‘The happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life’ Bertrand Russell
This quote appears on the front page of the latest Humanists UK News December 2017. I will argue that it is wrong, that the happy life is not the same as the good life. The American Constitution of 1776 talks about ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as an unalienable right. John Stuart Mill in his book ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861) argued that actions ‘are (morally) right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness’. So according to these documents we have the right to pursue happiness for ourselves and we are morally good if we produce happiness in those around us. Both propositions are problematic. Let us deal with each in turn.
The right to pursue happiness
Despite the fact that many people lead unhappy and self destructive lives it is certainly the case that in an ideal world everybody would be happy but what might be the source of this happiness? Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) describes a world in which all are happy as a result of the regular consumption of the drug ‘Soma’. The problem in this case is that while Soma reduces the emotional and intellectual anxieties that plague humankind, it also thwarts human beings in their creative intelligence and their sense of personal fulfilment. For Huxley, order to be creatively challenged we need to be a little uncomfortable.
According the the biblical parable of the talents we have an obligation to make the most of our mental capacities or gifts. This it may be argued is not only a religious exhortation but a good humanist principle. What is humanism about if not the celebration of the talents of human intelligence? But the question arises as to the relationship between this duty to personal fulfilment and our right to pursue happiness? Although one might hope that the fulfilled person is a happy one, the two states of affairs are not necessarily linked. The process towards fulfilment is often one of hard work and self deprivation, not states that are immediately associated with happiness. The achievement of fulfilment in life might be elusive and the drive towards this for some might be relentless. So which comes first, the right to pursue happiness or the right to pursue fulfilment? Is it enough be happy or is there more to life than this?
Another angle to this argument comes with the consideration of truth. We may talk about living the life in blissful ignorance, or in a ‘fools paradise’. Is the right to pursue happiness the same as the right to keep ourselves in wilful ignorance or to create for ourselves our own ‘fools paradise’? The truth, says St. John, will make us free, but is the truth always compatible with happiness? So how do we balance our right to the truth against our right to be happy? Are we entitle in our pursuit of happiness to hide ourselves from the truth ?
Russell might be telling us that people who are fulfilled and who have their eyes open to the realities of the world are extraordinarily happy but he is unlikely to be telling us that those who do not challenge themselves or who hide from the truth in order to be happy, are leading the good life.
The Promotion of Happiness
John Stuart Mill sought an association between acts that tended to make people happy and acts that were morally right. This is not a logical proposition but rather an empirical one, one that needs evidence to support it. We might go out into the world and make an inventory of those things that tend to maximise happiness and then construct a moral handbook that instructs us in how to make those things happen. One of the problems with this view is that different things have made people happy in different places and times. In ancient Rome Emperors sought to keep their people happy with ‘bread and circuses’. There was nothing like a bloody gladiatorial contest or watching Christians being savaged by wild animals to keep the people happy. Of course this was not tending to maximise the happiness of those fighting but since more people watched than fought, the happiness of the majority took precedence over the unhappiness of the minority. History gives us many more examples of the pursuit of happiness that involves terrible harms being done to minorities in order to make the majority happy.
Kant argued for the moral principle that we should never treat anybody as a means to other people’s ends. We should not objectify human lives in this way. However much happiness is the result, the death of one innocent person is never justified. Happiness may be the ultimate result of morality but it is not happiness that makes it moral. There is no necessary link between happiness and the morally good life and application of the central principles such as the Kantian one described above, always trounces considerations of happiness.
So in conclusion I am arguing firstly that the statement by Russell is wrong. The happy life is not the same as the good life. A happy life may well result from leading a good life but the good life in terms of opportunities for individual fulfilment and the good life in terms of a life of moral goodness stand apart from happiness. Happiness is the bonus to such lives but not the same as them.