as a single thing that varies only in intensity and duration; it contains qualitative differences related to the activities to which it attaches. 

Furthermore, by his account, pleasure is just not the right thing to focus on in a normative account of the good life for a human being. Some pleasures are bad; evil people take pleasure in their evil behaviour. Happiness, by contrast, is a normative notion: since it is constitutive of what we understand as “the human good life,” or “a flourishing life for a human being,” we cannot include evil pleasures in it. 

Another problem and a revealing one for Mill is that some valuable activities are not accompanied by pleasure. Aristotle’s example is the courageous warrior (perhaps a source for Wordsworth’s poem), who faces death in battle for the sake of a noble end. It is absurd to say that this warrior is pleased with the prospect of death, says Aristotle. Indeed, the better his life is, the more he thinks he has to lose and the more pain he is likely to feel at the prospect of death. Nonetheless, he is acting in accordance with excellence, and is aware of that; and so he is happy. This just goes to show, says Aristotle, that pleasure does not always accompany the activities that constitute happiness. 

Meanwhile, according to Aristotle, there are people whose circumstances, by depriving them of activity, deprive them of happiness. He names the imprisoned and tortured as examples. If one has the unfortunate “luck of Priam” –whose friends, children, and way of life were suddenly snatched away from him by defeat and capture–here too one can be “dislodged from happiness.” 

Mill’s Utilitarianism is organised as an extended defence of Bentham’s program against the most common objections that had been raised against it. Mill defends both the idea that pleasure is identical with happiness and the idea that right action consists in producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Along the way, however, without open defection from the Benthamite camp, he introduces a number of crucial modifications. 

First of all, he admits that “To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by… [Bentham’s] theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question.” Shortly afterward, Mill makes it plain that, for him, “Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous”: there are differences “in kind, apart from the question of intensity,” that are evident to any competent judge. We cannot avoid recognising qualitative differences, particularly between “higher” and “lower” pleasures. How, then, to judge between them? 

Like Plato in Book 9 of the Republic, Mill refers the choice to a competent judge who has experienced both alternatives. This famous passage shows Mill thinking of pleasures as very like activities, or, with Aristotle, as experiences so closely linked to activities that they cannot be pursued apart from them. In a later text, he counts music, virtue, and health as major pleasures. Elsewhere, he shows that he has not left sensation utterly out of account: he asks “which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings.” Clearly the unity of the Benthamite calculus–its reliance on quantity as the only source of variation in pleasures–has been thrown out, replaced here by an idea of competent judgment as to what “manner of existence” is most “worth having.” This talk suggests that Mill, like Aristotle, imagines this judge as planning for a whole life, which should be complete as a whole and inclusive of all the major sources of value. 

When Mill describes the way in which his judge makes choices, things get still more complicated. The reason an experienced judge will not choose the lower pleasures is “a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other…and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them.” So a sense of dignity is a part of what happiness is for many people: it acts as a gatekeeper, preventing the choice of a life devoted to mere sensation. Nozick’s experience machine would clearly be rejected by this judge. Moreover, Mill continues, anyone who supposes that this sense of dignity will cause people to forfeit some of their happiness “confoun[ds] two very different ideas, of happiness, and content.” Mill has thus rejected one more of Bentham’s equivalences. 

Summarising his discussion, Mill writes that the happiness which the ancient philosophers “meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and varied pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive.” At this point Mill appears to have jettisoned the equivalence of happiness with pleasure: for happiness is now “made up of” pleasures, some pains, and activity; and its “parts” include virtue and the all-important sense of dignity. Even though pleasure itself is complex and heterogeneous, standing in a close relation to activity, it is here said to be but one part of happiness. And yet an emphasis on pleasure persists throughout Mill’s work; he cannot utterly leave it aside. 

Meanwhile, in one crucial passage, he shows us that his attitude toward pained virtue is subtly different from that of Aristotle and Wordsworth. Imagining a virtuous man in the present “imperfect state of the world’s arrangements,” he concludes that this man must sacrifice his own happiness if he wishes to promote the happiness of others. But Mill does not tell us enough about this man. If his sacrifice is very great so that his life is deprived of activity, Mill’s position may be Aristotelian: for Aristotle, we recall, judges that Priam is “dislodged from happiness” by his many and great misfortunes. But if this man is more like the happy Warrior who endures pain for a noble cause, then Mill, in judging him to be unhappy, is at variance with Aristotle and Wordsworth. 

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.