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The Moral Worth of Happiness
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 22 Apr 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Classical Ethical Theories class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

With the exception of Aristotelians, there seems to be a presumption in ethics that an individual's personal happiness is not a legitimate moral end. In Mill, for example, while happiness is an acceptable goal, the happiness must be general in nature, spread out across society. Partiality towards one's own happiness or that of loved ones is unacceptable from a moral standpoint for Mill. In Kant's ethics, the idea that happiness is not a morally worthy pursuit is prominent; only actions which spring from respect for the moral law possess moral value. However, the idea that personal happiness is not a valid moral end is a presumption in ethics, not a foregone conclusion -- and a presumption needing just as much (if not more) justification as the Aristotelian notion of personal happiness as the final end.

In this paper, then, I outline Kant's argument against happiness as a moral motivator of human action. From there, I argue that the rejection of the end of happiness might result from the desire to make the world more regular and calculable. Finally, I argue that the degree of necessity and universality in Kant's ethics seems unnecessary, particularly in comparison to Aristotle's perspective.

Kant's primary objection to happiness as a moral end is that it does not give rise to the universality, necessity, and harmony which he is determined to achieve in his ethics. Kant writes that making happiness a moral end would result in "the extreme opposite of harmony" because "the wills of all do not have one and the same object, but each person has his own (his own welfare)" (CPrR 27). Although such wills pursuing their own interests could "accidentally agree" with one another, no necessary universal law could be established (CPrR 27).

The impossibility of universality and necessity with a principle of happiness (even a utilitarian principle of general happiness) is a result of the fact that "the knowledge [of what constitutes happiness] rests on mere data of experience" (CPrR 37). Because "each judgment concerning it depends very much upon the very changeable opinion of each person," the principle of happiness can only give rise to "general but never universal rules" (CPrR 37). For Kant, however, ethics must be constituted by a moral law, one which "holds good for everyone having reason and will" (CPrR 37).

Kant's rejection of happiness thus depends upon his prior, deep commitments to universality and necessity in ethics, which are only made possible by his two-world metaphysics, in which the intelligible realm is valued more highly than the empirical. Kant's bifurcation of the world into two distinct realms -- one of sense, inclination, empirical data, contingency, and particularism and the other of pure reason, duty, concepts, necessity, and universality -- allows him to claim that necessity and universality is possible in an ethical theory. However, as I have argued elsewhere,[1] Kant's metaphysics is unstable and self-contradictory in ways which substantially undermine his ethical project. At the very least, there is too little justification for either dividing up the world or ranking those worlds in terms of value.

The presumption against personal happiness by Kant and others can also be understood in a Nietzschean light -- as the result of attempting to impose order and regularity in a risky, unstable world. This instability is seen most clearly in less developed societies, which are more dramatically affected by the unpredictability of nature. In all societies, no matter what the level of political, social, or technological complexity, humans need and adopt strategies for risk reduction. In our present culture, we frequently buy insurance, but otherwise generally only rely upon family members and perhaps close friends for aid in times of trouble. In less complex societies, reciprocity is a rational alternative means of reducing risk. A woman might give her neighbor food when asked, with the expectation that she will be able to call in the favor when she is short of food in her own household. It is common for pastoralists to exchange herd animals with trusted friends, so that if one's own herd gets dramatically reduced by disease or drought, one is more likely to have a greater number of animals survive (i.e. those kept by the friend). These self-interested strategies for risk-reduction are not generally thought of in those terms by the people who practice them; they simply become part of the morals of the society as an ethic of "sharing" which might seem altruistic on its face.[2]

In such situations, these strategies for reducing risk help impose a sort of order and regularity on the world; it is at least stable enough that one is assured of having something to eat. Additionally, because these very self-interested survival strategies are not recognized as self-interested, an other-regarding ideal emerges, one which certainly rejects personal happiness as a legitimate moral standard. As a result, necessity and universality are valued in ethics, while an ethic of personal happiness is (unjustly) associated with harming others, quickly discarding principles, and social isolation (rather than with an Aristotelian conception of the happy life).

This analysis indicates that the disagreement between those who reject the personal happiness standard (such as Kant) versus those who adopt it (such as Aristotle) might often lie much deeper than ethics. Indeed, Kant's and Aristotle's desires for absolute certainty, universality, and necessity differ greatly. For Kant, a philosophical system not containing those three elements is less-than-ideal; he is clearly striving for clear, indisputable ethical principles to be universally applied to all rational beings. Aristotle, on the other hand, warns against asking for too much certainty in ethics and, in fact, rejects the idea that there is a need for universalism. He writes that "matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health" and that particular cases cannot be resolved by any universal rule because "the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion" (NE 1104a4). Given these leanings, it is not surprising that Kant repudiates all inclinations as legitimate motivations to moral action in favor of duty, while Aristotle advocates using the emotions to help form better dispositions.

In the end, Kant's attempt to extract order from human life -- a continually changing and evolving process -- seems artificial, particularly in comparison to Aristotle's lack of concern for such regularity in ethics. Kant's ethics thus seems to want to find necessity and stability where change and growth naturally exist -- and, as a result, rejects the personal happiness far too quickly.


[1] In my final paper for Kant and 19th Century Philosophy in Spring 1995, I argued that only Kant's metaphysics can ground his ethics of duty but that that metaphysics is too self-contradictory to justify any other principles.

[2] This discussion comes out of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class. Although there is no specific cite I can give, the subject came up repeatedly in lectures and readings.

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