Is Happiness an Ethical Obligation?

This article was inspired by David Yerle’s post on Morality.

What makes an act ethical? For example, take two people: X and Y. Is it ethical if:

  • X hits Y without provocation?
  • X hits Y out of revenge because Y hit X first?
  • X helps Y because X knows people are watching?
  • X helps Y because it gives X a warm feeling?
  • X helps Y because X feels Y’s pain?
  • X helps Y because X would want help in that situation?
  • X helps Y because X feels good knowing Y was helped?
  • X helps Y because X wants to do the right thing?

In each case above, X helps Y because there is a payoff. What about the case where X helps Y simply because it was the right thing to do — with no desire for actually doing it?ย 

  • Is this even possible?ย 
  • Can people behave out of pure duty?
  • Is there such a thing as a motivation-less act?
  • Is motivation synonymous with payoff?

In short, are we all selfish, but a certain subset of motives is deemed ethical? If so, then is the word “Ethics” meaningful, since it is often defined as opposed to self-interest?

If all acts are out of self interest, ย then a pragmatic attitude towards ethics would be to harness self interest so that one is motivated to act ethically, even when there is no apparent reward or punishment. How can this be done?

One way is to claim there is always a reward. Universal reward/punishment systems in the form of a belief in God or Karma (both articulated with the “What goes around, comes around” expression) are one way. This raises a question first posed by Plato. If God determines ethics, then is something ethical because God determined it, or did God determine it because it is ethical? If the former, then any inhumanly unethical act that came from God would be ethical. If it is the latter, then something is held above God, not determined by God.

Another is to invite ethical behavior for its own sake by reprogramming oneself to desire ethics. The Stoics did this and derived it from an analysis of the problem with desire. Since desire’s main problem was the possibility of frustration, an object of desire entirely in our hands was the solution. Ethical intent was just such an object.

Yet another way is to capitalize on an apparently happy coincidence: the mental states underlying ethical behavior (like compassion and forgiveness) are happier (in the long run at least) than those underlying unethical behavior (like hatred and greed). This becomes doubly important because some people think seeking happiness is selfish. By tying happiness to ethics, they get the motivation and even permission to seek happiness. This is reinforced by the observation that a path that cultivates a less conditioned happiness:

  • Makes one less likely to come into conflict with others
  • Makes one less likely to be hurt and thus seek revenge
  • Frees time and money that can be used to help others
  • Makes one more pleasant and helpful (happy people are usually nicer)

People thus can do things that invite happier states of mind and also feel better about themselves and the world. This could form a positive feedback loop.

Yet there is a tension here. It is the tension between action and contemplation. Many of these paths are contemplative and are often seen as a self-absorbed withdrawal from the world. This criticism has been applied to all contemplatives, from Buddhists to Christians. Yet this withdrawal is what enables people to work on themselves so as to uproot their ant-ethical tendencies and face the world as more ethical beings.

What’s more, as they become more content, ethics becomes logical. After all, if all beings matter and one’s happiness is addressed, what is left to do but to help?

If you were perfectly content no matter what you did, would you be motivated to spend your life helping others? If not, why not? What would you spend your life doing and why?

5 thoughts on “Is Happiness an Ethical Obligation?

  1. Very interesting article, as ever, BR! Thank you for writing this. ๐Ÿ™‚
    From recently reading Parfit, I would add that it’s possible for ethical behaviour to be perfectly compatible with doing what’s in our own best interest. But of course that is not always the case. If there is any way out of the dilemma, I would say it has to do with finding a way to want what you get from life. I’m just not sure if the way the Stoics tried to achieve this would work for me.
    I really like the idea of promoting ethical behaviour because it can make us happy. Somehow that seems a lot more realistic than striving to be a saint. But from trying contemplation (for a limited amount of time I must admit) I don’t recall feeling happy. Feeling calm, yes. Maybe sometimes experiencing something that approached equanimity. But not something that I would call feeling happy.
    I’d like to ask you what your experiences are in relation to this! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I would like to know your experiences with contemplation.

      I found that this holds for me. I find I care more about others as I find more contentment/care less about myself. What is more, I do volunteer work, and I am happier for it.

      1. I have never called it contemplation, to be honest. But when I started meditation I discovered that it felt really good to practice outside. I like to look at water moving past, or grass, or mountains. And if I ever had sensations comparable to what you described in the earlier article on Deikman and the blue vase, I think of those experiences.
        I do feel that when you are contented, it seems to free up time that can be used to care about others. But I think I am embarking on a new phase of great doubt. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. You make some really great points. Just one thing: you seem to take for granted a certain definition of “ethical”, which seems related to helping people, etc. But what defines those ethics? Why those and not others? That’s what I’m interested in. My answer would probably be that it doesn’t matter what is ethical: there’s no ethics, only self-interest. And that empathy and self-interest are all you need to not hurt others, except for some fringe cases that I’ll elaborate on at some stage.
    Regarding your last question, my personal view is that, if I was perfectly content, I’d just stay at home and do nothing (and probably starve to death, since I’d feel no hunger). There must be some measure of non-contentedness for me to actually have some motivation to move. Similarly, if I help others it is because it makes me happy to do so, but coming from perfect contentment I would have very little reason to help anyone, since I would already be perfectly happy just sitting there. That is, in order to help, making people happy has to make me happier than just sitting there: if that’s the case, I was not perfectly content in the first place. Maybe I was “moderately content.” But that was not what you asked.

    1. You are right, I do take that definition for granted. I should have laid that assumption out at the outset. I use that as my criteria because pain and joy are ultimately what matters. After all, kicking a rock differs from kicking a person because the oerson feels pain. I assume the rock does not.

      Your answer about contentment goes back to the question about acts and motivations. Would a contented person have motivations?

      Maybe a bias is sneaking in to my view. I guess I assume, deep down, that we are ethical and it is our self interest that stands in the way. This may be why I equate ethics with logic. This assumption could be wrong.

      Thanks for revealing another assumption behind my thinking!

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