The Golden Rule To Moral Happiness
By David Metcalfe
February 23, 2018
The following is a shortened, simplified version of Dave’s theory: “Reducing Cognitive Dissonance Through Categorical Imperative Adherence In Relation To Altruism as a Means To Self-Fulfillment”.
Hedonists believe that pursuing happiness is the ultimate good, often to the detriment of morality. Asceticists believe that pursuing morality is the ultimate good, often to the detriment of happiness. But is it possible for someone to be both fully moral and fully happy?
In this article, I set out to prove that if we believe in the Golden Rule, we can achieve happiness through a strong belief in morality. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone wants to be moral. I don’t believe we have to sacrifice one for the other. The pinnacle of human existence, for both the individual and society, is for us to put others before ourselves, and be happier for doing so.
The Pursuit of Happiness
It seems that the purpose of every person’s existence is to maximize their happiness and minimize their sadness. The drunkard at the bar is one of two things: an insufficiently happy man seeking to maximize his happiness through a celebratory drink, or a depressed man seeking to minimize his sadness by drinking his problems away. But this rule applies to a great deal more than alcohol consumption. In fact, it might be said that all human actions are with this goal in mind.
Think about the things you do in your own life. I will bet that the things you spend the majority of your time on just so happen to be the same things that you believe will bring you happiness. Someone who chooses to work 80 hours a week tends to believe that career success and money will bring them happiness. Someone who chooses to spend time with their children in lieu of additional work tends to believe that spending time with their kids will bring them happiness. Someone who chooses to play sports, watch movies, etc. all conform to the same purpose.
And it’s not just good deeds. Someone who steals does so because they believe that attaining a certain possession will bring them more happiness. Someone who murders out of anger does so to minimize the sadness caused by that person.
So, the maxim is this: The guiding principle to human behavior is the desire to maximize happiness and minimize sadness.
The Pursuit of Morality
But there is also a greater principle that all people have a certain intuition toward. Morality is basically a four-part process that goes from truth to justice to law to behavior (Recco and Sanday, 2013). Choose any law and we can see pretty quickly how this process works. For example, if there is a law against murder, we can work back from it to get to justice and truth, or forward from it to get to behavior. The truth being assumed is that murder is wrong. Therefore, it is deemed unjust to commit murder. Therefore, we make a law to define this justice. The ultimate goal is to then reduce the behavior of murder. Morality is essentially a process of coinciding behavior with truth.
Humanity has a strong desire for each step of the moral process. For example, people hate injustice. Whenever someone deems something to be unjust, they suffer mental discomfort. The September 11 attacks, for example, were an unjust attack that resulted in severe devastation. People to this day are very disturbed by that occurrence. And even with smaller things: a coworker gets a promotion that you deserved, the waiter over charges you at a restaurant, etc. And it goes beyond justice alone. Everyone desires truth and hates lies, everyone desires law and hates chaos, everyone desires goodness and hates evil. That is why we naturally want our behavior, and the behavior of others, to be in accordance with what is true. That is the only way we can have all four steps of morality fulfilled.
So, the maxim is this: The guiding principle to human behavior is the desire to live in accordance with truth.
Conflicts of Happiness and Morality
The pursuit of happiness conflicts with morality in several ways:
The first conflict is when happiness for one contradicts the happiness of others. Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher who came up with the idea of utilitarianism, essentially that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. If we go by that logic, minority groups can be subject to all kinds of horrible treatment, so long as the greatest number of people are happy. For example, if a girl were to be gang raped by several men, it made more people happy than sad, and therefore, it is an acceptable action. This thinking can also be used to justify slavery and persecution of nearly any type, so long as it benefits the majority. Obviously, the “happiness principle” is not a livable ethic (Burns, 2005).
The second conflict is when immediate happiness contradicts later happiness. For example, if one uses cocaine to become happy, they may become addicted to it, and ruin things in their life as a result. This would result in immediate happiness to a long-term detriment. This is why people will choose to forgo certain sources of happiness due to the wisdom of a greater sense of happiness.
The third conflict is when someone becomes happy by something that is not true. For example, one may enjoy the idea that they are the strongest person in the world. This belief, although making them happy, is incorrect. They are then living a lie in order to be happy.
The fourth, and perhaps final conflict, is when happiness can only be achieved through unjust means. For example, someone may be happy to receive money for work they did not do. Reporting it to the government would result in the money being taken away, so they are forced to choose whether they want the happiness of the money or the justice of returning it.
Can Happiness and Morality Co-Exist?
As previously mentioned, hedonists believe that happiness is the greatest good, and therefore defines morality. But the problem is, our sense of truth and justice seem to conflict with happiness in many ways. Asceticists believe it is by the rejection of happiness in pursuit of morality that is the greatest good. But no person really wants to be unhappy.
What most people end up doing is splitting their desire for happiness with their desire for morality. For example, most people give a certain percentage of their income to charity. But why would someone give $100 instead of $200? In fact, why not give everything you have, or nothing at all? The percentage of income people give to the poor is a great indicator on where their balance is between morality and happiness. People who can sacrifice their own happiness for others are often deemed more moral, and people who accept happiness at the cost of others are often deemed immoral.
I believe that the supposed contradiction between happiness and morality is a false dichotomy. But first we need to refine our definition of happiness. Up to this point, I have equated happiness with temporal pleasure. From this point on, I will instead equate happiness with a sustained feeling of peace and joy in one’s life. Since people want to be 100% happy and 100% moral, I suggest that the pinnacle of human existence is achieved when these two are able to co-exist at their maximum capacities. I will briefly explain my theory on how this can be achieved.
There are three parts: the categorical imperative, cognitive dissonance, and self-actualization. I will go through a short explanation of each of these, and conclude with how they can explain the achievement of moral happiness.
The Categorical Imperative
Immanuel Kant, in my opinion, is one of the greatest moral philosophers of all time, if not the greatest. He was extremely dissatisfied with the moral philosophy of his day, and was a strong opponent of utilitarianism (aka the “happiness principle”). He believed that it was absurd to base morality on something so subjective as happiness. And even if we did base morality on happiness, why would anyone care to follow it? There is no obligation to care for the happiness of others under Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism. That’s why Kant proposed the idea of “the categorical imperative”, which formed the basis of legal and moral philosophy still used to this day.
The categorical imperative is an absolute, unconditional requirement that is justified in and of itself. It is best summed up by this statement:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
Basically, don’t operate on any principle that you wouldn’t want everyone to operate on. For example, the reason that stealing is wrong is because one cannot wish everyone to live by the principle of stealing whenever it suits them. Lying, murder, rape, etc. are all necessarily wrong by this principle. It also provides positive morality. For example, if you wish everyone to treat people with respect, you are obliged to also treat people with respect (Kant, 1785).
You may recognize this as being very similar to “The Golden Rule” a type of moral philosophy employed by the Ancient Greek philosophers and used in nearly every major religion.
Its maxim is: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Kant’s categorical imperative improves on the Golden Rule, because it appeals to a universal concept, rather than a subjective action. For example, a sex obsessed person may wish for random people at the grocery store to offer to have sex with him. According to the Golden Rule alone, it would be reasonable for him to offer sex to others at the grocery store. But if it is a universal concept of acting on a certain principle, he is then forced to consider the larger concept of whether making people uncomfortable in social situations is something to be wished for in society.
The best example of the categorical imperative I have seen in literature is a passage from the Gospel of Luke in Chapter 6 verses 27 through 35. It reads,
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do unto you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great.”
The categorical imperative is independent of the result. So, even if cheating will help you win an important game, it doesn’t matter, because the consequence is, well, of no consequence.
But what’s this part about “your reward will be great”? Well, cognitive dissonance teaches us the psychological consequence of not following the categorical imperative, and self-actualization teaches us the psychological reward of it.
In Leon Festinger’s brilliant book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), he proposed that all people strive for internal psychological consistency. Essentially, they want harmony between two different beliefs, or between their beliefs and actions. Any disharmony results in mental discomfort.
For example, if someone believes that the earth was created by God six thousand years ago, but also believes that evolution of life occurred over the course of millions of years, they would have two conflicting beliefs, and would be forced to reconcile them in some way, or else suffer mental discomfort. The more important the belief, the more severe the mental discomfort when it is challenged.
So, if you hold a casual belief, like “eh, I guess red smarties are slightly better than blue smarties” and then you find out the color has no bearing on taste, you would easily change your belief and it wouldn’t be a big deal. But if you are very strong on your belief about the superiority of red smarties, so much so that you have been campaigning every day for years, starting petitions, fundraisers, bills to congress, etc. all promoting red smarties, the discovery that they are all equal will be of severe mental discomfort to you (Festinger, 1957).
The application of this theory has been incredible over the last 60 years. It explains a plethora of things relating to education, social behavior, politics, religion, etc.
There are many theories around “self-actualization”. The best known of these is the “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” which places self-actualization at the top of a pyramid of human enlightenment. The self-actualized person is thought, by majority of humanist thinkers, to be the ultimate state of humanity. My favorite humanist psychologist is Carl Rogers, so we will take a brief look at his theory of congruence as a means to self-actualization.
Congruence is the similarity of a person’s ideal self with their self-image. People who are in a state of congruence are in a progression towards happiness, and people in a state of incongruence are regressing away from happiness. The ideal self is the person that you would like to be. The self-image is the person you believe you are. For example, if a person wants to be an amazing singer, but they don’t believe they are good at singing, they will be in a state of incongruence. To reach congruence, they must either stop desiring to be a good singer, or gain confidence in their singing ability. It’s similar to cognitive dissonance in that regard.
Where congruence moves beyond cognitive dissonance is in its goal-oriented approach. Rather than a mere assessment of mental well-being, congruence is with the intent of moving towards self-actualization (McLeod, 2014).
Achieving Moral Happiness
A brief summary of the last three sections is this:
1) People believe they ought to behave based on universally applied principles
2) People suffer mental discomfort when they have a contradiction between their beliefs and actions
3) People enjoy a state of self-actualization when they act in accordance with their beliefs
This is why, in 1987, a brilliant psychologist from New York University published an article called, “Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Effect”. It’s very complicated, but basically, he introduces a third component to the Carl Rogers congruence paradigm, saying there is not only the self-image and the ideal self, but also the ought self. This introduces a moral component i.e. that if we desire things we know we shouldn’t desire due to our sense of morality, it will also cause mental discomfort. (Higgins, 1987).
When people refuse to give more to charity in favor of indulging their pleasures, I typically ask them these questions:
Me: Do you believe that you ought to do unto others as you would have them do unto you?
Me: If you were starving to death, and someone had extra money to give you for food, would you want them to give it to you?
Me: Then the only way for you to hold both of these beliefs without contradiction is to give all of your extra money to the poor.
Anyone who believes both of these things and does not give all of their money to the poor will exist in a state of cognitive dissonance. One in a state of cognitive dissonance cannot be congruent, and therefore, cannot achieve self-actualization, and therefore cannot be truly happy.
If someone believes in the Golden Rule and does not give all of their extra money to the poor, they will not be fully happy or fully moral.
I personally am deeply troubled at the sight of any money spent on things that are not absolutely necessary. If I were living in a mansion and driving a fancy car, I would hate my life. This is, of course, the same sentiment that people like Mother Theresa and Gandhi had. But not everyone is like this. Some people are very wealthy and, although not completely happy, are basically alright with their life. So, what’s the difference?
Well, as cognitive dissonance theory dictates, the strength of contradicting beliefs or actions determines the severity of mental discomfort that results. But many people’s desired self is more important to them than their ought self. To become a more moral person, one must change their desired self to be more congruent with their ought self. That will serve to reduce the dissonance and thus the mental discomfort. Morality is constant, and does not change, so it will not work to try to change morality to fit your desires.
This is why a “sponsor child” commercial may make you have a stronger altruist belief, and thus cause you to donate to reduce the mental discomfort you feel at the disparity between their poverty and your abundance. Rich people are simply people who do not have the necessary empathy to give their money away to the poor. If they had very strong empathy, living in abundance would cause them severe mental discomfort.
And that’s what the Golden Rule really is: an appeal to empathy. If you are doing to others what you want them to do to you, you are forced to consider: “what do others want me to do to them?”. Well, I can tell you right now what 800 million malnourished people would like: you to sell all of your superfluous possessions and provide food for them. But if you lack the necessary empathy, you will not do so.
I’m guessing not a single person reading this will do that. Jesus himself told the rich young ruler to do that, and he didn’t, even on direct command from Jesus! And the fact is, if we are to abide by Jesus’ teaching about the Golden Rule, we also are being asked to do that. And if you really believe it, you will feel mental discomfort at any frivolous purchase you make, and any hoarding of excess wealth.
In every aspect of life, if we are to truly believe in the Golden Rule, we will feel severe mental discomfort at anything that is harmful to another person. But the magnitude of mental discomfort we feel at doing something incongruent is equal to the amount of happiness we feel at doing something congruent. Someone who hates abortion, for example, becomes very happy when they write a letter to their government or deliver a speech against it. Someone who hates cigarettes will become very happy when they volunteer for an anti-smoking campaign.
On the flip side, consider what you love! Someone who loves basketball will become very happy when they make the college team. Someone who loves singing will become very happy when they are asked to perform a song for a large group of people.
Now, let’s apply this to morality. If you hate evil, it will cause you great sadness to partake in it. If you love goodness, it will cause you great happiness to partake in it. That’s the concept of God in Christianity; a being that hates evil and loves goodness. It is by becoming more like God that we are able to also hate evil and love goodness. And when we hate evil and love goodness, we will become sad when we sin, and happy when we follow the commandments. It says in Mosiah 2:41:
“I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness.”
Perfect morality and perfect happiness is also the concept of heaven. In heaven, there is no more sin, and no more sorrow. Happiness and morality are fulfilled to their full extent. And remember when I said that morality is a four-part process that goes: truth, justice, law, behavior? That is what Mormonism is. God is truth, and he brings justice to the earth through establishing commandments to guide our behavior. It is when we abide by this truth, through the “middle man” of commandments, that we are able to live truly happy and moral lives.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
While it is often said that happiness and morality are mutually exclusive, I believe the two are inseparable. True happiness is not merely physical pleasure, but rather a sustained feeling of peace and joy that inspires one to want to live life to the fullest. True morality is not merely a set of rules to restrict us, but rather a representation of truth so that we can live in accordance with it.
It is when we align our lives with moral truth that we can become truly happy.
Treating others as we would want to be treated has shown up within nearly every religion, great moral philosophers, and in the hearts and minds of common people throughout all of human history. I believe the reason is as Paul said to the Romans: “the law is written on our hearts.” (Romans 2:15). We have a natural inclination towards empathy, and we will always exist in a state of disharmony if we do not live into that inclination.
As it says in 2 Nephi 2:13, “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness, there be no happiness.”
I am thankful that absolute, transcendent morality exists so that we may live righteously and attain happiness.
Burns, J.H. (2005). Happiness and Utility: Jeremy Bentham’s Equation. University College London. 17(1). DOI: 10.1017/S0953820804001396
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
Higgins, T. (1987). Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Effect. Psychological Review. 94(3), p. 319-340. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20160304074101/http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/higgins/papers/HIGGINS%3DPSYCH%20REVIEW%201987.pdf
Kant, I. (1785). The Groundwork of Metaphysical Morals.
McLeod, S. (2014). Carl Rogers. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/carl-rogers.html
Recco, G., Sanday, E. (2013). Plato’s Laws: Force and Truth in Politics. Indiana University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=IYib4oSIvaQC&pg=PT138&lpg=PT138&dq=everyone+wants+the+law+to+apply+to+others&source=bl&ots=D1RIBQkx18&sig=dU0WVREpWcpSMZzP5bS4XSHpv60&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi908W96rjZAhVCzlQKHbc-DiUQ6AEIczAI#v=onepage&q=everyone%20wants%20the%20law%20to%20apply%20to%20others&f=false