why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so

Socrates: Yes, indeed, Polus, that is my doctrine; the men and women who are gentle and good are also happy, as I maintain, and the unjust and evil are miserable.
Polus: Then, according to your doctrine, the said Archelaus is miserable?
Socrates: Yes, my friend, if he is wicked.
— Plato, Gorgias (Jowett trans.)

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of pain: this is the Noble Eightfold Way; namely, right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. …

Thus spoke the lord, and the five monks expressed delight and approval at the lord’s utterance. … And while the Wheel of Doctrine was set turning by the lord, the earth-dwelling gods raised a shout: ‘This supreme of Wheel of the Doctrine has been set going by the lord at Benares at Ispatana in the Deer Park …’
— from the Buddha’s Sermon at Benares (Burtt, trans.)

(Indianapolis) It would, indeed, be wonderful news if goodness reliably made us happy–and even better news if goodness were both necessary and sufficient for happiness. In that case:

  • We would have a reliable path out of suffering, because one can always do what is best among the possible options, and that makes you good. If goodness then brings happiness, one can always be happy.
  • We can be happy while also satisfying our conscience: that tension is banished.
  • We have an effective argument for people who threaten us. We can truthfully tell them that they can only get what they want (their own happiness) by doing what we want (being good to us and others).

So I don’t blame the monks and gods for raising a joyous shout when they heard the Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth. But is it a truth?

Social science says that making a contribution to one’s community is associated with feelings of happiness and satisfaction (see evidence from population studies and our own work at Tufts). That’s important to know. I would go so far as to say that a person who is languishing psychologically should probably try collaborating with others on a goal of public value. It’s wiser, too, to choose a career of public service than to be a rapacious capitalist or a tyrannical bureaucrat, because over time, you will have better odds of being happy.

But an empirical association isn’t enough to win Socrates’s argument in the Gorgias or to get the monks and gods joyously shouting. It won’t suffice for several reasons:

Being good probably doesn’t work for everyone. In the Gorgias, Callicles presents himself as a happy sociopath. Social science tells us those people are rare, but they may exist. And for them, goodness is not the path to happiness. So if you face Callicles, Socrates and the Buddha do not provide you with persuasive arguments.

Being good probably doesn’t work in every circumstance. Sure, it’s wise to choose an altruistic career, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be happier if you neglect an opportunity to steal a million dollars from a big corporation and get away with it. The statistical correlation between goodness and happiness arises because most people, most of the time, don’t have opportunities to be bad, safe, and happy. Alas, the opposite is also true: in tragic situations, being good is not much of a solace.

Surely one reason that goodness tends to produce happiness is that goodness is frequently rewarded, at least with the respect and gratitude of other people. But it is easy to think of cases in which doing the best thing will gain no respect or when acting badly is the best path to applause and acceptance. The statistical relationship between goodness and happiness breaks down in those–not infrequent–situations where goodness goes unnoticed or is actually disparaged.

The correlation between goodness and happiness is a variable, not a constant. In different subcultures, contexts, and times, goodness can either reliably produce happiness or come largely apart from it. If the relationship is a variable, then we can probably vary it. We can make cultures and situations more communitarian–so that being good generally requires harmonious interpersonal relationships–or we can strive for rugged individualism, so that people learn how to be happy without being good to others. Socrates proposes an extremely communitarian utopia in the Republic, and the Buddha actually built one when he founded the Sangha. But that doesn’t prove that people need community to be happy.

Finally, being good in order to be happy doesn’t sound like truly being good. It’s too transactional and self-interested; goodness becomes a coin that you accumulate to buy happiness.

Riffing off Nozick’s famous example: imagine that you are offered two pills. One will make you completely happy and impervious to all negative emotions for the rest of your life. Among the emotions that you will never feel again are guilt, sympathy, and righteous indignation. So you can live happily without being good. The other pill will make you good for the rest of your life: it will prevent you from wanting to make any unethical choices. I think most people would take neither pill, because we will not renounce our freedom and our sensitivity to the full range of emotions, including guilt and temptation. Happiness without goodness will feel hollow, and goodness without moral weakness will feel automatic and inhuman. But if your only goal is to be happy, you should take the first pill, not the second. And that shows that to want to be happy is not to want to be good.

This is why I think there are three different goods–equanimity or happiness, community or ethics, and truth–and none of the three guarantees any of the others. (By the way, despite my criticism of the Deer Park Sermon, Buddhism is compatible with the idea that there are different good things.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.