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.

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Posted on August 22, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. The word ‘happiness’ is used frequently due to the lack of the proper lexicon to describe more then ‘happy’, but improvement of living conditions, improvement of health, education, living standards, etc – stuff that is horribly difficult just to put in words, but that you know just as well as I do are improvements to life.

    This just seems like a discussion on semantics and not really on morality. Take this line for example: “Is charity good? Yes. Why is it good? Because it makes people happy. Why does it make people happy? Because it improves their living conditions”

    Doesn’t seem circular and it’s basically the same sentences. If you ask ‘why is improving living conditions is good’, then I don’t really have a good answer for you. But then again, you just state that
    > Of course, the standard against which morality should be evaluated is the life of the organism carrying out the evaluation”
    as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, which it surely isn’t, and also needs a better answer.

    By the way, I’m no Utilitarian (so take everything I’ve just said above with a huge grain of salt), and I’m fine with most of what your views on individualism led you to write – and while I’m still trying hard to ‘get’ what you wrote here and why this seems to make so much sense to you, this article seems a bit ‘off’.

    • Happiness is the emotion that follows from achieving one’s values. That’s Rand’s definition, I’m open to hearing alternatives.

      If you ask ‘why is improving living conditions is good’, then I don’t really have a good answer for you.

      Yes, you anticipated my response perfectly. But what else could the standard be other than the life of the individual? I haven’t got time here to explain here why it can’t be anything mystical such as God’s will, and I believe I’ve show conclusively why it can’t be an emotion such as happiness. If you can’t offer an alternative then I don’t really see anything more for us to discuss.

      Of course, the standard against which morality should be evaluated is the life of the organism carrying out the evaluation”
      as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, which it surely isn’t, and also needs a better answer.

      I had to skim over this point because proving it was not the purpose of the article (for proof, see the works of Ayn Rand). My purpose was to show why emotion can’t be the standard, which I remain confident that I achieved. If not, explain how the examiner can use the grade as the standard for an essay, as in my analogy.

      You seem equally confident that “it surely isn’t, and also needs a better answer”. That just brings us back to you needing to offer an alternative standard, or explain exactly why life cannot be the standard.

      • >My purpose was to show why emotion can’t be the standard, which I remain confident that I achieved.

        I don’t think you did, but I’ll have to concede defeat for now because I don’t have the time now to try to make that case. Maybe I’ll come back here some other day (if you are honestly interested in a response, and not sitting atop a mountain of self-righteousness like I’m now scared you might be)

  2. By the way, I just came back from reading evanescent’s recent posts, and a post by Timothy Sandefur linked by Evanescent, and I must say I’m a bit surprised.

    Evanescent just turned the new atheists into a huge crowd of demons, hell bent on poisoning the Earth with their views that are just as religious as their religions they attack, only without god in it!

    WTF was that? I don’t thing I’ve ever seen such an ominous display of apparent self-righteousness. Beware the slippery slope man.

    • I’m in full agreement with Evanescent. If you have comments for him, I suggest you make them on his site.

      • His writings reminded me a the Moon Landing conspiracy advocate – blinded by his complete and utter certainty that he found a truth that other people (lesser people) refuse to see. Don’t you feel that way too? Shouldn’t it give you pause to think?

        I felt it would be beyond pointless to try to argue with someone in that state of mind.

  3. Hi there Fabio

    for a start, it’s disappointing that I should have this effect on someone interested in honest debate. That wasn’t my intention. I admit I am rather controversial and confrontational with the New Atheists precisely because one of my aims is to provoke them into re-examining their dangerous ethics and political ideals. Make no mistake: I see many of them as *just as dangerous* as religious fundamentalists. I think I’ve explained my reasons for this position that, perhaps on the surface, sounds conspiratorial and radical; outrageous even. In fact, I give the Neo Atheists such a “hard time” because, unlike the deeply religious, I think there *is* a point in arguing with them; with the religious I seldom bother.

    The reason I am so vehement with these people is because they will be the bringers of their own downfall; by conceding the same moral principles as religion, and with their tendency to invoke Left-wing politics, they don’t do what they purportedly want to do: shut the political door on the Religious “Right”; instead, they have already laid the groundwork for a totalitarian regime; in God’s name this scares the hell out of them; the thought of all their freedoms coming under the watchful eye of a theocracy; yet under the guise of a secular “humanist” socialist government, it’s all ok. Well it’s not. And I am very passionate about it, unapologetically. What perhaps I could apologise for is my manner, which could alienate well-intentioned people (like yourself??) instead of encouraging debate.

    (If it helps, I’m the last thing from a conspiracy theorist you could hope to meet. I believe in moon-landings, and I don’t believe that 9/11 or even JFK was a conspiracy (perhaps not a US inside job, anyway).)

  4. Maybe I’ll come back here some other day (if you are honestly interested in a response, and not sitting atop a mountain of self-righteousness like I’m now scared you might be)

    If you find time to come up with an alternative standard of morality, please come back and I shall be happy to hear it and discuss it with you.

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