Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

What is the Value of Happiness?

October 29, 2008
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First we have to determine where value comes from:

Value can only exist where there are things capable of valuing, that can choose purposefully between two things and which is more valuable to them – essentially, living, thinking beings (I include anything with any sort of brain in this category; lizards clearly value eating over not eating, so would consider food ‘good’ and hunger ‘bad’, in the most rudimentary sense). Only living things with needs can value things, value being the prioritizing of one thing over another. Does a rock value the sun? But a lizard values the sun, because it needs it to heat its blood. A rock needs nothing, wants nothing, so values nothing.

Next, the purpose of happiness, pleasure, and pain:

We evolved pleasure and pain as we evolved brains. Bacteria are machines, and simply go through the motions of maintaining their lives. Once even the most basic neural activity develops in multi-celled creatures, the possibility of choosing not to live becomes a possibility. Pleasure and pain are the two most basic things in our brains, thing we react to viscerally. Pleasure exists to make us seek things out (fat and sugar taste good because until the last 100 years, they were extremely hard to obtain regularly) – using Kant’s own Natural Law argument, pleasure clearly is for making us seek things out (making us desire), because it is excellent at that and terrible at everything else. Pain is to make us avoid things (injuries hurt so that we’re aware of them, and avoid them; in those with the condition where they don’t feel pain, they never develop a fear of injury, and so loose perspective on how it can potentially kill them; to those who feel pain, no explanation is necessary and we viscerally understand). Happiness is simply the long term effects of consistently attaining pleasure, of obtaining one’s goals – basically, contentment. It is a physiological and psychological state of relaxation we experience where every part of our brain is aware that struggle isn’t necessary (at least at that moment), that all of our needs (even perceived) are satisfied.

Pleasure (and indirectly, happiness) is at the root of desire. Without compulsion, no desire at all forms. Desire is fundamentally necessary for action – if you don’t desire anything, why would you waste any energy doing anything; wouldn’t any action you then do be for no reason, and be totally random? The Will – which Kant basically defines as cognition – can only observe, deduce, and choose. Pleasure and happiness are the most fundamental desire of anything with neurons, the thing the is fundamentally linked with desire, and thus action. In what way would a human ever wish on himself a lack of happiness? We may sometimes do things that would go against our immediate or even long-term pleasure, but would we object to those things being made pleasurable (and thus more desirable, in a way; if giving to charity gave us physical pleasure, would we object to that?). There may be times when we choose (or seem to choose) to go against pleasure, but this is never as a rejection of pleasure and happiness themselves, but whatever action or outcome is associated with achieving them. Would we dislike it if everything morally good gave us pleasure, and everything morally bad gave us pain (excluding a utilitarian sense of morals)? There is nothing inherently bad about pleasure, and no situation where it is bad, though sometimes we may choose other things when attaining pleasure conflicts with another desire. To repeat: deferring A in favor of B does not prove that A is bad, just that at that specific moment B is better (that is: preferred). This may be because in order to achieve A one must also achieve C, where C is a negative outcome. A is still in itself good, but the path to it may at that specific moment be not worth taking.

This does not disprove Kant’s argument that a ‘good Will’ is a fundamental good, it just simply argues that happiness is also a fundamental good (at the very least, to humans). No argument has been made about whether there can be multiple fundamental goods at once, and if such a thing is proven impossible, this may prove Kant wrong and Mill write – or not.

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A Question For Mill

October 28, 2008
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By what measure are we to determine what consequences matter for an action? Utilitarianism is defined by the principle that an action is moral if it increases overall happiness, and decreases overall pain. But of course, an action today can cause immediate happiness but cause over the long term greater pain. Where do we draw the line and determine a person’s moral culpability?

There are several possible propositions, all of which would bolster utilitarianism, but Mill makes the fundamental intellectual mistake of simply assuming a fact, without ever clarifying or defining it. In his writings he clearly talks as if its obvious that consequences never foreseeable shouldn’t be considered when determining morality, but this shouldn’t be assumed. The fact that he doesn’t clarify it is almost a sort of narcissism, that he is talking about things too important to consider that. Even beyond that, the possible ways of supplementing utilitarianism to limit the chain of consequences measured, are not perfect, and still have holes that need to be defended.

So I guess I’d ask him about this, and in particular what his particular addendum would be to utilitarianism.


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The Attainment of Happiness (Section 2)

October 15, 2008
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One objection against utilitarianism is that happiness is unattainable, and therefor you can’t base a moral theory on an infinite and unknown quantity. Mill points out the ridiculousness of this charge, because it fundamentally skews what utilitarianism is. It assumes that the ultimate utilitarian goal is to achieve total happiness, 100% of the time, and since this is impossible utilitarianism is then directionless. He points out that: A) utilitarianism is also the avoidance of pain, and so even if we can’t achieve happiness, there’s something to be said for trying to make life less loathsome; B) this Utopian view of happiness is completely false, precisely because it is unrealistic – utilitarianism is based on the realistic maximization of happiness and elimination of pain, as much as physically possible.

It’s also argued against utilitarianism that if people gain such lofty views about how happy they should be, they’ll become despondant considering how difficult it would be to make the world a happy, safe place. Mill points out that even if the world will always have more pain than pleasure, at least we can eliminate some of the pain, and if any pain is eliminated the world is that much better; also, that people adapt to their situation, and as long as they know they’re as happy as their circumstances allow, can be easily satisfied.


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Arguments Against Utilitarianism

October 5, 2008
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The argument against utilitarianism, on pages 326-327, is essentially that utilitarianism requires too much of people, that it is too difficult for the average person to go around thinking about the numerical consequences of every single action, and it expects people to act as disinterested and unbiased judges when the average person never does this.

Mill’s argument starts with a very basic rebuttal: that the factual morality of someone’s action is independent of why they do it, whether it be through unbiased judgment, or emotional compulsion. The detractors are trying to bring a non-utilitarian argument against Mill, not seeming to realize that utilitarianism takes only consequences into account, and so motivation is irrelevant. Morality and motivation are therefor separate. Mill puts it well: “He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble”.

Mill then goes on to say that the action of the average person is too inconsequential to mandate that we go around weighing the utility of every single action we take. Generally then, if we just consider the local effect our actions have on us and those around us, he says, then we will do what is generally right, and if everybody does this then the totality of consequences will be happiness. On those occassions when an idividual has enough power to sway the fate of many, such as in voting, public office, or in use of large funds, then total utility should be used as much as possible. Mill says: “The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but … that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not … travel beyond the particular persons concerned …”.

The problem with the first part of Mill’s argument is that he glosses over the fact that in order for people to truly act morally, they must be disinterested judges of their own actions. True, a man who saves another person from drowning because of money saves that person, but if you leave motivation out of it you essentially remove justification for action (‘sure, you should do the right thing, but whether you want to do it or not is not important’). If people were inherently predisposed to act in a utilitarian manner, then it would be fine, but I think we can agree that people aren’t, and that they can be taught to do things that are decidedly un-utilitarian. Take discrimination for example: a person discriminates against another because they were brought up to do so, and so it seems perfectly right to them. In order to counteract this, they need to desire to be just, to be good. If no one acts out of “a feeling of duty”, or a desire to be moral, why would they ever act moral?


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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.

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