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Philosophy and HappinessReview - Philosophy and Happiness
by Lisa Bortolotti (Editor)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Review by Nicholas Waghorn
Jul 13th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 28)

An anthology such as this, which packs fourteen chapters, all expressing disparate views from different authors, into its relatively short body, presents a problem for a reviewer. How to balance breadth with depth in assessing the contents? Rather than attempting blanket coverage, I will pick out some of the chapters and comment on them in detail, to give an idea of what sort of issues are addressed and in what fashion. But first, some general notes are in order. This anthology contains the conference proceedings from a 2007 University of Birmingham conference on Happiness and the Meaning of Life, the scope of which has been split into two parts for publication. The first half deals with 'Happiness and the Meaningful Life', covering such as issues as elucidation of the concepts of happiness and meaningfulness, and the role of temporality and of mortality. The second, 'Happiness and the Mind', is somewhat more applied, with contributors frequently drawing upon empirical study in psychology and physiology to map how knowledge of mental states bears on the diverse ways in which we relate to happiness. Bortolotti's editorial presence is minimal, prefacing each part with no more than two pages for the purpose of précising the contributions. Now I turn to the contents.

The inaugural offering is a helpful essay by Thaddeus Metz, well-chosen as an opener, which seeks to clarify some of the ideas in play. Metz first wants to show that happiness and meaningfulness are conceptually distinct (i.e. a happy but meaningless life is not a contradiction), and also that they are substantively different (i.e. they come apart in reality). Having given some intuitive reasons to see happiness and meaningfulness as discrete, he goes on to characterize the former as something 'fundamentally affective' (pg. 6), and the latter as being characterized by creativity and beneficence. Metz rightly acknowledges that such characterizations are contentious, which somewhat limits the scope of his analysis -- I myself have sympathy with Cottingham's claim (below) that happiness is a more holistic concept, and is not as neatly discernable from meaning as it appears. But it would be unfair to criticize Metz for not doing in an article that which would require a book of its own.

With his stall set out, Metz goes on to identify six putative differences between happiness and meaning. Whilst some of these seem plausible granted his framework (luck can play a role in happiness, but not in meaning, happiness accrues to a life in virtue of sensation, meaningfulness in virtue of action), others are more contentious; I will single out two for brief comment.

Metz claims that the value of happiness is only possible during a person's life, whereas a person can garner meaning posthumously. Van Gogh could not acquire pleasure from drinking iced tea after he is dead, but the acclaim given to his works after his death adds meaning to his life. I have some misgivings about this distinction: how can meaning be added to something (i.e. the life of Van Gogh) that no longer exists in the present? It might be that meaning can be added to someone's life in the present by events that will occur after their death, and this may not be true of happiness. If this is the case, Van Gogh's life would have been more meaningful than he thought when living it, even though he did not know about it (which seems to fit with Metz' view of meaning as an objective property). So I think Metz is on the right track, but that the distinction may need to be nuanced a little.

The distinction on the basis of temporal bias is trickier. It is suggested that we are temporally biased towards future happiness (given the choice of having had a large amount of pleasure yesterday, or getting a small amount tomorrow, we would choose the latter), but not towards future non-experiential goods related to meaning (beneficence, creativity). So Metz thinks that if we were offered the choice of having murdered someone in the past, or telling a lie in the future, we would choose the latter. But I think we can query this, for my moral assessment of myself depends on how I am in the present. If I have repented and redeemed myself of the bad act and go on to life an exemplary life, this is surely better than condemning myself to a life that cannot be exemplary. The intuitive pull the other way would be due to feelings of guilt inappropriate to the truly repentant, and thus closer to the happiness model, as the pull is evacuated of all rational content, and only has that of sensation.

John Cottingham's characteristically humane and sensitive contribution seeks to delineate the ways in which past and future, and the awareness of these, bleed in to our present happiness, and inform our understanding of it. Eschewing Metz' view that happiness can defined in terms of episodic hedonic states, which can then easily be subjected to naturalistic analysis, Cottingham argues for a more complex and, in his opinion, commensurately more satisfying understanding of happiness. He takes his cue from a remark in the C. S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands that 'The pain then is part of this happiness now'. Accordingly, happiness has a diachronic aspect -- even a holistic one, if we are to understand someone's happiness in terms of having had a happy life. Painful aspects of life are not simply the price we pay for happiness, they are integral to the happiness itself, although we may not see this at the time, but may instead have to interpret our diachronic experience in terms of a narrative for our lives. It is this aspect of Cottingham's work that sets it as the contrary, though not necessarily the contradictory, to Metz'.

However, Cottingham acknowledges that the self-understanding that produces the narrative is marred by self-deception and our own finitude, which can obstruct our rational pursuit of happiness. He does not seek any easy answers, plausibly seeing this finitude as an inescapable feature of our human condition. But he does suggest that an objectivist view of the good can at least offer us the hope that there is something to which our attempts to find a meaningful framework, necessary for happiness, can answer. I think Metz would agree with this objectivist theme, although demurring from Cottingham's theological interpretation of it. Overall, it is a rich contribution, but very concentrated and dense, and may need more than one reading to get the full picture.

By contrast, Muireann Quigley and John Harris deal with a seemingly theological topic in a secular fashion -- that of immortality, and its relationship to happiness. Their concern is to defend the ostensibly secular scientific goal of extending lifespan through biological means. There seems to be some confusion in who they are directing their arguments towards; at certain points they suggest that life-extension can cohere with goods as seen from more than one system of normative ethics (pg. 80), yet their framework seems to be uncompromisingly utilitarian. In particular, their foundational discussion concerning the value of life assumes contentious moves in normative ethics that are inadequately argued for here -- leading to somewhat blasé comments such as that their system 'explains the [moral] difference between abortion, infanticide and murder'. To say that this Singer-influenced claim is controversial would be an understatement: the vast majority of people would hold (and argue) that in the latter two cases there is no moral difference to be explained, and many would say the same about all three. The very foundation of Quigley and Harris' argument is then left exposed unless it can be translated into more neutral terms (or adequately defended).

The meat of the essay comes from a discussion of the purported disutility of an immortal life as presented by Bernard Williams: such a life would be boring, and thus unattractive, and would not maintain our identity. The second point is dispatched with a tu quoque to the proponent of a finite life, which seems to be on the right lines (although insufficiently argued here, instead sending the reader to another book). The first, which to my mind is interlinked with the second as a dilemma (either a life is so varied it cannot provide identity, or so monotonous it is boring), is dealt with by an (again, controversial) appeal to subjective accounts of value, and to John Martin Fischer's distinction between non-repeatable and repeatable pleasures.

Jordi Fernández' contribution relates happiness to incommensurable choices, where the goals cannot be compared -- in Sartre's famous example, the young Frenchman who has to decide between joining the Resistance and staying at home to look after his ailing mother. In Sartre's view this does not involve weighing up the strength of one's desires or the values that support them prior to the decision, in order to see which route one should go down. Rather the making of the decision is constitutive of the weight one places on those desires/values.

The motivation for this is to preserve freedom -- if there are definite weights assigned to our desires/values prior to our decision, then our ultimate choice seems predestined. However Fernández notes that Sartre's solution, that the weights assigned in our decision-making are discovered post facto, does not allow for situations in which we act in spite of our own preferences, such as weakness of the will. Instead, Fernández prefers another interpretation, that deliberating in incommensurable situations is 'the higher-order activity of stepping back from one's own actual ordering of desires/values, comparing them to an alternative ordering, and trying to make one of those orderings our own' (pgs. 208-209). If we can identify these orderings of values/desires with the kind of person we are, this view amounts to a kind of self-creation. Within this framework, incommensurable choices are relevant for happiness insofar as we evaluate our lives based on whether we behaved in the way that the person we wanted to be would have behaved. If we have done so, we have reason to be happy with our lives -- our lives have been good for us.

Whilst I think there may be something in Fernández' relation of incommensurable choices to happiness, there is a question to be raised regarding the coherence of this self-creation view if we want to hold on to Sartre's strong view of freedom. For if we are to make a decision regarding what type of person we are, on what values/desires are we basing this? If they are grounded, our choice of personhood seems necessitated, if they are ungrounded we again leave no room for weakness of will, and if they are the result of a further past choice we are on the road to infinite regress. So Fernández needs to defend his framework against this problem to preserve his positive insight.

I hope that these vignettes give some idea of the flavor of the book. The essays are short and often thought-provoking, although I imagine the prospective purchaser will not be interested in all chapters (or even both sections) equally.

 

© 2010 Nicholas Waghorn

 

Nicholas Waghorn is College Lecturer in Philosophy at St. Benet's Hall, University of Oxford. His research interests include the meaning of life and meta-ontology.


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Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology. We feature over 7800 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716