Sunday, April 19, 2020
In a reflection on the meaning of career success, a majority of my business ethics students mentioned happiness as a barometer.
“Happiness,” however, is an incredibly imprecise term. For example, here is over seventy-five minutes of Jennifer Frey (University of South Carolina, Philosophy) and Jonathan Masur (University of Chicago, Law) discussing happiness under two different definitions.
Frey, in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, considers happiness not as a private good, but rather as the highest common good. Happiness is enjoyed in community. True happiness according to Frey, is bound up in the cultivation of virtue and human excellence. Under Frey’s definition, happiness makes room for sacrifice and suffering as beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Masur, a self-described hedonist, seems to have a more psychological, subjective view of happiness. Masur defines happiness as positive feelings, and unhappiness as negative feelings. Masur acknowledges that happiness--maybe even the deepest happiness--can arise from relationships and altruistic behavior. Unlike Frey, however, Masur includes positive feelings that are artificially produced or arising from unvirtuous behavior as part of “happiness.” Masur sees happiness and living a good, moral life as often overlapping, but as not necessarily intertwined.
These are two different conceptions of happiness. I think we need seperate words for the different conceptions--perhaps joy and pleasure--though I do not think any two English words fully capture the differences.
Somewhat relatedly, this month, my neighborhood book club is reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Throughout the book, Huxley explores a future devoted to pleasure. In this world, a drug called soma, a sport called obstacle golf, and touch-engaging films called the "feelies" combine to drown out negative emotions. While the elimination of virtually all infectious diseases seems enviable in this moment, there is very little I admire in the brave new world---it seems incredibly shallow. Some of Aristotle’s virtues are largely missing. Courage, temperance, and liberality are only seen in the outcasts of this world. Self-denial and committed relationships are strongly discouraged.
Ross Douthat, in The New York Times, hits some similar notes below:
- In effect, both Huxley and [C. S.] Lewis looked at the utilitarian's paradise--a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized, and pain is eliminated--and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
But even John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian, seemed to realize that there can be a depth to happiness that extends beyond pure pleasure. Mill wrote:
- It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
Near the conclusion of Brave New World, the Savage (John) has an illuminating verbal spat with the Controller Mustapha Mond:
- Savage: "But I like the inconveniences [of life.]"
- "We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."
- "But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
- "In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
- "All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I am claiming the right to be unhappy."
The Savage meets a tragic end (in part because he gets cut off from supportive community and has not grasped the concept of forgiveness), but I am still more drawn to his life--of pain and love, desire and disappointment, art and decay, principle and struggle--than to a life plugged into the pleasure producing experience machine.
Even though Frey and Masur disagree on the breadth of the term “happiness,” both seem to agree that devoted relationships, selflessness, and self-transcendence often lead to durable, deep happiness. While many of my business ethics students did not define “happiness” in their reflections, I hope they increasingly realize the fulfillment that can come from cultivating virtue in the midst of difficulty.