For the Love of Wisdom

The logic of iambic half-lines

Can Bad People Be Happy?

The Nazi war criminal basking on the Argentinean beach: Is he happy?

Can only a good person be truly happy? Or do we only wish this were the case?

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the delightful Stumbling on Happiness, thinks we only wish this were true. And he lays part of the blame on philosophy.

"For two thousand years philosophers have felt compelled to identify happiness with virtue because that is the sort of happiness they think we ought to want. And maybe they're right. But if living one's life virtuously is a cause of happiness, it is not happiness itself, and it does us not good to obfuscate a discussion by calling both the cause and the consequence by the same name...

By muddling causes and consequences, philosophers have been forced to construct tortured defenses of some truly astonishing claims- for example, that a Nazi war criminal who is basking on an Argentinean beach is not really happy, whereas the pious missionary who is being eaten by cannibals is. "Happiness will not tremble," Cicero wrote in the first century BC, "however much it is tortured." That statement may be admired for its moxie, but it probably doesn't capture the sentiments of the missionary who was drafted to play the role of the entrée.

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 Happiness is a word that we generally use to indicate an experience and not the actions that give rise to it. Does it make any sense to say, "After a day spent killing his parents, Frank was happy"? Indeed it does. We hope there never is such a person, but the sentence is grammatical, well-formed, and easily understood." Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, p.39-40.

A quick response on behalf of a philosophical account of happiness.

1. Gilbert's first point is easily taken. The ancient Greek philosophers recognized they were proposing an account of happiness that was unlike what was conventionally taken to make up "happiness". Like us now, ancient people thought happiness was a matter of health, success, security, a good family and respect. The philosophers were attempting to revise this list of requirements because they, like Gilbert, saw that not everything on the list was necessary to happiness. So yes, it takes some "moxie" to refer to one proposal on happiness as happiness itself. There should be many more terms to distinguish between the various accounts.

I'll refer to the ancient proposal as "philosophical happiness" to keep it distinct from conventional or common sense ideas about happiness, and from Gilbert's experience-based account of happiness.

2. The Nazi war criminal on vacation isn't happy! Gilbert regards this as an astonishing claim. Is it? I can tell that Gilbert himself is a pretty good guy from this alone. Most of us, I dare say, have spent a vacation or two at the beach rueful and distracted by something we've recently done, some conflict we've gotten ourselves involved in. Or if readers are too innocent to know what I mean -- take one of the Real Housewives programs to illustrate that a nice setting does not guarantee peace of mind.

And if a beach vacation can be ruined by our typically minor infractions, how much worse must it be for an actual criminal? (Barring, of course, that such people have very distinct psychologies - and so many of them must.)

This is the kind of thing that empirical research could pick up on, once "good person", "typical person", and "bad person" can be operationalized. Until then, are we really begging the question when we consider the philosophical idea that bad behavior comes at a psychic cost? Even if we focus on the experience of happiness, Gilbert's focus, we can have our suspicions about which type of person can enjoy life's moments more, can't we? This would be to leave who or what we admire out of it altogether.

3. The pious missionary is going to die in a painful way. That doesn't sound great. But we all die, and if the nurses I know aren't misleading me, "dying of old age, in your sleep" doesn't always go down as peacefully as we like to think. So, let's say lots of us are going to die painfully. Does this elevate the war criminal's "happiness"? He is dying at some point, too. When is it meaningful to compare conditions? The ancients were not describing happiness as an experience, like Gilbert, so they haven't proposed something as ridiculous as he suggests. And this is despite their having authored a few lines like this...

4. "Happiness will not tremble," Cicero wrote in the first century BC, "however much it is tortured."

Yes, this is moxie. Cicero is referring to "happiness" and not people being tortured, but even so, in making this claim, Cicero is bolder than Aristotle. Aristotle worries about what we would say of the person being tortured. Clearly, the situation could not be worse. But for Aristotle the difficultly comes from wanting to refer to two things- the torture of the moment and "philosophical happiness" - what makes a person's life as a whole happy. Sure, this will blend the experience of happiness with all sorts of normative assessments about what it is good for us to do. And sure, the metric of "philosophical happiness" may seem totally useless to a researcher. There is no promise that moments of experienced happiness add up to one "philosophically happy" life in Cicero's view. There is no easy way to compare the life the ancient philosophers were recommending to the experience of happiness. But - to the extent we recognize what the philosophers were saying- to the extent we can anticipate that no Real Housewife is going to experience much happiness on her next filmed vacation- this just points to the need for more terms.

I think Gilbert's example of the boy who killed his parents being happy the next day does too.

5. Jared Loughner, of course, was smiling in his mugshot. Surely we need further resources than detecting happy affects and feelings, if we want anything about happiness to matter at all. And perhaps I can defer to the science, as it perhaps rules out Loughner's mania as being similar to other experiences of happiness. But Gilbert's example of the happy killer makes me think he believes happiness can only be straightened out if we look to the data we can gather about it, including data from people feeling happy after deaths.

I don't know. I guess I hope Gilbert continues to get all the data he can. But I think I might want Cicero to help code it. What do you think?

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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