What is the difference between ignorance and happiness


Is a "philosophy of happiness" even possible?

The question of happiness is one of the questions that philosophy has been carrying around with it since its inception, even dragging it around like a heavy burden. This can be an indication that this question is a real problem, one that requires many centuries of thought from the best of minds in order to be clarified and possibly brought to a solution. But this can also be an indication that it is a question that philosophy cannot seriously clarify, let alone solve, and on which it grits its teeth in vain because it even deals with the methods of philosophy can not be answered. Should one interpret the fact that the question of happiness is a perennial question of philosophy, for example as an indication that it is not a philosophical, but a psychological question that must be investigated with empirical instruments and in which the Philosophy with its a priori methods cannot achieve anything at all?

For this view - which is from the outset skeptical of the possibility of a philosophy of happiness - there is - surprisingly - a prominent philosophical witness, namely Immanuel Kant. Kant wrote in his most famous work, The Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals:

The concept of happiness (is) such a vague concept that, although every person wishes to arrive at it, he can never say definitely and unanimously with himself what he actually wants and wants. The reason for this is that all elements belonging to the concept of happiness are collectively empirical; i. must be borrowed from experience (Theory-Werkausgabe vol. VII, ffm. 1964, p. 47).

For this reason, among other things, according to Kant, happiness should at best play a marginal role in ethics. Since "happiness" is a purely empirical term and empirical psychology is responsible for what happiness is and what constitutes happiness, this term should be taboo for ethics - at least for ethics that undertake it, that which we are morally obliged to do are to be defined purely a priori and independently of all empirical elements. But even for an ethics that is not as abstinent as the Kantian in relation to empirical facts, Kant sees little chance of being able to successfully fall back on the concept of happiness. Because for him the concept of happiness is not only too empirical to be able to play a role in legislation based on pure reason, it is also too relative to be able to provide something like a general guideline for action:

Both the circumstances of the time and the very conflicting and always changeable delusion in which someone places his happiness makes all fixed principles impossible and unsuitable for the principle of legislation in and of themselves (op. Cit., P. 154)

Since concepts of happiness depend on time and mentality, it should not even be possible to imagine a psychological theory of happiness with claims that span time, culture and mentality. Not only the chances for a philosophical, even the chances for a psychological theory of happiness are extremely poor. Even an ethic that, unlike the Kantian one, would be prepared to include anthropological conditions in its norms, would be ill advised to talk about happiness.
The consequences of such a happiness skepticism are somewhat radical: Not only that moral teachings such as that of utilitarianism, which expressly include the concept of happiness in their highest norm, would be doomed to failure. The wisdom doctrines that dominated ancient philosophy would also be affected. These certainly want to be "instructions" for happiness and give - like the teachings of happiness in the Stoa and the Epicureans - sometimes detailed recommendations. If happiness is always highly individually determined according to its content, there cannot be such general instructions - except for the purely formal and unhelpful, everyone should be happy according to their own style. If the concept of happiness were actually as open and relative as Kant assumed, a large part of the conventional doctrines of life and wisdom would simply be obsolete. Happiness would be a matter of taste that cannot be argued about and nothing binding can be said.

But is Kant's skepticism about happiness justified? It seems to me that Kant was only able to maintain this skepticism because he treated the question of happiness too indifferently and overlooked a distinction on which the possibility of a "philosophy of happiness" depends: the distinction between the question of what happiness in general is is or what the linguistic expression "happiness" means, and the question of what people get their happiness from, d. H. what constitutes your happiness in concreto. The first question relates to what people look for when they are looking for happiness, the other, where do they find happiness when they find it. There is convincing empirical evidence that people find their happiness in very different things. A glance at history or foreign cultures shows that. In today's Europe, for example, the dimension of religion and religiosity for personal happiness has lost much of its importance compared to previous centuries, while it has increased in importance in most other regions of the world.

The entire western world is characterized by the close connection that is seen between happiness and achievement. The "royal road" to happiness is seen in productive and creative activities and in the powerful acceptance and successful mastery of challenges. In Africa, the prevailing concept of happiness is polarized almost exactly the other way around. What is more important here is being left alone and the absence of conflicts. The results of the numerous empirical studies on the self-attribution of happiness are correspondingly irritating for us: high values ​​are regularly obtained in what we consider to be "backward" countries, for example in Bangla Desh or in the countries of Central America. But the fact that people find happiness in very different things does not show that they are looking for something different in their search for happiness and that by the word "happiness" they mean something different. Even if it should turn out in the end that there can be no more concrete and more helpful "instruction to a blessed life" than to be blessed according to one's - time, culture and personality-related - this in no way excludes the possibility of overflowing What we mean by "happiness" and what we are looking for when we are looking for happiness allow us to make a series of thoroughly illuminating and debatable statements that can provide the basis for a "philosophy of happiness", even if this is necessary are more formal and possibly less helpful than the friend of the ancient doctrines of happiness might hope for.

Such a formal statement has long been part of the core of the theorems of a philosophy of happiness, the so-called "happiness paradox": the impossibility of directly striving to achieve happiness. It is difficult to become happy by seeking happiness directly. Happiness eludes direct intention. In order to hit, one must not aim directly at the goal, but trust in gaining happiness through the achievement of independent goals. In a sense, happiness is only available ex post, not ex ante, and never with a delivery guarantee.

Happiness - episodic versus periodic

"Happiness" is anything but a clear linguistic expression. Perhaps the most important distinction is that between two distinct roles that happiness plays in our speaking and thinking, namely "episodic" and "periodic" happiness.
What is "episodic" happiness? Episodic means that an inner state lasts for a certain time and is more or less constant during this time. We know such episodic luck mainly in two variants; as an acute feeling of happiness that afflicts us - expected or unexpected - and as the happiness of devotion, immersion in and immersion in a thing or activity. One is associated with an increased awareness, the other with a subdued awareness. Whoever feels "sky high," is very much aware of himself. The feeling of happiness imposes itself on the consciousness, for example in the re-encounter scene with Venice, which Nietzsche brought up in his poem "Mein Glück" and the first lines of which are:

I see the pigeons of San Marco again:
The place is quiet, morning rests on it.
In a gentle coolness I idly send songs
Like flocks of pigeons up into the blue ...

and that in every stanza, like a chorus, the exclamation "My luck! My luck!" repeated. Often such a feeling of happiness is inexplicable or even paradoxical, e.g. B. as sudden euphoria, which like a bolt of lightning flashes through an otherwise pronounced depressive mood. An example can be found in Mörike's poem "Verborgenheit", set to music by Hugo Wolf:

Often times I'm barely aware
and the bright joy draws out
through the heaviness,
so squeeze me,
blissfully in my chest.

The "I am barely aware" cannot be understood here in the sense that this flash of happiness escapes my attention. It has to be understood as: I don't understand what is actually going on here. Such an acute feeling of happiness is not only occasionally a strange, but occasionally also a not only welcome guest. In its penetrance it can even be extremely irritating, for example when it is perceived as inappropriate and normatively inadequate, e.g. B. in the form of a sudden flare-up of triumph at the news of the failure or death of a current or potential rival.

It is different with the acute happiness of immersion and devotion. It is characteristic of this that we only become aware of it occasionally, in rare reflexive moments. With this feeling of happiness, our attention is bound by the object, we vibrate with the rhythm of the thing and the activity, we are "tied up" in a positive sense. Bertrand Russell has described this feeling of happiness somewhat pathetically as "deep, instinctive oneness with the flow of life"; Csikszentmihaly calls it "flow". "Tied up" in the sense of being restricted in his freedom of movement is primarily self-confidence, thinking about oneself. Because an essential part of this kind of happiness is the happiness of self-forgetfulness. If we know that we are happy as surrenders, it is only because we ascribe happiness to ourselves indirectly or retrospectively, as it were when we temporarily emerge from the stream, in which we indulge ourselves like a swimmer to the water. It is by no means necessary for this knowledge to occur at all. One can know this happiness without knowing anything about it. This happiness has no concept and is not tied to judging yourself as happy.
There is a profound, categorical difference between these two forms of episodic happiness, acute euphoria and the happiness of immersion, and periodic happiness. Both forms of episodic happiness belong to the category of sensations or moods. Both are internal states, albeit of a complex kind. Even if they flow from activities, they have something passive and receptive that withdraws them from direct voluntary control. It is completely different with the other variant, periodic luck. This is not a matter of states, but of judgments, namely judgments about the overall quality of differently extended periods of one's own life or that of someone else's life. Here, too, it is about internal and not external states. It is about life only insofar as this is reflected in an inner experience. But more than in the case of the second form of episodic happiness, the assessment is an ex post assessment: with periodic happiness, a certain period of a life or a whole life is assessed as overall happy or unhappy. In both cases, the assessment is made retrospectively, in the case of happiness that encompasses the whole of life, sometimes called "overarching", only in the hour of death or when immersing in the darkness of oblivion. Wittgenstein's last words are paradigmatic for periodic happiness: "Tell them, it was a very good life."

The fact that the promise of happiness in "periodic" happiness is based on a summarizing judgment and not on an actual awareness of feelings or moods has serious consequences for the chances of truth in the corresponding statements. Periodic and especially "overarching" self and external ascriptions of happiness or unhappiness are much more exposed to cognitive and affective distortion tendencies than judgments about current feelings and moods: the illusionary "transfiguration" of the past, the repressing of unpleasant or embarrassing occurrences, the depressive gloom the memories or simply the overestimation of the last and therefore most vivid phase.

However, a year or a whole life is not "happy" or "unhappy" as a whole because - in the sense of "that ends well, all is well" - it ended happily or unhappily. The final cadenza doesn't make up the whole symphony. A judgment on happiness and unhappiness for entire periods is only adequate if a sum is drawn from the totality of the individual episodes in which all episodes are considered equally.

But when is a judgment that a year, a phase of life or a whole life was happy, justified? Must all individual episodes have been filled with episodic happiness in one form or another? Is it necessary that happiness be dominated by happiness every single moment in a happy life? Strangely enough, we encounter this view again in Kant, if only because in this way he tries to lead the concept of happiness ad absurdum: In the same foundation of the metaphysics of morals already cited, he claims, "on the idea of ​​happiness ( be) an absolute whole, a maximum of well-being required in my present and every future condition. " The idea of ​​a happy life is therefore that of a life in which a maximum of happy moments is realized, in which every moment is as happy as it can be without making another moment of the same life less happy. However, this view is extremely implausible. It boils down to the fact that we could only speak of a happy life, a happy year or a happy day in the unrealistic case that the integral over all individual moments results in an unbeatable maximum.

However, this idealizing point of view in no way corresponds to the concept of happiness that is at home in everyday language. According to the prevailing concept of happiness and unhappiness, a life or a phase of life is not only happy if they each realize the maximum possible feeling of happiness. One may even wonder whether episodic feelings of happiness are even necessary for a happy period in life. In this sense, Nietzsche, among other things, said: Close to the woes of the world, and often on its volcanic soil, man created his "little gardens of happiness". And there is more happiness on earth "than seeing cloudy eyes: if you do not forget ... all those moments of comfort in which every day is rich in every, even the most troubled human life." Fortunately for entire periods, it may be sufficient for the subjective experience to be rated as satisfactory over a certain period of time. In any case, contrary to what Kant's maximalism suggests, a period of life does not become unhappy because the joy of successes, conquests, career leaps, recovery and salvation wear out and, in the course of the disintegration of gratuities, give way to unexciting satisfaction. It is also undisputed that the happiness judgment about a period is not already falsified by the fact that the period in question also contains explicit phases of unhappiness. Interestingly, it is among the consistent results of a large number of empirical studies that people who describe themselves as particularly happy report more distinctly unhappy phases than those who describe themselves as less happy. This confirms Nietzsche's assumption that it is not unhappiness or suffering that is actually the opposite of happiness, but rather dullness and lack of vitality.

The relative independence of episodic happiness and periodic happiness also applies the other way around: A single happiness experience is not devalued by the fact that it is preceded or followed by less positive experiences and that it turns the respective stages of life or an entire life into an unhappy one. Nor is it devalued by the fact that it is not very coherent with the prevailing mood of a phase of life. Even a happy dream is real happiness.

The double subjectivism of happiness

In the philosophy of the last few years there has been a tendency - which I do not share - to alienate the concept of happiness from the concept on which common parlance is based, by enriching it with further elements. In contrast to well-being, happiness contains not only subjective, but also objective moments. The common point of reference for these efforts, which are quite different in detail, is Aristotle's concept of eudaemonia. According to the standard of eudaemonia, happiness is measured neither according to feelings of happiness nor according to retrospective assessments of basic moods, but according to the success of an entire life measured against social standards. In contrast, the term that has prevailed in common usage since the beginning of modern times is subjectivist in two ways. On the one hand, happiness is basically a psychological phenomenon, a quality of consciousness, not of objective conditions. Happiness in the sense of happiness is a subjective state, in principle independent of external happiness. Second, happiness depends on judgments on a thoroughly subjective standard. Whether someone is happy and how happy he is is measured by how his subjective state appears to him from his own point of view. The subject is sovereign in assessment.

Both features are characteristic of the specifically modern concept of happiness. Already in the Enlightenment, happiness was linked exclusively to subjective experience, the state of mind of a person. This can be seen in a significant detail: in the 18th century, the adjective "blissful" was often spelled with a double e. It has been associated with "soul", while etymologically it basically has nothing to do with it: "-sal" is originally a general suffix for states, as in "fate", "hardship" etc. The connection between well-being and well-being , inner well-being and outer prosperity had already dissolved. The fairy tale "Hans in Luck" by the Brothers Grimm draws on this independence: Hans in luck is Hans in misery and yet in luck. At the beginning of the story he receives a large lump of gold from his master as a reward for several years of work and is not only subjectively but also objectively lucky. The point of the story, however, is precisely that, while his objective happiness gradually disappears, subjectively he has no loss of inner happiness to complain about. He keeps exchanging what he has for something else according to his needs at the moment: the gold for a horse that he can ride, the horse for a cow that gives milk, a pig, a goose, and finally one Whetstone. And when the whetstone falls into a well, he is happy that he doesn't have to carry it any further and walks home lightly and unmarried. What makes him happy is his spontaneity and his indefatigability: that looking at the bright side.

The second subjectivistic characteristic of happiness, the sovereignty of evaluation, also has somewhat confusing consequences, which on the other hand explain why philosophers like Kant thought that they could not say anything general about happiness: there happiness and unhappiness in the sense of periodic happiness judgments and none Are sensations, they depend to a considerable extent on individual evaluation standards and demands. Happiness, as Schopenhauer said after Epicurus, is a fraction in which goods are in the numerator and claims in the denominator. The larger the denominator, the smaller the result. This applies not only to external, but also to internal goods. Not only the standards by which someone judges their external circumstances depend on personality and character traits - but of course also on the comparison with others and with the past - but also the standards by which someone judges their inner sensitivities. Relatively minor improvements in mood may well be perceived as happiness by someone who is not spoiled in this regard.

The fact that the comparison with the real or supposed sensitivities of others is also not unimportant, was shown in particular by social indicator research of the 1970s: the subjective self-attribution of happiness depends to a large extent less on the extent to which people are objectively owned than on the relative position in relation to others - although the self-attribution of happiness seems to depend on the existence of real or apparently unhappier to a much lesser extent than the self-attribution of unhappiness on the existence of real or apparently happier ones. In this respect, it is not surprising that the social science studies on the topic consistently showed that the relatively better off in all societies also feel better subjectively, regardless of the absolute level of prosperity. The relative concept of poverty, which is actually paradoxical in itself, since according to it a poor person in a rich country can be richer than a rich person in a poor country, seems to have a psychological reality.

Another consequence of the evaluation relativity is that there can be no general and absolutely binding, substantive happiness theory. Which external and internal good fortune make a person happy depends firstly on what kind of person he is and what is important to him - this is usually something different for the hysterical than for the compulsive, and for the depressed something different than for the schizoid - and, secondly, the cultural context and the level of aspiration determined by the respective socio-economic conditions. Even if one follows Czikszentmihaly in that the self-attribution of happiness largely depends on the extent to which one ascribes success in overcoming tasks and challenges, these challenges can look very different depending on the cultural context. In the Middle Ages, for example, moral and religious challenges played a much more important role than they do today. The decisive factor was the unanimity of the soul with a divine order that creates a feeling of security. Today it has been replaced by unanimity with self-imposed norms and ideals. These allow considerably more freedom in defining the standards, but are sometimes much more demanding and therefore much more dangerous for happiness.

A "happiness theory" does not rule out once and for all that general statements about happiness are hardly possible. Such a theory would only have to be much more differentiated and diversified than the conventional philosophical doctrines of happiness. Above all, it would have to avoid their fundamental mistakes and not elevate philosophizing itself to the rank of the non plus ultra of happiness as one-sidedly as most of the philosophers in our culture, from Plato to Nietzsche, have done.

Good fortune, pleasure gain and wish fulfillment - three happiness theories and their deficits

The most important consequence that arises from the double subjectivism of the concept of happiness has not yet been mentioned: the impossibility of maintaining one of the three theories of happiness favored in the history of Western thought: the happiness goods theory, happiness hedonism and wish fulfillment theory.

Theories of happiness goods identify happiness with certain external and internal goods such as health, security, social integration, self-respect or the intensity of experience. Anyone who obtains such goods is eo ipso happy with it, i. H. for purely semantic-conceptual reasons. Happiness is not a matter of well-being or reflective self-assessment, but a matter of objectively realized characteristics in a person. According to this concept, happiness can therefore be judged more adequately from the external perspective than from the internal perspective. The happiness goods theory par excellence is Aristotle's theory of eudaemonia: Nobody can own it who does not, for example, live long, has children and belongs to the class of full citizens. For Aristotle, conceptually it is impossible for a slave to attain eudaemonia.

From the perspective of the concept of happiness, which is established in everyday language, theories of good fortune undermine a simple mix-up. They confuse the typical causes, sources and objects of feelings of happiness and happiness assessments with these themselves. The relationship between goods of happiness and happiness is not a conceptual one, but an empirical one. It is true that the possession of good fortune such as health, wealth, recognition, etc. creates - as lawyers would say - a presumption that their owner is happy. However, this cannot be inferred from this either in the sense of a logical or in the sense of a natural law necessity.
The fact that wealth does not make you happy eo ipso is already proverbial. The same also applies to health, which Schopenhauer considered to be the definitive good luck good. In the course of a successful coping process, the needs and expectations of a patient can adapt so "seamlessly" to their objective living conditions that they are subjectively better off than in their previous healthy state. When it comes down to what the individual considers important, the so-called "satisfaction paradox" often observed in medicine is basically not a real paradox and the so-called "dissatisfaction dilemma" is not a real dilemma. "Satisfaction paradox" means that patients feel much better, and "dissatisfaction dilemma" means that they feel much worse than what corresponds to their objective state of health. These phenomena are only paradoxical against the background of a happiness theory of health, according to which health and illness as such must be important to us. Empirically, however, this assumption only applies to a limited extent. For many people, health and illness are less important than their secondary effects, e.g. B. the consequences for partnership, care situation, living conditions, ability to act, ability to communicate, ability to work. A certain basic trust in the world and in oneself, a positive basic attitude and élan vital (Bertrand Russell spoke of zest) seem more important for satisfaction with life than external fate.

Incidentally, in recent years medicine has consistently subjectification of the concept of quality of life, which increasingly approximates the subjectivistically understood concept of happiness. Of course, this approach has a price, namely a strong individualization of the indication. This runs in the exact opposite direction against the simultaneous trend towards standardization of the therapeutic procedure. While older measuring instruments for recording the quality of life in medicine (such as the Karnofsky Performance Status or the Rosser matrix) measure the quality of life essentially according to objective parameters or allow it to depend on external assessments, measures have now become established that essentially rely on the self-assessments of the patients and so not only primarily take into account their subjective well-being, but also their subjective standards.

For medical practice, this change from objective or attributive to subjective and self-attributive assessment bases has a meaning that cannot be overlooked. First, empirical findings suggest that self-assessments and those of others who assess quality of life sometimes differ widely. Doctors consider the quality of life of their patients to be much more severely impaired by the disease than the patients themselves, especially if they expect the symptoms to worsen in the future. On the other hand, they tend to overestimate the quality of life improvements that can be achieved through treatment.

Second, a subjectification of quality of life as a treatment goal forces the patient to be more closely involved in medical decision-making processes. If the subjective quality of life is the decisive treatment goal, the decision as to which of several alternative therapeutic approaches is optimal for a particular patient must be made, among other things. be guided by the individual values ​​on which his quality of life depends. Since it is often not the current, but the predicted future evaluations of the patient that are decisive for the choice of therapy, this means a considerable complication. The doctor not only has to assess how the therapy will affect the physical condition, but also how it will affect the patient's well-being, more precisely: on the patient's reflective assessment of his or her well-being - taking into account his adaptability and tolerance to side effects and taking into account the resulting non-medical stress and relief factors.
As a rule, the doctor will only be able to adequately make such a decision if he fully includes the patient in the decision. In this respect, individualization means not only a complication, but also an opportunity for improved patient care. The doctor and the nursing staff must take note of the patient's subjective point of view, they must listen to him.

From the point of view of the subjectivist concept of happiness (which I claim that it corresponds to the everyday concept that has prevailed since the Enlightenment), a theory of happiness goods is clearly deficient. It misses the first subjectivistic moment, which includes the self- and external attribution of happiness, the essentially psychological nature of the phenomenon. Happiness hedonism, on the other hand, which identifies happiness with pleasure, does not do justice to the second subjectivistic element of happiness, the sovereignty of evaluation. One of the best-known representatives of such a happiness hedonism was Sigmund Freud. He wrote in discomfort in the culture:

We turn ... to ... the question of what people themselves reveal through their behavior as the purpose and intention of their life, what they demand from life, what they want to achieve in it. The answer to this can hardly be missed; they strive for happiness, they want to be happy and stay that way. Striving has two sides, a positive and a negative goal. On the one hand, it wants the absence of pain and discomfort and, on the other hand, the experience of strong feelings of pleasure. In the narrower sense of the word, happiness is only related to the latter (study edition Vol. IX, 1974, p. 208)

The happiness hedonism, which Freud advocates in this passage, is exposed to two serious objections: Even if it is true that all people become and want to remain happy, it does not follow that they derive this happiness exclusively from experiencing strong feelings of pleasure want. Scientists, for example, strive primarily for truth and knowledge, others primarily for status, prosperity or power. Even if achieving these goals is usually associated with strong feelings of pleasure, these are not what you strive for - as if you don't care what you get these feelings of pleasure from.

Second, equating happiness and pleasure does not do justice to the peculiarity of either the episodic or the periodic variants of happiness. Episodic happiness can be purely sentient. But as a rule they are more complex than pure feelings of pleasure and have a cognitive aspect beyond the sensory ones. We are not just happy or unhappy, but happy or unhappy about certain external and internal issues. The periodic concept of happiness is also largely independent of sensations of pleasure. Whether we are happy depends not only on our sensory state, but also on what we think and believe, and therefore also on how we interpret our sensory states. Unpleasant sensations can make a person unhappy to different degrees, depending on how he understands them: whether as meaningful or senseless, as temporary or chronic, as a sign of improvement or deterioration. Even if it is unlikely that someone will describe himself as happy who experiences no or only very few positive emotional states, it is not only a question of the number and intensity of these positive emotional states, but of whether he or she uses his emotional life against the background of himself highly personal standards of value experienced as satisfactory.

The third conception, incompatible with the double subjectivism of happiness, the wish-fulfillment theory, is particularly widespread in economics, as it allows - at least in some variants - to read the extent of subjective benefit directly from the preferences observable in economic behavior. But the fulfillment of wishes can, for easily seen reasons, be regarded as neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition of happiness. You can wish for a lot - the possible and the impossible, the realizable and the unrealizable, the near and the distant, the own and the foreign. But only those wish-fulfillments can be experienced as happiness that fall within the informational and temporal horizon of the person making the wish. Only these can in any way affect the consciousness of the one who desires. No legatee can become happier by having his heirs fulfill his legacy. At best, he can become happy through the thought that he can trust that his legacy will be fulfilled. Wishes can be unreasonable, misguided or unrealistic in many ways: wishful thinking not only seduces into wrong thoughts, but also into wrong wishes. Someone can be rich or want to fall in love and, when those wishes are fulfilled, find that they find both difficult to bear. In addition, there are psychological concerns about the wish fulfillment theory. It is doubtful whether we should wish someone whom we wish happiness to have all of their wishes come true. An essential condition of happiness seems to be that at least some wishes remain unfulfilled, at least not yet fulfilled - as a kind of utopian horizon of "blessed longing". Literal "wishless happiness" is possibly a contradictio in adjecto.
Neither is a sufficient wish fulfillment a necessary condition of happiness. Happiness does not depend on a previous wish being directed towards it - or towards the states and activities experienced or judged to be exhilarating.

The subjectivist theory of happiness under suspicion of ideology

Why are so few philosophers willing to accept the subjectivist concept of happiness? The explanation for this amounts to nothing less than a paradox: on the one hand, because for them a subjectivist concept of happiness is under a certain "ideological suspicion". On the other hand, because they instrumentalize the concept of happiness itself in a quasi-ideological way by "charging" it with further values. The motives are always honorable, but not always the argumentation strategies with which they are realized.

Why is the subjectivist concept of happiness under suspicion of ideology? Simply because such a term does not offer a handle to demand an improvement in objective living conditions. If happiness is a purely subjective factor, it is often more convenient and less expensive to reorient needs than to improve objective living conditions. A strategy of adaptation offers undeniable advantages - both for the individual and for society. Historical experience shows that reforms and revolutions, but also enlightenment and emancipation, in a subjectivistic sense of happiness, by no means make people happier, but in many cases only make them more demanding and dissatisfied. Are the people in the new federal states really happier in a subjectivist sense than in the GDR era, even if objectively they are much better off? Are agnostics and atheists happier than religious fundamentalists because they are less or not at all anchored in a religious belief? If religion is the opium of the people, does it then necessarily feel better subjectively if this opium is taken from them and replaced by the achievements of the welfare state?

At this point there is a dissent between happiness subjectivists and happiness objectivists that is difficult to overcome: subjectivists of happiness traditionally rely on adaptation, self-humility and lowering of demands in order to immunize happiness as far as possible against the vicissitudes of fate . They see the most massive threat to happiness in increasing the level of aspiration, or, as Czikszentmihaly puts it - in the Stoic and Epicurean tradition - the "frustrating treadmill of rising expectations". In fact, for the subjectivist, the ability to be happy depends essentially on the ability to match expectations to the circumstances - on a mechanism of flexible adaptation of needs to the chances of satisfaction, which Schopenhauer described in his "Aphorisms of Wisdom" in relation to material wealth as follows has described:

The fact that after losing wealth or prosperity, as soon as the first pain is over, our habitual mood does not turn out very different from the previous one, is because, after fate has reduced the factor of our property, we ourselves now decrease the factor of our claims very much. But this operation is what is actually painful in an accident. After it has been completed, the pain becomes less and less, in the end it is no longer felt: the wound heals. Conversely, in the event of a stroke of luck, the compressor is pushed up to our demands and they expand: Herein lies the joy. But even this does not last longer than until this operation is fully completed: We get used to the expanded level of claims and become indifferent to the property corresponding to it. (Aphorisms for the wisdom of life, Zurich edition, Vol. VIII, 1977, p. 379).

For objectivists, there is something ideological in this appeal to adaptability: however well meant it may be - it cements the objective relationships and undermines the driving forces for their improvement. Therefore - this is the conclusion drawn by these philosophers - not all happiness-inducing needs gratifications are equal. From Plato to Marcuse, the majority of philosophers agree that there are also false needs and false subjective happiness, happiness that is deficient in certain valuable respects, even if it is perceived as such subjectively. False luck is z. B. one that creates satisfaction with wrong circumstances rather than the suffering required to change circumstances.

This brings us to the second - for their part not entirely ideology-free - strategy of the majority of philosophers with regard to happiness: the enrichment of the concept of happiness through certain objective moments that are independent of the consciousness of the subject. If you put them together, you get an impressive list:

- "Real or true happiness must not be illusory, it must be anchored in reality."
That is a more demanding requirement than it appears at first glance. After all, is the happiness of being in love based on a realistic perception of reality rather than one that is distorted to the point of delusional? Does the illusory world of intoxication necessarily make you unhappy? Of course, it is advisable to ensure that the sources of happiness are realistic enough for reasons of prudence. Like lies, illusions usually have short legs. But this does not apply if the illusions are directed towards the transcendent and are not in danger of being falsified by experience, as is the case with many religious beliefs and political doctrines of salvation.

- “Real or true happiness must not be self-induced or manipulated, it has to come about without any action on your part. 'Artificial' happiness is not real happiness, real happiness is not 'feasible' ".
This criticism is directed not only against the happiness of drugs and mood enhancers, but also against happiness through psychotechnology, to which many of the happiness teachings of late antiquity can easily be attributed. For the Epicureans and Stoics, ataraxia and apathy were forms of immunization against external vicissitudes that should be achieved through autotherapy, through systematic self-observation and exercise. For the objectivist, such happiness techniques are nothing more than strategies of adaptation to a false reality, which are unable to convey sufficient security and security and therefore - ideologically - glorify poverty into asceticism, dependence into piety, lack of freedom into self-humility.
This requirement is also extremely demanding. Is the happiness that is granted to a person prone to depression by taking antidepressants spurious or false by the fact that he "technically" manipulates his internal state?

- "Real or true happiness must not be bought at the price of immorality, but must correspond to the moral norms applicable in the society in question."
On this point, too, the gap between subjectivists and objectivists proves to be difficult to bridge. Subjectivists like Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, had no qualms about completely demoralizing happiness: even the happiness of malicious pleasure, vengeance, destructiveness, and crime is real happiness. Already in the Bible there is the saying of Solomon: "When the wicked perish, one becomes happy". Crime may be short-sighted in many or even most of the cases, given the risk of having a guilty conscience. But the fact that it is fun for many is demonstrated by the tendency towards tax fraud and frenzy in road traffic, which is also widespread among the inconspicuous. Objectivists are more strict on this point. For them, happiness is not only a condition of morality, but morality is also a condition of happiness. Philosophers more or less agree that happiness, or at least contentment, is a condition of morality. Kant therefore even formulated an indirect duty to ensure that one is happy. But many objectivists go further and claim that one must also be worthy of happiness in order to be truly happy. Living well also means living well in a moral sense.
This requirement is also extremely demanding. What would the happiness objectivist say about Casanova's self-description, that he had perfect health, no duties, no worries, no dependency, plenty of money, luck in the game and success with women - and was therefore deeply happy. Is Casanova deluding itself here? Or did he not understand what "happiness" actually means?
Real or true happiness must not be based on ignorance, but on knowledge, understanding, and insight.
John Stuart Mill expressed this idea, which has persisted through the centuries, of the superiority of cultivated over uncultivated happiness in such a way that happiness is not just about quantity, but also quality. Although the life of the fool may be happier in terms of quantity than the life of Socrates, this is far superior to the life of the fool in terms of quality. However, the fool cannot make a competent decision on the quality, because that requires familiarity with both types of happiness, which the fool does not have at all.

But this desperate attempt by Mills to combine subjectivism with objectivism demonstrates the fundamental dilemma of the happiness objectivist: On the one hand, he wants to maintain the subjective judgment, the sovereignty of the subject. He wants to hold on to the fact that happiness is what everyone means when they say that they strive for happiness. On the other hand, however, he wants to ensure that the sources and objects of happiness do not degenerate into anything but meet certain value standards. Instead of naming these value standards in a nutshell and postulating truth, knowledge, contact with reality, cultivation and morality as independent values, these values ​​are incorporated into the concept of happiness. The only question is whether the concept of happiness has a sufficiently large stomach and can tolerate this heavy diet.

The strategy of the objectivist is obvious: by projecting a multitude of independent values ​​into the concept of happiness, he wants to integrate the factual pluralism of our values ​​into a single all-encompassing value of "happiness". "Happiness" then no longer only means that someone is happy according to his inner state and his subjective assessment, but also says something about being happy because of the right things and activities. The subjectivistic concept of happiness in everyday language is tacitly identified with these objective values. That's the ideological thing about it.

We all have ideals of happiness. As a rule, we not only have a desire to become happy, but also a desire to become happy through certain things. As a rule, we not only want our children to be happy, but also want them to be happy through certain - through the right - things. Yes, the desire to be happy through the right things can even outweigh the desire for happiness to take a back seat. In this sense one must understand Nietzsche's exaggeration: "Man does not strive for happiness; only the English do that". Why are these ideals equated with happiness by so many philosophers, so that the impression arises that wanting to be happy - or rather: truly - happy means wanting to become autonomous, moral, cultivated, rational, etc. at the same time?

One possible explanation for this lies in a specifically modern dilemma. With the claim that certain ideals of happiness are binding, the objectivist of happiness loads himself with a huge burden of proof. It is not easy to make certain ideals of happiness generally binding in a culturally pluralistic context: Appeals to common identities, traditions and self-images are of no use when they are most likely to be considered necessary, namely in times of their being questioned. John Stuart Mill's strategy of subjecting the hedonism of utilitarianism to the typical Victorian values ​​under the title of an independent standard of quality could only appear promising to him because he referred to a social milieu with a relatively closed and stable canon of values ​​and he could assume that that his readers wanted not only to be happy, but also to do so through roughly the same cultivated ways of life. We no longer have this guarantee today. Happiness objectivism is inter alia. to be understood as an attempt to overcome this dilemma.

Text shortened by the editor. The original version can be found on the Internet in the e-journal “Philosophy of Psychology” at: www.jp.philo.at


Dieter Birnbacher is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Düsseldorf.