Does happiness need to be deserved to be genuine? Here's one person, virtuous, moral, ethical. She's kind and generous. Volunteers at her kid's school. Helps out at the homeless shelter. Prays, meditates, goes to church.
All this do-gooding and God-praising makes her happy.
We know, because she scores high on reputable psychological tests that measure happiness. And when she's put in a brain scanner and asked to think about her good works, her left prefrontal cortex "lights up," which is an indicator of a positive mental state.
Here's another person, a gangster. He's sociopathic, vicious, mean, law-breaking. After stealing some high-tech stuff from a warehouse, he learns that another shady-dealer is willing to pay him $4 million for the stolen goods.
All this criminality makes him happy. Not just after a successful heist, almost all of the time. He's a happy guy. Breaking the law is what he loves to do. Also, breaking bones when he feels like it. We know, for the same reasons noted above: psychological tests and brain scanning.
So are both manifestations of happiness equally real, equally genuine? Is there any reason to say that the virtuous woman is happier than the malevolent man?
Which are ably addressed by philosopher Owen Flanagan in his book, "The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized," which I've blogged about here, here, and here. His focus, obviously, is on Buddhism when he investigates the supposed relationship between virtue and happiness. But the issue is universal.
And complicated. There are lots of subtleties to consider. I enjoyed the thoughtful care with which Flanagan arrives at what turns out to be a non-conclusion. Here's an excerpt from his final chapter.
I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself [a core Buddhist tenet] makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism. And isn't that the problem that we keep coming back to, the problem or question that doesn't go away?
...My own way of dealing with this problem is to be and live as a platonic hedonist, to try to maximize pleasures at the places where what is true and beautiful and good intersect. The comfort associated with living in this space, insofar as there is any, comes from thinking that no answer is the right answer to the question of how one ought to live. Thinking this is compatible with thinking that there is much worthwhile in the wisdom of the ages, including Buddhism.
Perhaps all we can expect of philosophical reflection, especially among those of us who live in multicultural, cosmopolitian communities, is that different ways of being and living, different experiments in conceiving of good lives and of trying to embody the wisdom contained in these different ways, keep many options alive, and allow maximal freedom in finding ways to be well and to live well, and perhaps, if we are lucky, to be happy.
...For that purpose, for going forward, Buddhism has something to offer. Is it the answer? Of course not. Nothing is the answer. This is something Buddhism teaches.
Flanagan talks about "the normative exclusion clause" when discussing the relationship between virtue (however it's conceived) and happiness. I hadn't come across that term before, but I've lived it, as has virtually everybody who has embraced an organized religion, spirituality, or mystical practice at one time or another.
Do X, Y, and Z, and you'll be happy. That's the promise. But the problem is that other people do A, B, and C, or D, E, and F, and they also are happy. So what's going on?
If I believe in a guru and embrace every virtue that he advises, while someone else believes in Jesus and embraces every virtue that he advises, and we both end up happy, what's can be concluded? That happiness, a good life, human flourishing (eudaimonia), can be found in many different ways, or that some forms of happiness are The Real Deal and others are worthless fakes?
I lean toward "whatever works." The normative exclusion clause seems judgmental, rigid, moralistic, Protestant ethic'y and holier-than-thou to me. Here's how Flanagan describes it.
...that only happiness caused by virtue counts as wholesome, virtuous -- the kind we are interested in. Defending the normative exclusion clause requires argument. Here are some bases on which one might mount a plausible defense.
First, we might think that there are reasons to say that happiness is only deserved if the happy person participates in producing that state, which she does not do if it is simply produced by a magic pill. Or, in the false-belief case, we might say that an epistemic norm, our commitment to truth, excludes cases where happiness is won by delusion.
Well, I'm fine with getting happiness from a magic pill. Like I said, whatever works. If you've got a happiness-producing magic pill, share it with me. With this caveat, which applies to my worry about religion:
Side effects should be minimal. I'm not interested in a magic pill which makes me happy, but other people miserable. Nor do I want to take a magic pill which makes me happy at first, but sad later -- when the negative side effects kick in.
Hey, if people feel good by believing in weird notions, go for it, dudes and dudettes. More power to you. LIfe is tough. Whatever gets you through the days and nights, embrace it. Even religion. Marx called it the "opium of the people."
Problem is, opium can have some serious side effects. A little is OK. A lot can kill you.
Likewise, there's nothing wrong with getting happiness however, wherever, and whenever you can enjoy some. Forget that "normative exclusion clause." Happiness is just as real with and without someone's notion of virtue.
Just watch out for those side effects. In the case of religion, these include sanctimoniousness, controlling behavior, judgmentalism, excessive self-absorption, violence, and a host of others.