Kant, Well-being, and Happiness

I’m intrigued by Kant’s remarks on happiness and well-being. I’ve been thinking of the traditional understanding of his view and a passage we’ve discussed in a reading group on the Second Critique. I’m left with jigsaw puzzle where I cannot seem to make all the parts fit. I would be thankful for any help.

 

First, it seems like Kant uses ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ as interchangeable synonyms (which might not be right as it will later appear). So, when he discusses the ‘chief desire in life’ in the Metaphysics of Ethics, he says that it is called ‘happiness (welfare, comfort, entire felicity)’. I assume that the things in brackets here are meant to show that these are just same ideas by different names. Similarly in Groundwork he speaks of ‘welfare, in a word happiness’ (4:395).

The traditional view I’ve been taught about his view on happiness (and thus about well-being) is that he was a desire-satisfaction theorist. And, there does seem to be plenty of textual evidence for this view. So, in the second critique he defines happiness as ‘state of a rational being in the world in the whole of whose existence goes to his wish and will’ (5:124)’. Similar claims seem to be also made in Groundwork (4:399 and 4:405) and Metaphysics of Ethics where the same claim is put in this poetic way: ‘That everything should succeed and prosper with thee, according to thy whole heart and wish’ (translation from 1871…).

But, now to the passage which seems not to fit this picture. In the second critique in 5:60, he says of ‘well-being’ that it ‘indicates a relation to our state of pleasantness or unpleasantness, of enjoyment or pain’. This seems to be a purely hedonistic theory of well-being and also of happiness, if well-being is the same as happiness. And, that seems like a competing view to the desire-satisfaction proposal above.

Now, you might suggest that Kant was really meaning desire-satisfaction here as well and merely happened to unintentionally use the pleasure terminology because maybe we tend to be pleased about desire-satisfaction. I don’t think that this can be right.

The context of the previous definition of well-being is a discussion of the latin claim: Nihil appetimus, nisi sub ratione boni; nihil aversamur, nisi sub ratione mali. Kant’s own reading of this claim which he thinks is indubitable is ‘We desire nothing, under the direction of reason, except in so far as we hold it to be good or evil’. But that isn’t what the claim originally meant. He claims that it originally meant the ‘at least very doubtful’ proposition that ‘We desire nothing except with a view to our well-being or woe’.

Kant doesn’t say why he thinks that this proposition is very doubtful. But, if he meant desire-satisfaction it could not be very doubtful but rather either trivially true or trivially false. It has a de re reading (the objects of our desires are such that they are the only thing we desire) which is obviously true and a de dicto reading which is obviously false. It cannot be that the only thing we desire is the satisfaction of our desires. We cannot desire that unless we desire something else.

So, in order to make sense of Kant’s very doubtful proposition one has to assume that he does not mean desire-satisfaction by well-being but rather the relation to our state of pleasantness where this state is a joyful feeling, an experience with a certain phenomenal quality. If that’s the case, then it is very doubtful that we desire only this experience and nothing else. Kant often gives examples where this is not the case.

But, now it seems like he has two distinct views about happiness/well-being: a desire-satisfaction one and a hedonistic one. I wonder if there is a way for him to make this compatible but that seems difficult if desire-satisfaction can turn out to be not very pleasant. Is he just confused about this or is there a way of making sense of all these claims? I also think that the hedonist view would be a problem for his arguments against happiness being the ground of morality. It is much easier to know what causes pleasure to us than to know how to satisfy the sum of all our inclinations

13 Replies to “Kant, Well-being, and Happiness

  1. Hi Jussi –
    I’ve also been puzzled by Kant’s views on welfare. I have two thoughts, totally half-baked.
    1. The “very dubitable” claim is: “We desire nothing except with a view to our well-being or woe.” But denying that wouldn’t conflict with a desiderative view. I take “with a view to” to mean “on the grounds that” or something of that nature. It could be false that we desire things “with a view to” our well-being or woe, but nevertheless it could be that the satisfaction of our actual desires (whatever they are desired “with a view to”) contributes to our well-being. In other words, when we desire things, we don’t have “this thing will contribute to my well-being” as a grounds for the desire, but rather “this thing is good”. Something like that maybe?
    2. Re: desire-satisfaction and hedonism. There’s probably some passage that falsifies this, but could he accept something like a psychological hedonism, viz., that we only–ultimately–desire pleasure, hence rendering the views compatible? You say that this isn’t plausible if “desire satisfaction” isn’t very pleasant. But that all depends on what our (ultimate) desires are, doesn’t it?

  2. I think the second point is right but I’m not sure it makes the two views compatible. So, in the Second Critique 5:22, he says that the faculty of desire is determined by the agent’s expectation of the sensation agreeableness. Thus, it does look like the only things we desire are things we expect to be pleasurable.
    And this seems to create a bit of a problem. We can expect pleasure from things that are not pleasant. So, in these cases either our desires are satisfied or they remain unsatisfied and we can accidentally experience pleasure from something else. Then, we are back in the question, does Kant think that the satisfaction of the desire makes us better off or happy or the actually pleasant experience that was not desired.
    To avoid this problem he would have to think that we only desire things that actually turn out to be pleasant but that doesn’t seem plausible.
    I think your 1 is right too. I’m just not sure why he would on that understanding say that it is very dubitable that we don’t desire only things that we think improve our well-being (or satisfy our desires which would be the same thing here). Couldn’t he just say that this is obviously false or perhaps even impossible?

  3. Interesting question, Jussi.
    You wrote: “The traditional view I’ve been taught about his view on happiness (and thus about well-being) is that he was a desire-satisfaction theorist. And, there does seem to be plenty of textual evidence for this view. So, in the second critique he defines happiness as ‘state of a rational being in the world in the whole of whose existence goes to his wish and will’ (5:124)’”
    I think it is worth noticing that the quote you give does not suggest a *desire* satisfaction theory. It suggests a wish and will satisfaction theory and this might be important given the central importance of the will/desire distinction in the 2C. In looking back to 5:60, for example, I notice that Kant there defines well-being and ill-being in terms of pleasure and pain and goes out of his way to point out that those are explained by our sensibility rather than our will.
    Why not read Kant as using two concepts?
    Well-being: Hedonistic agreeableness
    Happiness: Satisfaction of desire and will.

  4. Thanks Brad – that’s helpful.
    I realise that Kant always emphasises the willing/desiring distinction. So, you might think that he is saying here that only the satisfaction of rational willings constitutes happiness. But, this doesn’t then seem to fit what he says in Groundwork about happiness being the sum of inclinations (I take it that he means that satisfaction of them). Inclinations after all are supposed to be the contrast class to rational willing.
    I thought about that solution too – making the well-being/happiness distinction. But that seems to not fit the quotes I give first that seem to explicitly use these terms interchangeably as synonyms. There are also places where he says that happiness demands ‘an absolute whole, i.e., maximum well-being both in present and in every future state’ (4:418). So, here happiness seems to be an enduring state that consists of timeslices of well-being. This would be odd if one of the notions referred to the feeling and the other to desire/will satisfaction.

  5. Seems like I may be asking too much here by wanting a coherent story of his remarks. I did find a footnote from Korsgaard’s paper The Myth of Egoism (footnote 4) where she says that Kant’s remarks on happiness ‘are not easy to reconsile with one another’. She notes that they include the ideas of the ‘sum of satisfaction of all inclinations’, having all the constituents of well-being (sort of a list view), the hedonism of the second critique, having everything one wants, and attainment of one’s willed ends. And, she points out that these are all very different ideas. So, maybe Kant didn’t have a definitive view about happiness and well-being after all.

  6. As I recall, many who spend their days puzzling over Kant’s ethical theory have simply concluded that he was inconsistent in his account of happiness. He had both views and either didn’t notice that they were incompatible, or changed his mind. For instance, I think Paton expressed something like this position. Add to this that the archaic German word ‘Glückseligkeit’ really is better translated as ‘blessedness’, and you’ve got quite a mess to untangle.

  7. I’m starting to become more convinced of that too the more I read and think about these passages. I also entertained the hypothesis of changing his mind from Groundwork to the Second Critique but then I found both of the accounts from that book too. He did wrote the latter book really quickly so maybe it’s just rushing.
    What makes me really annoyed by this though is the fact that he does argue against all attempts to ground morality on happiness. These arguments are little hard to assess if there is no definitive notion of happiness at work. For instance, you might think that all he needs is that well-being has something to do with the inclinations in contrast to the Pure Will and morality cannot be based on inclinations because that would make it contingent. But then one of the definitions of happiness understands happiness as satisfaction of willings in which case it’s not clear whether the previous argument applies.

  8. Perhaps this much can be said for those arguments against happiness as the ground of morality. All of his arguments against other theories bottom out in the objection that those theories must assume that our wills are heteronomous. However we construe ‘happiness’, it will turn out that theories invoking it will therefore be heteronomous.
    However, the other problem (at least I think it’s a problem) is that Kant invokes happiness in his arguments for imperfect duties, and for imperatives of prudence. Here, it does seem to me to matter what he means by ‘happiness’.

  9. Jussi – I believe your problem is twofold:
    1. Brad is quite right that Kant uses two very different concepts, that of well-being [Wohl] and that of happiness [Glückseligkeit]. The former is simply the non-moral concept of pleasure as opposed to pain as he explains in KpV 60 which you quote. Happiness [Gückseligkeit, i.e. what Aristotle calls eudaimonia], however, is a moral term, which relates to one’s entire existence [im Ganzen seiner Existenz] and consists in achieving one’s goals [Übereinstimmung der Natur zu seinem ganzen Zwecke] and effecting one’s will, as he says in the second half of the sentence you quote from KpV 124.
    2. Kant’s conceptions of Glückseligkeit changed over time as he gradually refined his system. In KrV it was still an a priori concept, but that didn’t work. By KpV it had indeed become an empirical concept, but one related to one’s life as a whole. Moreoever, it was something to be only fully achieved in the next life when pain and pleasure would likely be of little import. I do not know exactly how he conceived of it in the Grundlegung, but he was probably closing in on the KpV version.

  10. A further complication is that some of what Kant says seems to presuppose that happiness is defined by exclusion, as that which is aimed at (desired?) in all those actions not motivated by a sense of duty. This, for instance, seems to help make sense of the arguments early in Groundwork I, for instance.
    This same dichotomy — between the motive of duty and happiness as all an agent aims at aside from what is aimed at in actions motivated by a sense of duty — is echoed in this passage, where Kant explains why there is no duty to pursue one’s own happiness:
    “For his own happiness is an end that every human being has (by virtue of the impulses of his nature), but this end can never without self-contradiction be regarded as a duty. What everyone already wants unavoidably, of his own accord, does not come under the concept of duty, which is constraint to an end adopted reluctantly. Hence it is self-contradictory to say that he is under obligation to promote his own happiness with all his powers.” (MM 6:386)
    Oh — and Andrews Reath argued in 1989 paper that Kant recognizes motives or ends that are neither rooted in duty nor rooted in pleasure or egoistic concerns. There was a recent reply to this in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly that I’ve not read.

  11. Robert — I’m sure that when Kant uses the term ‘Glückseligkeit’, Kant is thinking of the Latin term ‘felicitas’ (which was the standard translation, e.g. in Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers, of Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’). The obvious alternative in German would be ‘Glück’, which in the 18th century would I think suggest something more like ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’, and so be less appropriate for ‘felicitas’.
    Jussi — you mention Korsgaard’s remark that Kant’s ideas about happiness include (i) the sum of satisfaction of all inclinations, (ii) having everything that one wants, (iii) hedonism as in KpV (5:22), (iv) having all the constituents of well-being, and (v) the attainment of one’s ends. But it seems to me that it is not really so hard to reconcile these ideas.
    First, we should follow Dale by reading Kant as accepting a kind of psychological hedonism about our inclinations — that is, about our empirical (non-moral) desire. (Obviously, Kant does not accept any sort of hedonism about moral motivation!) So, for Kant, the object of every inclination is some sort of pleasure (i.e., a pleasant experience — where this experience itself has an object, something that the experience is an experience of).
    As he explains at 4:418, Happiness (Glückseligkeit) consists in (i) a kind of ideal maximum (an “absolute totality”) of inclination-satisfaction. If one achieved this maximum of inclination-satisfaction, then one clearly would (ii) “have everything that one wants”. Moreover, if the ultimate object of every inclination is a pleasure or pleasant experience, achieving happiness would also involve achieving (iii) a “maximum totality” of these pleasures or pleasant experiences; so the hedonism of KpV (5:22ff.) can be harmonized with G 418.
    The difficulty of working out what your happiness involves (which Kant comments on at 4:419) could be due to the fact that your inclinations are liable to change over time (indeed, to some extent you can affect what your inclinations will be), and Kant seems not to believe that there is any real way of measuring the “quantity” of merely possible pleasures or inclination-satisfactions. (This is why happiness is said to be an “Ideal of Imagination” rather than an “Ideal of Reason”.)
    However, if there is some sort of life that would involve the maximum happiness for you, Kant might then identify the pleasant experiences of this life (or perhaps the objects of these experiences) with (iv) the “constituents” of your well-being. Moreover, when you are actually motivated by empirical inclination, you will actually make the object of an inclination — some pleasant experience — your end. If (v) you attain all of these (material) ends, you will have achieved as much happiness as is possible (or at least as much happiness as you could possibly have without changing your inclinations).
    So it doesn’t seem so difficult to me to reconcile Kant’s various claims about happiness. They are certainly sketchy and underdeveloped, but not obviously incompatible.

  12. Ralph,
    I’m not so sure as you are that he always meant ‘felicitas’; see his discussion of Epicurus and ‘voluptas’ in Vigilantius, for instance.
    The puzzle about his two views on happiness, I thought, is that on the hedonistic view, the satisfaction of desires and inclinations are only means to happiness, while on the desire-satisfaction model, they are elements of happiness itself.
    So the problem is that there are in fact two different questions about happiness: ‘Satisfying which desires will give me the most pleasure?’ and ‘How do I satisfy the most of my desires?’ The problem is that I could satisfy more desires yet achieve less pleasure, or achieve more pleasure with satisfying fewer desires. So these two different conceptions of happiness don’t fit together.

  13. Thanks everyone. This is extremely helpful and interesting.
    Robert,
    I’m not sure if ‘[h]owever we construe ‘happiness’, it will turn out that theories invoking it will therefore be heteronomous’. This seems to depend on whether happiness is for instance the satisfaction of rational willing in which case theories invoking it would not be heteronomous.
    Michael L.,
    thanks that’s very good. I’m still slightly worried about the contexts where these two seemed to be used as synonyms in the translations but I’ll need to look at the German originals (not that I know German but I’ll try to get help).
    Michael C.,
    thanks for the Reath reference and the other paper. Must seek those out.
    Ralph,
    brilliant. Thanks. I think that’s as good of an attempt to make everything cohere than any.
    I might still have few worries. One of them is that there might be accidental pleasurable experiences that I never desired. Now take two people – the desires for pleasurable experiences of both of these persons are equally maximally satisfied but one gets accidental pleasures whilst the other one doesn’t. In this case, the extensions of the (i)-(v) will come apart.
    And, even if we made the accounts coextensive there will be constitution questions about what happiness is.

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