Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 32, January 2003

Human instincts and virtue ethics

Americans are reasonably happy people. This is one of the findings of a recently published survey of self-reported happiness worldwide (see Scientific American, November 2002). Interestingly, however, they are not the most happy people on earth. That distinction goes to the populations of northern Europe, despite the harsh winters and lack of sunshine. The rest of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand report levels of happiness similar to that of the United States. Intermediate happiness can be found in most Asian countries (including China), while lower levels are typical of South American countries, and lower still is the self-appraised happiness of most Africans (though the absolute minimum is found in Russia and in some of its former satellites).

Philosophers have discussed what makes humans happy or unhappy at least since Aristotle wrote his Ethics, but it seems most obvious to ask the people themselves (Aristotle was famous for not thinking of such simple solutions to complex problems: he once claimed that women have a different number of teeth than men, but it didn’t occur to him to open Mrs. Aristotle’s mouth and count them!). As you might imagine, financial security is crucial to happiness. Astoundingly, however, the level of income above which more money doesn’t seem to matter for most people is low: only about $13,000 / year, or circa half of the median American income! Above that, more importance is carried by factors like health, attitude, professional occupation, and relationships (married or divorced people are happier than single ones), which explains why people living in countries with lower income but better social health indicators (such as Scandinavian nations) report that they are significantly happier than the highly capitalistic US.

Aristotle, however, seems to have gotten much right in his analysis of happiness and how to achieve it. First off, he realized that we are constantly trying to overcome an innate “weakness of the will” (the Greek word is akrasia), a natural tendency we seem to have to simply satisfy our basic instincts (food, sex, and power). Modern biology gives us important clues as to where akrasia comes from: for most of our evolutionary history, we lived in environments in which it was difficult to procure food, hard to find a mate (and especially to have offspring), and where getting to be the alpha male was the best way to insure both. Natural selection has therefore built into us powerful instincts that drive us to constantly seek such things even today. The difference, of course, is that, in our modern environment, food is usually plentiful (at least in Western societies); you can find dates on the Internet or scanning a newspaper, and neither of these requires you to be the President of the United States to be successful.

Aristotle realized (and the modern survey confirms) that true happiness—while requiring a certain amount of food, sex, and control over one’s destiny—is a much more sophisticated affair than just meeting the basic needs. That is why he attempted to explore how we can reach the goal of “eudaimonia,” a word that, while normally translated as “happiness,” in fact implies more than low-grade contentment. Aristotle suggested that we need to cultivate virtue, because virtue is like a good acquired habit: it requires constant reinforcement to oppose our natural tendency to yield to akratic temptations. So, for example, most of us feel a natural attraction toward that double cheeseburger, because of its amount of fat and proteins, both hard to find in our prehistoric environment. But our rational self, knowing about cholesterol and heart attack, can make a strong case that our eudaimonia would be increased by not walking into a fast food place at all times of the day. Such case needs to be made with ourselves every time we are faced with the same choice, which is why keeping a reasonable diet is such an ordeal. According to Aristotle, you also don’t want to go to the other extreme (sorry for the vegetarians among you), and deprive yourself of life’s pleasures altogether. That would be erring on the other side of his famous golden mean: for every virtue there are two opposite vices, though one may be more easily avoided than the other.

Aristotle’s system is often referred to as “virtue ethics,” because it is based on a theory of what it means to be virtuous in general, and does not provide specific suggestions or rules of conduct for particular instances (unlike, say duty-based ethics, of which most religious and some secular systems are examples). That is why virtue ethics both appeal strongly to some people (historically, especially the ancient Romans), and it is completely repulsive for others (most religious fundamentalists, be they Jewish, Christians, or Muslims). Virtue ethics is not about following somebody else’s idea of what is right and wrong, it is about a continuous, difficult, and uncertain process of self-discovery, during which one slowly comes to terms with human nature and how it can be ameliorated.

Regardless of your favored system of ethics, I find consolation in Aristotle every time I concede a cheeseburger to my akrasia, and I feel ecstatic when I manage to feed my eudaimonia with a healthy portion of grilled fish. Our search for happiness continues, and I suspect that its very pursuit has much to do with what it means to be human.

Next month: Gays, in the military and outside of it

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003