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loaded dice


What is happiness is an old and still pertinent question. I devoted a lot of time to this question in the 00s, when I was trying to write a book about what I called the Human Limit – the notion, overthrown in the Early Modern Age in much of Europe, that there was some limit as to what humans could do to the world. To my mind, the overthrow of that notion – the notion of fate, of nemesis, of some God with a balance in her hand – was made, I thought, under the banner of happiness – the idea that happiness, or well being, was not only the point of the individual life, but the shared premise of the preferred political and social order.

The weird notions of longtermism derive, philosophically, I think, from one encoding of this notion of happiness. Because, in the end, happiness was justificative but not self-explanatory, the move was to simplify it: to make it a quantitative proposition. Thus, more of the x that “made you happy” was a good, so we should have more x, more and more. This eventually translated into happiness is more stuff. This leads to the low ball sci fi fantasies of the Oxford longtermist dudes.

So, a little philosophical riff.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle takes a stab at illustrating happiness, and then defines it using the method one uses to describe organisms – he sorts through its various constituent parts. This being long before functional accounts of organisms, there isn’t any attempt to show the necessary connection of these parts or how their coordination brings about happiness. On the other hand, though in some ways a rather wild analysis, much of what Aristotle says has been adopted by economists to talk about well being. Happiness, regarded from the outside, then, and reduced to its most typical circumstances, looks something like to Aristotle:
“It may be said that every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid. This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituents. Let us, then, by way of illustration only, ascertain what is in general the nature of happiness, and what are the elements of its constituent parts. For all advice to do things or not to do them is concerned with happiness and with the things that make for or against it; whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do; whatever destroys or hampers happiness, or gives rise to its opposite, we ought not to do.
We may define happiness as prosperity combined with virtue; or as independence of life; or as the secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure; or as a good condition of property and body, together with the power of guarding one's property and body and making use of them. That happiness is one or more of these things, pretty well everybody agrees.
From this definition of happiness it follows that its constituent parts are: -- good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers, together with fame, honour, good luck, and virtue. A man cannot fail to be completely independent if he possesses these internal and these external goods; for besides these there are no others to have. (Goods of the soul and of the body are internal. Good birth, friends, money, and honour are external.) Further, we think that he should possess resources and luck, in order to make his life really secure.”

Further in the Rhetoric, Aristotle elaborates – for instance, that wealth would consist of having plenty of coin and slaves. This concantenation has served as a useful guide to the limits of conceptual talk about happiness, but not a very good guide to its cause, or as an explanation, really, of the feeling of happiness and the use of happiness to describe these states. In other words, why should we call any of this happiness?

Philosophers who study the classics often come in here and say, “happiness” is a poor translation for eudaemonia. I’m not sure what numinous other elements are contained in “eudamonia” that make the translation as happiness, which is one of the most common in the European languages, so bad. In fact, when people talk about living a “happy” life, I think eudamonia is what is meant. 

In Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslateables, the entry on happiness emphasizes the etymological relationship to chance, of good “hap”.

“In almost all European languages, then, happiness is synonymous with luck or good fortune, the advantages we receive by chance. German, however, with the difference between Glück and Glückseligkeit, seeks to strengthen ( in the tradition of Aristotle’s distinction between eutuchia and eudaimonia ) an opposition between the moral goal ( “happiness” that pertains to the innermost spiritual life ) and favorable contingency.”
Can we load the dice: that might be the great modern question.

Hume elaborated a critique of Aristotle’s hierarchical notion of happiness and its attachment to certain conventional circumstances, in his essay, the Skeptic, that may well have been what Tolstoy was thinking of when he famously wrote, in Anna Karenin, that all happy families are alike. Hume’s skeptic claims:

“The inference upon the whole is, that it is not from the value or worth of the object, which any person pursues, that we can determine his enjoyment, but merely from the passion with which he pursues it, and the success which he meets with in his pursuit. Objects have absolutely no worth or value in themselves. They derive their worth merely from the passion. If that be strong, and steady, and successful, the person is happy. It cannot reasonably be doubted, but a little miss, dressed in a new gown for a dancing-school ball, receives as compleat enjoyment as the greatest orator, who triumphs in the spendor of his eloquence, while he governs the passions and resolutions of a numerous assembly.”
Hume’s comparison of the little miss and the orator is alive in the debate today about the relationship between wealth and happiness – which is a debate that is not very loud, and is pursued idly, but that does have to do with the very reason we feel we have to keep the treadmill of production going. Although distantly – long ago the governing class decided that the happiness or unhappiness produced by economic growth would have no relevance to the question of economic growth. It was a good that overshadowed all merely individual inconveniences. It was the ultimate in loaded dice.
Only now is a consciousness of the price of economic growth coming into focus.