By Ben Long
On Monday 27th February, Pharos collaborated with Warwick’s debating society to hold a student debate on the proposition ‘Is a morally good life necessary for happiness?’. Vidhi Nayyat and Caitlin Henry argued in favour of the proposition whilst Ieva Varanauskaite and Gihan Mallikarachchige argued against it. What follows is a summary of the debate and the points made by each speaker.
As the first speaker for the proposition, Vidhi laid out the case for a eudaemonist approach to morality and happiness, arguing that they are necessarily linked. Morality was framed as intention-based, with a moral life consisting of piecemeal actions backed by virtuous intentions. These acts, such as giving to charity or helping the local community, are supposed to kickstart a virtuous cycle of happiness and reciprocity as we help each other socially develop.
A unique point was that happiness flows not only from the development of virtue but also from the absence of guilt or regret. Vidhi maintained that we all have clear intuitions of right and wrong (embodied by our conscience) that cause us pain when we reflect upon our wrongdoings. Therefore, a virtuous life is not only one that promotes social flourishing, but also one that minimises individual regret.
Ieva opened the case for the opposition by trying to reframe the relationship between happiness and morality. Happiness should be viewed as a merely hedonic concept, a continuous feeling of joy or pleasure as opposed to the eudaemonia advocated by Vidhi. On this basis, happiness is indeterminate and intersubjective- making an objective link with morality implausible. Turning to morality, Ieva contended that it is bound up in the continued desire for self-preservation. It was argued that societies are built around the fact of scarcity, which leads to competition and, in turn, winners and losers. This zero-sum competition leads on the one hand to people pondering moral questions which have no real answer, whilst on the other hand dulling us to the suffering that happens around us. Against this backdrop, the small acts of virtue proposed by Vidhi appear to equate to a life of ‘moral neutrality’ instead of goodness.
To close off the case for the proposition, Caitlin challenged the view of the morality proposed by Ieva. Caitlin claimed that a moral life does not require one to solve world hunger or eliminate all forms of social injustice, rather the thought is that as we live our lives on an action-by-action basis- it is the quality of these actions which determines morality. Whilst donating a few tins of soup to a local food bank won’t eliminate suffering on a macro scale, it can make a visible and appreciated difference in the lives of others and hence can also deliver personal happiness and fulfilment. What the opposition called a morally neutral life turns out to be an unrealistic appraisal of how we should live, for it takes a detached and overly abstract standpoint that is alien to the way we make moral decisions on a daily basis. Caitlin also built upon Vidhi’s notion of conscience, arguing that those who purposefully act immorally are engaged in a form of self-conflict which obstructs the path to self-fulfilment.
Rounding off the case for the opposition, Gihan denied the intelligibility of the proposition by attacking the notion of morality itself. According to this argument, those in favour of the proposition are trapped in a dilemma. If morality is tied to the intuitions of the conscience, then it appears that an absence of guilt and personal consistency can lead to acts commonly found to be unjust (consider a ‘principled’ serial killer who consistently chooses to live in the most violent way possible). However, if we take refuge in the idea of a universal ethic, then insufficient arguments have been made to determine its content or even its plausibility. Against this backdrop, we only have the concrete actions that we carry out and the subjective utility that they grant us. Asking for a determinate link in said circumstances will lead us to philosophical confusion as opposed to giving us a clear way to live.
The audience gave the debate to the opposition; however, I shall let the reader decide whose arguments were strongest.