Putting Happiness Above Morality …

I started reading last week before class a book that had been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while: “Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics” edited by Stephen Engstrom and Jennifer Whiting. T.H. Irving has an essay in it called “Kant’s Criticisms of Eudaimonism”, where he discusses how Kant criticized various eudaimonic theories, like those of Aristotle, the Stoics, and Epicurus. One of the main thrusts is that one of Kant’s objections to the view of the Stoics is off because they don’t treat “happiness” the way he argues they do. I also think that in addition to that the Stoics do not put happiness above morality or let happiness judge morality because for the Stoics it is always the case that if your morality doesn’t make you happy, you need to change your idea of happiness so that you’re happy being moral, and not the other way around.

So, this led to a test for those who do, in fact, make happiness the test for morality, which is to ask one question: If being moral didn’t make you or the appropriate group happy, should you give up morality for happiness?

The Stoics, of course, say no. You act morally and change your view of happiness.

For Aristotle, it’s a little more complicated. The Stoics do not allow for any indifferents that you need in order to live a good (eudaimonic) life. Aristotle did think you needed at least a minimum standard of living to have the good life. So, for Aristotle, the answer must be “It depends”.

For Epicurus and Utilitarians — and I include Sam Harris-type view as Utilitarian — the answer is neither yes nor no, but is instead “The question makes no sense; how can something be moral that doesn’t make the relevant grouping happy (or happier)?”. For them, the link between happiness and morality is one of identity; there can be nothing moral that does not increase happiness and vice versa.

But this, of course, leads us to see the obvious problem with those sorts of views, by asking one more question: If acting justly didn’t make the relevant group happy, would it then be immoral to act justly? Scientific utilitarians will immediately try to argue that empirically that isn’t possible, with more or less degrees of success (it’s not that hard to come up with possible cases), but the attack here is not empirical, but is conceptual. We do think that acting justly is in and of itself moral even if it does not increase happiness in any relevant group. But the Utilitarian, to be consistent, is forced to deny this, and that acting justly is only moral insofar as it increases happiness. And this, then, belies the idea that Utilitarianism fits in with what we consider to be moral; it is clear that we do not believe that the be-and-end-all of morality is that it makes a particular group happy. There are considerations beyond that. And if that is true, then Utilitarianism fails … no matter how much one studies the brain or claims that everyone wants to be happy.

Since we can imagine moral duties beyond increasing happiness, the Utilitarian view cannot be right unless they can prove why we’re wrong. So far, none has.

One Response to “Putting Happiness Above Morality …”

  1. Carrier On Moral Reasoning … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it would make us not like who we are (a murderer) which would, presumably, make us less happy. Kant criticized the Stoics for being too focused on happiness (in his objection to Eudaimonic theori…. And Mill wouldn’t argue that if you had to sacrifice the minority to save the lives of the […]

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