8. Positive Psychology and Morality
A fundamental idea in Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, is that positive psychologists study “causal networks” composed of attitudes, emotions, traits, and accomplishments. Because the various parts of a causal network reinforce each other, such networks tend to persist over time; they are “homeostatic property clusters.” According to Bishop, empirical research conducted by positive psychologists demonstrates that causal networks are a real feature of human psychology; causal networks would exist whether psychologists study them or not. Positive psychology is the study of positive causal networks (PCNs).
What makes a positive causal network positive? At one point in his book (96-98), Bishop says “negative causal networks” may also exist, and that a complete theory of psychology ought to teach us how to recognize and escape negative networks (e.g. cycles of depression or obsessive compulsions) just as the complete theory would teach us how to recognize and promote positive networks. Bishop says little about negative psychology—the “theory of ill-being”—because his task is to propose a theory of well-being. He does, however, recognize that it is crucial to his theory to distinguish positive causal networks from negative ones. Bishop says:
...among all the causal networks (i.e. homeostatic property clusters of emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments) in the world, the positive ones are those that feel good, that bring about states that feel good, and that are valued by the person or her culture. (41, emphases added)
Bishop knows full well that philosophers will take him to task here. That a person or culture values a state does not mean that state is valuable, they will way. That a state feels good and leads to states that feel good does not imply well-being, they will say. Bishop faces this criticism head-on. He imagines “Josef,” a
… wicked, sadistic man with a robust PCN. He instantiates a causal network involving feelings, attitudes, traits, and interventions in the world that are ‘successful’ in the sense that they consist of positive experiences for Josef and are valued by Josef and his culture. This seems to be a real possibility, particularly in sick societies (think Mengele). (187-188)
A moralized view of human well-being, Bishop says, would deny that Josef leads a good life. This is a feature of what Bishop calls “consilience” views of well-being; on any consilience view, virtue and well-being converge. Bishop points to Aristotle’s ethics as a prime example of a consilience theory, but there are many other important philosophers who held such a view. For example, Epicurus asserted that virtuous living had to be pleasant and that without virtue one could not have pleasure. Disagreeing with Epicurus, Kant recognized that goodness and happiness do not always converge in this life, and for that reason he proposed that rational persons might believe in an afterlife and a moral God who could guarantee that goodness and happiness would coalesce in the next life. Kant was as convinced as Epicurus that goodness and happiness should converge.
But there are problems with moralized views of well-being, Bishop says. First, there are a great many notions of the good life on offer, and they disagree significantly about components of the good life. More importantly for his project, Bishop says that moralized views of the good life will systematically exclude empirical evidence from positive psychology. We should seek theories of human well-being that are scientifically adequate, and one feature of scientific adequacy is that a theory accommodates empirical evidence.
An illustration will help. Consider the debate between vegetarians and carnivores. For many people, deciding whether to eat meat is a purely instrumental matter: will a diet containing meat help them reach their life goals (e.g. health, weight control) as well as a vegetarian diet? However, for other people the decision about eating meat is an important moral decision. Some vegetarians argue that it is morally blameworthy for any person (or for most persons) to eat animal flesh, while carnivores reject that conclusion. It seems that a moralized view of well-being has to take some position on this question. Either eating animal flesh is immoral, or it is permissible (or permissible in some circumstances, in the past or in certain cultures). Bishop’s first objection to moralized views of the good life is that such views require that we resolve such debates before we can study well-being. Bishop’s second, and more important, objection is that whichever side we take in regard to eating animal flesh, we will end up ignoring empirical evidence. After all, there could be (in this case, there actually is) (1) empirical evidence that vegetarianism can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that vegetarian practice leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good, and (2) empirical evidence that eating meat can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that meat-eating leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good. Vegetarians sometimes point with glee to empirical evidence suggesting that vegetarianism is “good for you” in one way or another; just as often meat-eaters emphasize evidence that moderate meat consumption is also “good for you” and pleasurable. Both sides like to use evidence (readily available) to show that their view promotes well-being. Bishop’s point is that both are right. Therefore we should conclude that well-being is multiply-realizable. A scientific approach to positive psychology will be inclusive, Bishop says. Therefore, Bishop rejects moralized views of human well-being.
This does not mean that Bishop proposes a revolution in our moral thinking. After all, “Josef” really is a wicked human being. “It’s just a sobering fact about our world that bad people can have well-being.” (188)
Bishop says that well-being, studied inclusively according to the network theory, is an objective feature of human lives, and it is objectively valuable. (211) Individuals, organizations, and governments can legitimately weigh factors of well-being when making decisions. Well-being is not the only factor in making decisions, Bishop says. An individual may sacrifice some of his well-being in order to keep a promise or promote the well-being of others. An organization or government might spurn a policy that promised to promote the well-being of many if it were unjust or violated the rights of a few. (211)
Most people like to think, with Aristotle or Epicurus, that goodness and happiness go together. Or, like Kant, they think that goodness and happiness ought to go together. Bishop challenges this predilection. Well-being can be empirically studied, he argues. We ought to accept what the research shows us. If it shows us—and it does—that well-being can be achieved without goodness, we need to get used to that fact.
To this point, I have merely explained Bishop’s claims. The next step is to ask: So what? What are the implications if Bishop’s theory if it is right? I will turn to that question in my next chapter.