Does being happy make us good, or being good make us happy?
Bertrand Russell was emphatically of the opinion that being happy makes us good, and equally emphatic that certain conceptions of what it is to be good make people miserable. It is tempting to agree with both views, though they need qualification, for assuredly being happy is far more likely to make us good than if we are unhappy, and strict puritanism has certainly made plenty of people unhappy.
But there are no guarantees in either direction. The feckless roustabout might be happy but not good; the rigidly orthodox practitioner of a narrow and self-denying morality might take real pleasure in obeying its strictures. Human nature is various and not infrequently weird.
On the face of it, the questions here might seem empirical rather than philosophical. One can imagine a votary of the new school of “experimental philosophy”—consisting of philosophers who hand out questionnaires to find out what people think about morality, knowledge, the self, truth, rationality, free will, and other great staples of philosophical enquiry—seeing this as an opportunity to exercise ingenuity. Critics of this approach point out that work of this kind is better done by empirical social science, and in any case only provides descriptions of what people think—not always a secure guide to what people should think.
But in fact there is a deep philosophical point behind the idea of a relation between goodness and happiness. More carefully phrased, the questions concern the quality of lives perceived by those living them as being flourishing and satisfying, with valuable relationships at their core, and directed at the attainment of aims worth pursuing. Suppose one had a conception of such a life, and could make a sound case for its value: it would be hard to disentangle the fact of its being a well-doing and positive life (in which, therefore, the person living it is a “good” person) from that person’s sense of eudaemonia—Aristotle’s idea of flourishing and satisfaction, now usually and rather feebly translated as “happiness.” From this view, happiness and goodness turn out to be the reverse and obverse of the same coin, making their relationship a peculiarly intimate and mutually-reinforcing one.
But given the thoughts mentioned above—that there might be some happy but bad folk and some good (by some lights) but unhappy folk—the connection cannot be a necessary one. They only become reciprocal in the optimal way suggested when the notions of goodness and happiness at stake are appropriately defined. And that is an obvious enough point: Cyril Joad would have produced his standard Brains Trust remark on being asked either question, “It depends what you mean by…”
Sent in by Matthew Male, Chislehurst, Kent.
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