The Futility of Eudaimonian Ethics
Eudaimonian ethics postulate the existence of some ultimate goal towards which all human activity strives, whether it be happiness, the good life or something else altogether. This premise is shaky and easily questioned.
Let us imagine that we have a meeting of two would-be philosophers, Jones and Stevens. Jones is a compassionate rule utilitarian, while his friend Stevens is a reserved skeptic. Jones greets Stevens and a converstation ensues:
“I say, Stevens, I read in the newspaper today that an old lady was set upon by a group of young ruffians who hit her and stole her purse. What an evil lot they must be!”
“And why is that so?” replies the skeptical Stevens.
“Well, imagine how unhappy the old lady must have been. The happiness which the youths may or may not have experienced as a consequence of their actions can hardly counterbalance the old woman’s feeling that she was done wrong. So, all in all, their actions reduced the amount of happiness in the world.”
Stevens grins. “It’s very scientific of you to idly speculate on the happiness/unhappiness ratio in the affair, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“You see, the ultimate goal of all human beings is happiness. Since it is that which everyone strives for, an action must be regarded good insofar as it promotes happiness, and evil insofar as it detracts from it. Hitting and stealing generally detract from happiness in the world, and thus the perpetrators of such crimes are not good”
“My dear Jones, apart from the fact that your theory is unworkable in practice (for who can really know how the old lady feels?), it also involves wild overgeneralizations of which I disapprove. Firstly, you say that hitting and stealing are wrong because they detract from overall happiness. I can easily come up with counterexamples where this is not the case. There is, however, a second, much more serious objection to your theory.”
“And what objection might that be?” asks Jones, brows furrowed.
“You claim that the ultimate goal of all human beings is happiness. Regardless of what you mean by ‘happiness’, this statement is highly suspicious. What on earth makes you think that there is a single goal towards which all human actions are to strive?"
“Well, I observed the people around me and, based on these observations, I concluded that in all their undertakings they were motivated by a desire to be happy.”
“So your entire theory rests on your own subjective, personal observations?”
“No, no, no! Not at all. There are plenty of people who agree, and have told me that they too have made similar observations.”
“Hmm....” Stevens pauses a while to ponder. “What if I were, for argument’s sake, to tell you that I am not motivated at all by happiness, and do not consider it the ultimate object of any of my actions? In fact, let us imagine that I regarded happiness, in any and all of its forms, as something of no consequence. You now have a counter-example which disproves your theory. If we are to be scientific and rational in our discussion, we must agree that one example to the contrary suffices to show that happiness cannot be the ultimate human end. How will you respond to this?”
Jones smiles and replies “I should say that you were lying, and that you were in fact motivated by the prospect of happiness.”
“Have you not, then, moved out of the sphere of rational discourse, since you are molding the evidence to fit your theory, instead of molding the theory to the evidence? It seems to me that in order to prove your theory wrong, I need only reject its premise in regard to my own motivations and opinions. And there is nothing you can do about it, except appeal to the fact that many people agree with you. We can hardly regard this as sufficient in establishing the truth of the matter. No, your theory rests on a shaky premise indeed, and I fear you must search elsewhere for solid ethical foundations.”