Happiness and Goodness as Universal Terminal Virtues

Hi, I’m new to LessWrong. I stum­bled onto this site a month ago, and ever since, I’ve been de­vour­ing Ra­tion­al­ity: AI to Zom­bies faster than I used to go through my fa­vorite fan­tasy nov­els. I’ve spent some time on web­site too, and I’m pretty in­timi­dated about post­ing, since you guys all seem so smart and knowl­edge­able, but here goes… This is prob­a­bly the first in­tel­lec­tual idea I’ve had in my life, so if you want to tear it to shreds, you are more than wel­come to, but please be gen­tle with my feel­ings. :)
Edit: Thanks to many helpful com­ments, I’ve cleaned up the origi­nal post quite a bit and changed the ti­tle to re­flect this.


As hu­mans, we seem to share the same ter­mi­nal val­ues, or ter­mi­nal virtues. We want to do things that make our­selves happy, and we want to do things that make oth­ers happy. We want to ‘be­come happy’ and ‘be­come good.’

Be­cause var­i­ous de­ter­mi­nants—in­clud­ing, for in­stance, per­sonal fulfill­ment—can af­fect an in­di­vi­d­ual’s hap­piness, there is sig­nifi­cant over­lap be­tween these ul­ti­mate mo­ti­va­tors. Do­ing good for oth­ers usu­ally brings us hap­piness. For ex­am­ple, donat­ing to char­ity makes peo­ple feel warm and fuzzy. Some might rec­og­nize this over­lap and con­clude that all hu­mans are en­tirely self­ish, that even those who ap­pear al­tru­is­tic are sub­con­sciously act­ing purely out of self-in­ter­est. Yet many of us choose to donate to char­i­ties that we be­lieve do the most good per dol­lar, rather than hand­ing out money through per­sonal-hap­piness-op­ti­miz­ing ran­dom acts of kind­ness. Seem­ingly ra­tio­nal hu­man be­ings some­times make con­scious de­ci­sions to in­effi­ciently max­i­mize their per­sonal hap­piness for the sake of oth­ers. Con­sider Eliezer’s ex­am­ple in Ter­mi­nal Values and In­stru­men­tal Values of a mother who sac­ri­fices her life for her son.

Why would peo­ple do stuff that they know won’t effi­ciently in­crease their hap­piness? Be­fore I de-con­verted from Chris­ti­an­ity and started to learn what evolu­tion and nat­u­ral se­lec­tion ac­tu­ally were, be­fore I re­al­ized that al­tru­is­tic ten­den­cies are par­tially ge­netic, it used to ut­terly mys­tify me that athe­ists would some­times act so vir­tu­ously. I did be­lieve that God gave them a con­science, but I kinda thought that surely some­one ra­tio­nal enough to be­come an athe­ist would be ra­tio­nal enough to re­al­ize that his con­science didn’t always lead him to his op­ti­mal mind-state, and work to over­come it. Per­son­ally, I used to joke with my friends that Chris­ti­an­ity was the only thing stop­ping me from pur­su­ing my true dream job of be­com­ing a thief (strat­egy + challenge + adrenal­ine + va­ri­ety = what more could I ask for?) Then, when I de-con­verted, it hit me: Hey, you know, Ellen, you re­ally *could* be­come a thief now! What fun you could have! I flinched from the thought. Why didn’t I want to over­come my con­science, be­come a thief, and live a fun-filled life? Well, this isn’t as baf­fling to me now, sim­ply be­cause I’ve changed where I draw the bound­ary. I’ve come to clas­sify good­ness as an end-in-it­self, just like I’d always done with hap­piness.

Be­com­ing good

I first read about virtue ethics in On Ter­mi­nal Goals and Virtue Ethics. As I read, I couldn’t help but want to be a virtue ethi­cist and a con­se­quen­tial­ist. Most virtues just seemed like in­stru­men­tal val­ues.

The post’s au­thor men­tioned Diver­gent pro­tag­o­nist Tris as an ex­am­ple of virtue ethics:

Brav­ery was a virtue that she thought she ought to have. If the graph of her mo­ti­va­tions even went any deeper, the only node be­yond ‘be­come brave’ was ‘be­come good.’

I sus­pect that good­ness is, per­haps sub­con­sciously, a ter­mi­nal virtue for the vast ma­jor­ity of virtue ethi­cists. I ap­pre­ci­ate Os­car Wilde’s writ­ing in De Profundis:

Now I find hid­den some­where away in my na­ture some­thing that tells me that noth­ing in the whole world is mean­ingless, and suffer­ing least of all..

It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ul­ti­mate dis­cov­ery at which I have ar­rived, the start­ing-point for a fresh de­vel­op­ment. It has come to me right out of my­self, so I know that it has come at the proper time. It could not have come be­fore, nor later. Had any­one told me of it, I would have re­jected it. Had it been brought to me, I would have re­fused it. As I found it, I want to keep it. I must do so...

Of all things it is the strangest.

Wilde’s thoughts on hu­mil­ity trans­late quite nicely to an in­nate de­sire for good­ness.

When pre­sented with a con­flict be­tween an elected virtue, such as loy­alty, or truth, and the un­der­ly­ing de­sire to be good, most virtue ethi­cists would likely aban­don the elected virtue. With truth, con­sider the clas­sic ex­am­ple of ly­ing to Nazis to save Jews. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, it is wrong to con­ceal the truth, but in spe­cial cases, most peo­ple would agree that ly­ing is ac­tu­ally less wrong than truth-tel­ling. I’m not cer­tain, but my hunch is that most pro­fess­ing virtue ethi­cists would find that in ex­treme thought ex­per­i­ments, their ter­mi­nal virtue of good­ness would even­tu­ally trump their other virtues, too.

Be­com­ing happy

How­ever, there’s one ex­cep­tion. One de­sire can some­times trump even the de­sire for good­ness, and that’s the de­sire for per­sonal hap­piness.

We usu­ally want what makes us happy. I want what makes me happy. Spend­ing time with fam­ily makes me happy. Play­ing board games makes me happy. Go­ing hik­ing makes me happy. Win­ning races makes me happy. Be­ing open-minded makes me happy. Hear­ing praise makes me happy. Learn­ing new things makes me happy. Think­ing strate­gi­cally makes me happy. Play­ing touch foot­ball with friends makes me happy. Shar­ing ideas makes me happy. In­de­pen­dence makes me happy. Ad­ven­ture makes me happy. Even di­vulging per­sonal in­for­ma­tion makes me happy.

Fun, ac­com­plish­ment, pos­i­tive self-image, sense of se­cu­rity, and oth­ers’ ap­proval: all of these are ex­am­ples of hap­piness con­trib­u­tors, or things that lead me to my own, per­sonal op­ti­mal mind-state. Every time I en­gage in one of the hap­piness in­creasers above, I’m fulfilling an in­stru­men­tal value. I’m do­ing the same thing when I re­ject ac­tivi­ties I dis­like or work to re­verse per­son­al­ity traits that I think de­crease my over­all hap­piness.

Tris didn’t join the Dauntless cast be­cause she thought they were do­ing the most good in so­ciety, or be­cause she thought her com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage to do good lay there–she chose it be­cause they were brave, and she wasn’t, yet, and she wanted to be.

Tris was, in other words, pur­su­ing hap­piness by try­ing to change an as­pect of her per­son­al­ity she dis­liked.

Guess­ing at sub­con­scious motivation

By now, you might be won­der­ing, “But what about the virtue ethi­cist who is re­li­gious? Wouldn’t she be ul­ti­mately mo­ti­vated by some­thing other than hap­piness and good­ness?”

Well, in the case of Chris­ti­an­ity, most peo­ple prob­a­bly just want to ‘be­come Christ-like’ which, for them, over­laps quite con­ve­niently with per­sonal satis­fac­tion and helping oth­ers. Hap­piness and good­ness might be in­tu­itively driv­ing them to choose this in­stru­men­tal goal, and for them, con­flict be­tween the two never seems to arise.

Let’s con­sider ‘be­come obe­di­ent to God’s will’ from a mod­ern-day Chris­tian per­spec­tive. 1 Ti­mothy 2:4 says, “[God our Sav­ior] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowl­edge of the truth.” Mark 12:31 says, “Love your neigh­bor as your­self.” Well, I love my­self enough that I want to do ev­ery­thing in my power to avoid eter­nal pun­ish­ment; there­fore, I should love my neigh­bor enough to do ev­ery­thing in my power to stop him from go­ing to hell, too.

So any­time a Chris­tian does any­thing but pray for oth­ers, do faith-strength­en­ing ac­tivi­ties, spread the gospel, or earn money to donate to mis­sion­ar­ies, he is an­ti­ci­pat­ing as if God/​hell doesn’t ex­ist. As a Chris­tian, I to­tally re­al­ized this, and of­ten tried to con­vince my­self and oth­ers that we were act­ing wrongly by not be­ing more de­vout. I couldn’t shake the no­tion that spend­ing time hav­ing fun in­stead of pray­ing or shar­ing the gospel was some­how wrong be­cause it went against God’s will of want­ing all men be­ing saved, and I be­lieved God’s will, by defi­ni­tion, was right. (Oops.) But I still acted in ac­cor­dance with my per­sonal hap­piness on many oc­ca­sions. I said God’s will was the only end-in-it­self, but I didn’t act like it. I didn’t feel like it. The in­nate de­sire to pur­sue per­sonal hap­piness is an ex­tremely strong mo­ti­vat­ing force, so strong that Chris­ti­ans re­ally don’t like to la­bel it as sin. Imag­ine how many de­con­ver­sions we would see if it were sud­denly sin­ful to play foot­ball, watch movies with your fam­ily, or splurge on tasty restau­rant meals. Yet the Bible of­ten men­tions giv­ing up ma­te­rial wealth en­tirely, and in Luke 9:23 Je­sus says, “Who­ever wants to be my dis­ci­ple must deny them­selves and take up their cross daily and fol­low me.”

Let’s fur­ther con­sider those who be­lieve God’s will is good, by defi­ni­tion. Such Chris­ti­ans tend to be­lieve “God wants what’s best for us, even when we don’t un­der­stand it.” Un­less they have ex­cep­tion­ally strong ten­den­cies to an­a­lyze op­por­tu­nity costs, their un­der­stand­ing of God’s will and their in­tu­itive idea of what’s best for hu­man­ity rarely con­flict. But let’s imag­ine it does. Let’s say some­one strongly be­lieves in God, and is led to be­lieve that God wants him to sac­ri­fice his child. This ac­tion would cer­tainly go against his ter­mi­nal value of good­ness and may cause cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. But he could still do it, sub­con­sciously satis­fy­ing his (la­tent) ter­mi­nal value of per­sonal hap­piness. What on earth does per­sonal hap­piness have to do with sac­ri­fic­ing a child? Well, the be­liever takes com­fort in his be­lief in God and his hope of heaven (the child gets a short­cut there). He takes com­fort in his re­li­gious com­mu­nity. To not sac­ri­fice the child would be to deny God and lose that im­mense source of com­fort.

Th­ese thoughts ob­vi­ously don’t hap­pen on a con­scious level, but maybe peo­ple have per­sonal-hap­piness-op­ti­miz­ing in­tu­itions. Of course, I have near-zero sci­en­tific knowl­edge, no clue what re­ally goes on in the sub­con­scious, and I’m just guess­ing at all this.

In­di­vi­d­ual variance

Again, hap­piness has a huge over­lap with good­ness. Good­ness of­ten, but not always, leads to per­sonal hap­piness. A lot of seem­ingly ran­dom stuff leads to per­sonal hap­piness, ac­tu­ally. What­ever that stuff is, it largely ac­counts for the in­di­vi­d­ual var­i­ance in which virtues are pur­sued. It’s prob­a­bly closely tied to the four Kiersey Tem­per­a­ments of se­cu­rity-seek­ing, sen­sa­tion-seek­ing, knowl­edge-seek­ing, and iden­tity-seek­ing types. (Un­sur­pris­ingly, most peo­ple here at LW re­ported knowl­edge-seek­ing per­son­al­ity types.) I’m a sen­sa­tion-seeker. An iden­tity-seeker could find his iden­tity in the re­li­gious com­mu­nity and in be­ing a ‘child of God’. A se­cu­rity-seeker could find se­cu­rity in his be­lief in heaven. An iden­tity-seek­ing ra­tio­nal­ist might be the type most likely to as­pire to ‘be­come com­pletely truth­ful’ even if she some­how knew with com­plete cer­tainty that tel­ling the truth, in a cer­tain situ­a­tion, would lead to a bad out­come for hu­man­ity.

Per­haps the gen­eral ten­dency among pro­fess­ing virtue ethi­cists is to pur­sue hap­piness and good­ness rel­a­tively in­tu­itively, while pro­fess­ing con­se­quen­tial­ists pur­sue the same val­ues more an­a­lyt­i­cally.

Also worth not­ing is the in­di­vi­d­ual var­i­ance in some­one’s “prefer­ence ra­tio” of hap­piness rel­a­tive to good­ness. Among pro­fess­ing con­se­quen­tial­ists, we might find so­ciopaths and ex­treme al­tru­ists at op­po­site ends of a hap­piness-good­ness con­tinuum, with most of us fal­ling some­where in be­tween. To po­si­tion virtue ethi­cists on such a con­tinuum would be sig­nifi­cantly more difficult, re­quiring fur­ther spec­u­la­tion about sub­con­scious mo­ti­va­tion.

Real-life con­ver­gence of moral views

I im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied with con­se­quen­tial­ism when I first read about it. Then I read about virtue ethics, and I im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied with that, too. I nat­u­rally an­a­lyze my ac­tions with my goals in mind. But I also of­ten find my­self idol­iz­ing a cer­tain trait in oth­ers, such as en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness, and then pur­su­ing that trait on my own. For ex­am­ple:

I’ve had friends who care a lot about the en­vi­ron­ment. I think it’s cool that they do. So even be­fore hear­ing about virtue ethics, I wanted to ‘be­come some­one who cares about the en­vi­ron­ment’. Sub­con­sciously, I must have sus­pected that this would help me achieve my ter­mi­nal goals of hap­piness and good­ness.

If car­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment is my in­stru­men­tal goal, I can feel good about my­self when I in­stinc­tively pick up trash, con­serve en­ergy, use a reusable wa­ter bot­tle; i.e. do things en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious peo­ple do. It’s quick, it’s effi­cient, and hav­ing la­beled ‘car­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment’ as a per­sonal virtue, I’m spared from an­a­lyz­ing ev­ery last de­ci­sion. Be­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious is a valuable habit.

Yet I can still do op­por­tu­nity cost analy­ses with my cho­sen virtue. For ex­am­ple, I could stop show­er­ing to help con­serve Cal­ifor­nia’s wa­ter. Or, I could ap­par­ently have the same effect by eat­ing six fewer ham­burg­ers in a year. More good­ness would re­sult if I stopped eat­ing meat and limited my show­er­ing, but do­ing so would in­terfere with my per­sonal hap­piness. I nat­u­rally seek to bal­ance my ter­mi­nal goals of good­ness and hap­piness. Per­son­ally, I pre­fer show­er­ing to eat­ing ham­burg­ers, so I cut sig­nifi­cantly back on my meat con­sump­tion with­out wor­ry­ing too much about my show­er­ing habits. This prac­ti­cal con­ver­gence of virtue ethics and con­se­quen­tial­ism satis­fies my de­sires for hap­piness and good­ness har­mo­niously.

To sum­ma­rize:

Per­sonal hap­piness refers to an in­di­vi­d­ual’s op­ti­mal mind-state. Plea­sure, pain, and per­sonal satis­fac­tion are ex­am­ples of hap­piness level de­ter­mi­nants. Good­ness refers to pro­mot­ing hap­piness in oth­ers.

Ter­mi­nal val­ues are ends-in-them­selves. The only true ter­mi­nal val­ues, or virtues, seem to be hap­piness and good­ness. Think of them as psy­cholog­i­cal mo­ti­va­tors, con­sciously or sub­con­sciously driv­ing us to make the de­ci­sions we do. (Phys­i­cal mo­ti­va­tors, like ad­dic­tion or in­er­tia, can also af­fect de­ci­sions.)

Prefer­ences are what we tend to choose. Th­ese can be based on psy­cholog­i­cal or phys­i­cal mo­ti­va­tors.

In­stru­men­tal val­ues are the sub-goals or sub-virtues that we (con­sciously or sub­con­sciously) be­lieve will best fulfill our ter­mi­nal val­ues of hap­piness and good­ness. We seem to choose them ar­bi­trar­ily.

Of course, we’re not always aware of what ac­tu­ally leads to op­ti­mal mind-states in our­selves and oth­ers. Yet as we ra­tio­nally pur­sue our goals, we may some­times in­tuit like virtue ethi­cists and other times an­a­lyze like con­se­quen­tial­ists. Both moral views are use­ful.

Prac­ti­cal value

So does this idea have any po­ten­tial prac­ti­cal value?

It took some friendly prod­ding, but I was fi­nally brought to re­al­ize that my pur­pose in writ­ing this ar­ti­cle was not to ar­gue the ex­is­tence of good­ness or the the­o­ret­i­cal equal­ity of con­se­quen­tial­ism and virtue ethics or any­thing at all. The real point I’m mak­ing here is that how­ever we cat­e­go­rize per­sonal hap­piness, good­ness be­longs in the same cat­e­gory, be­cause in prac­tice, all other goals seem to stem from one or both of these con­cepts. Clar­ity of ex­pres­sion is an in­stru­men­tal value, so I’m just say­ing that per­haps we should con­sider re­draw­ing our bound­aries a bit:

Figur­ing where to cut re­al­ity in or­der to carve along the joints—this is the prob­lem wor­thy of a ra­tio­nal­ist. It is what peo­ple should be try­ing to do, when they set out in search of the float­ing essence of a word.

P.S. If any­one is in­ter­ested in read­ing a re­ally, re­ally long con­ver­sa­tion I had with adamz­erner, you can trace the de­vel­op­ment of this idea. Lan­guage is­sues were over­come, bi­ases were ad­mit­ted, new facts were learned, minds were changed, and dis­cus­sion bounced from am­bi­tion, to se­rial kil­lers, to ar­ro­gance, to re­li­gion, to the sub­con­scious, to agent­hood, to skep­ti­cism about the hap­piness set-point the­ory, all in­ter­con­nected some­how. In short, it was the first time I’ve had a con­ver­sa­tion with a fel­low “ra­tio­nal­ist” and it was one of the coolest ex­pe­riences I’ve ever had.