What Is Happiness And Is Our Own

What Is Happiness, And Is Our Own Happiness The Only Thing We Ultimately Desire Essay, Research Paper

Happiness, according not only to

utilitarianism but also to popular culture, is something that we should not

merely desire, but actively pursue. This seems to be, at first glance, a

plausible, indeed laudable, goal, but there is one inherent detail that needs

to be explained ? what happiness actually is. This is especially important in

the case of a philosophical doctrine like utilitarianism, to which the idea of

happiness is axiomatic. In this essay, I will argue that most attempts to

define the concept by using objective definitions of ?pleasure? are impossible,

and that ?pleasure? itself, although an element of happiness, is

unsatisfactory. An attempt will be made to suggest that ?virtue? and morality,

whilst commendable, cannot even form part of a subjective reading of happiness

A case will, though, be made to argue that despite the inability to find a

satisfactory definition, happiness is merely one of a group of feelings which

we ultimately desire. In Utilitarianism, Mill

defines happiness as ?pleasure and the absence of pain?, and the antonym

was defined as ?pain and the privation of pleasure?. Jean Austin has

pointed out that in his essay, Mill appears to sometimes use ?pleasure?

interchangeably with happiness. If this were Mill?s intention, then Mill is

using it erroneously. ?Pleasure? is a temporary experience, whilst happiness

relates to an overall assessment of one?s feelings over an extended period. I

may have been depressed all week, but I got momentary pleasure when I attended

a concert. Thus a better reading of Mill?s definition, which he does in fact

give, would be to see happiness as the net balance of pleasures contrasted to

pains. This goes some way to being more satisfactory: if I had an enjoyable

week I could say that I had lot of pleasurable experiences, and if there were

only a few minor disappointments it could indeed be said to be a ?happy? week.

Conversely, if it were truly unbearable save for one incident, it would be

absurd to say that happiness was obtained at least once during that week. Yet,

it still seems forced to consider ?pleasure? to be the sole ingredient of

happiness. A manic depressive may, despite experiencing many pleasurable

experiences, still be unable to be considered ?happy?. Despite these limitations, it still

appears that pleasurable experiences are the backbone to any attempt to define

happiness. Many things, though, can be said to offer pleasure, yet it may be

hard to justify most forms of temporary pleasure as a form of happiness. A

pleasurable sensation can be obtained more easily from alcohol than from

hiking, yet we would consider someone who preferred the former to the latter to

be a drunkard. Any definition of happiness would not wish to allow chemically

induced forms of pleasure to be an acceptable form. Mill wrote of a difference

between ?higher? and ?lower? pleasures, the latter being more sensuous and the

former more intellectual. Yet by suggesting this, he is turning pleasure into

an objective issue: how people consider the actions of others. I may prefer

listening to Mahler?s symphonies at a concert whilst my friend may prefer

dancing and drinking all night long in some nightclub. Indeed, we might equally

abhor each other?s choice. To say that the former is a higher form of pleasure

is not very far from displaying snobbery. Pleasure, and what constitutes it, is

a subjective decision. Further, some forms of pleasure that we should condone

are likely to be classed as ?lower? pleasures. Is an intellectual who has read

every publication about hill walking, contributed to debates on what kind of

footwear is more appropriate for various types of terrain, and maybe even

written extensively on the theory behind the sport, yet never actually set foot

on a moor in his life indulging in a higher form of pleasure than someone who

heads out into the wilderness at every opportunity? Most of us would be

inclined to consider the latter to be experiencing a higher form of pleasure,

yet Mill?s distinction seems to suggest the former would.[1]

Any attempt to redefine the categories to allow for such examples would

ultimately fail: what gives pleasure and what does not is a matter for the

individual.? For these reasons, any attempt to

define happiness in terms of pleasure is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory

result. Indeed, there is a case that a certain element of pain may be needed to

achieve happiness. Risk-taking is usually applauded by society: even if the

plan fails one can learn from it. It may even lead to a more fulfilling life,

in which one is continually striving for happiness yet has to undergo numerous

setbacks. This, though, also seems to suggest an objective form of happiness:

someone wants an easy, risk-free life is likely to be just as happy as the

risk-taker. We, when asked to pass judgment on who we consider to have had the

more fulfilling, and thus happier, life may disagree, but to do this to suggest

that happiness is objective, rather than subjective. Novell Smith has described

this quite acutely when he says that a drunkard and a gourmet both aim at

pleasure, ?but what pleases each of them is a different thing?. If pleasure is

to be accepted into a definition of happiness, it can only do so in a

subjective way. Whilst pleasurable actions might be said to contribute to

happiness, their temporary nature needs to be accounted for. Moreover, one may wish to do things

that do not provide pleasure, yet still lead to happiness. The obvious paradox

of masochism aside, there are cases where this can be suggested to do so. A

martyr may choose to go to the stake because of a belief of some reward for

remaining true to one?s beliefs in the next world. As will be discussed later,

a hedonist may feel that he therefore gets pleasure from this expectation, but

it still can be said that he is not gaining pleasure from the actual process. If happiness cannot be defined, can

it still be said to be the only thing we ultimately desire? Before hedonism is

discussed, it is worth looking what is meant by ?to desire?. Austin accuses

Mill of using this verb to cover the same ground as the verb ?to want?, which

by doing makes the statement that we desire pleasure a necessary truth. That

this extension is an erroneous one is easy to explain: ?to want? suggests immediacy.

One can want ice cream or a life free of poverty, and both may be said to be

obtainable at some point in the short-run. ?To desire? suggests some goal that,

whilst it may be fulfilled, has to be striven for. To take part in a gold rush

because one wants gold suggests there is a chance of obtaining it, bringing

immediate pleasure. To do so because one desires gold not only suggests

some form of satisfaction that will be gained, but also a sense of yearning for

something that may not happen.[2]

If this logic is followed (providing it is correct), then one can want

pleasure, but happiness can only be desired. I may fulfil a want for

pleasure from canoeing, but I cannot fulfil my desire for happiness by going

out on the water once. Of course, as will be discussed, there is neither any

reason why one can only desire one goal, nor is there any validity in saying

that happiness is all that can be desired. A hedonist would argue that

ultimately all human actions are done for the sake of pleasure. Thus, all our

actions are undertaken because we only desire happiness. The immediate

criticism is that we do things we do not enjoy, like undergoing a painful

dental operation. This can quickly be countered by saying that we desire the

pleasure of the painless mouth we will have after the operation. Yet, as has

often been pointed out, all actions can be ultimately broken down into the

quest for pleasure. Charity work may be considered undertaken because one feels

that it is beneficial to society, but closer analysis would seem to say that it

is only undertaken because one enjoys the pleasure obtained from doing it.

Thus, all altruistic actions are selfish. Gosling gives an example of parents

undergoing poverty and hardship in order to provide for a decent education for

their children. It might be argued, following the reasoning above, that

pleasure is their motive, even though they may not live to see its fulfilment.

A counter argument suggests that they do it not for pleasure, but because they

consider it their duty: virtue thus excludes hedonism. Gosling gives three

attempts to try to reconcile the pursuit of pleasure with the concept ?duty?:

one of them involves the people blindly following irrational notions, another

is that they are stoical and see pleasure in hardship, and a third is that

society, noticing they failed to undertake one duty, may think he fails in all

their duties and responsibilities. Surprisingly, he appears to miss a simple

method of reconciling the two: they may be thrown into such moral angst that

until they decide on a course of action they cannot sleep at all, are

miserable, or some other ailment. By choosing to do what they consider their

duty, they are able to have a more pleasant life. Admittedly, blind obedience

to a concept of duty is not to be applauded ? most of us value independence ?

but such a criticism is likely to degenerate into an unacceptable objective

form of happiness. The above can thus be used to give a

hedonistic reason for altruism. Indeed, it can be said that hedonism and altruism

are not incompatible: giving money, time, and/or services to charity, whatever

the motive, is still altruistic.? Novell

Smith is right in saying that if such actions are undertaken in order to

satisfy one?s generosity, this means his motive was generosity. He is right to

say that selfishness implies hostility to others, making altruism compatible

with hedonism. Many philosophers, like Mill or

Aristotle, have considered virtue to be an extremely important aspect of

happiness. It is easy to understand why. If one were to seek happiness from

torturing animals, it would be absurd to consider his happiness as advanced as

that of St Francis of Assisi. Virtue is a form of happiness that is to be

applauded, to be aimed for, and is the noblest form. Yet to hold such a form is

to suggest that happiness is an objective concept. What constitutes virtue or

morality is decided externally. All societies have a moral creed, and we all

judge the morality of the actions of another. What is morally acceptable to

one, say abortion, may be abhorrent to another. But earlier, happiness was

defined as a subjective concept. Altruism may indeed give one a warm glow and a

feeling of pleasure, and increase one?s overall happiness. But to say that one

who dedicates his life to others is happier than one who only begrudgingly puts

loose change in a charity box is to make happiness an objective judgment. ?Most of us, I am sure, would relish a society where all aided one

another, and selfishness et al were banished from the earth. Whether this would

make each individual happier is another question. For these reasons, any

definition of happiness which includes a concept of virtue is flawed. If this

accepted, then it is easy to follow through that happiness cannot be the only

thing we ultimately desire, as this would prevent universal altruism or virtue

from being a goal we should all aim for. Happiness may indeed be desirable. An

individual may consider that he cannot walk past suffering without feeling an

urge to help another, else his happiness would suffer. This remains valid. All

that is being denied is that happiness is sole end we desire as a society. [1] Admittedly,

he does go on to suggest a superiority of the ?active over the passive?, yet in

this example it can be said that both are equally active ? one in the drawing

room, one on the moor. [2] Is there a

difference in motive? The obtaining of the gold is what is being sought in

both, but I am trying to suggest that to say one wants gold is different to

saying one desires it. ?To want? appears only to be used as an expectation of

immediate fulfilment. Austin thinks it is a wide verb, yet she lists a number

of close synonyms like ?to wish?, ?to choose?, which she argues are not the

same. Yet ?to want? cannot cover the same area as ?to wish? unless one is

confusing the two verbs. To use her example, ?I wish to be young again? is

correct: ?I want to be young again? is either wrong, or merely the restating of

a wish but with a different verb.


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