Friday, 9 March 2018

A comparison between the three main theories of happiness

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From all branches of philosophy, ethics is the most practical. Values connect abstractions to decisions, and morality provides guidelines to surmount difficult situations and achieve happiness. It goes without saying that ethical systems are worthless if they are not aligned with reality and validated by facts.

History has produced hundreds of different ethical teachings that work well in specific circumstances but fail catastrophically in other contexts. Fortunately, by grouping those philosophies in three main categories, we can see if they pass the tests of veracity and practicality without having to examine them one by one. For the purpose of analysis, ethical systems can be grouped in three main types: the partial, the logical, and the teleological.

1. Fragmentary ethics

Fragmentary ethics consist of precepts that are not comprehensive enough to constitute a system of thought. The vast majority of ethical convictions held by people can be classified as partial ethics.

Let me underline that moral principles enunciated in this manner are not necessarily false. Sometimes, flawless albeit incomplete guidelines are predicated; on other occasions, utter nonsense is put forward as an ethical precept.

As examples of two well-meaning commandments, take for instance "protect the planet" and "help other people." Individuals who advocate such ethics will usually possess good intentions, but their formulations are so fragmentary that cannot be implemented consistently.

If you want to protect the planet, you have first to define "planet." Does it involve only animals and trees, or also insects and mountains? If the concept encompasses all living entities, should it not include human beings first and foremost ? And if plants and insects are both part of the planet, should you be protecting them from each other? Interesting questions, for which partial ethics cannot provide consistent answers.

If your only ethical principle is to help other people, how do you determine which individuals you should be helping with priority? If person A is expected to help person B, is person B then required to help person A? What happens if B has a different opinion? Who will settle disagreements on the meaning and scope of the word "help"?

Partial ethics are unsatisfactory because they do not work in all circumstances. Principles such as those mentioned above are correct if applied in a certain context, but cannot be stretched to a full-blown system of morality. Life is too complex to navigate if you know only one thing. Man requires an all-encompassing thinking methodology, an integrated formula for happiness, not just a few unconnected precepts.

2. Logical ethics

Logical systems of ethics represent a major step forward in human thought. Their purpose is to create a morality that answers all questions, a method that can be applied to all events without incurring contradictions. In history, partial ethics have often evolved into logical moral systems after it became obvious that man cannot make good decisions on the basis of isolated precepts.

In contrast to partial ethics, logical moral systems are consistent. Their principles and guidelines are linked to each other. Their conclusions aim at universality in space and permanence in time. A well-rounded moral system should be able to guide individuals in any situation they may encounter in their private or professional lives.

The "categorical imperative" originated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the best known system of logical ethics. According to Kant, true principles of morality must be universal, non-contradictory, and recognizable by reason. Decisions and actions are considered virtuous only if they can be elevated to universal rules for all men.

"Do not steal" and "do not murder" are two specific applications of the categorical imperative. Kantian ethics do not address only a few situations; they aim at covering all possible alternatives in human action. Logical ethical systems do not give recommendations only for isolated cases; they aim at providing a complete thinking methodology valid in all possible situations.

Nonetheless, logical morality systems suffer from a major weakness. Although they are superior to partial ethics because they are consistent, their consistency does not guarantee their usefulness. Kantian morality is an intellectual clockwork foreign to the richness of human experience; it is a cold machinery that functions without feelings, ambitions, passions, or hesitations.

Categorical imperatives rightly forbid us to aggress against our neighbour, but they don't tell us what we need to do in order to be happy. Logical systems of ethics fail to address the psychological aspects of human action. Kantian morality does not provide us with guidelines on how to define our goals, allocate our resources, and deal effectively with adversity.

3. Teleological ethics

Teleological systems of ethics are the best that philosophy has produced. On the one hand, they go beyond the isolated commandments of partial morality; on the other hand, they aim at providing a comprehensive and consistent methodology, just like logical ethics. In addition, teleological systems are rendering morality useful by linking ethical principles to happiness, which they view as the overriding goal of ethics.

The word "teleological" comes from the Greek "telos," which means "purpose or goal." Advanced systems of ethics go far beyond "do not steal" and "do not murder." They view the human condition as a combination of complex factors that need to be judged according to general values, and prioritized according to individual objectives.

A teleological morality based on reason provides a frame of thought that encompasses all our decisions and actions. This system of ethics aims not only at keeping us out of trouble, but also at helping us make the best of our life. The list of teleological virtues includes not only honesty and justice, but also independence, ambition and persistence.

If you want to make optimal choices, you should adopt a teleological system of ethics based on reason. Other approaches to morality will work in certain conditions, but fail to pass the tests of universality, permanence, consistency and comprehensiveness.


Image: photograph of classical painting -- photo taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

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