I’m intrigued by Kant’s remarks on happiness and well-being. I’ve been thinking of the traditional understanding of his view and a passage we’ve discussed in a reading group on the Second Critique. I’m left with jigsaw puzzle where I cannot seem to make all the parts fit. I would be thankful for any help.
First, it seems like Kant uses ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ as interchangeable synonyms (which might not be right as it will later appear). So, when he discusses the ‘chief desire in life’ in the Metaphysics of Ethics, he says that it is called ‘happiness (welfare, comfort, entire felicity)’. I assume that the things in brackets here are meant to show that these are just same ideas by different names. Similarly in Groundwork he speaks of ‘welfare, in a word happiness’ (4:395).
The traditional view I’ve been taught about his view on happiness (and thus about well-being) is that he was a desire-satisfaction theorist. And, there does seem to be plenty of textual evidence for this view. So, in the second critique he defines happiness as ‘state of a rational being in the world in the whole of whose existence goes to his wish and will’ (5:124)’. Similar claims seem to be also made in Groundwork (4:399 and 4:405) and Metaphysics of Ethics where the same claim is put in this poetic way: ‘That everything should succeed and prosper with thee, according to thy whole heart and wish’ (translation from 1871…).
But, now to the passage which seems not to fit this picture. In the second critique in 5:60, he says of ‘well-being’ that it ‘indicates a relation to our state of pleasantness or unpleasantness, of enjoyment or pain’. This seems to be a purely hedonistic theory of well-being and also of happiness, if well-being is the same as happiness. And, that seems like a competing view to the desire-satisfaction proposal above.
Now, you might suggest that Kant was really meaning desire-satisfaction here as well and merely happened to unintentionally use the pleasure terminology because maybe we tend to be pleased about desire-satisfaction. I don’t think that this can be right.
The context of the previous definition of well-being is a discussion of the latin claim: Nihil appetimus, nisi sub ratione boni; nihil aversamur, nisi sub ratione mali. Kant’s own reading of this claim which he thinks is indubitable is ‘We desire nothing, under the direction of reason, except in so far as we hold it to be good or evil’. But that isn’t what the claim originally meant. He claims that it originally meant the ‘at least very doubtful’ proposition that ‘We desire nothing except with a view to our well-being or woe’.
Kant doesn’t say why he thinks that this proposition is very doubtful. But, if he meant desire-satisfaction it could not be very doubtful but rather either trivially true or trivially false. It has a de re reading (the objects of our desires are such that they are the only thing we desire) which is obviously true and a de dicto reading which is obviously false. It cannot be that the only thing we desire is the satisfaction of our desires. We cannot desire that unless we desire something else.
So, in order to make sense of Kant’s very doubtful proposition one has to assume that he does not mean desire-satisfaction by well-being but rather the relation to our state of pleasantness where this state is a joyful feeling, an experience with a certain phenomenal quality. If that’s the case, then it is very doubtful that we desire only this experience and nothing else. Kant often gives examples where this is not the case.
But, now it seems like he has two distinct views about happiness/well-being: a desire-satisfaction one and a hedonistic one. I wonder if there is a way for him to make this compatible but that seems difficult if desire-satisfaction can turn out to be not very pleasant. Is he just confused about this or is there a way of making sense of all these claims? I also think that the hedonist view would be a problem for his arguments against happiness being the ground of morality. It is much easier to know what causes pleasure to us than to know how to satisfy the sum of all our inclinations