Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The moral value of happiness

MelbournePhilosopher

It is better to be happy than sad. Morally speaking, it is better to promote happiness than sadness. Is a happy person a better person that a sad one? If not, then why is happiness better than sadness?

It is clearly more pleasant to be happy, although that may be a circular argument. People are assumed these days to be morally equal, although that has little "meaning" except to say that no one person should be valued above another arbitrarily - i.e. due to factors not relevant to some situation. A merchant and a thief have the same rights under the law. Is the merchant a better person than the thief? Perhaps we can say that he is better, but that doesn't give him a higher moral value. But what are we speaking of when we talk of moral value anyway?

Is it that we should feel the same about other people, or that was should be just to other people? Is a person's moral value about feelings, or about justice? Or is it only actions that have moral value, and ascribing a moral value to an individual is an error of language?

All good questions.

-MP

7 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

"But what are we speaking of when we talk of moral value anyway?"

I think we need to make a distinction here. Everyone is of equal 'moral worth' in the sense that they are (prima facie) equally deserving of our moral consideration. This is not so much a claim about them, but about *us* and how we ought to behave towards other people.

The second sense is about how morally praiseworthy someone is. A thief is a worse person than a merchant, because he has a worse character or acts in morally worse ways. That's a claim about him (rather than how we ought to treat him).

"Is a happy person a better person that a sad one? If not, then why is happiness better than sadness?"

I would say that happiness is partly constituative of wellbeing (it's something we all desire, after all). But that is to say that happiness is good FOR us, not good OF us. A happy person isn't better, but rather better-off.

One could understand this in terms of the means-ends distinction. Happiness is the 'end' (or purpose) of morality. We can assess people either for how good a 'means' they are in bringing about this end (i.e. how moral they are = how successfully they bring happiness to others); or for how much of the 'end' they have achieved themselves.

So there's an important distinction between being a (morally) better person, and being a 'better-off' person. The former causes happiness; the latter receives it.

12/29/2004 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Richard, at least in so far as it comes to happiness.

I might try running with the idea in a further post, and see how the same way of looking at various human appetites unfolds...

12/30/2004 01:06:00 AM  
Blogger a process of emanation said...

Richard said: A happy person isn't better, but rather better-off.

I don't even belive that is true. Whatever you want to judge 'better-off' by, say success? Some life state that is greater than another?

Take for example the Thief, give him the Merchants store, the life comforts that allow for the 'better-off' life state. Is he now Happier?

Certainly Happy and Sad don't have enough definition to provide the backbone to a an argument of moral value.

MelbournePhilosopher said: ascribing a moral value to an individual is an error of language?

Yes?

12/31/2004 06:18:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Do you think that if you offered the following deal to wealthy people, than any unhappy wealthy people would not take it?

The deal is the guarantee of happiness at the cost of all your material wealth at the moment, although in the future you may of course become rich again.

I don't think anyone would be likely to turn that down, if they believed the guarantee.

1/02/2005 05:31:00 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moral value, in my thinking, comes from something posessing categorical/absolute value. Respecting this entity as having the ultimate value, and as an end would then be the basis of ethics. If something has categorical value, it has this value objectivly without qualification. What then has categorical value?

Utilitarianism says happiness has categorical value.

Kantian Deontology says Persons have categorical value.

If happiness is the ultimate end, then our value would be measured in two ways: First how much happiness we have, and then our utility in producing happiness.

If persons are the ultimate end, then happiness is a means to an end, us. Sadness would be bad since it brings harm to the ultimate thing of value, us.

8/23/2006 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous CastleStudent said...

Surely sadness is necessary, without it we would not be able to judge our happiness, it would even be debatable that we can't be happy if we are never sad. Of course there will always be greater levels of happiness, caused by higher and lower pleasures.
Perhaps happiness can only have a moral value if sadness has as well?

2/18/2009 03:00:00 AM  

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