Sunday, January 21, 2007

On Happiness, Envy, and Jealousy

Bertrand Russell, a wiley Socratic-like man, whose life was every bit as interesting as his philosophy, once pronounced 10 commandments on being an independent thinker. I won't recount them all here -- though I just might make a commentary of each of them later if the blog-o-babble urge hits me -- but I will consider one which seems a bit troublesome:

“Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.”

Now on a surface reading, this is correct, as there might seem to be no time when envy is a productive state of mind, where by envy we mean, “a longing to possess something awarded to or achieved by another.”

Perhaps your friend discovers that a long-lost rich uncle has left him a fortune, but this fact makes you feel bad. Of course the gain is legal and his by civil right of law. Yet to feel badly at the event of your friend's discovering his inheritance is envy.

There might be room for worry here. Take another friend as an example, one who has a current emotive state that is more desirable than the one you have. Is it so bad to long for such an emotive state? Not if the emotive state is sustained by tenuous circumstances, the “fools' paradise” as Russell hedges it. Take it that this other friend has an emotive state of happiness, because s/he has maxed-out all credit cards and mortgaged a house to the hilt for a few, wild months of partying in Vegas. Sooner or later, your friend's happiness, like your friend's money will follow the slogan of that town: “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Such a “happiness” of your friend is hardly enviable.

So too, Russell might mean “jealousy,” which is different. Suppose now it is your cousin that obtains a great inheritance from a hithertofore unknown Uncle. Yet you get nothing, though sharing the very same uncle. If you feel badly upon your cousin gaining something that on your account you more rightly or equally rightly deserve, then this is jealousy.

This emotive state of jealousy would be odd, however, to apply to Russell's dictum. Does one ever more rightly deserve an emotive state? Suppose one person, happy Harry, is born with a slightly higher seritonin uptake disposition to their brain cells. Another, sad Steve, is born with slightly less such seritonin uptake. Does it make sense to claim, “Steve deserves more seritonin, so he can be happy; Steve has been unrightfully denied seritonin.” This seems odd, since one cannot morally blame impersonal, natural forces for the physiological properties we obtain by luck of the draw.

As a summary, envy is wanting someone else's good, one that you believe you don't deserve; while jealousy is wanting someone else's good, one that you believe you do deserve. On this distinction, there does seem to be a worry that one might appropriately envy someone's happiness if that happiness was not gained by tenuous or stupid means. Yet much might ride on just what is meant by happiness, and there is some controversy on the term.

I believe the most common usage of the word happiness is “a state of well-being characterized by emotions of pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction, or the like.” One makes a psychological report when one speaks of happiness.

But there is an older usage, which most philosophers leverage to make a special commentary on certain ideals of humanity. I'm sure Russell is aware of it, and that usage comes from Aristotle:

“Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.”[2] {Book 1, ch7}

Ultimately, Aristotle's phrase that pays makes happiness “an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue.”[2]{book 1, ch13}. Of course, no one can have ultimate happiness, since there is no one with perfect virtue – well, one might be inclined to say God could have such ultimate happiness, on the view that God can have perfect virtue. Again, one can have the ideal of happiness only when one can have perfect virtue; and, God is the only being which has such an option. People don't have such virtue; but, occasionally circumstances might present themselves such that so much of life goes well and so much is well chosen that a person can have extended periods of supreme happiness.

Such a state of happiness is indeed as difficult to maintain as it is to find.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “The Ten commandments” The Independent, June 1965, p.4.

[2]Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics” Book 1


Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home