Happiness, Rationality, Autonomy and the Good Life

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    ABSTRACT. The paper starts with a general discussion of the concepts ofhappiness and the good life. I argue that there is a conceptual core of hap-piness which has to do with ones life as a whole. I discuss aective andattitude or life satisfaction views of happiness and indicate problems faced bythose views. I introduce my own view, the life plan view, which sees happi-ness as the ongoing realizing of global desires of the person. I argue that onsuch a view ones life could be happy without a high level of rationality or ahigh level of autonomy; such rationality and autonomy are not built into theconcept of happiness. So while happiness is a nal value, and good for theperson, it is not the only nal value. Rationality and autonomy are also nalvalues and, where they exist, are good as ends for the person, part of thegood life.

    KEY WORDS: autonomy, good life, happiness, life plan, rationality


    What is happiness? What is the good life? For much of the his-tory of thought these two questions have been understood asasking the same thing. For some of the ancient Greeks a keyquestion was whether happiness or the good life had to be amorally good life. For instance, Plato is concerned to showthrough a number of arguments in the Republic that the just(dikaios) or morally good person is also the happy person.And Aristotle, by dening happiness or eudaimonia as activ-ity exercising or realizing excellence or virtue, seems to by hisdenition work in morality as part of the nature of happinessor the good life.

    The topic for this collection of papers is the role of happinessin the good life. This leads to questions such as Is happiness

    Journal of Happiness Studies (2007) 8:5178 Springer 2006DOI 10.1007/s10902-006-9004-7

  • sufcient for the good life? and Are there other nal valueswhich are constituent or part of the good life?

    I will be arguing that happiness does not conceptually re-quire signicant levels of autonomy and rationality. When wethink of the good life, happiness is certainly a signicant, andperhaps central part of it, and something which is good for theperson who is living that life. I believe that rationality andautonomy with regard to lives can also be seen as having nalvalue, being good for the person living that life. Therefore theconcepts of happiness and the good life do not seem to equiva-lent; while happiness is certainly a major constituent of thegood life, it is not the only one. I have chosen to focus onrationality and autonomy because they might be believed bysome to be necessary conditions for happiness. I do not meanto suggest that these are the only other possible additional nalvalues. The introduction to this special issue mentions someother possibilities, such as friendship and self-knowledge. I shallsuggest several other candidates at the end of this paper.

    I will rst discuss some general things about the concept ofhappiness and the concept of the good life. Then I will sketchout my view of happiness. Following that I will discuss ratio-nality and autonomy and their role in the good life.


    While the word happiness and its adjective happy aresometimes used to refer to feelings (I feel so happy), moods(Shes in a happy mood), and attitudes (Im happy with myjob) I believe its central use is to refer to a life (He lived ahappy life). There are of course theories that attempt to ana-lyze the happiness of a life in terms of feelings (e.g., hedonistictheories), or an attitude (e.g., life satisfaction views, which seehappiness as liking, being satised with, or being pleased withones life), or attitude and mood (e.g., Headey and WearingsDynamic Equilibrium Model: according to that theory happi-ness is a mix of life satisfaction and positive affect (largely gen-eral good moods) (Headey and Wearing, 1989, 1992).


  • Happiness is a big concept and it has been used in differ-ent ways. Some people have been ultimately pessimistic aboutits meaningfulness. However, it has been used signicantly inthe history of philosophy. In addition, in recent empirical workpeople consistently make reference to it even when they usealternative terms such as subjective well-being, believing it iseasier to specify operational denitions of such terms to use inempirical studies.

    In order to clarify some things about the concept of happi-ness I would like to make use of a distinction between conceptsand conceptions. Some concepts, particularly big conceptssuch as happiness, justice, and race, while generally understood,may be unclear. There is no shared clear denition of them. Aconception is a particular understanding or articulation ofthe concept in question. For example, Rawls (1971) argues for aparticular conception of the concept of justice which he believescan be put to work to make good public policy recommenda-tions. Hardimon (2003) uses the distinction in a recent article toargue that we cannot get rid of the concept of race, as somewould like to do. What we want is to refuse to accept theracialist conception of race. As messy as big concepts suchas these are, we cannot avoid dealing with them.

    It seems to me there is a logical or conceptual core of theconcept of happiness that goes back at least to the ancientGreeks and still forms our general understanding of the con-cept. This logical core consists of happiness (a) as having to dowith ones life as a whole,1 (b) as being relatively long-lasting(when we talk about happiness of a life it is not just for a mo-ment or a day; it is for a signicant period),2 (c) as makingones life worthwhile (it is a nal value), and (d) as being some-thing all people desire. I believe people generally understandwhat it is, in terms of this logical core, even though they maydisagree with regard to particular conceptions of it. It is some-thing important, and of great concern to people. The logicaland conceptual core of the concept, then, is about the life useof the term. In addition, I believe that discussions of happinessin philosophy and the social sciences, while typically holding aparticular conception of happiness, presume the general conceptual


  • core of happiness. Some social scientic studies have used termssuch as subjective well-being, often claiming this makes whatthey are focusing on more precise and amenable to empiricalmeasurement. However, they generally indicate that subjectivewell-being is synonymous with or roughly synonymous withhappiness. Diener (1994) titles his article Subjective Well-Being, but often in the article uses happiness as a synonym.Headey and Wearing in their Dynamic Equilibrium Theoryfocus on subjective well-being and positive aect, but we cannote that the title of the book is Understanding Happiness.

    Haybron (2000, p. 211) distinguishes psychological happinessand prudential happiness, where the former focuses typically onstates of mind and the latter on well-being. He claims The no-tions of psychological and prudential happiness are not dierenttheories, or conceptions, of happiness; they are dierent con-cepts altogether, and denote dierent things. In the conclusionof the article (2000, p. 218) he says We may, when all is saidand done, wish to distinguish multiple varieties of happiness, oreven eliminate the term altogether.

    While Haybron is correct in noting that happiness is usedin some widely different senses in the literature, it seems to methat his claims go too far. Much of the interest in happiness hasto do with our lives, what I have claimed is the conceptual coreof the concept of happiness. Even the views that focus on psy-chological happiness, states of mind, are framed, I believe, in thelight of the happiness of a life. That is why both theorists andordinary people are interested in it. If a study uses happinessin a way that cannot in some sense be related to the core con-cept, rather than attempting to allow for this new application ofthe term we should strongly consider whether it is not either amisleading use of the term or even a misuse of it. To connectthis to my earlier discussion of dierent uses or senses of hap-piness, when we are thinking about the happiness of a life weare using it in the life sense. There is a feeling use or sense ofthe term, but that refers to feelings, and not ones life as awhole. Insofar as a theory uses happiness just in the feelingsense, and makes no eort to connect it to the life sense (e.g.,to claim that a happy life is one with general positive aect and


  • moods over time), then that theory is not a theory of happinessof a life.


    The good life is also a big concept. It has a long history. Ibelieve, however, that it is less clear than the concept of happi-ness. This can perhaps be seen by its easier application to vari-ous kinds of things such as a name for a chain of health clubs,advertisements about vacation spots, etc. It is harder to see aconceptual or logical core of it. Nevertheless, it is important forthe issues we are studying. Therefore, rather than relying onany kind of shared understanding, some stipulation of how weare using the term will be required. If we understand it to referto a life that is good for the person who lives it, good as a nalvalue, then we can meaningfully ask whether such a life will bethe same as happiness, or whether there may be other thingswhich could be seen as part of the good life, such as rationalityand autonomy.3


    If we seek to understand what a happy life is, or what makes alife happy, at the outset we should take care to note an ambigu-ity of the question What is happiness? Sometimes the ques-tion is about what is its nature. Sometimes the question is aboutwhat its conditions, antecedents, or determinants are, or how itmight be brought about (satisfying personal relationships, ade-quate income, meaningful work, etc.). I wish to focus on thenature of happiness. Some empirical studies of happiness sug-gest they are providing denitions of happiness, saying what itsnature is, when they really are discussing conditions, causes orcorrelations related to happiness (e.g., people who are relativelymore sociable report higher rates of satisfaction with their lives;people who are unemployed report signicantly lower rates ofsatisfaction with their lives, even if they are in a society with so-cial support such that they experience no loss of income).


  • I would like to briey discuss several views of the nature ofhappiness: affective views, attitude views and then my ownview, which sees it as the realizing or ongoing satisfaction ofglobal ends of the person (a life plan) along with a dispositionto have certain feelings and attitudes. These are, of course, notthe only views there are. For instance, there is Aristotles inu-ential view of happiness or eudaimonia as being virtuous activ-ity. Since I am focusing on happiness as a nal prudential goodfor the person, I do not see morality as conceptually built intohappiness. Happy lives can be moral or immoral. Aristotlesview of happiness makes happiness identical with the good life,including the morally good life.4 I will leave Aristotles viewaside and focus on views that do not build morality into theconcept of happiness.


    The Nineteenth Century British Utilitarians held an affectiveview of happiness, identifying it with pleasure or a collection ofpleasures.5 Jeremy Bentham claimed

    By utility is meant that property of an object whereby it tends to producebenefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness, (all this in the presentcase comes to the same thing) (Bentham, 1967, p. 368).

    Bentham believed that one could use a calculus related to plea-sure to determine the best alternative. John Stuart Mill seems tosee it as a collection of pleasures, with some qualications as henotes in saying that happiness

    ...is not a life of rapture, but moments of such, in an existence made upof few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decidedpredominance of the active over the passive and having, as the foundationof the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing(Mill, 1963, p. 255).

    Daniel Kahneman in Objective Happiness (1999) holds anaffective view that similarly sees happiness as a kind of collec-tion of positive feelings. He denes objective happiness asthe average of utility over a period of time. This is composedof a record of the quality of experience at each point-instant


  • utility. (He interprets utility as an evaluation of ones cur-rent state on a Good/Bad dimension.) About instant utilityhe says it is best understood as the strength of the dispositionto continue or to interrupt the current experience (1999, p. 4).He is concerned about how we can deal with the distortionsthat arise when we rely on remembered utility of past experi-ence. His ideal seems to be a record of actual instant utilitythat you could then average to come up with objective happi-ness.

    I believe the affective view fails as an adequate theory ofhappiness of a life. I will rst give an argument against identify-ing happiness with pleasure and then some arguments againstthe view that happiness is a collection of pleasures.

    If one identies happiness with pleasure (as Bentham seemsto) a problem that arises immediately is that while pleasures arefairly short-term experiences, happiness referring to a life islonger-term. For one to identify happiness with pleasure as afeeling, it would seem that one is using the feeling sense ofhappiness. While we cannot specify a time span for happinessin the life sense, it is clear that it refers to at least a period of alife.6

    The view that claims happiness is a collection of pleasuresavoids this argument. Mill clearly thought of happiness as akind of collection of pleasures, and this is perhaps what Ben-tham really had in mind. Kahnemans objective happinessseems to be a variety of this view, seeing happiness as havinghigh average positive moods or feelings.

    If the nature of happiness is a collection of pleasures a ques-tion that immediately arises is: When does a collection of plea-sures constitute happiness? It would seem that such a viewwould probably be committed to some kind of proportionality:not just any collection of pleasures will constitute happiness,and, in general, the more pleasures, the happier the person willbe. Will any balance of pleasure over pain constitute happiness,or is more required? If not just any collection of pleasures con-stitutes happiness, then, if this is to be an adequate theory ofhappiness, it must tell us what kind of collection constituteshappiness. Assuming an adequate theory of the nature of happiness


  • should be able to handle typical cases, there are counterexam-ples that arise. There are happy people who seem to have rel...


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