Some experimental philosophy on Happiness

Hey you all,

here’s a link to a blog post of mine on the Experimental Philosophy blog that describes experiments that I think suggest that the folk concept of happiness is a normative one:

Moral Judgments and Happiness

According to the hypothesis I am testing in my experiments, if the folk thinks that somebody is living a bad life—perhaps by being a morally bad person—then they are unlikely to, or will not, attribute happiness to this person even if they believe that she is in the kinds of mental states which we usually associate with happiness.

Most psychological research on happiness uses definitions of happiness that are wholly non-evaluative. This means that, when some psychologist judges that somebody is happy, the folk might not. That, I think, is an interesting result. Why? Because it means, I think, that when we give a philosophical account of happiness, then this will be a normative project at least in the following respect: we will have to give reasons for favoring either the normative concept of happiness used by the folk or the non-normative one used by psychologists and many philosophers. (That is, if, as I think, the kinds of experiments that I’ve been running show that the folk are using a partly normative concept of happiness. Again, see the link for descriptions of these experiments.)

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8 Responses to Some experimental philosophy on Happiness

  1. dtlocke says:

    “it means, I think, that when we give a philosophical account of happiness, then this will be a normative project at least in the following respect: we will have to give reasons for favoring either the normative concept of happiness used by the folk or the non-normative one used by psychologists and many philosophers.”

    Why is that? When you talk about “giving a philosophical account of happiness” I take it that you are expressing some concept by your use of the word “happiness” and the project is thus to give an account of *that* concept, whatever it is. If it’s normative, then it’s normative. If not, not. But that is something that you can find out only by *doing* conceptual analysis.

    If some other people (the “folk”) express some distinct concept with the word “happiness” or if we express two distinct concepts with the same word “happiness”, then there are two projects to be done here: one to analyze the one concept and another to analyze the other concept. But I really don’t see why, in order to analyze any one of these concepts, we have to “give reasons in favor” of that concept. It might be imprudent of us to spend time analyzing concept X rather than concept Y, if we don’t have good reasons to be analyzing X rather than Y, but having said reasons is no part of the project of analysis itself.

    But maybe you didn’t intend to say otherwise. Maybe you agree with me. In that case, perhaps you’d want to be more careful and say something like: “When a philosopher says he is ‘giving an account of X’, he needs to first say which of the several concepts that ‘X’ is used to express he means to give account of, and then he needs to give us a reason to think that it is important to be analyzing that concept.” If that’s what you meant. I’d agree with the first, but I’m a little hesitant to agree with the second: why should we have to be constantly justifying our pursuits of the answers to certain questions? What about pure research? Here’s a concept; I want to analyze it. What if I’m just curious, man?!

  2. nyholm says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Dustin! Here are some thoughts in response to it.

    First, sure, I take your point. It is interesting in itself to try to analyze the concept of happiness that we have. (SInce psychologists use stipulated definitions of happiness in their research, there is no analyzing to be done there.) When there are different concepts expressed by one and the same term, then this doesn’t by itself mean that, when we analyze these concepts, then this is a normative affair.

    Sometimes, though, philosophers give accounts of things like happiness because the notion of happiness is supposed to play some important role in, say, their moral theories. If we, for example, are utilitarians that say that what we ought morally to do is to maximize happiness, then it’d be good to know what, exactly, it is that we are supposed to maximize.

    Also, some may feel that the folk concept of happiness, if it really is partly normative, is not a very good concept and that it would be better to use “happiness”to express some wholly non-evaluative concept. These people might be inclined to suggest a revisionary analysis of happiness that drops the normative part of the concept. This, it might be suggested, would be an improvement in our thinking. Some people have, in any case, suggested this to me when I have said that I think that what mean by ‘happiness’ is something partly normative.

    It seems to me that, if we give a philosophical account of something, and this account lets some word express something different than what the folk express by that word, then one would want some kind of reason or justification for this. And, most analyses of happiness in philosophy that I’ve come across are wholly non-evaluative or non-normative. So, part of what I’m saying is “look, these analyses get at something slightly different from the folk concept. Why should we not use “happiness” to mean what the folk mean by ‘happiness’?”

    Thanks again for the feedback.

  3. […] https://gogrue.wordpress.com/2008/05/05/some-experimental-philosophy-on-happiness/This means that, when some psychologist judges that somebody is happy, the folk might not. That, I think, is an interesting result. Why? Because it means, I think, that when we give a philosophical account of happiness, then this will … […]

  4. bluebeard says:

    Hi, former UM undergrad here. Very cool blog you guys have. Although I’m not altogether sure where I stand on XPhi generally, I am currently working on F. Jackson’s account of conceptual analysis, and it does seem that his theory is going to depend, in part, upon whether folk theories do in fact cut at the joints in some conceptually meaningful way. And he seems to be of the mind that folk conceptions do actually do this a lot of the time. For example, since the Gettier cases don’t seem to pass the muster with common folk intuitions about knowledge, we (philosophers included) decide that the JTB account is not the whole story. But, as Jackson reminds us, this came as no surprise to Gettier himself. Why? Because philosophers and folk alike could see intuitively that these weren’t cases we would classify as knowledge.

    That said, there seems to be something slightly different going on here. Indeed, my philosophical intuitions on this case, do in fact seem to line up in large measure with the folk intuitions you describe. So maybe, isn’t it the case then that we need to simply take the stipulative definitions of psychologists with a grain of salt? After all, they’re neither the folk nor philosophers, but scientists trying to simplify matter to a point where they can collect data. Sure, they might have a stipulative definition, but why think that this captures anything of philosophical (or conceptual) relevance? If your research had revealed a bunch of sadomasochists, that would perhaps be trouble.

    Still, I think that this dependence on folk theory does seem to break down at some point, for I for one would probably be unwilling to accept that folk notion of free-will is even conceptually coherent. But, if we assume that a folk conception is simply unintelligible, what reason do we have to search for an analysis of this? Perhaps there is some holistic or pragmatic motivation to search out the analysis of incoherent concepts, but should this really earn the title of conceptual analysis?

  5. nyholm says:

    Thanks, Blurbeard, for these comments.

    I think that many people believe that we mean something wholly non-evaluative by ‘happiness’ and that the concept of HAPPINESS is wholly non-evaluative. So, it would be a surprising and in itself interesting result to many people if it turns out, as I believe, that our folk concept of happiness is a partly evaluative or normative one. Psychologists who do research on happiness might be among the people who would be quite surprised to learn that our concept of happiness is partly evaluative and that there can be many cases in which their definitions would imply that people who the folk don’t think are happy are happy.

    Two counter-questions: I don’t see why we should assume that any folk concepts are “simply unintelligible”. I am also not clear on what gives something the status of “philosophical (or conceptual) relevance”.

    Thanks again.

  6. Scott Hughes says:

    I like that the above blog post points out the importance of defining happiness and recognizing the different nature of certain definitions, such as some being normative and others not.

    Incidentally, I wrote a short article about happiness back in February. I enjoy feedback.

  7. nyholm says:

    Thanks, Scott, for the link.

  8. […] https://gogrue.wordpress.com/2008/05/05/some-experimental-philosophy-on-happiness/This means that, when some psychologist judges that somebody is happy, the folk might not. That, I think, is an interesting result. Why? Because it means, I think, that when we give a philosophical account of happiness, then this will … […]

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