Happiness and Morality - Can You Achieve Real Happiness by Acting Immorally?
Can a person that acts immorally truly be happy? Or is immorality incompatible with true happiness? Consider a case discussed in chapter 9 of Exploring Ethics. Steven Cahn lays out the case of an adulterous physician and his blackmailer as found in Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors:
Suppose a man who is happily married and highly respected as a physician makes the mistake of embarking on an affair with an unmarried woman whom he meets while she is working as a flight attendant. When he tries to break off this relationship, she threatens to expose his adultery and thereby wreck his marriage and career.
All he has worked for his entire life is at risk. He knows that if the affair is revealed, his wife will divorce him, his children will reject him, and the members of his community will no longer support his medical practice. Instead of being the object of people’s admiration, he will be viewed with scorn. In short, his life will be shattered.
As the flight attendant is about to take the steps that will destroy him, he confides in his brother, who has connections to the criminal underworld. The brother offers to help him by arranging for the flight attendant to be murdered, with minimal danger that the crime will be traced to either the physician or his brother.
Should the physician consent to the killing? Doing so is clearly immoral, but, if all goes as planned, he will avoid calamity.
The physician agrees to the murder, and when it is carried out and the police investigate, they attribute it to a drifter who eventually dies of alcoholism, and the case is closed. The physician’s life goes on without further complications from the matter, and years later he is honored at a testimonial dinner where, accompanied by his loving wife and adoring children, he accepts the effusive gratitude of the community for his lifetime of service.
Could such a person ever truly be happy? Is there such a thing as a happy immoralist? That’s what we’re thinking deeply about today. Welcome to The Philosophical Life!
Today is the 9th installment in the Exploring Ethics Series[card appears]. It’s a debate between the editor of this text Steven Cahn and professor of law and philosophy Jeffrie Murphy. Before diving in, what hinges on this debate?
Watch a video of this post below. Or skip over the video to read the post.
Why does the possibility of a happy immoralist count as a threat to morality? If a moral skeptic asks,“why be moral?,” one way of responding is connecting morality to happiness. Most people want to be happy. Moral action often leads to happiness and the avoidance of pain. If I go around hurting people, I’m likely to suffer the pain of broken relationships, damaged trust, and isolation from those that I have harmed. There’s real psychological costs for most people when they act immorally. This can come in the form of guilt and regret. Such things detract from happiness. So, it’s good idea to choose to do what’s moral because it’s a way to secure more of what you want, namely happiness. The more morality and happiness come apart, the less motivation there is for most people to be moral.
Cahn v. Murphy
I’ll step us through what each of them argues, and I’ll give my take in the end. I’d also love to hear what you think. Who do you think makes a better case? Or, which position do you think is most plausible?
Cahn Argues for The Happy Immoralist
Steven Cahn kicks things off with a quote from philosopher Philippa Foot. You might know her work from her book“Virtues and Vices” or as being the first philosopher to present The Trolley Problem. If you’re interested in The Trolley Problem, I created a free guide that helps you avoid common mistakes in presenting the problem. A link to the guide is in the description.
Foot claims that morality is part of true happiness. Why? Because happiness is deep and fundamental. It’s distinct from mere pleasure. It includes things like: friendship, family bonds, fulfilling work, freedom, and truth. As she says,“great happiness, unlike euphoria or even great pleasure, must come from something related to what is deep in human nature, and fundamental in human life.” Cahn objects. He thinks a scrupulous and totally dishonest person can be happy. Imagine someone like Bernie Madoff before his ponzi scheme was exposed. He had a ton of money. He had fame as a go-to investor. He had a great reputation. Even though he acquired all that through fraud and deception we can imagine him as self-satisfied. Further, let’s imagine that he never got caught. He delights in his fame and fortune.
Foot would say that the version of Bernie Madoff that never gets caught enjoys a lot of pleasure but he doesn’t enjoy true happiness. Cahn responds that this blurs a distinction between what Madoff feels about his life and what we want to have happen to him given his dishonesty. We don’t want to see him rewarded for cheating the system and risking people’s, in some cases, life-savings based on lies and deception. We’re unhappy with him. Yet this is different from whether he himself is happy.
Cahn claims that such a person really is happy. And, it’s only“philosophical sleight-of-hand” to claim Madoff that never gets caught is not really happy.
Murphy Argues for The Unhappy Immoralist
Murphy argues that immorality is incompatible with true happiness. He argues that Cahn begs the question. He assumes the issue at stake. We wonder if the immoralist is happy, and Murphy argues that Cahn merely assumes the immoralist is happy.
Murphy argues that claiming the immoralist is not happy is not just a sleight-of-hand. Murphy thinks what’s going on is legitimate revision of our language and concepts. Just as Socrates, in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias, argues that a tyrant might be happy in a worldly sense, he is not truly happy in the sense embraced by a wise person. What is that sense?
Murphy explains it as,"the satisfaction one takes in having a personality wherein all elements required for a fully realized human life are harmoniously integrated. The tyrant and the immoralist don’t have this sort of happiness. According to Murphy, they lack attributes like,“integrity, moral emotions, and the capacity for true friendship.” Thus, Murphy grants thee a limited form of happiness the immoralist enjoys but it’s not full or true happiness.
The full form of happiness is captured by the Greek term Eudaimonia which is something like a fully realized human life. It isn’t just having a lot of fun or pleasurable experiences.
Murphy also brings up a distinction from Soren Kierkegaard between temporal vs. eternal goods. Temporal goods are vulnerable in that they depend on the opinions of other people and they provoke fear. What is the fear? It’s a fear that the responses of others are not compatible with happiness.
Praise, fame, and being put on a pedestal are fragile goods. We see this in popular culture. Someone is elevated to a position of reverence. When one of their transgressions goes public they are frequently torn down and cast aside by culture and industry. The happy immoralist, if he is happy, has his happiness wed to temporal goods. Such good are accompanied with fear of being found out, fear of being cast aside, fear of losing public trust and the power that comes with it.
Lastly, Murphy rhetorically asks,“if there is any truth in the idea that love and friendship are among the constituents of the happiest of human lives, must not the immoralist’s nature—his inability to make and honor binding commitments—forever foreclose these goods to him?”
Murphy ends his reply on a note of pity,“I find that I pity him—pity him because, with Plato, I think that he is punished simply by being the kind of person that he is. But why would I pity him if I thought that he was truly happy?” The happy immoralist evokes our pity, but not our envy.
Cahn’s Further Challenges to Morality
Cahn gets the last word in the exchange. He replies to Murphy by way of examples. The first example kicked off this video. It’s the adulterous physician that murders his blackmailer. He enjoys a prosperous career and devoted family and friends. Is he not happy?
Cahn concedes, if you don’t think he’s happy then you have to admit, comparatively, he’s happier than he would have been were he to have been found out. His life that he lived and loved would have been destroyed. Thus, his immorality helped him secure a happy life.
Yet, this leaves us with the following question that Cahn identifies,“What persuasive reasons, if any, can be offered to demonstrate that in securing his own happiness the physician acted unwisely?” How we answer this question reveals our moral character. It reveals not only what we take to be part of happiness. It reveals the sort of person we decide to be.
Here’s the case of Two Lives that Cahn leaves us to ponder:
Joan earned a doctoral degree from a first-rate university and sought appointment to a tenure-track position in which she could teach and pursue her research. Unfortunately, she received no offers and reluctantly was about to accept nonacademic employment when an unexpected call came inviting her for an interview at a highly attractive school. During her visit she was told by the dean that the job was hers. The dean, however, had one condition: Joan was expected to teach a particular course each year in which numerous varsity athletes would enroll, and she would be required to award them all passing grades, even if their work was in every respect unsatisfactory. Only the dean would know of this special arrangement.
Joan rejected the position on moral grounds and continued trying to obtain a suitable opportunity in academic life. Never again, however, was she offered a faculty position, and she was forced to pursue a career path that gave her little satisfaction. Her potential as a teacher went unfulfilled, and her planned research was left undone. Throughout her life she remained embittered.
Kate also earned a doctoral degree from a first-rate university and sought appointment to a tenure-track position in which she could teach and pursue her research. She, too, received no offers and reluctantly was about to accept nonacademic employment when an unexpected call came inviting her for an interview at the same school Joan had visited. The dean made Kate the identical offer that had been made to Joan. After weighing the options, Kate accepted the appointment, even though she recognized that doing so would require her to act unethically.
Kate went on to a highly successful academic career, became a popular teacher and renowned researcher, moved to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and enjoyed all the perquisites attendant to her membership on that school’s renowned faculty. Occasionally she recalled the conditions of her initial appointment but viewed the actions she had taken as an unfortunate but necessary step on her path to a wonderful life.
Joan acted morally but lived unhappily ever after, while Kate acted immorally but lived happily ever after.
Here’s the dilemma,“Which of the two was the wiser?”
Before sharing a few thoughts with you I’d love to hear your take on the debate. In the comment section below leave your thoughts about who made a more convincing argument.
Briefly, let me mention what I think. My overall worry about the exchange is that it boils down to two definitions of happiness. If so, then there’s a sense in which Cahn and Murphy are saying things that are mutually compatible, which is pretty uninteresting and not a genuine disagreement.
For instance, if you define true happiness as eudaimonia, as Murphy does, then Madoff that never gets caught, the adulterous physician, and Kate are not truly happy. Their immoral actions preclude them from enjoying deep integration of their lives with the goods thought to make life truly satisfying, such as having integrity, friendships based on truth and trust, and knowing that your success is the result of making moral choices, not the result of cutting corners morally. Yet, if you define happiness as Cahn appears to, then the people in the cases are happy. The immoralists are happy because they enjoy their rewards, relationships, and careers. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have that deep or fundamental happiness that Murphy is after.
Thus, instead of a genuine disagreement, we end up with a mere verbal dispute. We end up merely taking inventory of how a specific way of defining happiness categorizes various cases.
Who do I think gets the better of the exchange? Honestly it’s hard to say. Cahn is given more air-time in making his case, which makes sense because he’s the editor of the book Exploring Ethics. Yet, Murphy does more with the short time he’s given to make his case. He brings together many different strands and philosophers and shows the interconnections. So, if I had to pick, I’d say Murphy did more with less. Cahn’s cases, while tough to clearly diagnose, do not have direct dialectical bite for the reason I mentioned earlier about Murphy just working with a different understanding of the term happiness.
Lastly, how would I diagnose who’s the wiser: Joan or Kate. Here I tip my hand a bit morally. I tend to favor a virtue theory of morality. So, if Kate needs to consistently perform immoral acts of giving student-athletes grades they didn’t earn, then I would argue that dishonesty has become or will become part of her moral character.
We all make moral mistakes that don’t become part of our moral character. Perhaps she originally accepted the position under the unethical terms, then started administering inflated grades and felt horrible and guilty and refused to continue in that capacity at the university. This is not what happened. According to the case, she had to do this each year and went on to have a long and successful academic career. So she continued the immoral behavior over a sustained period of time. Perhaps she rationalized or justified the immoral grading, but even that would have become part of her larger moral character. We can only speculate what sort of other moral concessions she was willing to make in her life. Thus I’d argue Kate is not wiser than Joan.
Joan doesn’t enjoy as much happiness or success as Kate, but wisdom and happiness can and do come apart. I take this to be one of those cases for the reasons mentioned.
If you got something out of this post, please share the video with a philosophical friend. Keep thinking ethically and living wisely. Keep living The Philosophical Life my friend. And be well in light of the pandemic. My best wishes.