What Right Do You Have to Be Happy?

Seriously .  . .

It’s Monday night. I’ve finished teaching my ethics class. We covered Kant this week - he who said that acts of kindness performed because one finds an inner satisfaction in spreading joy have no true moral worth. No, Kant said, the only acts that have genuine moral worth are those performed only from duty and without any inclination or sentiment. One needs a stiff drink after three hours of that.


23 February 2022, before the news broke.

I’ve gone out for food and drink after class for years. It’s my only alone time, and the Spouse doesn’t mind having the house to herself for the evening. Tonight I went to the Lasagnaria, where they unsurprisingly serve lasagna. and just lasagna. I went there as a bit of a homage.

I sat in the seat I was at the night of 23 February 2022. It was there that I read on my tablet the news bulletins–“all Russian troops have left their staging areas and are moving toward the Ukrainian border”; all Russian troops.

It was not a surprise, but it was still staggering news. All hope for peace was now gone. I knew that tens of thousands of people were going to die (I drastically underestimated). Around me, people went on with their meals. Normal night. Ignorance is, if not bliss, at least contentment. My lasagna,  as good as it was, was no solace.

“‘Tis Not Contrary to Reason . . .”

When I teach about Kant’s ethical system, I mention that he was responding to the philosophy of David Hume. On ethics, Hume had said,

‘Tis not contrary to reason (he says) to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. – Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature 

Yeah, why should we give a frell about anyone else? There is nothing in logic that tells us we should care for anyone else. Objective reason seems to confirm that only oneself matters. To hell with everyone else; just ask Ayn Rand, Vladimir Putin, and every other asshole ever.

It was that realization that horrified Kant. Alas, he swung to the opposite extreme, in which only reason mattered–the rational devotion to duty. It still leaves us devoid of feeling for our fellow humans. Reason is a harsh mistress, whispering to us any justification we seek, leading us to cold ruin as sure as any hot-tempered passion.

Why should I care that Russians are murdering Ukrainians, that Israelis are murdering Palestinians in revenge for Hamas murdering Israelis, for American police murdering Black Americans? And on and on . . . It is not contrary to reason that all of humanity be murdered as long as I have lasagna.

Is Happiness Contrary to Reason?

David Hume
David Hume

Let’s turn Hume’s idea around. If reason doesn’t tell us we have to care about the fate of others, is it not also the case that reason doesn’t tell us we should care for our own fate? That’s the conclusion that the stoics determined to be the case. Relying on reason alone, we can find no justification for caring about anyone or anything, including ourselves. On that, the stoics were correct. Happiness is contrary to reason.

Obviously, there’s more to being a person than being a cold rock of stoic rationality. We are capable of feeling happiness. We can care about others. More than that, we do care about others. Is it correct to condemn human feeling as irrational?

Hume didn’t, and Kant misunderstood Hume’s conclusion. Yes, Hume said, logic doesn’t tell us to feel compassion for others, but something else tells us. We have a natural sense, he said, that certain things are morally wrong. If we saw someone murdered in front of us, it isn’t rationality that tells us it is wrong. So, why do we sense wrongness? We won’t find the answer through reason or observing material facts, Hume said.

You never can find [the wrongness], till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation [disapproval], which arises in you, towards this action.  - Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature

We have an inner sense that certain acts are moral or immoral. Our sense of right and wrong comes from our sentiments and passions. They are part of our human nature. When we act out of our inclination and sentiment for other people, that is a moral act, Hume said, contrary to Kant. Morality, Hume concluded, is more properly felt than judged, and reason ought to serve the passions, not the other way around.

Our feelings are natural. They are part of what makes us human. Maybe feeling happy is irrational, but that’s not the point. Sure, being happy about certain things may be stupid or immoral, but that doesn’t mean that happiness itself is stupid or wrong.

Being Happy While Others Suffer

Now to the point of my essay. In 2022 and now in 2024, I ate my lasagna. It was good lasagna, and it pleased me. At the same time(s), I knew that elsewhere in the world, not that far from me (the Russian invaders are as close to me as Chicago is from New York City) people were suffering. What right do I have to be happy?

I’m not engaging in a poetic elegy of self-pity. But I am human, and I do care about other people and what happens to them. Seriously, what right do I have to be happy while others are suffering? It’s not contrary to reason to not care but is it contrary to being human? Yes, it is. I will declare that. Hume is correct - to feel sentiment for others is part of human nature.

Stoic philosopher Seneca said that feeling sorrow for someone else’s suffering was a mental defect. That’s the sentiment not of a human but of a sociopath.

It is good and proper to feel empathy for others. To be unmoved by the suffering of others is abominable. Emmanuel Levinas said that to turn away from the suffering of others is to lose our humanity. When we look at others, we see ourselves. If we don’t, there is something deficient in us.

Okay, but if empathy for others’ suffering is good, am I denying that suffering by enjoying my life? The question reminded me of this image.

That’s wisdom right-wingers ignore, as they, along with other people, try to make themselves feel better by making other people feel worse.

But I want to focus on the flip side meaning of that quote. Blowing out your candle doesn’t light up anyone else’s.

We don’t make someone else happier by being miserable. Wallowing in elegy, gloom, and moroseness doesn’t help anyone. Saying “I won’t have lasagna tonight because someone else is hungry,” is not helpful.

Of course, being flippantly blind to other people is even less helpful and is immoral. It’s an empty response, as is feeling empathy but not acting with compassion. Hume is correct that we feel sentiment for others. Levinas is correct that to ignore that sentiment is wrong.

The cynics out there will make their usual caustic comments, but I say this. To be happy, to enjoy my life, is not irrational, it is not immoral. It can and should be a solid foundation on which I can and should act to make the world a better place.

Oh, and one final quote.

In the event of loss of cabin pressure . . . put on your air mask first before helping others.


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