DRMacIver's Notebook

The problem of Susan

The problem of Susan

Up front warning: I increasingly hate Julia Annas’s account of happiness and every post that is about this subject will likely be very cranky. This is one such post.

From Intelligent Virtue, Page 141, we have the following example:

Susan thinks of her life as a happy one; she is married with children, and all is well except that her husband is frequently away on business. She discovers that in fact these absences were spent with a second family, and that he has divided his time between the two families for some years. Uncontroversially, Susan evaluated her life positively before the discovery, and no longer did so after the discovery. The question is: before the discovery, was her life happy or not?

I asked about this on Twitter. At present most people say yes, a couple of people make the subjective/objective happiness distinction that Annas is talking about in context.

A couple of people point out that it’s likely that she wasn’t happy, because probably someone living a life like that is not actually experiencing a very good life, and many low grade unhappinesses will probably be clarified and recontextualised in the light of the revelation. It’s also possible she was engaged in self-deception to maintain a belief that she was happy. “Sure, there are a few problems, but can’t complain you know?”.

I think this is all true, but I’m happy to postulate that Susan could in principle have been genuinely happy with her life, even if it doesn’t seem very likely. Likely that happiness came from other sources than her husband, but that’s fine.

None of this touches on my actual complaint with this example, which a few other people also shared, which is that it’s obviously a category error, the question doesn’t actually make sense.

Moreover, it’s clearly a motivated category error, one that only makes sense through conflating two distinct things that the author is committed to conflating in order to support her broader thesis.

Was Susan’s life happy or not? No, it’s a life. Happy is not a things life can be, any more than physics can be happy. “Happy” is an emotional evaluation, and lives are not things with emotions. I understand that when people say “Did they have a happy life?” that is normal colloquial English that means something more like “Were they happy with their life?” but when you are trying to make a precise statement on the nature of happiness there is absolutely no excuse for this sort of ambiguity which blurs precisely the distinction you are trying to make.

It’s possible that I’m incorrectly translating the intent of this, but if so I think that makes it worse rather than better, because up to this point we have been talking about people seeking their own happiness, and if we mean something different from their own happiness by “having a happy life”, why is this the question we’re asking?

The questions I believe should be and are not being asked here are:

And the only reason to blur the boundary between these very different questions is if you are committed to an unsupportable notion that happiness is the sole end of life, and to conflating the notion of “happy life” with “good life”, in order to make them look like the same question.

The following further unasked questions are also particularly loud:

Asking these questions probably results in a fairly consistent clustering around “Susan was happy”, “Susan would have chosen to know” (certainly this is my answer), which is a problem if you are committed to the position that people’s driving goal is happiness

If positive evaluation of your life is what happiness is, then Susan had a happy life until the discovery. But this runs into the problem that we are also inclined to say that after the discovery Susan discovered that her life never was a happy one; she was deceived into thinking that it was.

Another presumptious we. I do not think it makes sense to say that she was deceived into believing her life was a happy one. She was deceived as to the nature of her life, and also she was happy.