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Moral Relativism and the Search for Happiness



B.Contestabile       admin@socrethics.com        First version 2009   Last version 2013





Table of Contents




1.      Introduction

2.      The Advice of the Wise

3.      Positive Psychology

4.      Philosophical Novels

5.      Sociology

6.      Happiness Economics

7.      Cross Comparison

8.      The Normative Force of Reason

9.      Conclusion



Further Reading









Starting point

In this paper we investigate happiness on the individual level. The prime concern is therefore individual desires and not societal concerns. Nevertheless individual happiness implies a solution for the conflict between individual and societal interests. And sometimes the two interests overlap or even coincide. Insofar the reflections about happiness cannot discard reflections about society.

We restrict the investigation to concepts which are guided by reason. Even then the results are widely different, depending on the approach (empirical, philosophical, literary) which is chosen.



Type of Problem

- How does the method of investigation relate to the result?

- Does the variety of methods lead to moral relativism?




How does the method relate to the result?

- The Advice of the Wise lacks the information, for which personality traits (risk profile) and environment (culture) the advice is best suited.

- Positive Psychology devaluates retreat-oriented ways of living.

- Philosophical novels are free to describe a peculiarity in ethics instead of giving a complete picture.

- Sociology doesn’t investigate the relation between individual life stories and happiness.

- Happiness economics cannot interpret the historical and cultural context of happiness


Does the variety of methods lead to moral relativism?

Methodological pluralism is neither a reason for moral relativism, nor a reason against it. The variety of methods simply enhances the capacity to check arguments on both sides.

1. The cultural diversity of moral rules is a fact.

2. There are strong arguments for non-absolutism and value pluralism. The term reason can be associated with both life-friendly and retreat-oriented ways of living.

None of these arguments excludes moral universalism. The normative force of reason restricts happiness at the cost of others and happiness at the cost of one’s own future self.






1  Introduction



Starting point

1.      In this paper we investigate happiness on the individual level. The prime concern is therefore individual states of mind and not societal concerns. Nevertheless individual happiness implies a solution for the conflict between individual and societal interests. And sometimes the two interests overlap or even coincide. Insofar the reflections about happiness cannot discard reflections about society.

2.      We restrict the investigation on concepts which are guided by reason. Even then the results are widely different, depending on the approach (empirical, philosophical, literary) which is chosen.



Type of Problem

1.      How does the method of investigation relate to the result?

2.      Does the variety of methods lead to moral relativism?

3.      Can moral universalism be founded on reason?




2  The Advice of the Wise



2.1  Basics


Philosophers are not known as over-average happy people:




Some people think,

others amuse themselves.


Author unknown 



But possibly philosophers – because they are more cautious and think ahead – have an over-average chance to avoid suffering.


Philosophers have often defined happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. In everyday speech today, however, terms such as well-being or quality of life are usually used to signify the classical meaning, and happiness is reserved for the felt experience that philosophers historically called pleasure (Happiness, Wikipedia).


The pursuit of happiness by means of reason is one of the oldest domains of philosophy:

1)      Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness.

2)      Plato's allegory of the cave influenced western thinkers who believe that happiness is found by finding deeper meaning.

3)      Aristotle believed that happiness, or eudaimonia is constituted by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life.

4)      The Epicureans believed in reaching happiness through the enjoyment of simple pleasures.

5)      The Stoics believed they could remain happy by being objective and reasonable.

 (Positive Psychology, Wikipedia)


Buddha’s vision of happiness is in many aspects opposite to the one of Aristotle: selflessness thru meditation instead of self-realization thru activity.




2.2  Philosophical Findings




Schopenhauer wrote one of the first self-help books. It gives the reader advice on how to make life bearable. Some of his remarks are very apt. For instance he advises the reader to restrain from striving for wealth; and contemporary data shows that once a basic income is achieved, more money does little to increase happiness. He also advises us to stay busy, which is a valid suggestion. Schopenhauer rightly observed that a person’s character is a key determinant of happiness [Schalkx, 393]




1.      Reasonable happiness:

Epicurus showed a lot of confidence in his happiness advice. At the end of his Letter to Menoeceus he wrote: ‘Practise these and the related precepts day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend, and you will never be disturbed either when awake or in sleep, and you will live as a god among men.’ (…) It is positive that Epicurus mentions the importance of the bio-psychological needs of people, and that fulfilling these needs will contribute greatly to happiness. Also his observation that intimate relationships, and especially friendships enhance happiness more than materialism and status, stands the test of modern data. His advice to live a life with moderate and varied pleasures turns out to be valid, although he exaggerated the need for deferring gratification. His ideas about the importance of a healthy lifestyle seem to be correct as well. In these respects it won’t do us any harm to follow his advice today (…)

2.      Unnecessary unhappiness:

The value of Epicurus’ advice, however, is not that he pointed to a unique direction that would always make people happy. The central aim of his philosophy is to find a cure for ‘unnecessary’ unhappiness that is the low well-being of people that have their basic needs fulfilled, but who still feel bad because they want things they cannot have. This advice shares many characteristics with modern day cognitive behavioral therapy that aims to cure counterproductive patterns of thinking and reacting and to replace them by more realistic and helpful ones. In Epicurus’ happiness advice a lot of attention is given to the unchangeable stressors of life, such as death, disease, terrible pain and ill fate (the gods). He encourages his followers to confront these facts of life, without losing emotional equilibrium. The core of the self does not need to be touched by the hardships. We do not know how effective this approach is for the readers of his texts, but research about acceptance indicates that this may be a fruitful approach for dealing with difficult emotions [Poot, 419-421]



Ancient Eastern philosophers

1.      Classic Confucianist advice appears to be the most apt for finding happiness in present day society, in particular because of its recommendation that one become involved in real life.

2.      Classic Taoist advice is second best; its strong point is that it advises against too much social conformism and bookishness.

[Zhang, 442]




2.3  Empirical Criticism




Ancient concepts of the good life are often contradictory. Example:

1.      For Protagoras there is only a subjective truth („Man is the measure of all things”) but Aristotle denies subjectivism.

2.      Epicurus promotes a sensualistic retreat-oriented concept but Chrysippus denies apolitical hedonism.

[Hufnagel, 69-76]




Ironically, Schopenhauer did not realize the strong interaction between his own personality and his view on happiness. His gloomy view on human interaction dominates his advice about happiness. Contemporary data prove Schopenhauer wrong in these remarks on social interaction. Social interaction is a key determinant for happiness. His advice to shy away from people and to distrust others is probably the worst advice for anyone to follow. The book is amusing and well written, but it would be a mistake to follow all of its recommendations. Schopenhauer did not succeed in using his pessimistic world-view constructively for creating happiness enhancing advice. Misanthropy and social isolation will make you unhappy, even when you are someone with a neurotic personality like Schopenhauer [Schalkx, 393]




Recommendations that don’t apply today:

1)      Research findings do not support Epicurus’ advice to prefer friendship to marriage and to avoid public life. For this he offered the alternative of living in a commune of like-minded people. For his contemporaries this may have been enough compensation, given the societal turmoil of his time, but this way of life is not appropriate for present-day readers.

2)      Epicurus’ focus on avoiding negative affect has two serious side effects if it is used as inspiration for dealing with life:

a)      The first is that Epicurus––for a hedonist––had a surprisingly negative view of positive affect. He conceived happiness as the absence of pain and this implied that there was little need to pursue positive experiences. Escaping pain was enough. This runs counter to what is known today about the active lifestyle of happy persons and about the independence of positive and negative affect. For the art of life, you need positive goals as well. Epicurus’ ideas about friendship and marriage can serve as an example in this respect. Epicurus advised people to focus on a wide circle of friends and not on a specific bond with one spouse. The idea was that it is too dangerous to become dependent on one person, because of the pains of bad marriage, divorce or widowhood. With the help of a large Dutch survey study we were able to show that this risk avoidance is unwarranted. On average the number of happy life years is greater for those that take the risk and became involved in family life. The same can be argued for involvement in public life. On average the yields of involvements more than compensate for the frustrations.

b)      One additional omission that has to be noted is that Epicurus neglected personality differences. Personality is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of subjective well-being. The happy individual is extravert, optimistic, and worry-free, has internal control, self-esteem and feels in control of his environment. Epicurus’ happiness advice does not take personality into account. This might have been because he underestimated the importance of personality traits. Another reason may be that he focused on aspects his followers were able to change. His advice was aimed at overcoming one’s fears and being in control of one’s own life. A last possible reason may be that personality differences would have had repercussions for his commune in the Garden. It is easier to be an enlightened leader, if you do not have to fuss about personal preferences in life-style [Poot, 419-421]



Ancient Eastern philosophers

Classic Buddhist advice is better avoided in modern society. Although it may provide some consolation for the chronically unhappy, the medicine seems to be worse than the disease. Alongside this advice for individuals, Confucianist philosophy also gives sound advice with respect to societal conditions for happiness. Taoism and Buddhism add little to the idea of a good society, since they reject society altogether [Zhang, 442]




2.4  Philosophical Reply




Contradictory recommendations in Ancient ethics suggest that there are many reasonable concepts of a good life (and not only one).



Notion of happiness

The evidence check is based on what we know about happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction. However, the advice considered is sometimes based on another concept of happiness or even multiple and ill-defined views on the good life. Philosophers typically equate the good life with a life that meets moral tenets. One could argue that it would be better to judge whether the advice would inspire people to behave more kindly towards their fellow human beings, since this may have been what the advisor wanted to accomplish. Yet, the moral view on happiness is usually accompanied by the implicit promise that living up to moral standards will make life more enjoyable and a lot of readers seem to pick up this suggestion. Hence it still makes sense to investigate whether this advice is likely to produce this result [Bergsma, 445-448].


Example: The Buddhist advice is based on a different (more spiritual) concept of happiness. The enhanced perception of the self brings about that people behave more kindly towards their fellow human beings. There is an implicit promise that the decrease of aggression makes life more enjoyable. Unfortunately there are no empirical investigations which compare monastic Buddhist communities with Western competitive communities. Such an investigation would also have to look at the distribution of happiness within the community and not only at the average happiness. If we take criminality and (economic) wars into account, then the result may turn in favor of the Buddhist community.



Comparability of conditions

A second reason to question the fairness of our procedure is that some papers have judged old advice applied to modern circumstances. We use data from modern happiness research as a standard for Epicurus, Schopenhauer and the classic Chinese philosophers, but they gave their advice in social circumstances that were quite, or very, different from those of modern day industrialized nations. We investigated the utility of the advice for modern readers. We cannot do the same for contemporaries of these philosophers, because data is lacking for people from those times. Despite this, a lot of readers see eternal wisdom in these advisory texts and in this context it is not wrong to test their applicability to modern conditions [Bergsma, 445-448].


It is misleading to test the applicability of the Buddhist advice to modern conditions. According to the Buddhist advice we would have to deny modern conditions.



Data limitations

A third reason to question our results has to do with the limitations of the data. There is a large body of correlation data about happiness, but still our understanding of the individual dynamics of happiness and human thriving is limited and hence we cannot check the appropriateness of all the advice [Bergsma, 445-448].



Use of the advice

Another limitation is that we discuss the effects for average people who would take the advice to heart. In real life the interaction between the wise and their followers is more dynamic. Consider the following thought experiments. In his book “There is a spiritual solution to every problem” self-help guru Wayne [Dyer] tells his readers how he had to endure a heart attack. For 24 h he was anxious and tense, but then he decided to become happy again. He joked with his nurses and cardiologist and told his wife he loved her during treatment. The great pessimist Arthur [Schopenhauer] defended a radically different view on life. According to him happiness is not possible and the highest aim is to free yourself from pain and to make life bearable. [Schalkx] and Bergsma show that it is likely that a reader who follows Schopenhauer’s advice will lose happiness. Now for argument’s sake, let us assume that Dyer is an enlightened adviser and offers a key to remaining happy in all bad circumstances. If so, we are still unable to conclude that everybody would profit by reading Dyers book and would be harmed by Schopenhauer’s book. Readers will not always take the advice literally, but will also compare themselves socially with the authors. Just as a comparison with Einstein might make you feel humble and might make you perform less well intellectually, a comparison with Dyer might make you feel inadequate by contrast [Stapel]. The chances are that a minor row with your partner will upset you more than the heart attack upset Dyer; and you may decide that the marvelous spiritual solutions are not available for you because you lack character. Schopenhauer’s neurotic advice may give you the impression that you are better off than you thought you were and that you have reason to be satisfied with yourself.

(…) Schopenhauer’s bad advice may well be more happiness enhancing for some readers than good advice from Dyer [Bergsma, 445-448].



Diverse readership

Another limitation of the evidence tests is that they ignore personality differences. Effects of advice will in part depend on the personality of the people who want to follow it. There are many different ways, in which to become happy; and some personality traits will influence, which options are best for a given individual. A one-size-fits-all approach is implicated in any general review of happiness advice for average citizens (…). Yet, the happiness advice is typically presented as applicable to everybody and this claim does justify performing a test of general applicability [Bergsma, 445-448].


1.      A test of general applicability is desirable in order to refute the one-size-fits-all approach. But the general non-applicability claim of [Schalkx] with regard to Schopenhauer’s advice is an inappropriate generalization as well.

2.      Similarly the empirical finding that on average the number of happy life years is greater for those that take the risk and become involved in family life may not be relevant for a specific risk-averse individual. The use of statistical averages neglects personality differences as well as the generalization of Epicurean ethics.




The advice of the wise may not be applicable to the majority in the presently dominating culture. But it may be helpful to the minority who questions this culture.




3  Positive Psychology



Neuroscience as a tool in the search for happiness is neglected in this paper. The knowledge about the neuronal and neuro-chemical substrates which are involved in the emergence of emotions and the scientifically exact description of those processes, have no impact on our way of living [Koch, 91]. Neuroscience, however, has an indirect impact by its effect on psychology and medicine.

1.      Research on the brain using EEGs has supported the idea that different parts of the brain are activated when humans are approaching rewarding stimuli versus punishing stimuli (see Unglück). This discovery led (amongst others) to the development of Positive Psychology.

2.      The impact of health care on happiness is addressed in the context of happiness economics (chapter 6).



3.1  Basics




Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology that "studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive". Positive psychologists seek "to find and nurture genius and talent", and "to make normal life more fulfilling", not to cure mental illness

Several humanistic psychologists—such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm—developed successful theories and practices that involved human happiness. Recently the theories of human flourishing developed by these humanistic psychologists have found empirical support (Positive Psychology, Wikipedia)

In this definition the term happiness is used in the classical sense of the good life.




1.      The term positive psychology originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.

2.      Positive psychology began as a new area of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman, pointed out that for the half century clinical psychology "has been consumed by a single topic only - mental illness", echoing Maslow’s comments. He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.

(Positive Psychology, Wikipedia)




Some researchers posit that positive psychology can be delineated into three overlapping areas of research:

1.      Research into the Pleasant Life, or the "life of enjoyment", examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.).

2.      The study of the Good Life, or the "life of engagement", investigates the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities. These states are experienced when there is a positive match between a person's strength and the task they are doing, i.e. when they feel confident that they can accomplish the tasks they face.

3.      Inquiry into the Meaningful Life, or "life of affiliation", questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems).

(Positive Psychology, Wikipedia)


Typical concepts of positive psychology are

1.      The undo effect which says that the traces of stress in the body have to be undone by positive emotions

2.      Elevation is the desire to act morally and do “good” as an emotion which has a basis in biology.

3.      The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests that positive emotions broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Examples:

a.    Curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge.

b.   Aimless play becomes exercise and excellence.

This is in contrast to negative emotions, which prompt narrow survival-oriented behaviors. For example, the negative emotion of anxiety leads to the specific fight-or-flight response for immediate survival.




3.2  Empirical Findings



Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Happiness is a chameleon which changes its color depending on the situation [Fisch, 213]. This phenomenon was investigated (amongst others) by Abraham Maslow.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and lowest levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Wikipedia):





Strengths and Virtues

The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook represents the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings. Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of general psychology, the CSV provides a theoretical framework to assist in developing practical applications for positive psychology. This manual identifies six classes of virtue (i.e., "core virtues"), made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths.


The introduction of CSV suggests that these six virtues are considered good by the vast majority of cultures and throughout history and that these traits lead to increased happiness when practiced. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints that in addition to trying to broaden the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, the leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism and suggesting that we are "evolutionarily predisposed" toward certain virtues, that virtue has a biological basis.

The organization of these strengths and virtues is as follows:

1.      Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective

2.      Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality

3.      Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

4.      Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

5.      Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control

6.      Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality 

(Positive Psychology, Wikipedia)




3.3  Philosophical Criticism



Origin of the concept

The positive psychologist’s concept of universal virtues seems to be borrowed from historical predecessors like the Cardinal Virtues and the Purusarthas (see Konkurrierende Lebensziele):

1.      Wisdom

2.      Courage

3.      Temperance

4.      Justice

refer to Plato.

Transcendence is the Christian (life-friendly) version of the Hindu Moksha.

Humanity is the Christian (tempered) version of the Hindu Kama.



Wisdom and knowledge















Comparison with Ancient ethics

In order to compare positive psychology with Ancient ethics we associate it with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. For the purpose of this paper such an assignment doesn’t have to be precise. It will nevertheless clarify the difference to other concepts.


Positive psychology claims that its concept of happiness delivers arguments against moral relativism because we are "evolutionarily predisposed" toward certain virtues. Moral relativism may be undesirable but the attempt to construct ethics on a biological basis is more than questionable. The Cardinal Virtues and the Purusharthas are important anthropological findings and may represent a valuable basis for modeling human behavior. But why should we have an evolutionary predisposition for wisdom; spiritual transcendence and justice? It makes sense to account for the biological nature of humans, but there are also good reasons to deny the world “as it is” and lead a retreat-oriented life. Buddha’s and Epicurus’ paths to happiness are remarkably different from Aristotle’s and represent valuable alternatives, even if they are not acceptable to the majority. Positive psychology represents a limited range of concepts whereas Ancient ethics discloses alternatives for minorities.




4  Philosophical Novels



4.1  Basics


Philosophical novels are works of fiction in which a significant proportion of the novel is devoted to a discussion of the sort of questions normally addressed in discursive philosophy. These might include the function and role of society, the purpose of life, ethics or morals, the role of art in human lives, and the role of experience or reason in the development of knowledge. Philosophical novels would include the so-called novel of ideas, including a significant proportion of science fiction, utopian/dystopian novels, and Bildungsroman.


There is no universally acceptable definition of the philosophical novel, but certain novels would be of key importance in its history.

1.      Ibn Tufail's Philosophus Autodidactus (12th century)

2.      Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus (13th century)

3.      Voltaire's Candide (1759)

4.      Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus

5.      Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

6.      Tolstoy's War and Peace

7.      Sartre's Nausea

8.      Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead

9.      Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer and Island

10.  Novels by Iris Murdoch and Anthony Burgess.


Novels that might qualify as philosophical novels in terms of subject matter but which proceed by non-discursive means (such as allegory) would be excluded. Richard Adams's Watership Down, for example, would qualify as having social structures as its subject matter but would be excluded on the grounds that the exploration of these subjects is entirely inferred rather than being the subject of overt discussion or debate.

(Philosophical novel, Wikipedia)


A philosophical novel which is dedicated to the search for happiness is Das vollkommene Leben (The Perfect Live) by Michael Hampe.




4.2  Philosophical Findings



Nussbaum’s claims



Certain novels are, irreplaceably, works of moral philosophy [Nussbaum, 148]

Texts which deepen and expand comprehension of the good life ought to be included in moral philosophy [Nussbaum, 138-9, 142]


Nussbaum supports this thesis by the following three claims:


1.      Writing style is not neutral; the form of writing influences the content conveyed; certain aspects of life cannot be conveyed adequately in argumentative writing; and literary artists can "state...truths" about human life which escape philosophical prose.

2.      Philosophy's concentration on rules has obscured the need for perception of particular (possibly unique) features of concrete situations.

3.      Literature has the potential to engage the reader in a form of moral work which is not summoned by philosophical texts. Certain novels engage the reader in the work of thinking through the moral possibilities of the portrayed lives. The attentive reader construes the moral significance of the circumstances described, and develops a view of how the characters ought to conduct themselves.




Agreement with Murdoch

1.      Art is far and away the most educational thing we have [Murdoch, 230]. There can be no doubt, then, that there is substantial agreement between Murdoch and Nussbaum on the question of literature's ability to enhance moral understanding.

2.      Murdoch's focus on moral attention shows the importance she places on accurate perception of concrete features of persons and circumstances, features which cannot be captured in rules or theories.

3.      Murdoch and Nussbaum are both critical of philosophical theories which have, in Murdoch's words, "...sought for a single principle upon which morality may be seen to depend". They are critical of philosophers who view moral life as being entirely a matter of choice and public conduct. Murdoch and Nussbaum have responded to such philosophical positions by drawing attention to the role of contingency and particulars in moral life. Perhaps more significantly, they both discuss the mental activity that precedes conduct, pointing out that prior to public action one construes a situation as having a certain moral nature.




Disagreement with Murdoch


Murdoch agrees with the assertion that philosophy and literature are "two radically different kinds of writing". On the subject of philosophical style Murdoch writes: ...I am tempted to say that there is an ideal philosophical style which has a special unambiguous plainness and hardness (…) the philosopher (…) speaks with a certain cold clear recognizable voice. Murdoch defines the task of philosophy as both "an attempt to perceive and to tease out of thought our deepest and most general concepts, „and "the critical analysis of beliefs". As she understands it, philosophy is abstract, discursive, and direct.



It is, then, on the task of philosophy that Murdoch and Nussbaum disagree. Murdoch views philosophy as the critical examination of concepts and systematic reflection on presuppositions, whereas Nussbaum sees it as the search for understanding. Murdoch's description of philosophy's ideal style and aim implies that works of literature, however well they portray moral life and also enhance the reader's understanding, are not works of philosophy. Nussbaum's view of philosophy is broad enough, I believe, to admit not only certain novels but also other written works (e. g. histories, biographies, religious texts) which portray moral life and have the capacity to provoke reflection in the thoughtful reader [Holland].


For the details of this dispute see Can Fiction be Philosophy? by Margaret G.Holland.




Holland recommends comparing the relation between novels and ethics, to the relation between

1.      science and philosophy of science

2.      art and aesthetics:


1)      Despite the role science plays in providing material for philosophical reflection, one does not hear that certain scientific experiments or methods are themselves examples of philosophy of science

2)      Likewise, the works of art discussed in aesthetics are not themselves taken to be works of philosophy (…)


There are at least two different advantages to the approach I have outlined.

1)      One advantage is that it safeguards an appreciation for the aesthetic value of literature. "Ethical readings of works of literature tend to be reductive — and digressive" (…)

2)      Much writing which has actually had moral influence lies outside both philosophy and literature. I refer to the Talmud, New Testament, and Koran. (…)

The unique contribution philosophy makes to moral thinking is that it demands that one reflect upon what one finds morally compelling, and not accept it simply because of its artistic presentation or religious authority. I argue that the task Nussbaum assigns philosophy is too broad. Through the use of critical and reflective methods, philosophy should examine and sort moral claims. Literary, religious, and philosophical texts contribute to moral education, and keeping them separate helps appreciate their distinct contributions, as well as respect their distinct aims and methods [Holland].


Holland’s analogy to science and the philosophy of science is not persuading. A peculiarity of novels (in contrast to science) is that

1.      they often allow more than one interpretation so that the result depends on the observer

2.      the insight may concerns the inner perspective of an individual (e.g. an insight about the inadequacy of certain emotions)

The latter argument also suggests that the analogy with art and aesthetics doesn’t apply. The inner perspective of an artist is certainly present in a painting or in a sculpture, but only as an end result. In a novel we can follow the stream of consciousness of the actors.




The weakness of literature (as far as it attempts to transport ethical insight) is a biased description of reality coupled with emotion. Many authors promote an individual perception of reality as if it were a general truth. Philosophical novels attempt to avoid this trap:

1.      Platon’s Socrates used to switch perspectives in order to correct distorted perceptions. His style is characterized by analytical thinking combined with empathy.

2.      A different approach consists in introducing a “neutral” narrator (observer) or in switching to a background story, which reflects the bias.

A novel which combines both methods is Das vollkommene Leben (The Perfect Live) by Michael Hampe.




4.3  Empirical Criticism


1.      Kafka asked: “If a book doesn’t strike us like a physical blow, what do we read it for? Do we read to be happy? My god, we would be at least as happy if there were no books” [Von Matt].

2.      Gottfried Benn suggested that happiness is in contradiction to art and intellect





Only vegetables are happy.


William Faulkner





3.      Theodor Adorno maintained that art can never be reconciliatied with the world as it is.


As a consequence the artist tends to be unsocial and pessimistic – but

         this interpretation of art is certainly only valid for the literary modernity [Brenner, 254]

         the destruction of delusions and utopias also creates a potential for new (more realistic) kinds of happiness.




5  Sociology



5.1  Basics




Sociology is the study of society.

1.      Its traditional focuses have included social stratification (i.e., class relations), religion, secularization, modernity, culture and deviance.

2.      Subject matter ranges from the micro level of agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and social structures.

Sociology overlaps with a variety of disciplines that study society; in particular, political science, economics, and social philosophy.

(Sociology, Wikipedia).


An overlapping discipline of special interest in our context is anthropology:

1.      Social anthropology, which was founded in Great Britain.

2.      Cultural anthropology, which was founded in the United States.

3.      Ethnology, which was founded in Europe.

Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, religion, language, and social structure of the ethnic, racial, and/or national divisions of humanity.

The distinction between the three terms is increasingly blurry (Ethnology, Wikipedia).




The goal in acquiring sociological knowledge is often the pursuit of social welfare.

(Sociology, Wikipedia).




Sociology uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis. It is methodologically a very broad discipline including both qualitative and quantitative research techniques:

1.      The linguistic and cultural turns of the mid-20th century led to increasingly interpretative, hermeneutic, and philosophic approaches to the analysis of society.

2.      Conversely, recent decades have seen the rise of new mathematically and computationally rigorous techniques, such as agent-based modelling and social network analysis.

(Sociology, Wikipedia).


Ethnology contrasts different cultures on the basis of ethnographical research. Ethnography studies single groups through direct contact with the culture and tends to use qualitative techniques (e.g. focus groups, interviews with open end questions) (Ethnology, Wikipedia).




5.2  Empirical Findings


Following some determinants of happiness, which have been discovered by sociological researchers:



Mythical world view

The different concepts of happiness are always related to culture-specific opinions about a good life. But some topics tend to recur: good health, many children, and a harmonious marriage. In all societies where the community is more important than the individual, happiness is experienced within collective celebrations and festivities [Bargatzky, 97].

Good health, harmony and growth – these words describe happiness as a kind of state, which is more than the momentary ravishment, the simple, ephemeral, pleasant feeling expressed by the Sanskrit term sukha. The search for happiness is directed towards something more important, more durable, deeper and – in a sense – more real, a state which is expressed by the Sanskrit term ananda [Bargatzky, 99]. Happiness is, in a fundamental sense, tied to culture and culture is always a long-term project. The Latin word cultura points to the English term cultivate, i.e. a preservative activity. It also relates to the term cult, i.e. the activity which guarantees the continuance of the world order. Happiness is a prevailing mood which carries us thru the adversities of daily life. To participate in the construction of the “world home” and thereby feel ones destination, is an experience which is common to the Hopi, as well as the Hindu or the Christians. Happiness in this sense is another word for being inter-ested, being engaged. There is no happiness in solitude. Happiness emerges out of responsibility for the whole. [Bargatzky, 104]. Such happiness can only be experienced on the basis of a mythical world view.

With the destruction of myths, paradises and utopias [Hahn, 109-124] the conditions for a happy life are destroyed as well.


But aren’t there cultures where myths were not destroyed, because they didn’t exist in the first place? There are indeed hunter-gatherer cultures with no history beyond living memory [Everett]. They are reported to be among the happiest of the world, a fact which supports the thesis, that the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden symbolically describes the transformation from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle into an agricultural lifestyle.



Historical situation

Happiness depends on the historical situation. The meaning of the term changes with each generation:

1.      It was e.g. completely different for participants of World War II and the post war generation.

2.      For the post war generation the meaning depended on whether a person lived in front of or behind the Iron Curtain.

[Hettlage, 132-133].

Currently the following trends can be observed:

1.      Happiness becomes a subjective and individual matter.

2.      Happiness is associated with being young and dynamic. As a consequence Anti-Aging and For Ever Young movements emerge and spread out.

3.      Life becomes increasingly artificial, fictional and virtual. Happiness is on stage every 15 minutes.

[Lipp, 273-275].

Another trend is to make happiness accessible like a commodity (Example: Prozac, Designer Drugs). Reflecting happiness by means of a therapy (Plato Not Prozac) takes too much time.



Life stages

The perception of happiness changes in the course of life. It differs considerably for

1.      Children

2.      Adolescents

3.      Adults

4.      Old people

[Hettlage, 136-147]



Cultural environment

1.      An evolutionary perspective offers insights into some major obstacles to achieve happiness. Impediments include the large discrepancies between modern and ancestral environments. Examples:

         Economic pressure requires the division of labor and specialization.

         The increase of technological knowledge accelerates, the half-life of knowledge shortens.

         Increasing complexity leads to a loss of autonomy.

         Technology creates the phenomenon of Mass culture, see critique of the culture industry by the Frankfurt School.

 (The Evolution of Happiness, David M. Buss)








2.      Advanced and leading civilizations don’t necessarily make people happier. The Piraha, e.g., who were able to maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, are reported to be among the happiest of the world [Everett]. They are solely concerned with matters that fall within direct personal experience and completely concentrate on the present. They practice a kind of primitive communism and seem to have no social hierarchy.

3.      Not only emotions, but also the valuation of emotions depends on the culture. The valuation of happiness within the Hindu Ashrama is not the same as within the Western world. In Western societies happiness has become a right to happiness and a kind of coercion [Hettlage, 154]. People are unhappy for not being (perfectly) happy.



Liberation from rationality

1.      Rationality is the guiding principle of modern societies [Schimank, 160]. Consequently it always has an aspect of the morally right. Hazardous decisions (particularly in important matters) are considered to be immoral.

2.      At the same time, the number and importance of choices have increased dramatically, and with each additional option the responsibility increases as well.

This situation creates a desire to liberate oneself from the pressure of rationality. It might explain the increasing popularity of gambling [Schimank, 164].




Following some different meanings of the term love and associated kinds of happiness:

1.      In traditional families the prime concern was the material and social well-being of the group.

2.      In the last third of the 18th century happiness was increasingly tied to the idea of romantic love [Burkhart, 179].

3.      Romantic love is unstable and cannot guarantee the symmetry of the genders. For that reason the concept of partnership is currently favored. Partnership is better suited to control and solve the problems of daily life, except for the problem of passion. Emotions have their own logic and are not easily sacrificed to the ideal of equality and justice [Burkhart, 184].

4.      In the 1960ies the idea came up to search happiness outside of stable relationships. Divorce was institutionalized and consecutive marriages gained acceptance. Self-realization finally culminated in the life style of a single or in free relationships without obligations [Burkhart, 184].






One should always be in love.

That is the reason one should never marry.


Oscar Wilde






Social environment

Concepts of happiness depend on the social environment [Burkhart, 186].

1.      The wish to lead a happy family life is typical for the working class and the petite bourgeoisie.

2.      People without heritage tend to favor romantic love.

3.      Academics prefer partnership because it allows both partners to pursue their own career. Workpeople and countrymen tend to adopt traditional life styles.

4.      Women who are non-collegiate wage earners tend to look for material security and are ready to sacrifice the ideal of equal rights.

5.      The life style of a single has a high happiness-potential for attractive people. Attractive people possess a kind of “capital” which they can invest in the “markets of happiness”. The unattractive are in the same position as the poor in former times.



Political and economic determinants

1.      Economic efficiency is in conflict with compassion; charity is inefficient [Fisch, 224].

2.      The individualization of happiness is a consequence of the economic theory after Adam Smith. Individualization is tied to a decline in the engagement for the community [Burkhart,185].

Obviously liberalism and free markets induce opposing trends:

1.      A gain in happiness due to the satisfaction of individual desires.

2.      A loss in happiness due to the decline of compassion.



Group dynamics

Concepts of happiness systematically overrule the perspectives and desires of the individual [Reichertz, 231]. The individual gets in line with the goals of the group by means of prescribed forms of happiness. The biologically founded, talismanic release of hormones in the brain reacts to the social demands of the group. Example: The so-called Flow experience (which is promoted in seminars about motivation) seems to be a neurobiological amendment of the Protestant work ethic [Reichertz, 232].




5.3  Philosophical Criticism


In sociological publications it is often difficult to find out, if the author refers to quantitative or qualitative methods, or if he/she just expresses a personal opinion. Example: It is unclear if the statement “Most people don’t know what to do with a secured life” [Hahn, 121] represents the result of a survey (and if yes, in which countries) or if it concerns the personal opinion of the author.


The quality of most surveys is dubious. Recommendations:

1.      The results have to be presented in the form “X% of the respondents classify themselves as being happy” and not “X% are happy”.

2.      It has to be investigated, if the results of different surveys converge.

3.      Longitudinal studies have to be related to changes in the environment.

[Braun, 52-53].




6  Happiness Economics



6.1  Basics




Happiness economics is the study of a country's well-being by combining economists' and psychologists' techniques. The goal is to determine from what source people derive their well-being (Happiness Economics, Wikipedia)

In this context the term happiness doesn’t correspond to the Ancient meaning and cannot be associated with the term good life (because the standard for the measurement of well-being is subjective).




The happiness economist, with the assistance of collaborators in psychology and sociology, attempts to quantitatively determine how happy we are, and how much our degree of happiness may be raised or lowered through the manipulation of various policy tools at the disposal of the political authority [Ebeling, 3].

Happiness economics aims at social engineering and political engineering. It differs from welfare economics with regard to the database, but the goal to maximize happiness is (originally) the same as in classical utilitarianism. The more happiness economics abandons the goal of welfare maximization [Frey, 13], the more it overlaps with sociology.




Happiness economics favors quantitative (statistical) methods.

Besides own surveys, it uses research data from sociology and psychology.



Quality of life

There are two traditions in the empirical research for happiness:

1)      The sociological tradition uses the term quality of life

2)      The psychological tradition uses the term well-being


Quality of life is the valuation of objective living conditions. At the beginning the sociological research concentrated on social and economic indicators like the following

1)      income

2)      material security

3)      political liberty

4)      social justice

5)      legal security

6)      health care


Later research concentrated on the subjective (psychological) valuation of living conditions. Changes in the subjective valuation don’t necessarily reflect changes of the objective living conditions. Examples:

A response shift is a psychological change in one's perception of the quality of life following a change in health status. This phenomenon initially was recognized in patients with terminal diseases who, despite a worsening of the physical condition, did not necessarily report deterioration in quality of life (Response Shift in Patients Undergoing Knee Arthroplasty)


Finally the subjective and objective assessments were combined in a single index:

Two widely known measures of a country's quality of life are the Economist Intelligence Unit's quality of life index and the Mercer Quality of Living Survey. Both measures calculate the quality of life through a combination of subjective life-satisfaction surveys and objective determinants of such as divorce rates, safety, and infrastructure. Such measures relate more broadly to the population of a city, state, or country, not to the individual level (Quality of life, Wikipedia)



Life satisfaction

Life satisfaction measures assessed cognitive appraisals of the quality of life experiences [Kashdan, 1229]. It is the valuation of life as a whole, rather than particular aspects of it.


1.      The Eurobaromenter survey e.g. asks “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the life you lead?”

2.      The World Values Survey asks “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy, not at all happy?”

3.      Still another survey asked: “How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” where answers are indicated on a 7-point scale ranging from “completely satisfied” to “completely dissatisfied”.

[Hirata, 3]




Subjective well-being is comprised of the combination of three factors

1.      Frequent and intense positive affective states

2.      The relative absence of anxiety and depression

3.      Life satisfaction, self-contentment

Most studies of subjective well-being measure either the affective or cognitive component, but not both [Kashdan, 1226]




The psychological tradition uses the term happiness as follows:

1.      Wide definition: positive reinforcement or reward, an emotion which tends to confirm a certain behavior

2.      Narrow definition: positive affective state, a component of subjective well-being




6.2  Empirical Findings



The Easterlin paradox

Historically, economists have said that well-being is a simple function of income. It has been found that once wealth reaches a subsistence level, its effectiveness as a generator of well-being is greatly diminished. This paradox has been referred to as the Easterlin paradox (Happiness Economics, Wikipedia).


Why does happiness not increase linearly with absolute income (as assumed by traditional economics)? Following some hypothetical explanations:

1)      The relative income effect, i.e. the income compared to the income distribution of the society the person lives in. This effect is the result of various underlying mechanism, e.g.

a)      The secondary inflation effect, i.e. activities become more costly in a richer society

b)      The frame-of-reference effect, i.e. the pleasure derived from an activity depends on the comparison standard. Psychologists have studied this effect under the labels relative deprivation and social comparison. Relative rather than absolute levels of income influence well-being.

c)      Hedonic adaptation (hedonic or aspiration treadmill): According to the aspiration treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

A relative level is also known in health care under the name contentment paradox. Health problems or financial problems hardly influence subjective well-being, as long as all members within a group have the same problems (and as long as well-being doesn’t drop below a critical limit) [Schumacher, 3]


2)      The cultural hypothesis links happiness and income to cultural traits and comes to astonishing results. The cultural dimension which has received most attention is that of individualism/collectivism. Statistically individualism is a powerful predictor for average life satisfaction, more powerful than income.

a)      Saying that individualism correlates with life satisfaction is not the same as saying that individualist cultures are superior to collectivist ones. If Western cultures may have the edge in producing happy people, Asian cultures may have the edge in producing people who value and meet their social obligations.

b)      Individualism tends to be more conducive to economic prosperity than collectivism. Except for a well-defined subset of collectivist cultures (societies which are influenced by Confucianism) hardly any other collectivist country has managed to marry collectivism with sustained economic growth, while almost all individualist cultures today belong to the high-income countries.

[Hirata, 16-20]


Besides the relative income effect and the cultural influence, there are also various additional determinants on the individual and group level which influence happiness. Following some examples:


What makes people happy?

Patterns in the determinants look like this:

Reported happiness is highest among people who are

1.      Highly Educated

2.      Female

3.      High Income

4.      Young or Old (not middle-aged)

5.      Married

6.      Retired

7.      Looking after the home

8.      Self-employed



Other surveys consider a wider context:

1.      A study conducted at the University of Zurich suggested that democracy and federalism bring well-being to individuals. It concluded that the more direct political participation possibilities available to citizens raises their subjective well-being (see The new face of economics)

2.      Higher economic freedom correlates strongly with higher self-reported happiness.

(Happiness Economics, Wikipedia)



What makes people unhappy?

A typical pattern looks like this:

Among the worst things that happen to people are

1.      unemployment

2.      divorce

3.      severe ill-health.


Possibly the mere fact of not belonging to the majority increases the risk of being unhappy.




Unfortunately we have to conclude this chapter with the remark that many of the empirical results of happiness economics are highly controversial:

         In 2008, economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, both of the University of Pennsylvania, published a paper where they reassessed the Easterlin paradox using new time-series data. They conclude contrary to Easterlin's claim, increases in absolute income are clearly linked to increased self-reported happiness, for both individual people and whole countries. The statistical relationship demonstrated is between happiness and the logarithm of absolute income, suggesting that above a certain point, happiness increases more slowly than income, but no "saturation point" is ever reached. The study provides evidence that happiness is determined not only by relative income, but also by absolute income. That is in contrast to an extreme understanding of the hedonic treadmill theory where "keeping up with the Joneses is the only determinant of behavior (Easterlin paradox, Wikipedia)

         Also Daniel Kahneman, who made the case of an aspiration treadmill, recently claimed to have falsified the thesis:

Social scientists rarely change their minds, although they often adjust their position to accommodate inconvenient facts. But it is rare for a hypothesis to be so thoroughly falsified.  Merely adjusting my position would not do; although I still find the idea of an aspiration treadmill attractive, I had to give it up (see The Sad Tale of the Aspiration Treadmill).

For a research proposal see Refuting Hedonic Adaptation.

         In a recent research paper Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson even claimed that the relationship between subjective well-being and income does not diminish as incomes rise [Stevenson].




6.3  Philosophical Criticism



Does the answer “I am quite happy” given by person “A” have the same meaning as the answer “I am quite happy” given by person “B”? The surveys assume is does, thanks to our ability to communicate and empathize. Survey questions don’t ask for cardinal numbers but only for comparative judgments. The problem is not essentially different from comparing my own happiness today with that of yesterday on a rough scale [Hirata, 5].

Can the term happiness be compared across cultures? The objection on grounds of semantic non-equivalence seems to be justified to some extent (…). However, there is strong evidence to believe that these semantic differences are not more significant across cultures than across individuals within a given culture [Hirata, 6]


Given its very nature, happiness is subjective. It is difficult to compare one person’s happiness with another. It can be especially difficult to compare happiness across cultures. However, happiness economists believe they have solved this comparison problem. Cross-sections of large data samples across nations and time demonstrate consistent patterns in the determinants of happiness (Happiness Economics, Wikipedia)


Whereas consistent patterns apply to the majority, the comparison problem may prove to be unsolvable for minorities. The retreat-oriented kind of Buddhist happiness doesn’t have the same determinants as the happiness of the average Western consumer.

The World Database of Happiness explicitly points to the difficulties in comparing surveys (see Empirical study of happiness). But possibly the globalization of economy starts to blur the cultural peculiarities.


Context dependency
Happiness economics (as far as now) accounts for data after World War II. But the determinants of happiness could change drastically in times of war or catastrophes so that the results are only valid within given (and often unconsidered) side constraints. An increase in happiness might have a price in the form of increased risk (see On the Perception of Risk and Benefit). In contrast to philosophical novels, happiness economics cannot interpret culture and cannot reveal alternatives: Examples:
1. Religious irrationalism (Voltaire)
2. Idealistic irrationalism (Thomas Carlyle)
3. Decadence (Ayn Rand)

If a certain kind of happiness is repressed in the investigated culture, then it is also repressed in the surveys. If a certain kind of happiness doesn’t serve survival, it will disappear. Examples:
1. Imagine we live in a (fictitious) Nazi state winning World War II and surveys indicate that the main determinants of happiness are winning wars and exterminating minorities. In such a case the empirical method leads to questionable results.
2. Happiness can be culturally connected to and disconnected from aggression, a topic which is addressed in the philosophical novel A Clockwork Orange (Burgess)

The context-dependency of determinants is a well known problem in happiness economics and complicates the interpretation of results:
Example 1:
A happiness study conducted in Russia during the 1990s indicated that as unemployment grew, the well-being of both those employed and unemployed rose. Possible explanations are the following:
1. Diminished expectations, i.e. employed respondents were less critical of their own situation when many around them were unemployed
2. Benefit from the unpaid work that the unemployed were able to do for their families and communities with their increased time resource.

Example 2:
1. Children tend to decrease parental happiness, at least until they leave for college, although in terms of a broader life narrative the opposite may be true.

2. Married people are happier, but it is unclear if this is due to the marriage or if already happy people tend to marry.
(Happiness Economics, Wikipedia)

The examples show that a correct interpretation requires additional questions and at some point surmounts the capacity of surveys. At this point the answers of the interviewees transform into narrations and we approach the philosophical novel. Example: Sartre’s Nausea can be seen as a detailed answer to the survey question: “How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”



Individuality undermines an easy solution for maximizing social welfare:

Example: The Easterlin Paradox has been explained (amongst others) by hedonic adaptation.

Many changes in life circumstances have only a short-lived effect on reported subjective well-being because people adapt to the new situation [Frey, 7].

But people adapt differently to new situations:

Imagine if courts have to decide on compensation for disabilities sustained in a car accident. For the same physical disabilities, should they award lower compensation to people who can more readily adapt and higher damages to others who cannot adapt so easily? [Frey, 8]

And how could the courts assure that adaptation is measured correctly?


Individuality makes it impossible to find general rules (or even mathematical functions) for happiness.





Some cause happiness wherever they go;

others whenever they go.


Oscar Wilde





Statistics allows finding those social indicators (determinants) which are relevant for the happiness of the majority but may be misleading in the individual search for happiness:

1.      If high education is a determinant of happiness then we cannot conclude that everybody should get a high education:

a.       Intellectual competition overstrains individuals with below average intelligence and makes them unhappy.

b.      Possibly high education is a relative effect as well as high income (see Easterlin paradox).

2.      If being female is a determinant of happiness then we cannot conclude that men should reassign their gender. Being female is a preference of most females, but statistics hardly changes a man’s preference to be a man.


Statistical results are often presented as if they were general truths. Following an example in the context of the response shift [Brickman]:

Within a few years, paraplegics wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed (Positive Psychology, Wikipedia)

Since there are individuals who remain deeply depressed and vulnerable to suicide, above general kind of statement is an example of pseudoscience. Whereas many individuals get more love and affection than before the accident, there are others who make a completely different experience. General statements about paralyzed people also tend to neglect the historical and cultural context.



Induced incentive distortions

In the (rare) case in which a government is unable to manipulate a particular indicator to its benefit, it has an incentive to create new indicators. This is easily possible in the case of happiness. As has been pointed out in the second section, a variety of indicators may capture individual well-being. Governments and pressure groups will choose those most beneficial to their respective interests, or will even create new ones better suited to their purposes [Frey, 11]


When individuals become aware that the happiness level they report influences the behavior of political actors, they have an incentive to misrepresent it. They can “play the system” [Frey, 11].




The construction of economics on the basis of subjective preferences is a questionable undertaking:

         Much evidence has been collected showing that individuals are not always able to maximize their own utility and that therefore, aggregate utility will not be maximized either. These systematic mistakes refer to such instances as myopia, excessive optimism, the focusing illusion, utility misprediction in general, as well as a weakness of will. People are often willing to pay a great deal for goods whose acquisition does not improve their welfare [Frey, 13]

         Individual preferences are often the result of unconscious learning processes and depend on questionable education, marketing etc. Why should these unconsidered preferences be normatively relevant? Why should we determine subjectivism as an axiom in economics? In every scientific field of knowledge we accept that objective criteria and experts play a predominant role in taking decisions. Why not in economics?

         In jurisprudence, the social sciences and in philosophy it is largely accepted that every individual should have the same rights and that there should be generally binding rules and conditions which restrict purely subjective preferences. The justification of these rights, rules and conditions is based on social contract theory which (in Rawls’ case) resorts to objectivistic arguments [Kleinewefers, 280].

         Survey respondents tend to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others (Social desirability bias, Wikipedia). For examples see Freudloser Glücksweltmeister, Weltwoche Nr.21.16 by Mathias Binswanger.


Happiness economics, as well as classical economics, tends to consider the promotion of happiness as an ethical goal. But a happy culture (in total or in average) can still be a morally dubious culture:

1.      If our sense of happiness is closely connected to brain functions, it might become possible to manipulate our brain in a much more refined and effective way than current methods allow. The use of SSRIs might make us “feel happy for no good reason at all, or happy even when there remains much in one’s life to be truly unhappy [Morioka].

2.      In many cases the happiness of the majority is improved at the cost of a minority. Rawls emphasized the argument that the welfare of the worst off is more relevant than total or average happiness. Happiness economics shares the minority problem with classical and preference utilitarianism [Hare, 121-122].

3.      Happiness has to be related to risk, in particular the risk of future generations. Liberalism disagrees with paternalism concerning social insurances and environmental protection.

Concerning the arguments for a paternalist imposition of fairness and risk-aversion see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.




The contribution of statistics to the search for happiness consists in

1.      the discovery of cultural determinants and treadmill mechanisms

2.      the quantification of the various determinants of happiness

3.      the refutation of specific claims for universality

Finally statistical knowledge may also be helpful to minorities in understanding their position relative to the majority.




7  Cross-Comparison



7.1  Methodological pluralism


What we have done so far is looking at reality from specific angles. If we change the angle, the picture changes and the previous one appears to be distorted. Each picture is only valid relative to its point of observation. Does methodological pluralism inevitably lead to moral relativism?


1.      Relativism usually springs from a set of differences that cannot be eliminated by argument or evidence alone. Such differences are not merely intellectual; they include not only quite distinct forms of approaches to knowledge, but different patterns of social belief and different institutions (…). The modern world is not the first to experience radical difference in knowledge, belief, and institutions. People who regard the 'postmodern condition' as unique generally seem to believe the world began in 1900. Well, it did not, and laments about a world in which radically incompatible ideas, beliefs, and institutions exist are not new [Hirst, 15]

2.      An example of a disastrous form of relativism is to be found in the sociology of deviance. (…) We are not helped greatly by being told that things were done differently in medieval Europe or that quite different conceptions prevail among the Hopi, and that our ways of doing things are historically limited. True, but we are trying to deal with certain problems of conduct and are not living in a perpetual sociology seminar (…) The sociologist cannot pretend to be an indifferent observer or a merely clever academic critic of his or her society for ever, without paying the price of being seen as such and dismissed as an irrelevancy. Relativist arguments can be intellectually destructive but so can the use of objectivist epistemological doctrines as part of an intellectual 'police action' (…) The problem is that despite this we do need to differentiate between valid and invalid theories, knowledge, and ideas (…). In a relativist Utopia creationists would enjoy de facto equal regard with evolutionary biology in educational establishments [Hirst, 18].

3.      Validity is as much a political issue as it is an intellectual one. What beliefs are taken as valid determines the whole tenor of the social order. Some beliefs may be legally tolerable as private eccentricities. I can believe the earth is flat; but this belief would be deleterious if I should become a successful educational reformer seeking to give this view equal time with other views in schools.

4.      To this an objection may be raised: 'How then is the validity or invalidity of a belief to be assessed?' (…) This task has always to be accomplished by arguments and evidence appropriate to the specific case in question (…). To ask 'How do we know that our arguments are valid, our evidence is sufficient?' is to pitch us back into the domain of 'guarantees' and into the morass of philosophical epistemology [Hirst, 19].

5.      We may be victims of our own assumptions about method and the entities that exist in our world but we can never be wholly free of such assumptions (…). Methodological pluralism is a fact of life. It also provides resources for a mutual check on the pretensions as to standards of validity that each epistemological doctrine necessarily shares. [Hirst, 20].


With reference to the preceding chapters we can say that each of the methods discussed there improves the understanding of happiness and it would be wrong to exclude one of them. We have also seen that the mutual check contributes to a better understanding of the goals and limits of each method.

1.      Empiric sciences (positive psychology, sociology, happiness economics) can be checked with philosophical arguments

2.      Philosophical concepts (the advice of the wise, philosophical novels) can be checked with empirical arguments

Methodological pluralism is neither a reason for moral relativism, nor a reason against it. The variety of methods simply enhances the capacity to check arguments on both sides.



7.2  Style



Positive psychology, sociology and happiness economics

In science style is not a major issue. There is an ideal of clarity and reduction of complexity (Ockham’s Razor) but if an important scientific result is published in bad style there is no great harm. There are usually many scientists who improve the style in later publications.



Philosophical novels

The strength of literature is its access to emotion. In a philosophical novel style is a means to create empathy in addition to analytical results. Mixtures of philosophical and literary style reach the reader’s intellect and emotions at the same time.


Nietzsche: Thus spoke Zarathustra

A central irony of the text is that Nietzsche mimics the style of the Bible in order to present ideas which fundamentally oppose Christian and Jewish morality and tradition.

More likely it wasn’t irony but intention. By copying the style of the Bible Nietzsche gets access to emotions which are tied to religion. These emotions are then linked to a new intellectual concept.



Philosophy versus Literature

From the discussion in chapter 4.2 we can draw the following conclusion:

The aesthetic quality of a novel may or may not support the ethical quality. If a novel plays a role in ethics that doesn’t exclude that the same novel plays a different role in aesthetics. It seems adequate to compare

1.      the relation between morally relevant novels and ethics with

2.      the relation between narration and analysis in a therapy

The term philosophy could then be used for the interaction between narration and analysis.

A novel (as well as the narration in a therapy) doesn’t have to be an example of good conduct in order to create insight.

In this paper

1.      Philosophy is represented by The Advice of the Wise

2.      Literature is represented by Philosophical novels



Interdisciplinary philosophy

A wide definition of the term philosophy considers narration and analysis as one of several methods to get insight. Interdisciplinary philosophy attempts to form an overall picture out of different perspectives.  

Although interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity are frequently viewed as twentieth century terms, the concept has historical antecedents, most notably Greek philosophy (Interdisciplinarity, Wikipedia)




7.3  Content




Why does ethics require a complete description?

1)      In art completeness is irrelevant or even in contradiction to the nature of art.

2)      In science completeness is relevant in the context of practical applications:

a)      If the control system of an atomic reactor doesn’t consider all possible cases of failure, the result might be fatal.

b)      If an engineer overlooks a promising feature, competing engineers will discover it.

3)      In ethics completeness is relevant because it decides about behavior. The level of cognition even goes into the definition of rational behavior:

a)      Moral rules under incomplete information may lead to counter-productive results.

Example: Empirical research has demonstrated that money makes people happy to the degree that they are wealthier compared to the social average. If this is true, then the happiness one derives from above-average consumption will be the happiness at the expense of others [Hirata, 33].

b)      An incomplete description tends to develop a normative force: If one of the two paths in a crossing is invisible the situation functions like an invitation to take the visible path.


In this paper we have seen different kinds of incompleteness:

1.      The Advice of the Wise lacks the information, for which personality traits (risk profile) and environment (culture) the advice is best suited.

2.      Positive Psychology devaluates retreat-oriented ways of living.

3.      Philosophical novels are free to describe a peculiarity in ethics instead of giving a complete picture.

4.      Sociology doesn’t investigate the relation between individual life stories and happiness.

5.      Happiness economics cannot interpret the historical and cultural context of happiness



Unbiased description

An incomplete description is a special case of a biased description. The missing part of the description corresponds to a valuation with weight zero. Among the most popular examples of biased descriptions are

1)      “Life is beautiful”

2)      “The truth is beautiful”

An unbiased description on the society level includes the existence of horrible lives so that the term life can hardly be characterized by the term beauty. On the individual level the truth sometimes shows a way out of misery, but in other cases we find just the opposite, e.g. if a patient is informed about an incurable disease. Consequently we have to classify “The truth is beautiful” as a biased description. A biased description corresponds to a distorted perception. A distorted perception leads to irrational ethical decisions.

Descriptions are not only distorted due to a lacking knowledge of facts and due to a lacking structural analysis. They are also distorted because of the observers’ interests. If we reveal the interests behind interpretations, then we make absolute claims relative, but we can establish new values on a deeper level of insight:



Interests behind descriptions

Descriptions are backed up by interests and resources. The interests of the so called “neutral” observers can be derived from the topics which get attention and from the energy and resources spent on their observation.


In this paper we have seen the following interests at work:

1)      The Advice of the Wise:

a)      Individualistic schools tend to repress altruistic kinds of happiness

b)      Single male philosophers tend to repress the happiness of being married and having children.

2)      Positive psychology

is a kind of biological fundamentalism and denies retreat-oriented ways of living. Similar to Nietzsche it represses the Buddhist type of happiness.

3)      Philosophical novels

The author’s individual interests may produce biased descriptions

4)      Sociology

a)      If a specific kind of happiness is repressed, then there are no corresponding surveys. Drug consumption e.g. is selectively repressed depending on the culture.

b)      Statistics is an objective tool, but researchers often interpret the data according to their own interest.

5)      Happiness economics

The interest of happiness economics is (originally) to maximize happiness. That’s the reason why it tends to concentrate on a single generalized kind of happiness (usually subjective life satisfaction). 


General observations:

1)      With some exceptions like the Hindu Artha, moral philosophies tend to repress the pleasure of being wealthy, a repression which is broken up by the dictum:

a)      “To be rich is the most pleasant way to be unhappy” or

b)      “Those who say that money can’t buy happiness don’t know where to shop.”


2)      With the exception of philosophical novels all methods tend to repress the pleasure of immoral behavior:

“What we call happiness in the strictest sense of the word comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.” (Sigmund Freud)





Moral ist gut,

Erbschaft ist besser


Fontane am 25.1.1894 an seine Tochter Mete






Happiness research doesn’t have to be induced by a crisis; it can be motivated by boredom as well [Hahn, 121].

If this is true, then the search for happiness is an anthropological constant and has an affinity to the search for sense, transcendence and redemption. There are some observations in support of this view:

1)      The romantic love has a religious trait [Burkhart, 183].

2)      The recreational industry develops new forms of transcendence which replace the church service [Schulz-Nieswandt, 203]


Remarkable theses of happiness research are the following:

1)      The deliberate attempt to become happy often produces a counter-productive result [Hettlage, 154]. Possibly the unconscious process which creates happiness is disturbed by the conscious search.

2)      Happiness is in conflict with art and intellect (Gottfried Benn) [Brenner, 254]

3)      Happiness is in conflict with rational behavior [Schimank, 163].


If above theses are true, then there are strong arguments against any prescribed forms of happiness and their rational pursuit. There are even doubts if happiness should be promoted at all. On the other hand there are no doubts that suffering should be reduced. It is accordingly easier to find a corresponding consensus [Fisch, 224]. The acceptance of such a consensus could be improved, if it were embedded in a myth [Bargatzky, 104]. Following two well-known candidate myths which are compatible with reason:

1.      The myth of technological progress, which says that the actual culture reduces the degree of suffering relative to earlier cultures.

2.      A secular Buddhist myth which says, that we live in a world of delusion and that each individual is able to liberate him-/herself.




8  The Normative Force of Reason



8.1  Basics



Reason as a type of thought

Reason, as used in this article, refers to mental faculties that generate or affirm propositions, by activities of the mind such as judging, predicting, inferring, generalizing, and comparing. Reason in this sense is often contrasted with authority, intuition, emotion, mysticism, superstition, and faith, and is thought by rationalists to be more reliable than these in discovering what is true or what is best. The meaning of the word "reason" overlaps to a large extent with "rationality" and the adjective of "reason" in philosophical contexts is normally "rational", rather than "reasoned" or "reasonable" (…) Reason and logic can be thought of as distinct, although logic is one important aspect of reason. Reason is a type of thought (Reason, Wikipedia).


Reason as a type of thought can be illustrated by the Socratic Method:

The influence of the Socratic Method is most strongly felt today in the use of the Scientific Method, in which hypothesis is the first stage. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates' most enduring contributions, and is a key factor in earning his mantle as the father of political philosophy, ethics and as a figurehead of all the central themes in Western philosophy (Socrates, Wikipedia)



Reason in ethics

1.      According to the Aristotelian theory, there is a best way of living together which exists independently of historical circumstances.

2.      According to Rousseau, we should even doubt that reason, language and politics are a good thing (Reason, Wikipedia)


Whether reason makes people happy or not – there is a need for ruling cooperation and competition.

Anthropological research reveals that the fact that people have moral standards is a universal. In other words, the one universal research is sure of is that no society embraces an "anything goes" approach to morality (cultural relativism, Wikipedia).


If the common need for moral rules can be combined with a common type of thought, then there is a chance for a universal discourse on the subject. Even Rousseau, in developing and promoting his skeptical view on reason, used reason as a tool. Reason is a possible common denominator in overcoming the cultural diversity of norms. In accordance with the culture of Enlightenment we suggest that reason has a certain normative force. But there is no teleological claim in this paper that reason will prevail.



Discourse ethics

In his treatise on politics Aristotle wrote that the community attains better results with regard to knowledge and judgments than an individual, better results even than the best individuals.

The basic idea of discourse ethics is that the validity of a moral norm cannot be justified in the mind of an isolated individual reflecting on the world. The validity of a norm is justified only intersubjectively in processes of argumentation between individuals; in a dialectic. The validity of a claim to normative rightness depends upon the mutual understanding achieved by individuals in argument. From this it follows that the presuppositions of argumentation would become important; for example:

1.      The presupposition that participants in communicative exchange are using the same linguistic expressions in the same way

2.      The presupposition that no relevant argument is suppressed or excluded by the participants

3.      The presupposition that no force except that of the better argument is exerted

4.      The presupposition that all the participants are motivated only by a concern for the better argument

 (Discourse ethics, Wikipedia)

Above presuppositions of argumentation are an ethical ideal which is hardly reachable in practice:

1.      Linguistic expressions are usually different or used in different ways.

2.      A relevant argument may be in conflict with emotions and therefore suppressed by the unconscious.

3.      In ethics arguments are often tied to valuations and valuations depend on varying life experiences.

4.      What is the better argument, if emotions and corresponding valuations are different?

The exchange of experiences and empathy therefore are important factors for reaching a common ethical decision.



Group dynamics

Empirical findings suggest that the judgments of a group are not consistently better than the ones of an individual:

1.      Group discussions sometimes not only reproduce misjudgments but even reinforce them. Group members tend to give too much importance to the common knowledge already available in the group relative to the additional knowledge of single individuals. There is a tendency to believe that the majority has good reasons for their judgments and a social pressure to comply with the majority.

2.      Political statements often go beyond factual truth in order to delimit a group relative to competing groups [Tooby]. Political and ideological groups tend to exacerbate their positions in the course of a discussion. This tendency leads to a polarization between competing subgroups, e.g. liberals and conservatives [Sunstein].

The pitfalls of group dynamics can be mitigated by institutions which are dedicated to the apolitical distribution of knowledge.


1.      The authors of Wikipedia are not motivated by a gain in reputation (their names are not displayed in the text). Authors also are not driven by economic motives, because there is no financial reward. The quality of Wikipedia is increasingly improved by teams of specialized editors [Sunstein].

In contrast to Facebook and Twitter, Wikipedia is one of the few online outlets that strives for neutrality. After Wikipedia had spent 15 years in operation, researchers at Harvard Business School evaluated almost 4,000 articles against the same entries in Encyclopedia Britannica to compare their biases. They focused on English-language articles about US politics, especially controversial topics that appeared in both outlets in 2012. The authors found that the 2.8 million registered volunteer editors who were reviewing the articles became less biased over time [Greenstein].

2.      The quality of democratic decisions is improved by organizations like Politools, a network of interdisciplinary, scientific, internet-based projects. The Politool projects assist the average citizen in political decision making. Example: Smartvote.




The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre holds that a subjective moral core ought to lie at the base of individuals' moral acts. In his view public morality reflects social convention, and only personal, subjective morality expresses true authenticity. (i.e. "Following one's conscience".)

 (Moral relativism, Wikipedia)

Is authenticity in conflict with an ethics of reason? The answer depends on the definition of authenticity:

         If the term authentic is associated with the (unconscious) biological drives, then the conflict is inevitable. Freud’s cultural pessimism results from the conflict between biological and cultural demands.

         In this paper we use the term authenticity for the individual solution to the conflict between biological and cultural demands (see Moralischer Perfektionismus und Gerechtigkeit).

With the latter definition it can be an authentic decision to adopt an ethics of reason.




8.2  Moral Relativism



What kind of relativism is inevitable?



Cultural relativism

From an abstract point of view ethically relevant interests can be expressed by

1.      different risk-profiles

2.      different degrees of solidarity (compassion)

Different degrees of risk-aversion and solidarity lead to a different behavior with a specific survival value. In a given culture with its tradition and its anticipated scenario of the future certain combinations are more frequent than others. Since cultures are in competition, the definition of moral value with the highest survival value prevails.


Some evolutionary biologists believe that morality is a natural phenomenon that evolved by natural selection acting at the individual level, and through group selection. Consequently many view morality as being relative, constituting any set of social behaviors that promoted the survival and successful reproduction of humans (…). Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within cultural boundaries (cultural relativism). From Moral relativism, Wikipedia


Whereas cultural relativism regards the actual differences in the various traditions of culture, ethos and morals as a given fact, it leaves the possibility of moral universalism open [Ulrich, 28]




The cross-comparison of concepts and methods delivers arguments against moral absolutism.

Moral absolutism is the meta-ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, devoid of the context of the act. Thus lying, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done to promote some other good (e.g., saving a life). Moral absolutism stands in contrast to categories of ethical theories such as consequentialism (e.g. utilitarianism) and situational ethics, which holds that the morality of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.


Moral absolutism should not be confused with moral universalism which holds that the same things are right and wrong for all similarly-situated people, regardless of anyone's opinions, though not necessarily regardless of context (Moral absolutism, Wikipedia).

Example: According to classical utilitarianism (which is a form of moral universalism) a decision is morally right, if it increases the total happiness within the community.



Value pluralism

Value pluralism contends that there are two or more genuine scales of value, knowable as such, yet incommensurable, so that any prioritization of these values is either non-cognitive or subjective. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both a life as a nun and a life as a mother realize genuine values (in a universalistic sense), yet they are incompatible and there is no purely rational measure of which is preferable. A notable proponent of this view is Isaiah Berlin (Meta-Ethics, Wikipedia).


The cross-comparison of concepts and methods confirms above example: there are good arguments for both, life-friendly and retreat-oriented strategies. A reasonable concept of happiness therefore has to incorporate both of them. But value pluralism doesn’t exclude moral universalism:

Value pluralism acknowledges the co-existence of opposing ideas and practices, but accepts limits to differences, such as when vital human needs are violated (Moral relativism, Wikipedia)




The cross-comparison of concepts and methods delivers arguments for cultural relativism, non-absolutism and value pluralism, but doesn’t exclude moral universalism. There is still a chance that moral universalism could be constituted on the basis of reason.




8.3  Moral Universalism


The Kantian claim that we are all autonomous persons of equal dignity leads to the consequent reciprocity of moral claims. If we extend reciprocity to the generalized other, then we get the principle of universalization. Those claims enjoy general validity which every person can assert against others in a rational way. The term rational way means: tested by the general principle of role reversal [Ulrich 32].





Moral is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we make ourselves worth of happiness.


Immanuel Kant





Moral universalism is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature. Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist (Moral Universalism, Wikipedia)


Moral universalism sets limits to tolerance.


Candidates for universal moral values are the following:

         The rule of law

         The separation of powers (legislative, executive, justice)

         The separation of church and state (a prerequisite for the freedom of thought)

         Human rights, including the freedom of thought and the freedom of speech

         State monopoly on violence (as long as the state respects human rights)

In a dynamic environment the claim for universality has to be questioned from time to time. But subtle and well-justified adaptations are far from arbitrariness.


         The discussion about the limits of free speech on freespeechdebate.com and the corresponding theory [Ash].

         The discussion about democracy theory [Brennan].


The theoretical claim for universal validity has to be distinguished from the chances to implement universal values. Human rights raise a claim for universality but it may be impossible to reach a universal implementation. The normative force of reason is just one of many determinants in the acceptance of values. For information about modernity, postmodernity and the force of reason see Cultural Pessimism and Therapy.




9  Conclusion


1)      How does the method relate to the result?

a)      The Advice of the Wise lacks the information, for which personality traits (risk profile) and environment (culture) the advice is best suited.

b)      Positive Psychology devaluates retreat-oriented ways of living.

c)      Philosophical novels are free to describe a peculiarity in ethics instead of giving a complete picture.

d)     Sociology doesn’t investigate the relation between individual life stories and happiness.

e)      Happiness economics cannot interpret the historical and cultural context of happiness


2)      Does the variety of methods lead to moral relativism?

Methodological pluralism is neither a reason for moral relativism, nor a reason against it. The variety of methods simply enhances the capacity to check arguments on both sides.

a)      The cultural diversity of moral rules is a fact.

b)      There are strong arguments for non-absolutism and value pluralism. The term reason can be associated with both life-friendly and retreat-oriented ways of living.

None of these arguments excludes moral universalism. The normative force of reason restricts happiness at the cost of others and happiness at the cost of one’s own future self.








I would like to thank Michael Hampe for his valuable comments and suggestions in the context of this paper.








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Further Reading


1.      Hampe Michael (2009), Das Vollkommene Leben

2.      Huber Herbert (2009), Glück – Sinn – Zufriedenheit

3.      Veenhoven Ruut (2011), Glück als subjektives Wohlbefinden

4.      Veenhoven Ruut, World Database of Happiness