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Non-Muslim and non-Iranian philosophers - Part I

Philosophical discussion of the concept of 'happiness' has been tended to be found mainly within moral philosophy. It is associated especially with the classical utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The utilitarian assert that happiness is, as a matter of fact, the ultimate aim at which all human actions are directed and that it is therefore the ultimate standard by which to judge the rightness or wrongness of actions. 'Actions are right', says Mill, 'in proportion as they tend to promote happiness'- that is to say, 'the general happiness', the happiness of all concerned.

Still following Bentham, Mill goes on to equate happiness with 'pleasure and the absence of pain'. For Bentham, the identity of 'happiness' and 'pleasure' is quite straight forward. An action's tendency to promote happiness is determined simply by adding up the amounts of pleasure, and subtracting the amounts of pain, which it will produce. It is a matter solely of quantitative factors such as the intensity and the duration of the pleasurable and painful feelings.

Mill is aware that this is altogether too crude. Happiness, he acknowledges, depends not only on the quantity but also on the quality of pleasures. Human beings, because of the distinctively human capacities they possess, require more to make them happy than the accumulation of pleasurable sensations. They are made happy not by the 'flower pleasures' but by the 'higher pleasures' - 'the pleasures of the intellect, of the feeling and imagination, and of the moral sentiments'.

Mill departs still further from the purely quantitative notion of happiness when he recognizes that it is not just a sum of unrelated experiences but also an ordered whole. To say that human beings aim at happiness is not to deny that they pursue more specific goals such as knowledge or artistic and cultural activity or moral goodness, and that they pursue these things for their own sake. These are some of the 'ingredients' which go to make up a life of happiness.

Mill is here attempting, perhaps unsuccessfully, to combine two traditions of thought about 'happiness'. The identification of 'happiness' with 'pleasure' we may call the 'hedonistic' conception of happiness. This we may contrast with what has been called the 'eudemonistic' conception of happiness. The term comes from the Greek word 'eudaimonia', which is usually translated as 'happiness'. Although one of the Greek philosophical schools, Epicureanism, did identify eudaimonia with pleasure. The Greek concept lends itself less easily than the English term to this identification. In English one can speak of 'feeling happy', and although the relation between such states of feeling and a life of happiness is not entirely clear, they are undoubtedly connected - one could not be said to have a happy life if one never felt happy. The term eudaimonia refers not so much to a psychological state as to the objective character of a person's life.

The classic account of eudaimonia is given by Aristotle. He emphasizes that it has to do with the quality of one's life as a whole; indeed, he sees some plausibility in the traditional aphorism 'call no man happy until he is dead' (though he also recognizes that there is little plausibility in calling someone happy after he is dead). For Aristotle happiness is to be identified above all with the fulfillment of one's distinctively human potentialities. These are located in the exercise of reason, in both its practical and its theoretical form. Aristotle is thus the ancestor of one stand in Mill, and of that general conception of 'happiness' which links it with ideas of 'fulfillment' and 'self-realization'. Norman; cited in Honderich, 2005.

All ethical theories accord some importance to human happiness. They differ first in their conception of what that happiness consists in, secondly in views of how an agent's own personal happiness is aligned with, or traded against, the general happiness, and thirdly in whether it is necessary to acknowledge any other end for human action. The simplest doctrine is that happiness is itself quite straightforward, consisting for example in occasions of pleasure; that agents only do seek or ought to seek their own happiness; and that there is no other possible or desirable end of action. The Cyrenaica may have held a doctrine along these lines. Complexity arises with more subtle conceptions of the nature of happiness. Finally, theories of ethics that are not consequentialist in nature may recognize other ethically important features of action than those arising from the goal of maximizing either personal or social happiness (Blackburn, 2005).

In ordinary use, the word 'happiness' has to do with one's situation (one is fortunate) or with one's state of mind (one is glad, cheerful) or, typically, with both. These two elements appear in different proportions on different occasions. If one is concerned with a long stretch of time (as in 'a happy life'), one is likely to focus more on situation than on state of mind. In a short period of time, it is not uncommon to focus on states of mind.

By and large philosophers are more interested in longterm cases. One's life is happy if one is content that life has brought one much of what one regards as important. There is a pull in these lifetime assessments towards a person's objective situation and away from the person's subjective responses. The important notion for ethics is 'wellbeing' -that is, a notion of what makes an individual life go well. 'Happiness' is important because many philosophers have thought that happiness is the only thing that contributes to wellbeing, or because they have used 'happiness' to mean the same as 'wellbeing'.

What, then, makes a life go well? Some have thought that it was the presence of a positive feeling tone. Others have thought that it was having one's desires fulfilled - either actual desires (as some would say) or informed desires (as others would say). It is unclear how stringent the requirement of 'informed' must be; if it is fairly stringent it can, in effect, require abandoning desire explanations and adopting instead an explanation in terms of a list of good-making features in human life (Griffin, 2000).

The distinction between happiness and pleasure is frequently blurred. In ordinary Language, happiness is frequently used to indicate a more stable, less intense state than pleasure. Yet one could hardly predicate happiness of a life that was altogether without pleasure. While those teleological moralists who have favored utilitarian conceptions of moral obligation have (apart from the late Professor G. E. Moore and his followers) usually adopted a hedonist conception of the end of moral action, those moralists who have combined teleological ideas with the rejection of utilitarianism have inclined to speak of a happy life as the end of human beings, happiness being found in, and sometimes identified with, a life of fulfillment and harmony both within the individual's relations with others.

In much contemporary thinking about ethics, the notion of happiness is frequently invoked in criticism of moral conceptions which exalt such ideas as duty, obedience to superiors and established traditions, heroic engagement, and even commitment, and at least by implication deprecate the significance of the individual's concern for his or her own and others' welfare. Against such views (not without their representatives among avant-garde theologians), the importance of happiness as an unsophisticated, but comprehensive, human end receives justified and intelligible emphasis. (Mackinnon; cited in Macquarrie & Childress, 2005).

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence that every human being has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." For Americans, this pursuit of happiness has been more than just an abstract right. It has also been the concrete inspiration for many millions- among them immigrants, pioneers, entrepreneurs and industrialists- to follow the American dream.

In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote, "How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure." What is the happiness that motivates so many? Is it a good thing to pursue? Is it something that can ever be caught?

Adapted from the book: "Foundations of Happiness"

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