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In a class on Aristotle we have been discussing the difference between the Greek

In a class on Aristotle we have been discussing the difference between the Greek's idea of Eudaimonia and what we today call happiness. Many of my classmates seem skeptical of more objective accounts like Aristotle's, instead defending subjective theories of happiness. Do you think this perhaps misguided view of happiness could be problematic? It seems to me that this view is embraced by a great number of my peers who, like me, come from comfortable middle class backgrounds. This "Do what you like as long as it makes you happy" attitude seems to result in both a sense of entitlement to whatever they happen to desire at the moment as well as a slavish need to act on any impulse. At the same time many of these people seem awfully depressed and unhappy for people with such privileged, comfortable lives. Do you think that this unique type of depression and a certain view of happiness are linked?

First, a clarification: as many scholars have noted, "happiness" is a misleading translation of the Greeek "eudaimonia," and partly for the very reason that is at the heart of your question. The Greeks certainly had disputes over how precisely we should understand eudaimonia, but all would agree that it is the term to use in describing someone who has a good and enviable life (and by thuis, they did not mean good or enviable in a restricted moral sense, but in the very pragmatic sense that all of us would prefer, at least all other things equal). So eudaimonia will be the condition that is always, utterly, and flawlessly in our interest.

Now, this makes what is wrong with a subjective conception of eudaimonia fairly obvious, but since you asked, I will quote myself (and my co-author, T. C. Brickhouse) here:

"Giddy morons may suppose they pursue their interest by doing what only makes them giddier and more foolish, but sensible evaluation will conclude that such lives are nothing to envy. The addict's high, even secured by a lifetime supply of intoxicants, is no model of surpassing success in the pursuit of self-interest. One may be subjectively and even exclusively interested in what is not really in one's interest. For what is really in one's self-interest, one's own personal opinion of what self-interest consists in is hardly decisive. It may be that a certain degree of subjective satisfaction is required for a truly good life. But what qualifies as an authentic self-interest for a given agent [...] is an objective fact about that agent." (Socratic Moral Psychology, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 46-7; emphasis in original)

There is one more thing to add here. As a matter of fact, it seems that people can actually also be fairly poor predictors of what will, as a matter of fact, actually produce even subjective enjoyment. So, one recent study (reported in my daily paper, The Oregonian) sampled 632 Americans, who were asked to rate their own happiness on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the happiest. They were also asked to estimate how much of their spending went to paying bills, buying gifts for themselves, buying gifts for others, and giving to charity. A pattern emerged in their replies: those who engaged more in "prosocial spending" (the latter two categories) rated themselves happier than those who did less "prosocial spending." Now a quote from that same article in the Oregonian:

"A separate study published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the same parts of the brain that produce a good feeling when a person receives a reward also respond when they give to someone else. In fact, the reward areas were more active when giving a gift than when receiving one."

I think these studies (and there have been many others that point in the same direction) show that the very selfish kind of subjective "happiness" seeking that you talk about in your question is actually quite poorly suited even to secude a subjectively "happy" existence. My suspicion is that (for healthy human beings, at any rate), the best way to succeed at securing subjective happiness is to try to do well in achiveing objective flourishing (eudaimonia).

Long story short, I agree with you, and it looks to me as if there is increasing scientific basis for your suspicion, in addition to a very long tradition of philosophical thought in its favor.

First, a clarification: as many scholars have noted, "happiness" is a misleading translation of the Greeek " eudaimonia ," and partly for the very reason that is at the heart of your question. The Greeks certainly had disputes over how precisely we should understand eudaimonia , but all would agree that it is the term to use in describing someone who has a good and enviable life (and by thuis, they did not mean good or enviable in a restricted moral sense, but in the very pragmatic sense that all of us would prefer, at least all other things equal). So eudaimonia will be the condition that is always, utterly, and flawlessly in our interest. Now, this makes what is wrong with a subjective conception of eudaimonia fairly obvious, but since you asked, I will quote myself (and my co-author, T. C. Brickhouse) here: "Giddy morons may suppose they pursue their interest by doing what only makes them giddier and more foolish, but sensible evaluation will conclude that such lives...

If there were a a good reason to believe that irrational thinking--or at least a

If there were a a good reason to believe that irrational thinking--or at least a certain train of irrational beliefs--leads to greater happiness and prosperity (and I think there is a bit of psych research that suggests this is true), could a rational person decide to think irrationally--to adopt irrational beliefs--and would that itself be a rational decision?

Before I try to give an answer to your question directly, I want to object to the claim that seems to be its basis. I do believe that recent psychological research about happiness supports at least some elements of what might be called "irrationalism." On the other hand, it seems to me that this same research always treats happiness as a purely subjective property, and I want to make clear that this subjectivist treatment of happiness is very much at odds with the objectivist presumption in most of the philosophical literature on happiness.

To quote myself (the easiest author for me to remember!), "Giddy morons may suppose they pursue their interest by doing what only makes them giddier and more foolish, but sensible evaluation will conclude that such lives are nothing to envy. The addict's high, even secured by ba lifetime supply of intoxicants, is no model of surpassing success in the pursuit of self-interest" (T. C. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith, Socratic Moral Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 46). In other words, one who might be counted as "supremely happy" from a subjective point of view only, could still count as a complete wretch to a sensible objective observer. In the philosophical tradition known as "eudaimonism" (from the Greek word, eudaimonia, which is often translated as "happiness," but which is also reasonably well translated as "flourishing," "thriving," or "well-being"), happiness does have some important entailments with respect to subjectivity, but the achievement of actual happiness will not be exhausted by subjective considerations alone.

But if we take this objectivist stance, it starts to look like the hypothesis that forms the basis of your question may not be one to which we can really give our assent: One who thinks or acts irrationally is not one who seems to us to think or act in a way that is objectively choiceworthy. Maybe thinking or acting irrationally can provide subjective advantages (just think how happy I might be if I could convince myself that absolutely everybody loves and cares about me!!!), but if we (more sensibly, I contend) bring the objective point of view to bear on the question, I don't think we would ever suppose the irrationalism was preferable to rationalism.

Before I try to give an answer to your question directly, I want to object to the claim that seems to be its basis. I do believe that recent psychological research about happiness supports at least some elements of what might be called "irrationalism." On the other hand, it seems to me that this same research always treats happiness as a purely subjective property, and I want to make clear that this subjectivist treatment of happiness is very much at odds with the objectivist presumption in most of the philosophical literature on happiness. To quote myself (the easiest author for me to remember!), "Giddy morons may suppose they pursue their interest by doing what only makes them giddier and more foolish, but sensible evaluation will conclude that such lives are nothing to envy. The addict's high, even secured by ba lifetime supply of intoxicants, is no model of surpassing success in the pursuit of self-interest" (T. C. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith, Socratic Moral Psychology , Cambridge:...

As the Lays Potato chip ad goes, "bet you can't just eat one." Yet I will

As the Lays Potato chip ad goes, "bet you can't just eat one." Yet I will sometimes find myself eating potato chips even when they no longer taste good. Why do we continue to desire things that when they no longer give us pleasure?

I think that what philosophers call "moral psychology" (the analysis of why people act as they do, where by "act" we mean behavior that is voluntary, rather than involuntary) would hold that the relevant factors here are a bit more complex. Some eating is, as you suggest, simply a matter of pursuing the pleasures of taste. But the whole notion of "comfort food," for example (which which I hope you are familiar) adds yet another factor--namely, that eating some foods provides us with a sense of comfort that is at least somewhat independent from the special pleasures of taste. Eating can also be habitual, and the very act of eating (even when we are not hungry or not enjoying the taste of what we are eating) can provide us with a sense of well-being. In brief, then, I think the explanation of why we pursue things even when they no longer give us pleasure will probably be very complex indeed, because our psychologies of desire are not as simple as just pleasure-seeking of a single, simple kind.

I think that what philosophers call "moral psychology" (the analysis of why people act as they do, where by "act" we mean behavior that is voluntary, rather than involuntary) would hold that the relevant factors here are a bit more complex. Some eating is, as you suggest, simply a matter of pursuing the pleasures of taste. But the whole notion of "comfort food," for example (which which I hope you are familiar) adds yet another factor--namely, that eating some foods provides us with a sense of comfort that is at least somewhat independent from the special pleasures of taste. Eating can also be habitual, and the very act of eating (even when we are not hungry or not enjoying the taste of what we are eating) can provide us with a sense of well-being. In brief, then, I think the explanation of why we pursue things even when they no longer give us pleasure will probably be very complex indeed, because our psychologies of desire are not as simple as just pleasure-seeking of a single, simple kind.

Is there any philosophical consolation for someone who's depressed?

Is there any philosophical consolation for someone who's depressed?

It is my understanding that depression is a medical problem--and one that can be effectively treated. My advice (not especially philosophical, admittedly) is to have a talk with your physician.

It is my understanding that depression is a medical problem--and one that can be effectively treated. My advice (not especially philosophical, admittedly) is to have a talk with your physician.

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about what should be the

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about what should be the ultimate goal of life. I suggested that happiness (although this was not strictly defined) may be one of the most worthy goals to aim for in life since it is not a means to anything else but an end in itself. In response my friend argued that if happiness were to be the ultimate goal of someone's life then it would be best achieved by taking a 'happiness' drug or otherwise stimulating the brain in such a way as to induce a state of perpetual happiness. Although this seemed inherently wrong to me it nevertheless seemed to fulfill my criteria of the purpose of a life. It is an important point to bear in mind when answering this question that my friend tends to offer explanations in terms of reductionist science. He is an undergraduate biologist and for him even emotions, such as happiness, can be simply reduced down to chemical reactions and electrical impulses. As a result it seems to me that if happiness is seen in these...

Most philosophers (including several you have no doubt heard of, such as Plato and Aristotle) who have thought that happiness was the appropriate goal of a good life have not understood the goal they had in mind as a purely subjective state, so I would encourage you and your friend to consider the possibility that it is not simply feeling happy that matters, but actually being a certain way.

Consider the case of a drug addict who is provided a lifetime supply of his or her drug of choice. If you wish, imagine miraculously finding a way to ensure that the addict's life and physical health would in no way be threatened--his or her expected life span would not be shortened, nor would the lifelong addiction threaten the addict's physical health in any way. In short, the addict could go through life high as a kite with all other necessities provided with indemnity against any of the usual deliterious affects of drug-addiction.

The case I am asking you to imagine is probably impossible on various grounds, for it is plainly impossible to remove all of the negative effects of going around high all the time, but anyway consider at least some period of time during which the addict is high all the time and well protected against the usual bad effects associated with drug use. Is that person happy?

In the purely subjective sense of happy, I think we have to say that such a person would be happy--maybe even supremely so. But if this subjective sense were all that mattered, why do we recoil from wishing for ourselves such a life? Why is it that we find ourselves preferring lives in which our entertainments, engagements, and activities include much more than simply sitting in a delighted stupor all the time? If such a person is really more happy as a result of the constant subjective happiness he or she feels, why would we prefer our admittedly less happy (subjectively) lives to their's?

This sort of example seems to me to show either that "happiness" is not actually what we have in mind as an ultimate goal, or else that the correct understanding of what it means to be truly happy must include both an objective as well as a subjective element. I do not wish to suggest that a subjective sense of happiness is unimportant or irrelevant. Rather, I am proposing that this is not by itself enough--that some objective conditions that wwe regard as choiceworthy must also be included in the correct and fully adequate sense of what our life goal should be. We wish to lead lives that sensible people would wish to emulate. That is why some philosophers and scholars have suggested that the sense of "happiness" we should be considering for such questions ought to be something like "well-being" or perhaps "human flourishing," both of which seem to require subjective and objective success.

I hope this helps!

Most philosophers (including several you have no doubt heard of, such as Plato and Aristotle) who have thought that happiness was the appropriate goal of a good life have not understood the goal they had in mind as a purely subjective state, so I would encourage you and your friend to consider the possibility that it is not simply feeling happy that matters, but actually being a certain way. Consider the case of a drug addict who is provided a lifetime supply of his or her drug of choice. If you wish, imagine miraculously finding a way to ensure that the addict's life and physical health would in no way be threatened--his or her expected life span would not be shortened, nor would the lifelong addiction threaten the addict's physical health in any way. In short, the addict could go through life high as a kite with all other necessities provided with indemnity against any of the usual deliterious affects of drug-addiction. The case I am asking you to imagine is probably impossible...

Much of philosophy seems to be concerned with one's world view and the stemming

Much of philosophy seems to be concerned with one's world view and the stemming pursuit of happiness through various means, but is there any reason to strive for happiness? Other than the fact that we all want it, just because humans want it, is that the only reason we strive for it? Because, if so, there are other things that we are built do which we should theoretically strive for, is not our desire for happiness just as valid? Is there any reason not to live in pain, other than the fact that it creates unpleasant memories? Is that not a rather weak reason for existence (simply to create pleasant memories or because that is what we have evolved to do)?

The ancient Greeks are among those who are often said to claim that happiness is the "ultimate aim" of human life, but one reason scholars have insisted that this is misleading is indicated to some degree in the question here. The actual word in Greek that is usually translated as "happiness" is eudaimonia, and scholars now argue that we should understand this not as a subjective experience, but as an objective state of the person--scholars have suggested "well-being" or "human flourishing" as more accurate translations. In other words, for the Greeks, the ultimate aim is something more like being healthy than like feeling happy. Just as the experience of pain may sometimes be required for a healthy life, it may also be required for one to live a eudaimÇn life, so we should not suppose that what these philosophers endorse is the opposite of pain, or the (mere) pursuit of pleasure or subjective satisfaction. Of course, one would expect that a human being living in a way we would describe as "flourishing" would also enjoy a substantial degree of subjective satisfaction. But a drug addict given unlimited access to his favorite drug might experience equal--perhaps even greater!--levels of subjective satisfaction than people living well might experience, for full human lives also include pain, grief, and other subjective "negatives." To put it another way, to live the best possible human life, one must (at the right times and in the right ways, and to the right degrees, etc.) sometimes experience such subjective negatives. Pain felt when it is right and appropriate to feel pain is a part of the eudaimÇn life. Those who are incapable (or too stoned!) to feel grief when grief is appropriate do not lead enviable lives, and we would not wish such conditions on ourselves, our friends, or our children.

If we frame the question this way, "What is it for a human being to do well, to live a life that is the sort we would regard as choiceworthy and would wish for ourselves, our friends, or children?" then I think it will be clearer that we would not necessarily think of "happiness" as our main aim, unless we have a very enriched sense of the word in mind. Lying on a warm beach makes me happy--so does playing with kittens--but I wouldn't count such things as prividing a main aim for human life.

At any rate, I am thus sympathetic with the questioner who wants to know what's supposed to be so great about happiness. I would propose framing the question I gave above, and whatever is the answer to that question is what we may reasonably regard as our main aim.

The ancient Greeks are among those who are often said to claim that happiness is the "ultimate aim" of human life, but one reason scholars have insisted that this is misleading is indicated to some degree in the question here. The actual word in Greek that is usually translated as "happiness" is eudaimonia , and scholars now argue that we should understand this not as a subjective experience, but as an objective state of the person--scholars have suggested "well-being" or "human flourishing" as more accurate translations. In other words, for the Greeks, the ultimate aim is something more like being healthy than like feeling happy. Just as the experience of pain may sometimes be required for a healthy life, it may also be required for one to live a eudaim Ç n life, so we should not suppose that what these philosophers endorse is the opposite of pain, or the (mere) pursuit of pleasure or subjective satisfaction. Of course, one would expect that a human being living in a way we...

I read somewhere years ago, and it was in my mind that Aristotle claimed that

I read somewhere years ago, and it was in my mind that Aristotle claimed that happiness is the by-product of engaging in activity; that happiness is not a thing that can be held in one's hand and it does not drop into our laps as we sit alone in a room. However, I have not found this specific idea in anything I have read of Aristotle on happiness. I remember being profoundly affected by this idea as it explained the need to choose rightly the activities that bring happiness. I want very much to share this perspective of happiness with a 17-year-old girl so she can benefit. Do you know whose idea of happiness this is?

Your memory is accurate. Have a look at Book I of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Great reading for young and old!

Your memory is accurate. Have a look at Book I of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics . Great reading for young and old!

Is there pleasure in the melancholic? I like reading sad films, I enjoy solitary

Is there pleasure in the melancholic? I like reading sad films, I enjoy solitary walks getting sad about sad things, puffing cigarettes that I know will kill me, alone in cafes, half-drunk and looking out at swarms of people buzzing around me, getting sad that I might turn out to be one of them. Is there pleasure in the melancholy? Why?

You have given a number of examples, each of which probably deserves specific responses. But as a general reaction, I think your cases do show that there certainly can be pleasures taken from things that also arouse or contribute to sadness or melancholy. There may be any number of reasons for this, though I suspect that many of these reasons have to do with the ways in which we have evolved as a species. For example (and purely speculative at that!)--as a social beings, we often take pleasure from the experience of being put in a position to see or empathize with the way other people experience things. Seeing a sad film may induce a kind of empathic sadness in us...but even so, we may experience some pleasure at seeing things "through the eyes" of the characters in the film.

According to a general approach to virtue theory, there is nothing wrong with "getting sad about sad things." What would be inappropriate, surely, would be to fail to get sad about sad things.

On the other hand, several of your examples suggest to me that you may be struggling somewhat with depression (and also addiction--to cigarettes, at least, and I worry a bit about the "half-drunk" part, as well). If so, you would do well to discuss this with a physician, whose help you might find more ueful at this point than a philosopher's. (Dare I say that at this site?!)

You have given a number of examples, each of which probably deserves specific responses. But as a general reaction, I think your cases do show that there certainly can be pleasures taken from things that also arouse or contribute to sadness or melancholy. There may be any number of reasons for this, though I suspect that many of these reasons have to do with the ways in which we have evolved as a species. For example (and purely speculative at that!)--as a social beings, we often take pleasure from the experience of being put in a position to see or empathize with the way other people experience things. Seeing a sad film may induce a kind of empathic sadness in us...but even so, we may experience some pleasure at seeing things "through the eyes" of the characters in the film. According to a general approach to virtue theory, there is nothing wrong with "getting sad about sad things." What would be inappropriate, surely, would be to fail to get sad about sad things. On the other hand,...

Could the pursuit of happiness be considered the purpose of all life? Is it not

Could the pursuit of happiness be considered the purpose of all life? Is it not what all life strives for?

It really depends upon what you mean by "happiness." If you mean the somewhat fleeting and temporary experience (like the "happy" in "happy hour"), I think a life aimed at happiness would turn out to be fairly meaningless and empty. But if by "happiness" you mean something like "flourishing as a human being" or "having a complete and full life" or something like this, then it does seem like a reasonable overall aim in life.

Philosophers who think that this aim can be one's guiding aim in life (and the aim from which all value in a human life flows) are called "eudaimonists," from the ancient Greek word, eudaimonia. Most ancient Greek philosophers thought that eudaimonia (which is generally translated as "happiness") was and should be the guiding principle and the ultimate aim of human life. If you would like to see a fine example of how a serious ethical work takes this position, I would enthusiastically recommend Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, especially when he lays out his eudaimonistic foundations in Book I.

Of course, other philosophers have also taken happiness seriously as an end of life and action. A very different approach that also continues to have wide influence in ethics, which also takes happiness as a foundational value, may be found in John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.

It really depends upon what you mean by "happiness." If you mean the somewhat fleeting and temporary experience (like the "happy" in "happy hour"), I think a life aimed at happiness would turn out to be fairly meaningless and empty. But if by "happiness" you mean something like "flourishing as a human being" or "having a complete and full life" or something like this, then it does seem like a reasonable overall aim in life. Philosophers who think that this aim can be one's guiding aim in life (and the aim from which all value in a human life flows) are called "eudaimonists," from the ancient Greek word, eudaimonia . Most ancient Greek philosophers thought that eudaimonia (which is generally translated as "happiness") was and should be the guiding principle and the ultimate aim of human life. If you would like to see a fine example of how a serious ethical work takes this position, I would enthusiastically recommend Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics , especially when he lays out his...