Two Unhappy Lives

The Greek statesman and poet Solon, who lived in the sixth century BC, said “count no man happy until he be dead”.  His thought seems to have been that a person’s luck can change at any time.  Aristotle went further.  He believed that things can happen after one’s death to affect whether one is happy.

Initially, that seems an odd idea.  Because the modern conception of happiness is that it is purely a subjective state. 

But compare two lives, recently in the news.  They concern two men – a few years ago both would have been regarded by most people as having lived highly successful, even exemplary lives.

Jimmy Savile – for non-Brits reading this – was a famous radio DJ and charity fund raiser, widely seen as a loveable eccentric.  Formerly, the cliché to describe him would be ‘national institution’.  Lance Armstrong had smashed cycling records, and his remarkable sporting accomplishments were combined with a compelling human interest story: he’d come back to cycling after recovering from cancer.

Now the reputations of both men are shot:  Armstrong’s for drug-doping, Savile’s following numerous allegations of pedophilia.  There’s this distinction.  Sir Jimmy Savile died in his bed before the ongoing stories about him emerged and would have believed that his place as a darling of the nation was secure.  Armstrong has lived to experience his character and actions being publicly exposed.  Savile never felt that sense of humiliation.

If we were to judge their lives at this moment, we would say that Savile, in an important respect, lived the happier life – he had none of the anguish and tortured shame that accompanies public disgrace.  But Aristotle surely had a point.  A life is not purely to be weighed up by the quality of its subjective experience.  Savile’s guilt – if, as seems highly probable, he was guilty – disfigured his life (as well, of course, as the lives of his victims), and this would have been the case had his crimes never been discovered.  But how one is regarded, one’s standing among family, friends and the wider community, is also a component in the good life.  He doesn’t know it, but Savile’s name is now mud.

So however contented Savile felt throughout his lifetime, that’s one reason why we can judge that, in fact, he lived an unhappy life.

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8 Responses to Two Unhappy Lives

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    There is something compelling about saying that Savile, though dead, is worse off due to the destruction of his reputation. But how do you avoid the familiar puzzles of death and posthumous harms, especially when it comes to determining happiness? Without some sort of religious or supernatural assumptions, it seems that Savile no longer exists. So, how does the bad reputation harm him? It can’t do so now – there is no Savile around to be harmed. And it is odd to suggest it harms Savile when he lived; this suggests you can indeed cause changes to well-being in the past, a dubious form of philosophical time travel.

    Still, I’m sympathetic to the notion of secular posthumous harms. Here’s one potential solution: Savile (or some part of Savile, or some form of Savile) still exists, insofar as he is still remembered. This is to wrap up a person’s identity, in part, in external facts – in this case, in a person’s reputation. Even when a person dies, one could say that a part of them lives on through the memories and thoughts of others. So, when the accusations surface, Savile is indeed harmed (justifiably so, if the accusations are accurate) because his still-existent reputation (all that is left of him) is maligned. Something similar was suggested by Masaki Ichinose in his 2010 Uehiro lectures, and I think there might be something to that.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    It all depends what is meant by «happiness». I’m not at all sure that Aristotle’s concept is the same as our current one (as you point out, Dave).
    If the meaning of «happiness» is living a good life, then it seems that what we know posthumously about someone’s life can change our view of whether the actor did in fact live happily.

    If we assume (but I’m aware that this is a BIG assumption) that our real satisfaction comes from leading a good life, then it appears logical to conclude that Savile died unsatisfied, and thus lived an unhappy life – assuming for the sake of argument that all the allegations are true.
    I’m not at all sure that this has anything to do with harm to one’s reputation, which would suggest that others’ opinions count more in moral judgement than one’s own internal philosophy.

    But therein lies the whole debate between consequentialists and virtue ethics……

  • David Edmonds says:

    Hi Owen and Anthony

    Thanks for your comments. Our understanding of the concept ‘happiness’ has changed over the centuries. But, I’m not sure about use of the word ‘satisfaction’, which again sounds like it is wrapped up with subjectivity. A serial, undiscovered pedophile, may be extremely satisfied.

    But you both help me solve a puzzle. I think that how one is regarded by friends and family is a component of the good life. Compare Person A who believes he has friends, but whose ‘friends’ don’t actually like him, with Person B who has real friends. Person A, I want to say, has the better life, though they might be equally subjectively happy.

    Now, where does reputation come in? Person C retains a posthumous good reputation, let’s say, and Person D develops a bad reputation, though they were equally subjectively happy. But let’s also say that Person D’s bad reputation is unjustifiably bad: for example, Person D is wrongly accused of crimes. She is accused of doing things she never did.

    We can’t say Person D led a worse life because she did worse things…she didn’t. We can’t say Person D was subjectively unhappier than Person C…she wasn’t. And yet I don’t want to develop a bad reputation after I’ve died. Owen provides an explanation for why reputation per se, even an unjustified reputation, matters.

    • George (a different George) says:

      Methinks you have a typo there: “Compare Person A who believes he has friends, but whose ‘friends’ don’t actually like him, with Person B who has real friends. Person A, I want to say, has the better life, though they might be equally subjectively happy.” It would seem that you meant that Person _B_ has the better life even though both are equally subjectively happy.

      So about happiness:

      The core definition today refers to a subjective state experienced by an individual. This aspect is necessary to the definition: one can’t talk about “happiness” in any way that excludes it entirely, and to my mind, attempting to use the word “happiness” in a manner that excludes the subjective state of the individual is wholly incorrect.

      Thus the question hinges on whether or not some aspect of consciousness or mind survives the death of the brain: what psi researchers call “survival (of bodily death by the mind)” and what religion calls “the hereafter.”

      If there is a hereafter, and it in any way measures up to the claims made for it by the world’s religions, then Savile is at this point a most unhappy soul. In the long-term view of things he will suffer for his evil deeds and unrepentant attitude far more than Armstrong will for his.

      If there is not a hereafter, then Savile has altogether ceased to exist, and he got away with having a jolly life indeed. Armstrong will have suffered mightily for his eventual confessions, reluctant though they may have been. Savile will have had in total a happier life than Armstrong, a conclusion that most sane people will find highly distasteful.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    And if C’s posthumous reputation is built on lies (that never become public)..?

    • David Edmonds says:

      hmmm: good question Anthony. I think reputation in and of itself matters. I’m not sure I want to insist on ‘justified reputation’.

  • Davide says:

    (been following this blog for a while, this is my first comment as I usually don’t have much to disagree with and I found the post particularly inspiring).
    Isn’t believing that a bad person MUST necessarily be unhappy or unsatisfied in some way a textbook case of the just-world fallacy though?
    Although I suspect some utilitarians would be willing to call it a noble(the noblest, even?) lie.
    Which reminds me that Aristotles was, after all, still Plato’s pupil…

    I also wonder if you would reverse your argument for someone who was widely reviled and disliked in life though no fault of their own(and suffered from it)but somehow became popular postdeath – I’m sure you can think of good examples. Would you then consider them retroactively happy?

    Definetely wary of the idea that having a legacy makes one immortal in some way.
    I can see why it’s attractive – and definetely very common through history – but again, it sounds to me like wishful thinking.

    As for not wishing to have a bad reputation after death, I understand how that would be quite a common feeling – a natural reaction, if you will – like not wishing to have one’s body “desecrated” after death, but I don’t see how that makes it ethically relevant.

    (This of course all assumes that death is truly the end. I don’t want to risk going OT, but I I can definetely think of afterlife beliefs in which your postdeath reputation should be very relevant to you. Again, likely not what we are discussing about here.)

  • George says:

    “Even if the good or evil is not so weak and unimportant, still its importance and character are not enough to make people happy who are not already happy, or to take away the blessedness of those who are happy. And so when friends do well, and likewise when they do badly, it appears to contribute something to the dead, but of a character and size that neither makes happy people not happy nor anything of this sort” – Nicomachean Ethics (Irwin trans.) 1101b2-7

    A few points about what Aristotle might have thought:
    -Neither of these two are eudaimon, they both live base lives full of lies and evil.
    -In any case, things that happen after you die can’t make you ‘switch’ from flourishing to not.
    -His point is specifically about bad things happening to those close to you, not to one’s reputation.

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