Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ethics, Morals, Faith & Happiness

[Johnathan Clayborn]
The class I'm taking right now is Philosophy 305 - Ethics in the Liberal Arts. It's an interesting class, and yet, at the same time I get the feeling that it's going to be a very long class as well. The questions that were posed this week

Do you agree with Plato that eudaimonia is a direct result of living ethically? Why or why not? Support your claims with logical reasoning, examples, and evidence.

First, a definition: Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing" has been proposed as a more accurate translation. In Aristotle's works, eudaimonia was used as a term for the highest human good, and so it is the aim of practical philosophy, including ethics and political philosophy, to consider (and also experience) what it really is, and how it can be achieved.

So, the question is: can humans be happy, flourish and achieve their best good through the direct result of living ethically? Why or why not?

Me: In this particular case, no, I disagree with Plato's claim that eudaimonia is the result of living ethically. I do think that living ethically plays a role in our overall happiness, however I think that it is only one of many different facets to our happiness. Maybe it's because I'm a psych major, but I also think that Maslow's hierarchy of needs playing into our overall happiness as well. I mean, I can live ethically all I want, but if I my basic human needs are not met, then I would still be unhappy. Of course, if I lied, cheated and stole my way into meeting my basic human needs, I would be unhappy also. This is sort of in line with a conversation I had with a colleague a few weeks ago. We were discussing the old adage "money doesn't buy happiness". It turns out, according to research data, that it least up to $75,000/year. After that money can't buy happiness. I saw the point the researchers were making, but my friend didn't. So I posed a hypothetical question to him; suppose that you are a low-income family. You fit the legal criteria of "working poor". You are the sole income provider. After paying your bills you barely have any money left and are living paycheck to paycheck. You don’t have much sick time left at work and your boss gets pissed off when people take time off of work. Now, suppose that your car breaks down and your son gets sick. You don’t have enough money to fix the car and take your boy to the hospital. You don’t have any friends or family who can loan you the money. As a result, you have to make a choice; do you put the needs of the entire family first and fix the car so that you can keep your job which pays for the house, the food, etc, or do you put the needs of your son over those of the entire family and get him seen by a doctor and risk loosing your job? It's a Kobayashi Maru and definitely not an easy choice. No matter which answer you choose, you will undoubtedly be unhappy. This is a situation that a person with more money wouldn't even have to contemplate, and yet, as a working-poor person you're not doubt going to face sleepless nights. And then, of course, there's the option of engaging in illegal activities in order to acquire the necessary funds to do both, but then you're violating your ethics and are also unhappy. Tying this all back to the original question; I don't think that Plato was ever faced with situations like these. I think he's got part of the answer, but overall I think he's wrong.

Now, at this point I am the only person in the class who disagrees with Plato. Everyone else is saying "yep!", or "sure can!", etc. I'm paraphrasing there, but it's the same rhetoric over and over. As a result my question response, as usual, quickly becomes a hot topic.

Here are some of the responses that I got: Mr. J.R. wrote: "I don’t agree that money buys happiness. God provides all of the food and health that we need. Money buys stuff. Stuff does not equal happiness. I have been around people from all walks of life and it certainly seems that those who live simple lives are happier then the wealthy. I myself live in a low income family an I have never lost a night of sleep over it. We have many trials in this life but God has always carried us through."

Really? Here was my response to him: "Respectfully, I disagree. Here's why:
1. It's been scientifically proven that up to $75,000/year an increase in money does also increase your happiness. This is not an avocation that we should be greedy. Nor it is a statement that money is the end-all, be-all of happiness, but it is evidence that money does play a factor.
2. God obviously wants people to have money. Church tithes are often between 10% - 20%. If money did not play a factor into happiness, then why wouldn't church tithes be 100%?
3. God does not provide food or health or shelter, money does. I cannot pay my landlord with prayer. I cannot buy groceries with prayer. God may lead me to a job which provides me with adequate income, but God does not miraculously cause this "stuff" to materialize magically in my home. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe in God. But I also take my faith in a pragmatic approach. The Bible states that God helps those who help themselves. There's even the parable about making money grow in Matthew and in Luke.
 In answering the hypothetical situation I posed earlier there are no right answers. No matter which choice you make you will be sad or stressed out. You will not be happy. Why are you unhappy? Because you don’t have the money to pay for both items. If you could afford to pay for both, then you wouldn't be unhappy. Hence, money does play a role in your overall happiness. But, money does not equal happiness. Money without faith will not bring you happiness. The "stuff" that money buys will not bring you happiness. There's more to it than that; happiness is a complex thing affected by many different facets of life."

J.R. said “Sir you have a very well thought out opinion but I believe that it is a misguided one. First of all the bible does not say that God helps those who help themselves. This is not at all a core theme found in the bible. It is actually quite the opposite, God helps those who cannot help themselves. The bible does say that we should work and work as if we are working for the Lord, but by no means is any of our faith put into how much money we make. We do have practical decisions to make regarding money and how we use it, but the concept of the more money we make the happier we are just is not true. There is no scientific proof that those who make 75 thousand are happier than those who don’t because there is no way to measure happiness. Money is simply a tool that we use to keep track of our assets. It was not always like this though. In ancient times, assets were measured by livestock and land. Everything is a gift. The fact that some have the ability to earn more then others is a gift from God. So the core principle here is that God is the initial provider not money. Thank you again for your opinion, I enjoy reading your posts.”

I replied with this: “I appreciate that you recognize that I've given my opinion some thought. I think that this is going to be a topic where we are going to have to agree to disagree. I can cite many examples from the bible where the message that God helps those who help themselves is the prevailing message. There is also scientific proof that those who make more money are happier; they've conducted studies and they've asked people exactly "on a scale from 1 to 10, how happy are you". Sure, there is a measure of subjectivity to the test, but it can still be measured.”  

And then there was Mr. C. N.: "Hey Johnathan, In my opinion happiness comes from appreciating what you have. The reason why people are unhappy with there financial situation is because they are comparing it to what others have. I believe that money is a facture in a persons comfort, but people who live very modestly and small are sometimes the happiest. The world pressures you to think that you need the big house, the big car and the beautiful spouse to be happy. Jesus taught us to live simply. Remember, in his ministry, Jesus had no home or income. He lived in God's spirit. He was truly happy and He wants us to follow in His footsteps. There is nothing wrong with living comfortably, but it should not determined the happiness of an individual if they are at peace with God."

First, I don’t see how the hypothetical situation that I posed above has anything to do with comparing what I have to my neighbors. The basic principle of the argument is that you can't afford to care for your own family and either choice you make will lead to mental suffering or unhappiness. What does that have to do with the Jones'? Nevertheless, my response was thus: "I hope that you didn't get the implication that I was agreeing that people should lead large, extravagant lives, not at all. There's nothing wrong with living modestly. However, I also look at the world much more pragmatically than most. Sure, Jesus didn't have income or a house, but he also had the ability to grow or catch his own food, something that most of us can't do today. And he really didn't suffer from sickness or injury (until his crucifixion anyway). So, you have a person who doesn't have to pay for food (let's not forget about the miracles that he performed with the loaves and the fish and turning water into wine...) and someone who never gets sick and has the ability to miraculously heal those around him. Of course, Jesus would have very little need for money indeed. However, since I'm not Jesus, I'm not able to multiply food,  I have to buy it instead. And I certainly can't heal my family, so I have to pay a doctor to do that. I can follow the teachings of Jesus and love my fellow man all day long (and I do), but that act alone does not solve the very real problems of making sure that my family is fed, or that they are healthy, etc. And to that end, money can lead to happiness insomuch that I rest my worried mind. After all, didn't Jesus end up donating the money that he came into contact with those less fortunate? Could you imagine all of the happiness and health that could be spread around the world if churches themselves would tone the opulence down a touch and instead focused on feeding the sick and hungry and poor? I'm sure money would make them quite happy, and healthy. And what about monetary donations to children's hospitals who help destitute children with cancer or other serious ailments? Money in and of itself is not bad, and I certainly don’t think that's what Jesus was saying (after all, the tithe is only 10%, so he must want you to keep some of it...). It's not that money is bad, it's that greed is bad. After all, doesn't the books of Matthew and Luke use a parable about increasing your profits in a positive way? (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-27). In a pragmatic sense, peace with God is wonderful, and it will certainly help you achieve overall happiness, but it wont provide you with medicine, food or clothing."

And then there was Mrs. C. L. Who lit the powder-keg with one simple line: "How does one's faith play into this?"

I told her: "I think that faith would fall into the category of needs as described by Maslow. Faith provides people with a purpose, with hope. I also think that faith has a direct correlation into the particular morality that a person follows, and as such, the actions that they are permitted and not permitted to do. For example; Jews are not permitted to eat certain foods, and neither are Muslims as their faith prohibits it. Does this make them unhappier? Or does their faith counteract that?"

Bewilderingly she wrote back with this: "That was my point, one's faith (ethics are, of coarse, included in faith) is really the only true happiness. That is the happiness that Plato speaks about...happiness in every aspect of life, the good and the bad. Is that kind of happiness possible without God and obedience to Him?"
Which garnered this reply from me: "I don't see ethics as included in a person's faith. In my opinion faith controls a person morals while society dictates ethics. Ethics are decided in the court of law and the court of public opinion whereas morals are influenced by faith. I do not think that we were making the same point. If you got the impression that I was saying that a person's faith was all they needed to be happy then I must apologize as I don’t think I phrased my explanation the right way. The problem with the type of  logic that you pose is that God leads you to happiness, so therefore God must be the only path to happiness. What about Buddhists? Are they unhappy? They don't believe in God. What about Wiccans? Or Zoroastrians? Or Muslims? There are many different religions with different beliefs. Is it necessary for them to believe in God in order to be happy, or is it simply that belief in something is enough?"

There was only 1 person in class who responded intelligently to my post. We'll call her RF. She asked "So then would you agree that achieving a state of eudaimonia would depend on what you need (individually) to feel happy? Would you also agree that the morality therein depends on a personal level of values, ethics, and standards?". A fair and intelligent question, finally! My response was "Yes, and yes. Absolutely. Some people would be perfectly happy being alone or having very few social interactions. However, other people would be miserable by this experience and would only be happy by lots of social interaction. Clearly, happiness and the path to happiness is unique and individualized. And yes, I think that each person has a different moral and ethical standard. Some people never steal, some people only steal in certain circumstances. Some people never lie, others lie to protect people, others lie because they think it's fun. I think that personal experience, family tradition and faith all play a role in shaping a person's moral views."

Now, all of this ties into the question that posed earlier in the week: Identify unique characteristics of moral/ethical principles. How are they different or how are they similar to principles found in law, etiquette, and religious commands?

One of my classmates had this to say: "Morals and ethics touch each of us on a common ground as human beings. Whereas principles found in law, etiquette and religious command vary from cultures, countries and people. Moral/ethical principles are what separate us from that of being animals"

To which I responded with this: "Having studied ethics and morality in the past I find it fascinating that so many people who have the same religion and the same nationality can have such a wildly different outlook on ethical or moral behavior. It makes me wonder what other intangible elements are at work there and whether we can ever truly understand what causes some people to have one set of morals and ethics and their brother or their sister to have a different set." This statement got two separate replies and two completely different schools of thought.

The original author wrote back with this: "I have to wonder if sometimes if the difference is in level of guilt, shame or embarrassment a person feels for violating a moral/ethical standard that makes personal ethics waver from person to person in the same pew. Or even beyond that the amount of conviction a person ALLOWS themselves to feel." And my reply was: "I agree, guilt definitely plays a role in the limit that our ethical and moral considerations are bound. However, I think that there are probably certain situations where most people would go against their ethical beliefs, especially if they were coerced or blackmailed. But, since I personally view ethics and morals and slightly different, the question would be will everyone violate their morals? For example; I think that most people would steal in order to save someone they loved from being tortured (ethics), but would people kill someone in order to save a loved one (morals)?"  No response was given to my question.

The other response to my post was quite interesting indeed, for lack of a better word. Mr. J. R. again with this: "I guess the big question remains...Is there an objective moral law or are morals just a matter of opinion?"
I said: "It's been my experience that morality and theology go hand in hand. That being the case, there are almost certainly cases where morality will differ from culture to culture. As an example; today it is morally reprehensible in American culture to kill a child. However, in Ancient Greece the Spartans used to commit infanticide for children that they deemed "unworthy". The practice of infanticide still occurs in some parts of Asia where over-population is a serious issue. Here in the states we view it as an immoral act; in those countries they view it as an everyday part of life. Most Americans are self-righteous enough to say that, of course, our morality is right, and theirs is wrong. But who's to say for certain? We know how to do what's right because it's explained in the Bible. What about people who worship a different God? Are they right also? It's a slippery slope sometimes."

J.R.: "We call it abortion but it is the same thing. I think all people have one thing in common. That is the fact that for the most part we all adhere to some common moral principles. For example-it is wrong to kill and steal. Now sometimes people rationalize but just about all people agree on these core principles. The reason for this- is the existence of objective moral law, truth, and one law giver."

Me: "Well, I can certainly agree with the sentiment that infanticide and abortion can be classified as loosely the same concept. And I do think that you are correct about there being a common core set of moral codes, and interestingly I also agree that it's because there is one moral code giver. The questions I would pose back are these: 1. If the common moral code is not to take human life and to be kind to your fellow human, how do serial killers and mass murderers fit into this philosophy? Are they merely "defective" in some way? Or do they follow a different set of morals? 2. If everyone more or less has the same moral code and the reason for this is that there is one law giver (God), then would that suggest that underneath all of the ceremony many of the world's religions actually praise the same God? Or is there a different explanation?"

J.R: “Good questions. Serial killers are a product of a sick, sinful, and fallen world. Most serial killers were severely harmed as children which caused catastrophic psychological harm which is why they act the way that they do. This is why raising children the right way is absolutely crucial. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our decisions no matter how we were raised. As far as other religions go, a common misconception is that we are all worshiping the same God in a different way or refer to God by a different name. This is not true. All religions are fundamentally different. They differ in their theology, and in regards to sin, salvation, and the afterlife. There is only one God so we cant all be right about who this God is because all religions have a completely different opinion of who he is. The bible says that Jesus is the way the truth and the life and that nobody gets to the father except through him.”

Me: “Great conversation, Jeff. Two more questions: 1. If serial killers are the product of their environment as you propose, how do you explain the fact that all serial killers have a brain that is physically different from ours, so much so that it can be visibly detected by MRIs? 2. How do you know for certain that the other faiths are wrong? In the book of Genesis God destroyed the tower of Babel. He scattered mankind to the corners of the earth and confounded their languages. If God is omniscient surely he would have known that such an action would have resulted in the degeneration of Mankind into different sub-cultures with their own values and opinions. Surely he would have realized that a one-size fits all religion would no longer work for the world ad provided each religion with a suitable way to worship him. If God is as powerful and complex and religion posits him to be, then how we can we as mere mortals ever claim to truly understand him for certain?”

There was no further response.

But, this does open some interesting concepts to ponder. Can eudaimonia be achieved merely through ethics as Plato suggests? I say no. Eudaimonia was a concept first posed by Aristotle, not Plato. Aristotle takes virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in eudaimonia but does acknowledge the importance of external goods such as health, wealth, and beauty. By contrast, the Stoics make virtue necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia and thus deny the necessity of external goods. By this reasoning alone, eudaimonia is more than just a blind belief that living ethically will bring about happiness.

The second interesting concept is this: are ethics and morals truly the same and interchangeable as many would suggest? In my mind, no. There are many different types of ethics. There are personal ethics and there are business ethics. There are ethics for particular groups (usually called "codes of conduct). Every group, culture and society in the world has a set of ethical parameters that they follow. However, every person in the world also has a different and unique set of ethical codes as well. some people consider it ethically inappropriate to steal from the company they work for, however, they think that it's ethically acceptable to defraud a different company to get free things. To me, as I'm sure that you probably picked up from my responses, ethics are rules to which we adhere to help us navigate successfully through society and other interactions with our fellow humans. And people's ethical codes are wildly different. Morals are on a whole different level altogether. Morality is the set of codes by which you live to reconcile your own mind and your own consciousness. Typically, we feel at peace in our consciousness through the instruction of a supernatural deity (ie: God), however, even Atheists have a moral code. Morals tend to have a deeper meaning and significance, they are how you hold yourself accountable for your actions.

My response to the that second question reiterates this point: "In my experience moral and ethical decisions are choices and guidelines that are intensely personal. In legislative mandates the courts dictate how you should act or not act in a given situation. In etiquette, the "rule of the land" and the social expectations rule the day. With religious mandates the choices come from God (or at least on his behalf). But moral or ethical implications tend to be more vague, and far more personal. No one really sets these rules for you, they are yours to figure out on your own. And, often enough, these guidelines intersect and overlap the principles of law, religion, and etiquette. In many cases law, etiquette and religion dont always agree anyway, and yet your "moral compass" is supposed to help you navigate these discrepancies."

I find it interesting that so many people blindly say that you have to believe, not just in God, but in their God in order to be happy. Faith is enough, but faith isn't necessarily religious. The basic tenant of faith, any faith is the belief that we are something more than the sum of our parts.

At least my professor has some reason. He said “Good post - I heard that once and it was followed with "not even a million dollars could make you happy" to which I said "yeah, but it sure would be nice to try!"So if happiness in that sense isn't the right motivation, what is?”

I closed this week’s discussion with this final thought: Thanks Professor, I try to be very pragmatic in my approach to the world. I try to balance religion and science. I find it interesting that although Plato says that all you need is ethics, Aristotle says that wealth, health and ethics are all facets to achieving happiness.

In my own personal view I think that happiness is a combination of the following areas:
1. Following your own ethical and moral code.
2. A sense of purpose, and/or the feeling that you are wanted or appreciated.
3. having your basic physical needs met: (food, shelter, clothing, etc).
4. Having affectionate relationships (friends, spouse, etc).
5. A sense of legacy. (children, grandchildren, knowing that you will be remembered after you die).
6. Faith. This is not the same as religion, but it could be. It could be faith in God, or it could be faith that humanity is good and just, etc.

These things may not be important to other people, but those factors directly contribute to my own happiness.

I leave you, dear readers, with these closing thoughts: what things truly make you happy? Is your faith alone enough, or is happiness a complex state that encompasses many different parts of your life?


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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.