Ethics: The Science for Finding Happiness

Unless you are trapped in the tragic situation I’ll discuss later, you are trying to live a happy life. But you face a challenge: Feeling happy in one moment is not a fully reliable indicator of what will make you happy in the future. You can’t just say, “I’ll do whatever makes me happy right now.” You need to figure out what will make you happy your whole life.

Happiness is an emotion. As such it is (1) experienced with the immediacy of a sensation (you “feel” happy or afraid just as you “feel” cold or tired) and (2) it is an evaluation, performed by the subconscious, of your current situation. Feeling happy in one moment does not imply that you will feel happy a moment later. It all depends what caused the feeling in the first place.

So you need a way to judge what will make you happy in life, and being happy at one moment just doesn’t fit the bill. Maybe you have artificially induced the feeling with drugs that you cannot continue using. Maybe the conditions that are making you happy are fleeting.

In other words, short-range, in-the-moment hedonism is not guaranteed to bring you life-sized happiness.

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What will make you happy? We need a science for that.

You need some science that identifies what will make you happy. That is the science of ethics. Ethics is a science for those trying to be happy. It is the science that shows you why, that, and how, for example, being honest, independent, objective, productive, just, and so on will bring you life-sized happiness.

Ethics does this by identifying and then applying a standard or gauge for measuring the value of particular actions. And that standard, that gauge, is merely your life. If you take actions that promote your life, you will be happy. If you take actions that mess up your life, you will be unhappy. There’s no away around that. That’s just what happiness is—the emotion that comes from achieving values that are good for you.

Ayn Rand says it this way: “A ‘standard’ is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man’s choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose.”* Happiness is the highest purpose. Life is the standard. That is, you use life as your standard of value so that you can be happy.

Happiness varies in intensity and quantity. And it makes no sense to ask why someone would want more of it.

Keep that in mind when trying to understand Rand’s “Life is the standard of value.” One’s life is the yardstick, the measure, the gauge. This yardstick is used by those who have a reason to use it, namely those trying to be happy. They are trying to maximize something, and that’s why they need the guidance that the standard provides.

It’s not that you have some God-imposed duty to adopt your life as your standard of value. It’s simply that the way the human psyche works, if you are trying to be happy and are to succeed, you need to do things that are good for you. The more good they are, the happier you’ll be. If you take actions that are bad for you, you will be unhappy.

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What does Ayn Rand mean by “survival qua man”?

Some readers have difficulty with Rand’s phrase “qua man.” She says, “The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.”* She says those who reject life as the standard of good and evil are trying to live a “subhuman” life.

I take this not to mean that such a person is trying to survive by walking on all fours and eating dog food. Rather, such a person refuses to grow up and is living as a child: by mimicking. The life isn’t subhuman because the person has become a lower species but subhuman because his or her life is below the developmental level of a fully mature adult human.

No one really tries to go through life as a dog or a salamander. But many people do evade the contradictions and destructive implications of ideas and practices they pick up as children.

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Life is like pinball. The reward for playing well is that you get to play some more.

Now to the sad case of suicide. Wouldn’t saying life is the standard of value mean that suicide is always wrong? No.

Remember that life is like pinball: The reward for doing it well is that you get to play again. Some respond to Ayn Rand by saying, “You say there are no intrinsic values, but aren’t you saying that life itself is an exception, that it’s a universal and intrinsic good?” No. As one of my students nicely put it, “Life is a value, but only to the living.”** Playing pinball is a value to someone trying to continue the game. Life is a value to someone—and only to someone—trying to be happy.

Sadly, some who would try to be happy if they could, can’t. There are tragic cases where happiness is simply unavailable. Maybe someone has a terminal disease and all that lies ahead is three months of suffering. If happiness is unavailable, there is no value in living. And there is nothing immoral about such a person committing suicide.

Other cases of justified suicide work the same way. If a mother assumes responsibility for protecting her child at all cost and gets caught in a terrible situation where she must end her life to save her child’s, her choice to save the child is not a sacrifice. Happiness has become unavailable to her. She cannot be happy if she dies and she cannot be happy if she reneges on her commitment.

Was the soldier, police officer, or Secret Service agent right to jump in and take the bullet? Don’t such people sacrifice themselves? It depends on the pledge they made. They don’t go into the position planning to die, but they pledge to do so under certain conditions. Not fulfilling that pledge can ruin a life as much as fulfilling it would.

The cases are tragic, but they don’t refute the principles: Holding one’s life as a standard of value is not a commitment to range-of-the-moment hedonism. Nor is it an imposed duty. It is merely a commitment to finding and applying what will bring you a life of happiness. And since happiness is an emotion produced by and only by virtuous actions, holding one’s life as a sovereign standard of value is a commitment to those actions—to virtues such as rationality, objectivity, productiveness, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, and pride.

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Ethics is a science that identifies what will make you happy.

Now maybe you don’t think of ethics as the science that brings happiness. OK. Then start a new science, one whose task is to identify what principles of action will bring you maximum lifelong happiness.

If you use a good scientific method, you’ll come up with “Be honest with yourself and others,” “Act with integrity,” “Be rational and productive,” “Don’t be a burden on others,” “Act objectively and justly,” and other . . . well . . . virtues.

If you conclude that you can lie, cheat, and steal your way to happiness, then you made a mistake, just as if you had concluded you can cure cancer with crystals and bleeding. It turns out the human body and the human psyche just do not allow those causes to have those effects.

That’s science—whether you call the science “ethics,” or something else.

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Trying to be happy logically precedes wanting to be.

A final little bit: Note that above I don’t say “wanting to be happy.” I say “trying to be happy.” The two are not the same. “Trying” is the more fundamental concept. Only a person trying to be happy can want something. For emphasis you can say, “I want to be happy,” but that just means “It would make me happy to be happy.” For sorting out the dependencies in ethics, it’s important to see that try precedes want.

* Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness.

** Daniel Hackney, during my course at Brown University, “Politics and Philosophy of Ayn Rand.”

lindavandevrede
Daniel Gilbert has written an excellent book on this topic – “Stumbling on Happiness.” I like the idea of ethics as a science that brings happiness. Gilbert sheds additional light on how our minds function, and how “thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there.”

Neil Parille
Professor,
______

If you use a good scientific method, you’ll come up with “Be honest with yourself and others,” “Act with integrity,” “Be rational and
productive,” “Don’t be a burden on others,” “Act objectively and justly,” and other . . . well . . . virtues.

If you conclude that you can lie, cheat, and steal your way to happiness, then you made a mistake, just as if you had concluded you can cure cancer with crystals and bleeding. It turns out the human body and the human psyche just do not allow those causes to have those effects.
______

But what about the people who engage in “bad” behavior but report that they are quite happy? Are government employed diversity trainers unhappier than privately employed engineers?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Neil Parille
“But what about the people who engage in ‘bad’ behavior but report that they are quite happy?”

They’d be happier if they engaged in better behavior. That’s just how happiness works. No way around that.

A separate question is whether my list of what counts as good is correct or not. Should integrity not be on the list? Could someone be happier if they were irrational? If people you cite really would be happier being irrational, unproductive, and unjust, then my science of ethics has a mistake in it, just as if my science of medicine concluded penicillin would cure cancer. In other words, we’d be wrong to say the behavior of those people was bad. It would be, in fact, good.

Jurgis Brakas
I like the way the way you indicate the connection between life as the standard of value in the Objectivist ethics and happiness: ““A ‘standard’ is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man’s choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose.”* Happiness is the highest purpose. Life is the standard. That is, you use life as your standard of value so that you can be happy.”

When I taught Rand’s ethics to my intro students, that was a distinction whose full meaning they had a hard time grasping–and, to give them their due, its full meaning is not easy to grasp.

If you claim that life is the highest standard, the standard by which you determine whatever else is good or a value, it is certainly reasonable to ask: “Well, why should I chose that standard? Mustn’t there be a standard to which I have to appeal to justify accepting life as the standard?” Once you start going down that road, though, you are going to wind up in either one or the other of two unacceptable positions.

On the one hand, you will wind up in the same position as the person who gets trapped by the skeptic’s “criterion of truth” argument. To remind readers whose history of philosophy is a bit rusty, here it is: “Truth is judged by this standard. Well, by what standard do I judge that standard to be the right standard? Oh, you do that by appealing to this other standard . . . and so on ad infinitum. Thus, there is no way to determine what is true.” By the same logic, you’d wind up with the conclusion that there is no way to judge what is really good or of value.

On the other hand, if you say that life is the standard because it will make you happy–meaning by that that it is the standard which justifies life as the highest standard, then you do indeed get an answer that seems satisfactory–at least, in one sense. It makes no sense to ask “Why do you want to be happy?” or to demand an answer to “Justify to me why you would choose happiness as your highest end?” “Give me the reason why!” It’s an end in itself, and everyone knows it.

Unfortunately, you would then wind up being a hedonist–happiness being an emotional state, a “state of non-contradictory joy,” as Rand puts it (not intending that to be a definition of happiness).

So, you seem to be caught between a rock and hard place. Of course, you shouldn’t go down that path. The person who does would have saved himself a lot of heartache if he had realized from the beginning that he is really looking for an answer to why a contradiction is true: What is the (higher) standard by which I can justify that life is the highest standard? Even if he realizes this, he might still be left with the nagging feeling that his choice of life as the highest standard is arbitrary–because it MUST, SOMEHOW, be answered. What I quoted from your blog neatly gives the answer. The question to ask is: What’s in it for me? Choosing life as the standard will MAKE YOU HAPPY (or, at least, give you a shot at it). So, you justify the choice by appealing to A RESULT THAT IS AN OUTCOME OF THAT CHOICE, not by appealing to a standard by which to justify that standard. You are indeed appealing to an emotion to justify it: Who doesn’t want to be happy? Anything wrong with that? Seems just fine to me.

I wrote this for anyone out there who might still be struggling with this problem. I did, once. If you are, I hope it helps.

dogmai, reply to Jurgis Brakas
Jurgis,
I’m not sure I follow your reasoning here. I agree with you that the attempt to justify life as the standard by appealing to yet another (higher) standard is a contradiction but it is that way, not because one is appealing to an emotional result of that choice, but because the actual outcome (i.e. life) is presupposed by making the attempt to justify it in the first place.

In other words, life does not need a justification. I think its this last part that confuses most people and leads them into the first trap that you describe above. The question itself implies its own answer. A person who literally does not choose (including choosing to ask philosophical questions) also literally does not act, what follows eventually is death.

Perhaps its just semantics, but I think that formulating it the way you did is problematic because it emphasizes an emotion as a base, not the fact of reality that gives rise to our need for questions and justifications in the first place.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Jurgis Brakas
Thanks Jurgis, for following the blog and for your helpful comments.

Do note that I don’t use wanting to be happy as the starting point, but trying to be. Everyone wants to be (i.e., would be happy to be) happy, even that suffering and terminally ill patient. But, tragically, that patient is no longer trying to be happy. For happiness has become unavailable.

All sentient organisms are, or at least start out, trying to maximize the highest form of pleasure available to them. That’s automatic. “Want” is a much narrower concept.

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