Dan Haybron’s recent post on ‘The Folk Concept of Happiness’ brings up an interesting question that I think deserves some further discussion. Is people’s ordinary concept of happiness a purely psychological one, or is it wrapped up in some way with irreducibly normative or moral issues?
To address this question, Dan ran a very nice experimental study. Subjects were given a story about a person who is deluded in such a way that he thinks everything in his life is going well even though everything is, in fact, going catastrophically poorly. Faced with this case, subjects said that the person did not have well-being but that he actually was happy. Dan therefore concludes that “‘happy’ is primarily a psychological term in folk usage.”
But, interestingly enough, Sven Nyholm recently ran another study that got just the opposite sort of result. He randomly assigned subjects to receive either a story about someone who was doing something morally good (working as a doctor in a field hospital in Africa) or about someone who was doing something morally wrong (working as a doctor in a Nazi death camp). Subjects in these two conditions were given exactly the same information about the person’s psychological states: that he often found his work upsetting but that, at the end of the day, he found a deep sense of fulfillment in the thought that he was contributing to an important cause. Nonetheless, subjects said that the person was happy when he did something morally good but not when he did something morally bad. Sven therefore concludes that moral judgments actually do influence people’s ascriptions of happiness.
I am really puzzled about what is going on here, and I’d love to hear any thoughts you all might have about how to go after these questions.
[p.s. Phillips, Misenheimer and I recently ran a study which seems to support the view that moral judgments do play a role in intuitions about happiness (but not in intuitions about unhappiness).]