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4: Happiness

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  • The study of happiness runs deep in ethics. Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill all assume it simply is the most valuable thing, motivation, and goal in our lives. But they each take a different view on it and how it relates to doing what’s right: For Aristotle, it is not the factor that should motivate us (in some sense, genuine happiness is the side-effect of living a good life), Bentham equates happiness with pleasure, and Mill believes that happiness is a robust concept that can, and should be, used to drive every decision we make. Even Immanuel Kant, the big opponent of consequentialist ethics, recognizes that happiness is simply a good thing we desire, even though he believes it plays no role in determining the rightness and wrongness of actions.

    The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019, Mike Mitchell), the almost-as-entertaining follow-up to the shockingly creative Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Chris McKay), contains the song, “Everything’s Not Awesome” (2019, Shawn Patterson, Jo Li, and The Lonely Island), a brilliant parody of the film series’ marquee song, “Everything is Awesome” (2014, Shawn Patterson, Jo Li, and The Lonely Island). I mention these movies and songs for two reasons: firstly, watching them will bring happiness into your life; secondly, there are some excellent lyrics on happiness to be found in this act of self-parody. In the original song, the lyrics are:

    “Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team

    Everything is awesome, when you're living out a dream

    Everything is better when we stick together

    Some have said you and I are gonna win forever

    Let’s party forever”

    These lines get parodied in “Everything’s not Awesome” as:

    “Everything's not awesome

    Things can't be awesome all of the time

    It's an unrealistic expectation

    But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try

    To make everything awesome

    In a less idealistic kind of way.

    We should maybe aim for not bad”

    These lyrics actually capture how happiness of often approached in ethics: pure, amazing awesomeness is what we should strive for, even if it’s not possible. We need to study it as an ideal if we are we are to have a chance of achieving anything close to it. At the very least, we should aim for the opposite of miserableness. There are many aspects to happiness, and this Unit will cover a variety of concepts, theories, and approaches that are associated with it.

    Chapter 19, Is Pleasure all that Matters? Thoughts on the “Experience Machine” by Prabhpal Singh, analyzes a famous thought experiment that attempts to illustrate that, while we desire pleasure, there is more to life than simply having it. Chapter 20, Utilitarianism by J.S. Mill, is an important selection from the classic work by the influential 19th century philosopher where he lays out the basics of his moral theory of utilitarianism. Chapter 21, Utilitarianism: Pros and Cons by B.M. Wooldridge, runs through the appeal of utilitarianism along with some of its shortcomings. Chapter 22, Existentialism, Genetic Engineering, and the Meaning of Life: The Fifths, is a fictional short story that looks at the perspective of an interstellar colonist whose life is to be lived entirely on a spaceship for a journey that he did not begin and will not be able to complete. Chapter 23, The Solitude of the Self by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is a classic piece by the influential 19th century social and political reformer that presents the reasons for sexual equality while giving attention to the differences that often exist between the sexes. Chapter 24, Game Theory, the Nash Equilibrium, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Douglas E. Hill, discusses a famous problem in the interdisciplinary field of Game Theory which has an important impact on how we appreciate our own happiness in relation to others.