Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology
ABSTRACT Psychology has recently focused attention on subjective states of pleasure, satisfaction, and what is called "happiness." The suggestion has been made in some quarters that a study of these subjective states has important implications for public policy. Sometimes, as in the case of Martin Seligman's "positive psychology" movement, attempts are made to link the empirical findings and the related normative judgments directly to the descriptive and normative insights of ancient Greek ethics and modern virtue ethics. At other times, as with Daniel Kahneman's work, the connection to Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers is only indirect, and the connection to British Utilitarianism is paramount; nonetheless, judgments are made that could be illuminated by an examination of the rich philosophical tradition that runs from Aristotle through to John Stuart Mill's criticisms of Bentham. (c) 2008 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved..
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The University of Chicago
Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology
Author(s): Martha C. Nussbaum
Source: The Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 37, No. S2, Legal Implications of the New Research
on Happiness<break></break>A Conference Sponsored by the John M. Olin Program in Law
and Economics at the University of Chicago Law School (June 2008), pp. S81-S113
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Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses
Questions to Psychology
Martha C. Nussbaum
Psychology has recently focused attention on subjective states of pleasure, satisfaction, and
what is called “happiness.” The suggestion has been made in some quarters that a study of
these subjective states has important implications for public policy. Sometimes, as in the
case of Martin Seligman’s “positive psychology” movement, attempts are made to link the
empirical findings and the related normative judgments directly to the descriptive and nor-
mative insights of ancient Greek ethics and modern virtue ethics. At other times, as with
Daniel Kahneman’s work, the connection to Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers is only
indirect, and the connection to British Utilitarianism is paramount; nonetheless, judgments
are made that could be illuminated by an examination of the rich philosophical tradition that
runs from Aristotle through to John Stuart Mill’s criticisms of Bentham.
Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
[Wordsworth, “Character of the Happy Warrior,” 1807]
Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does
that. [Nietzsche, “Maxims and Arrows,” 1889]
Psychology has recently focused attention on subjective states of plea-
sure, satisfaction, and what is called “happiness.” The suggestion has
been made in some quarters that a study of these subjective states has
important implications for public policy. Sometimes, as in the case of
MARTHA NUSSBAUM is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics,
Law School, Philosophy Department, and Divinity School, the University of Chicago. I am
grateful to Eric Posner for guidance, comments, and suggestions, to all the participants in
the happiness conference for their helpful input, and to an anonymous referee for the
S82 / T H E J O U R N A L O F L E G A L S T U D I E S / V O L U M E 3 7 ( 2 ) / J U N E 2 0 0 8
Martin Seligman’s “positive psychology” movement, attempts are made
to link the empirical findings and the related normative judgments di-
rectly to the descriptive and normative insights of ancient Greek ethics
and modern virtue ethics. At other times, as with Daniel Kahneman’s
work, the connection to Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers is
only indirect, and the connection to British Utilitarianism is paramount;
nonetheless, judgments are made that could be illuminated by an ex-
amination of the rich philosophical tradition that runs from Aristotle
through to John Stuart Mill’s criticisms of Bentham.
The aim of my paper is to confront this increasingly influential move-
ment within psychology with a range of questions from the side of
philosophy. Often these questions have a very long history in the dis-
cipline, going back at least to Aristotle; the more thoughtful Utilitarians,
above all Mill, also studied them in depth. Some of these questions are
conceptual; others are normative. After going through quite a number
of them, I will attempt to correct some misunderstandings, within this
psychological literature, of my own “objective-list” conception and the
role I think it ought to play in public policy. And I will say what I think
some appropriate roles for subjective-state analysis inpublicpolicymight
1. CONCEPTUAL ISSUES
1.1. What Is Pleasure?
Psychologists often talk about pleasure, and also about subjects’ hedonic
state. Too rarely, however, do they ask some very obvious questions
about it that greatly affect any research program involving the concept.
Two central questions are, is pleasure a single thing, varying only in
intensity or duration, or is it plural, containing qualitative differences?
And is it a sensation, or is it something more like a way of attending
to the world, or even a way of being active?
Jeremy Bentham famously held that pleasure was a single sensation,
varying only along the quantitative dimensions of intensity and duration
(see my discussion in Nussbaum 2004b). Modern psychology follows
Bentham. Indeed, Kahnemann explicitly traces his own conception of
“hedonic flow” to Bentham (see, for example, Kahneman and Krueger
2006, p. 4). And yet, is Bentham correct? Does his account correctly
capture the complexity of our experience of pleasures of many sorts?
We speak of pleasure as a type of experience, but we also refer to ac-
H A P P Y WA R R I O R / S83
tivities as “my pleasures,” saying things like, “My greatest pleasures are
listening to Mahler and eating steak.” We also use verbal locutions, such
as “enjoying” and “taking delight in.” (The ancient Greeks used such
verbal locutions much more frequently than they used the noun.) Such
ways of talking raise two questions: Is pleasure a sensation at all, if such
very different experiences count as pleasures? And is it single? Could
there be any one thing that both eating a steak and listening to Mahler’s
Tenth, that harrowing confrontation with grief and emptiness, have in
These questions were subtly discussed by Plato, Aristotle, and a whole
line of subsequent philosophers.1Bentham simply ignores them. As Mill
writes in his great essay “On Bentham,” “Bentham failed in deriving
light from other minds.” For him, pleasure simply must be a single
homogeneous sensation, containing no qualitative differences. The only
variations in pleasure are quantitative. Pleasures can vary in intensity,
duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquicy or remoteness, and, fi-
nally, in causal properties (tendency to produce more pleasure, and so
on). The apparent fact that pleasures differ in quality, that the pleasure
of steak eating is quite different from the pleasure of listeningtoMahler’s
Tenth, bothered Bentham not at all; he does not discuss such examples.
Perhaps the reason for this problem is that Bentham’s deepest concern
is with pain and suffering, and it is somewhat more plausible to think
of pain as a unitary sensation varying only in intensity and duration.
Even here, however, qualitative differences seem crucial: the pain of a
headache is very different from the pain of losing a loved one to death.
As Mill says, Bentham’s view expresses “the empiricism of one who has
had little experience”—either external, he adds, or internal, through the
Nor was Bentham worried about interpersonal comparisons, a prob-
lem on which economists in the Utilitarian tradition have spent great
labor, and one that any program to use subjective satisfaction for public
policy must face. For Bentham there was no such problem. When we
move from one person to many people, we just add a new dimension
of quantity. Right action is ultimately defined as that which produces
the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Moreover, Bentham sees
no problem in extending the comparison class to the entire world of
1. For one good philosophical overview, see Gosling and Taylor (1982); see also the
excellent treatment in Taylor (1976). An admirable general philosophical discussion is
S84 / T H E J O U R N A L O F L E G A L S T U D I E S / V O L U M E 3 7 ( 2 ) / J U N E 2 0 0 8
sentient animals. One of the most attractive aspects of his thought is its
great compassion for the suffering of animals, which he took to be
unproblematically comparable to human suffering.2This attractive as-
pect, however, is marred by his failure even to consider whether animal
pains and pleasures are qualitatively different, in at least some respects,
from human pains and pleasures.
What is appealing about Bentham’s program is its focus on urgent
needs of sentient beings for relief from suffering and its determination
to take all suffering of all sentient beings into account. But Bentham
cannot be said to have developed anything like a convincing account of
pleasure and pain, far less of happiness. Because of his attachment to a
strident simplicity, the view remains a sketch crying out for adequate
Modern philosophers starting off from the Greco-Roman tradition
have noticed that already in that tradition there is a widespread sense
that Bentham’s sort of answer will not do. A proto-Benthamite answer
is familiar, in views of hedonists such as Eudoxus3and the title character
in Plato’s Philebus who represented Eudoxus’s position. But there is an
equally widespread sense among the Greek thinkers that this view will
not do. The young interlocutor Protarchus, in the Philebus, is quickly
brought by Socrates to reject it: he sees that the sources of pleasure color
the pleasure itself, and that the pleasure of philosophizing is just not the
same qualitatively as the pleasure of eating and sex. (The name “Phi-
lebus” means “lover of young men,” and the character is represented
as using his unitary view of pleasure to seduce attractive youths.)4
Aristotle takes up where the Philebus left off. Throughout his work
he insists on the tremendous importance of qualitative distinctions
among the diverse constituent parts of human life; he later suggests that
these distinctions affect the proper analysis of the concept of pleasure.
Notoriously, however, he offers two very different conceptions of plea-
sure, one in book VII and one in book X of the Nicomachean Ethics.
The first identifies pleasure with unimpeded activity (not so odd if we
remember that we speak of “my pleasures” and “enjoyments”). The
2. He denied that animals suffered at the very thought of death, and thus he argued
that the painless killing of an animal is sometimes permitted.
3. No writings of Eudoxus survive; we know his views through Aristotle’s character-
ization of them in Nicomachean Ethics 1172b9 ff. and by reports of later doxographers;
he is usually taken to be the inspiration for the title character in Plato’s Philebus.
4. In the Greek world, this would not mark him as depraved, only as greedy: he is the
Greek equivalent of a womanizer.