Why Happiness Cannot Be the Standard for Morality
First of all, I apologise for my recent absence. I have been reading a lot and this has not left me much time to write. I hope this article will be the beginning of my return to the proverbial track.
Now, in the aftermath of Sam Harris’s recent book The Moral Landscape (which I have not read, incidentally), I’ve been reminded that various forms of utilitarianism are the most likely choice of moral framework for the new atheists. I want to highlight the fact that using happiness and/or suffering as the standard of morality is circular.
So, let’s start with what we do know; happiness (I will use ‘happiness’ for the rest of this article, but ‘suffering’ could just as easily be substituted) is an emotion, and emotions do not happen in conscious vacuums, they are the consequence of a cognitive process: you identify something that exists in reality or relates back to reality indirectly, you evaluate it against a standard, and based on that evaluation, you feel an appropriate emotion. In primitive terms, if you evaluate something to be good, you are happy, and if you evaluate it to be bad, you are sad. Broadly speaking, evaluation is the essence of morality, as morality relates to value judgements, i.e. what is good and bad. What this means is that utilitarianism claims that an emotion, ‘happiness’, is the standard for morality, i.e. that which causes happiness is morally good.
I’m going to use a simple analogy to expose the fallacy in this argument, one that we can all relate to – handing in a school essay to be marked by the teacher. To connect the terms: your essay is the ‘thing’ in reality to be evaluated, the teacher reading it is him identifying it, his marking of the essay is the evaluation and the grade he gives you is the emotion.
So, the first question is, when he evaluates your essay, what is the standard he marks it against? He can’t just say it’s a good essay – good by what standard? How does he know? The clear answer in this situation is: the essay question. He may use complex criteria when marking your essay, but they are all subsumed in the question: how well have you answered the essay question? This is how he decides how ‘good’ your essay is. Then comes the grade, which has a clear and simple relationship to the evaluation: if your essay is excellent, you get an ‘A’, if it’s extremely poor, an ‘F’.
Now, here’s the important part – what the teacher cannot do is use the grade as the standard against which he evaluates your essay. If he did, then the clearest way of linking the evaluation to the grade would be: an ‘A’ grade essay gets an ‘A’, a ‘B’ grade essay gets a ‘B’, a ‘C’ grade essay gets a ‘C’, and so on. The circle should be clear for all to see here. This clearly doesn’t, cannot, make any sense – how do you know what constitutes an ‘A’? The question is erased from the process – under this system, it is a good essay because it got an ‘A’, and it got an ‘A’ because it is good!
You may think this is glaringly obvious to the point of being absurd, but this is precisely what utilitarianism does with morality. Using an emotion as the standard for morality is exactly the same as using the grade as the standard for marking an essay. To say something is ‘good because it causes happiness’ is equal to saying it ‘causes happiness because it causes happiness’. What is happiness? How is it measured? These questions are ignored.
The emotion is the end result of the process, it cannot be used as the standard for the evaluation before it has even occurred. To say, for example, that getting an ‘A’ for your essay is good because it makes you happy is to presume the emotional outcome of an act before it has even been evaluated. It has to be good against an objective standard, resulting in the emotion of happiness.
Of course, the standard against which morality should be evaluated is the life of the organism carrying out the evaluation. That which further sustains the life of the organism is the good, which leads to happiness, and that which impedes or endangers its life is the bad, which results in suffering.
Let’s put this in terms of our analogy again. If you get an ‘A’ in your essay, you will identify it and evaluate it using your life as the standard thus, “education is good for my life, it will help me to sustain and further my life in the future by teaching me how to use my mind, which is my greatest asset for living on Earth. The fact that I received an ‘A’ for this essay means I am achieving my education to a high standard, so this is good for my life.” This evaluation leads to the emotion of happiness.
What the utilitarians do is to try to make emotion both the cause and the effect, which is the very definition of a circular argument. Stated explicitly, if you are happy because something is good, it can’t also be good because it makes you happy – you can’t have it both ways! For example, here is the utilitarian approach applied to charity: is charity good? Yes. Why is it good? Because it makes people happy. Why does it make people happy? Because it is good. Why? Because it makes people happy. Why? Because it is good…
The real irony, is that the new atheists who adopt this moral philosophy are lightning quick at spotting and destroying these sorts of arguments when they are used by theists, but oblivious to the ones that they themselves believe.
Afterword: This is a brief point exposing one flaw in utilitarianism in general. For those who are interested, Evanescent wrote a superbly detailed critique of one particular brand of utilitarianism.