What is Happiness: English vs. European Concepts – I

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Nietzsche understood happiness to be a state of pleasure and contentment and expressed his scorn for Englishmen who pursued that goal rather than richer goals involving suffering for a noble end. Unaware of the richer English tradition concerning happiness that Wordsworth’s poem embodied, he simply took English ‘happiness’ to be what Bentham said it was. Here’s an erudite debate that Prof. Ashoka writes about, in the first part of his three-part article, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

“Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Maxims and Arrows’

Powerful philosophical conceptions conceal, even while they reveal. By shining a strong light on some genuinely important aspects of human life, Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism concealed others. His concern with aggregating the interests of each and every person obscured, for a time, the fact that some issues of justice cannot be well handled through mere summing of the interests of all. His radical abhorrence of suffering and his admirable ambition to bring all sentient beings to a state of well-being and satisfaction obscured, for a time, the fact that well-being and satisfaction might not be all there is to the human good, or even all there is to happiness. Other things–such as activity, loving, fullness of commitment–might also be involved.

Indeed, so powerful was the obscuring power of Bentham’s insights that a question that Wordsworth took to be altogether askable, and which, indeed, he spent eighty-five lines answering–the question what happiness really is–soon looked to philosophers under Bentham’s influence like a question whose answer was so obvious that it could not be asked in earnest.

Thus Henry Prichard, albeit a foe of Utilitarianism, was so influenced by Bentham’s conception in his thinking about happiness that he simply assumed that any philosopher who talked about happiness must have been identifying it with pleasure or satisfaction. When Aristotle asked what happiness is, Prichard argued, he could not really have been asking the question he appears to have been asking, since its answer was so obvious: happiness is contentment or satisfaction. Instead of asking what happiness consists in, then, he must really have been asking about the instrumental means to the production of happiness.

Nietzsche, similarly, understood happiness to be a state of pleasure and contentment, and expressed his scorn for Englishmen who pursued that goal rather than richer goals involving suffering for a noble end, continued striving, activities that put contentment at risk, and so forth. Unaware of the richer English tradition concerning happiness that Wordsworth’s poem embodied, he simply took English ‘happiness’ to be what Bentham said it was.

Who is the happy Warrior?

 Who is he That every man in arms should wish to be?

 ~ William Wordsworth, ‘Character of the Happy Warrior’ 

Wordsworth’s poem, indeed, represented an older and longer tradition of thinking about happiness–derived from ancient Greek thought about eudaimonia and its parts, and inherited via the usual English translation of eudaimonia as ‘happiness.’ According to this tradition, represented most fully in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, happiness is generally agreed to be a kind of living that is active, inclusive of all that has intrinsic value, and complete, lacking nothing that would make it richer or better. Aristotle then proceeded to argue for a more specific conception of happiness that identified it with a specific plurality of valuable activities–for example, activities in accordance with ethical, intellectual, and political excellences, and activities involved in love and friendship. Pleasure, he believed, is not identical with happiness, but usually, accompanies the unimpeded performance of the activities that constitute happiness.

Wordsworth was relying on a conception like this when he asked what the character and demeanour of the happy Warrior would be in each of the many areas of life. As J. L. Austin memorably wrote in a devastating critique of Prichard on Aristotle, “I do not think Wordsworth meant . . . : ‘This is the warrior who feels pleased.’ Indeed, he is ‘Doomed to go in company with Pain / And fear and bloodshed, miserable train’.” As Austin saw, the important thing about the happy Warrior is that he has traits that make him capable of performing all of the life’s many activities in an exemplary way, and that he acts in accordance with those traits. He is moderate, kind, courageous, loving, a good friend, concerned for the community, honest, not excessively attached to honour or worldly ambition, a lover of reason, an equal lover of home and family. His life is happy because it is full and rich, even though it sometimes may involve pain and loss.

John Stuart Mill knew both the Benthamite and the Aristotelian/Wordsworthian conceptions of happiness and was torn between them. Despite his many criticisms of Bentham, he never stopped representing himself as a defender of Bentham’s general line. Meanwhile, he was a lover of the Greeks and a lover of Wordsworth, the poet whom he credited with curing his depression. Mill seems never to have fully realized the extent of the tension between the two conceptions; thus he never described the conflict between them, nor argued for the importance of the pieces he appropriated from each one.

The unkind way of characterising the result would be to say that Mill was deeply confused and had no coherent conception of happiness. The kinder and, I believe, more accurate thing to say is that, despite Mill’s unfortunate lack of clarity about how he combined the two conceptions, he really did have a more or less coherent idea of how to integrate them–giving richness of life and complexity of activity a place they do not have in Bentham, and giving pleasure and the absence of pain and of depression a role that Aristotle never sufficiently mapped out. The result is the basis, at least, for a conception of happiness that is richer than both of its sources – more capable of doing justice to all the elements that thoughtful people have associated with that elusive idea.

Bentham has a way of making life seem simpler than it is. He asserts that the only thing good in itself is the pleasure, and the only thing bad in itself is the pain. From the assertion that these two “masters” have a very powerful influence on human conduct, he passes without argument to the normative claim that the proper goal of conduct is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. The principle of utility, as he puts it, is “that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.” In turn, he defines utility in a manner that shows his characteristic disregard of distinctions that have mattered greatly to philosophers:

By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce bene- fit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.

Ignoring or flouting the long Western philosophical tradition that had debated whether happiness could be identified with pleasure–a tradition in which the negative answer greatly predominated, the positive answer being endorsed by few apart from the Epicureans–Bentham simply declares that pleasure, good, and happiness are all the same thing, and goes on from there.

An equally long philosophical tradition before Bentham had debated how we should understand the nature of pleasure. We speak of pleasure as a type of experience, but we also say things like, “My greatest pleasures are listening to Mahler and eating steak.” Such ways of talking raise several questions, for instance: Is pleasure a single unitary thing, or many things? Is it a feeling, or a way of being active, or, perhaps, the activity itself? Is it a sensation at all, if such very different experiences count as pleasures? Could there be any one feeling or sensation that both listening to Mahler’s Tenth and eating a steak have in common?

Plato, Aristotle, and a whole line of subsequent philosophers discussed such questions with great subtlety. Bentham simply ignores them. As Mill writes, “Bentham failed in deriving light from other minds.” For him, pleasure is a single homogeneous sensation containing no qualitative differences. The only variations in pleasure are quantitative: it can vary in intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, and, finally, in causal properties (tendency to produce more pleasure, etc.). Perhaps Bentham’s deep concern with pain –which can somewhat plausibly be considered as a unitary sensation varying only in intensity and duration–is the source of his feeling that various pleasures do not meaningfully differ in quality. But this conclusion, Mill says, is the result of “the empiricism of one who has had little experience”–either external, he adds, or internal, through the imagination.

Activity, at the same time, plays no special role in Bentham’s system. The goal of the right action is to maximize pleasure, understood as a sensation. That is the only good thing there is in the world. So, in effect, people and animals are large containers of sensations of pleasure or satisfaction. Their capacity for an agency is of interest only in the sense that it makes them capable of choosing actions that produce utility. A person who gets pleasure by being hooked up to an experience machine–the famous example of the late Robert Nozick–is just as well off as the person who gets pleasure by loving and eating and listening. Even in the context of nonhuman animals, this is a much-reduced picture of what is valuable in life. Where human beings are concerned, it leaves out more or less everything.

Nor is Bentham worried about interpersonal comparisons, a problem on which economists in the Utilitarian tradition have labored greatly. For Bentham there is no such problem: when we enlarge our scope of consideration from one person to many people, we simply just add a new dimension of quantity. Right action is ultimately defined as that which produces the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Moreover, Bentham sees no problem in extending the comparison class to the entire world of sentient animals.

©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’.