Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

What is the Value of Happiness? | October 29, 2008

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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4 Comments »

  1. Smh at he content ….I love it….and I agree also. Happiness is a desire and is linked to pleasure, indirectly. Just like certain pleasures, happiness is subjective and is often opinionated differently between “hosts”; those who are and those who aren’t. Also, happiness is dependent, just like your lizard analogy, to humans or whatever can obtain happiness.

    Comment by D@vid R. — October 30, 2008 @ 12:30 am

  2. Smh at the content ….I love it….and I agree also. Happiness is a desire and is linked to pleasure, indirectly. Just like certain pleasures, happiness is subjective and is often opinionated differently between “hosts”; those who are and those who aren’t. Also, happiness is dependent, just like your lizard analogy, to humans or whatever can obtain happiness.

    Comment by D@vid R. — October 30, 2008 @ 12:31 am

  3. Call me dumb but im pretty sure some living thing out there would value a rock immensly.. how about a bettle or a worm to whom a rock is the same thing to hef as the playboy mansion. Although you are right that a rock needs nothing and values nothing doesnt mean it is not VALUED by something else… call me crazyy

    Comment by lizpica9 — October 30, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  4. Fine, you’re crazy. 😛

    What you’re saying doesn’t go against what I said. I just said that the rock itself can’t value anything. I didn’t say nothing values the rock.

    Comment by ericmassengill — November 1, 2008 @ 7:52 pm


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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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