Justice and Happiness

Love is justice, justice is love. | Joseph Fletcher

Though I am optimistic about the difference we could make in the lives of children by focusing on empowering their pursuit of happiness, the path to this difference admittedly leads through quite challenging terrain. Awareness of the link between thoughts and feelings is just the beginning of the journey that leads to the ability to feel as one chooses. Among the realizations along the way to this ability is that feelings are responses to the judgments our thoughts entail. Thoughts reflect the symbolic meanings we bestow on aspects of experience, meanings derived from judgments at some level of consciousness. Mastery of our feelings thus confronts the formidable challenge of mastering our judgments.

The challenge is formidable partly because our judgments seem like automatic responses to perception. We are constantly judging aspects of experience. Usually we are not consciously aware of the beliefs and attitudes from which they arise; they seem visceral. But there are ways to gain some measure of control over the negative judgments that darken our affective experiences. I suggested awareness of feelings, mindfulness, and perspective in Educating Angels. Sizable libraries of self-help books offer other methods to escape the deleterious effects of our routine judgments about spouses, children, colleagues, competitors, and circumstances.

But judgments are often protected from attempts to avoid or detoxify them by the strong tendency to rationalize them in terms of right. When our sense of what is right enters the domain of what we consider morally and ethically obligatory, we venture into the affective if not the conceptual domain of justice. Justice is the concept most commonly invoked to render judgments matters of duty. We use the concept of justice to sanction and thereby fortify and defend judgments.

For example, when we or others for whom we have sympathy are unduly denied a raise or cheated in a business deal, our anger is deemed not only justified but required by what we view as an unwarranted, objective injury. Judgment of abuse, faithlessness, selfish disregard, and all manner of perfidy is thought morally obligatory. We believe judgment of evil acts that visit bodily harm on others is especially imperative. To refrain from judging sins or forgiving them would be tantamount to condoning them in the eyes of many. If there are affective costs to judgment, some will insist they must be borne, for to refrain from condemning the perpetrators of harmful acts would weaken the fences on harmful conduct, would be unfair to victims, and would cast one’s commitment to justice in doubt.

Yet when we place our judgments within the protected perimeter of what we pronounce matters of justice, we limit our willingness to examine, and therefore ameliorate, their considerable ill effects. If we would show the way to the mastery of judgment necessary to mastery of feeling, we must venture onto the hallowed ground of sanctified judgments with clear, assessing eyes focused within as well as without. We must give students the wherewithal to see judgment as a choice rather than an inescapable obligation by making them aware of reasonable alternatives.

Common understandings of morality are largely encompassed in a general understanding of justice. Aristotle observed that, in one sense of the word, justice “is not a part of virtue but the whole of virtue; its opposite, injustice, is not a part of vice but the whole of vice.”1 But he admitted this is not true of other senses of the word.

Mill agreed, distinguishing between moral prescriptions that involve presumption of rights, which he held to be the purview of justice, and those that do not, which he held to be the morality of “generosity or beneficence.” “Justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which some individual person can claim from us as his moral right. …Wherever there is right, the case is one of justice, and not of the virtue of beneficence…”2 The morality of “beneficence” is more generally concerned with wishing and treating others well, of heeding the golden rule not because it is a rule, but because it is a natural inclination of one’s heart. Such beneficence is not usually considered a matter of right: “No one has a right to our generosity or beneficence, because we are not morally bound to practice those virtues towards any given individual.”3

The subjective meanings of all concepts have their roots in the inclinations of the heart. Concepts, even concepts of the ideals to which we aspire, have no motivational power in and of themselves; we employ them to serve the desires of our hearts. Even when concepts are themselves targets of our affections, it is the desire for the feelings we believe the concepts inspire that is our true aim. In accordance with the affective theory of value, the underlying motive in all we pursue is the desire for a preferred feeling, a feeling that entails both our momentary determination and the experience of value. The value of our ideals therefore lies in what we expect them to contribute to our affective experience.

The motives that interest us in the concept of justice determine its subjective value and therefore its subjective purpose. We are therefore afforded deeper insight by considering our motives for invoking and pursuing justice and their affective consequences than by parsing the conceptual constructs devised to rationalize and govern our use of the concept. As Solomon sagely observes, “Justice…consists first of all of a constellation of feelings, which alone can provide the psychological soil in which our grand theories can take root.”4

One reason justice is such a compelling ideal is because it serves what Mill called a “powerful sentiment”:

We have seen that the two essential ingredients in the sentiment of justice are, the desire to punish a person who has done harm, and the knowledge or belief that there is some definite individual or individuals to whom harm has been done. Now it appears to me, that the desire to punish a person who has done harm to some individual is a spontaneous outgrowth from two sentiments, both in the highest degree natural, and which either are or resemble instincts; the impulse of self-defence, and the feeling of sympathy. … The sentiment of justice, in that one of its elements which consists of the desire to punish, is thus, I conceive, the natural feeling of retaliation or vengeance, rendered by intellect and sympathy applicable to those injuries, that is, to those hurts, which wound us through, or in common with, society at large.5

The desire for vengeance is undoubtedly a prime motive for invoking what is called retributive justice, which is concerned with the punishment of the perpetrators of crime in regard to law and of harming others without just cause in regard to general moral understandings. The desire can be provoked by any slight, real or imagined, or by frustrations blamed on others, so it is woven into the fabric of daily experience for most of us. Grievance and an attendant desire for vengeance can so pervade our lives, we may not even be consciously aware of being under their sway at times.

These feelings seem to hold a powerful appeal. People commonly invite and nurse grievances and angrily defend them against challenge. Perhaps we savor the prospect of satisfaction when retribution is exacted. After all, we seem to seek such satisfaction when we read books and watch movies with the expectation that the manufactured tension of evil deeds will be relieved when the bad guys get what they deserve in the end. It is a most lucrative motive for much of the entertainment industry. Some may see vengeance as a cause that gives them purpose. Some may have an addiction to anger. An attraction to anger might account for the popularity of commentators who specialize in expressing condemnation and stoking outrage.

As for Mill’s self defense thesis, grievance certainly serves the defense of our egos, whether or not it contributes to our welfare in a larger sense. To my mind, the deep insecurity engendered by the perceived vulnerabilities and insufficiencies of our ego image of self is the most plausible source of grievance and desire for revenge. I question whether these “sentiments” are instincts that developed due to evolutionary advantage as they inspire a great deal of individually and socially inexpedient behavior in terms of order, cooperation, and security. Those prone to them tend to reap the belligerence they sow.

My doubts about the utility of anger and desire for vengeance are not generally shared, though. Many who have given the matter due consideration point to at least some utility, usually in terms of defense. Whatever the case may be in terms of evolutionary or social utility, I am quite sure these feelings are inexpedient in terms of personal happiness. Though we are apparently drawn to grievance and desire for revenge at times, I doubt anyone capable of detached observation of thoughts and feelings would describe them as pleasant. They accompany perceived injury, so they largely consist of fear and anger. Grievance due to perceived injury is likely deeply rooted in fear. The perception of injury or threatened loss strengthens the sense of vulnerability that engenders fear.

Prospective loss may be anything we value, material or psychological. There are many dimensions to psychological loss. They include esteem, the emotional benefits of a relationship, cherished beliefs, and the fate of a cause. Identification with others or sympathy with them makes their loss ours in a psychological sense, and it heightens our sense of vulnerability. Identification with people and groups such as family, a sports team, and nation extends the perimeter of ego as well as sense of self, making threat or insult to members of the group seem a personal affront.

Placing offenders with presumed malign intent in our mental spotlight tends to magnify the perception of threat in our minds. What we dwell on generates associated thoughts and patterns of thought. Focus on threat tends to make it loom large in our minds. The fear engendered by grievance is therefore often deeper and more generalized than what seems objectively justified. This helps explain the many examples of the contagion of unreasonable fear when the headlines scream of a calamity with remote chance of affecting us or people we know except, perhaps, through the overzealous reactions of our government in responding to such fear.

A great deal has been written about the effects of fear. It is widely considered either a or the primary source of anger, so the effects of fear are thought to largely encompass the effects of anger as well. Anger is a means for dealing with fear. Initial fear usually transforms into anger, possibly as a means to mitigate its effects by projecting it. The causal relation between insecurity and anger is well known. And expressions of anger by others are also a source of fear. Fear and anger cause considerable tension in both mind and body. If one can manage to mute these feelings by means of detached observation for a moment, the ensuing relief from tension reveals their relative unpleasantness. Consciously experiencing this contrast is the beginning of the path to controlling it.

But relatively unpleasant tension is but one of the more observable aspects of a constellation of pernicious effects of fear and anger. They endanger physical and mental health according to a mountain of evidence. Whether or not they cause a contraction of spirit, as Thomas Aquinas argued, fear and anger bring a contraction of conscious focus and therefore awareness. Unfortunately, the narrowed focus accentuates the negative, creating feedback loops of thoughts of threat, vulnerability, grievance, and vengeance. For many, such thought patterns are compulsive; they are difficult to interrupt or contain. They become temporary imprisonments of the mind. For the obsessed and deeply depressed, they can prove lengthy prison terms in a dark dungeon of painful thoughts and perceptions.

Perceived grievance not only darkens one’s thoughts, it also greatly distorts them. While in its grip, it is difficult to see anything but the relatively repellent aspects of the target or targets of our grievance. So grows the enmity that can turn love into hatred and tear marriages, families, and friendships apart. Grievance tends to blind us to attractive traits and understandings that would normally win our sympathy. Our image of the antagonist is darker and more unidimensional than a neutral observer would think justified. We project malicious intent that justifies our own ill will and gives credence only to evidence that supports our case against the perpetrators of perceived injustice. The image of the feared and resented other easily becomes a caricature.

Psychologists consistently deal with this phenomenon in relationship counseling. The social consequences of the psychology of this enemy making are particularly pernicious. As Sam Keen illustrated in his book and subsequent documentary, Faces of the Enemy, when we turn others into evil caricatures in our minds, we dehumanize them to make them fitting targets for prejudice, hatred, persecution, and sometimes elimination.6 As a spectator to the many wars my country has fought in the past half century, I recall the willing participation of the media in hyping the evil nature of the enemy in the lead up to the wars in every case.

It is easy to conjure demons and monsters by sowing fear and anger. Actually it is easy to sow the seeds of enmity by engineering simple rivalry. In order to demonstrate the emotional roots of nationalism, I sometimes divide an international relations class into three groups named Blue, Green, and Orange. I then have each group write a list of ten reasons their group is the greatest, saying it is a competition. After a spokesperson of each group shares their list, usually accompanied by hoots and derision from members of competing groups, I have each group make up a list of ten reasons the other two groups are inferior. It is not uncommon to see flares of resentment during the sharing of such lists. I remind them at the end of the exercise that both feelings of enmity and solidarity are the result of pure imagination without objective cause. They were manufactured with the same basic techniques employed by some politicians. This is but a small example of how easy it is to conjure animosity, which all too easily becomes malice.

Politicians may justify unidimensional, dehumanizing portrayals of potential enemies as serving the greater good, but we should not downplay the consequences. One consequence is that the manufactured fear and anger are not readily controlled; they can all too easily become sustained filters to perception that can paint a sizable portion of humanity with the hues of enmity and diminished worth. This is evident in racial and ethnic prejudice, ideological and religious rivalries, and the callous views of criminals and other “undesirable elements” as unworthy of humane treatment. Less obvious is how seeing the world in hues of good and bad affects interpersonal relationships.

Fear and anger are not easily bracketed, and distrust of some can lead to suspicion of all. Grievance and enmity are easily transferred to new targets. You have probably noticed how you or others transfer anger to those around you, sometimes becoming snappish with anyone who offers the slightest provocation, or who just happens to be within earshot of venting. Some are completely seized by paranoia; most of us are possessed of at least a mild case of paranoia while under the sway of fear and anger. In a fundamental sense, thinking ill of others subjectively devalues them to some extent at least, whether or not it reaches the level of impugning their inherent worth as human beings, which is the meaning of dehumanizing. This devaluing has pervasive consequences, both social and personal.

The cognitive walls that separate self from others grow higher. Though shared fear and anger can beget common cause, these feelings tend to banish awareness of affection so long we are possessed by them. Over the years I have become increasingly aware of how easily conversations with colleagues can turn into virtual competitions of venting and recrimination. Complaints usually center on administrators, colleagues, campus politics, politics in general, and students. Too often venom directed at particular people surfaces.

I have noticed what might be called the camaraderie of shared grievance does not leave me with feelings of affection for my partners in complaint. Indeed, it would be unusual to feel anger and genuine affection at the same time; they tend to be mutually exclusive in my experience. And the venting itself seems to amplify rather than relieve the sense of grievance. The sharing tends to make me more sensitive to the prevalence of injustice by bringing fresh injuries to my awareness, compounded by the social pressure to embrace them as my own. Sometimes I walk away with the sense that malice and perfidy abound, though I have learned to dispel the gloom by recalling that my thoughts rather than an objective assessment of reality are the cause.

Though it cannot be decisively proven, it is plausible that at least some of our feelings toward others are projected feelings about ourselves as psychologists have claimed since Freud. That ill will toward others brings ill effects to our own hearts is certain. The first victim of wishing another ill is the one who wishes it. Adam Smith observed in his treatise on moral sentiments that,

Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind. There is, in the very feeling of those passions, something harsh, jarring, and convulsive, something that tears and distracts the breast, and is altogether destructive of that composure and tranquility of mind which is so necessary to happiness, and which is best promoted by the contrary passions of gratitude and love.7

Certainly hatred and anger preclude peace and expansive joy. If feelings of aversion are unavoidable consequences of judgments obliged by a sense or notion of justice, the pursuit of one may at least temporarily preclude the experience of the other.

Of course, the concept of justice, including retributive justice, is not employed solely at the urging of fear and anger in response to perceived injury. The concept is deemed both individually and socially useful in terms of related values. Retributive justice is thought a deterrent to crime and injury, for example. The prospect of retaliation is thought to inhibit personal affront.

All notions of justice have appeal to utility, as Bentham and Mill famously argued, and they held that the ultimate measure of utility is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If happiness is the motive for justice, Mill’s vengeful “sentiment of justice” must give way to Smith’s “social and benevolent affections.” In his defense of utilitarianism from the accusation of cold and superficial calculation, Mill highlighted the benevolence at the core of the doctrine:

In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes; so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being’s sentient existence.8

Mill implies that utilitarianism is both inspired and fulfilled by a motive of perfect benevolence toward each and all. According to Michael Sandel, “Mill saves utilitarianism from the charge that it reduces everything to a crude calculus of pleasure and pain, but only by invoking a moral ideal of human dignity and personality independent of utility itself.”9

I agree the ideal Mill invokes is independent of the calculus of social utility in the mind of those who express it, but believe there is considerable personal utility in benevolence in terms of affective experience. As I argued previously, it is most difficult to separate the affective fruits of benevolence from the attitude. Whether or not it is as compelling as the desire for vengeance, the desire for the wellbeing of others inspires most notions of justice to some degree. It is at the heart of the notion of restorative justice, for example, which aims at repairing damage to victims and rehabilitating offenders. This notion aims justice at mutual benefit and abjures punishment as revenge.

Some measure of benevolence born of compassion is also the implied motive for theories of distributive justice, which involves the just distribution of social values. John Rawls’ theory of justice, for example, is ostensibly motivated by the desire for fairness in the distribution of social goods. He abjures utilitarian calculus in postulating that “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override” and that “the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”10 Yet presumably the practical point of his theory is to advance the welfare of at least those most disadvantaged by prevailing circumstances.

Without reference to divine will, the security of rights is also ultimately a matter of utility. The aim of greater individual and social benefit can also be presumed for most of those who advocate the primacy and inviolability of rights, whether it is freedom alone or a more extended range of human rights they hold on high. As Mill observed, the concept of justice presumes rights, but few of those who proclaim the inviolability of freedom or property rights—the basis for distinctly liberal notions of justice—insist that these rights preclude consideration of consequences. Rather they believe insisting on the inviolability of rights serves the general welfare better than admitting to exceptions.

Yet, the originating benevolent intent usually falls victim to perceptions of fairness denied, rights violated, and obligations unmet, yielding grievance and a presumed moral obligation to resist such injustice and struggle to right its wrongs. In other words, the desire to do good unto others seems to set us up for frustration, anger, and conflict. It is often argued that condemnation for the sake of others is essential to morality. Solomon insists “A sense of justice requires engagement, not detachment. It requires a keen sense of what it is to be offended, not just an abstract sense of fairness.”11

So speak the adherents of every cause that flies the banner of justice. But if we are obliged to pronounce condemning judgment by the myriad causes that invoke justice, there is no moral avenue of escape from the unpleasant affective consequences of such judgment. Fortunately, the morality of benevolence does not inherently entail this dilemma.

Before looking deeper into the attributes of benevolent intent, we should acknowledge a range of normative satisfactions that arise more from fidelity to cherished sanctions than benevolence per se. Obedience to God’s commandments or those of acknowledged religious and secular authorities, to the law, and to social expectations has affective benefits for those who believe in their rightness. There is satisfaction in obedience, in performing traditional rituals, and in living in harmony with the expectations of a community. The expectation and rules of fairness result from the keen sense of the rightness of being fair that seems to run deep in our nature. Being fair as one understands it therefore yields both normative satisfaction and social approval.

The satisfaction of living in accordance with prevailing norms accords with the assumption that happiness is the product of virtue. Plato ascribed greater normative satisfaction to living within the limits prescribed by our individual nature than aspiring beyond these limits. For our own good as well as the good of our community, he argued, we should be content with a role in society commensurate with the talents nature bestowed on us.

Many find satisfaction in living in harmony with the requirements of nature in general. Those of a scholarly bent tend to find gratification in abiding by the dictates of reason. Philosophers cherish satisfaction derived from discovering symmetry and harmony in the rules of reason; scientists find pleasure in the traditions of science. Such satisfactions may not be all that different from those derived from performing religious rituals.

Whatever the strictures, they are endowed with normative qualities that inspire satisfaction in heeding them. The quality of rightness brings moral admonitions within the conceptual purview of justice. Such strictures often become entwined with the concept or even define it in the minds of many people. For them, justice includes fidelity to cherished commandments and moral guidelines, injustice is the violation of these strictures. Justice is invoked to highlight the goodness of the obedient and the perfidy of the disobedient. Heeding normative strictures may well serve the interests of others, but normative satisfactions often arise more from the heeding than the serving, thus this motive for invoking justice falls short of benevolence.

The satisfaction of abiding by cherished sanctions is diminished by the concurrent condemnation of those who do not abide. Condemning others for their disregard of strictures by no means avoids a sense of grievance and the fear and anger that attend it. Indeed, invoking justice to enhance the normative credentials of strictures positively invites judgment and its affective consequences. The satisfaction of obeying what one believes is God’s will, obeying the law as a normative imperative, practicing virtues as matters of personal integrity, or heeding tradition due to social sanction all too easily gives way to anger and resentment when God’s will, laws, virtues, traditions, or the rules of reason are flouted.

Such judgment is not reserved for others. Though normative satisfaction is experientially preferable to the fear and anger that give rise to the desire for vengeance, it comes with a price if it is a satisfaction of a need born of ego. The insufficiency of ego is insatiable; feeding it guarantees the return of the pangs of ego hunger. As previously observed, the satisfaction of heeding norms often lies in the comparative avoidance of guilt. Yet guilt lurks to punish the laxity of those who seek satisfaction in obedience to stricture, probably more cruelly than those who place less store in such fidelity. It may be that the greater the satisfaction, the greater the guilt from succumbing to temptation. Such is the treachery of the ego. Guilt is not the unavoidable price of goodness, though.

If we were all angels, it is said, we would have no need of laws and moral commandments; benevolent behavior would flow naturally from our angelic hearts. We need not presume we are angels to suspect that if a means exists to resolve the affective dilemma posed by the concept of justice, it lies in the depths of our hearts.
Mill’s distinction between the morality of justice, which requires the assertion and judgment of right, and the morality of beneficence is reasonable, but the solution to the affective dilemma requires extending the gravitas of justice into this farther realm of morality. We might thereby hope to discover a perspective on justice that does not necessitate the ills of condemnation.

Schopenhauer saw compassion as the prime moral sentiment and it is generally agreed that compassion is at least among the main motives for caring, beneficent behavior. The distress of not only our fellows but of other sentient beings often elicits sympathy at variance with calculated selfish interest. Perhaps it arises from an instinct developed through evolutionary advantage, or from the psychological identification of self with others, or from the subconscious recognition of the metaphysical unity of will and being that Schopenhauer posited.12

Whatever its source, compassion speaks to our propensity to “derive sorrow from the sorrow of others” as Adam Smith puts it, to feel emotional discomfort at the perception of the pain of others.13 As such, compassion is a motive of affective discomfort which, if acted upon, moves us to seek to alleviate the distress of others at least partly as a means to relieve the distress of our sympathy. Feeling the pain of others is painful.

Compassion thus moves us to serve the perceived wellbeing of those who suffer, but it by no means precludes condemnation when we believe they are the victims of callous or malicious perpetrators. When convinced of injustice, our compassion renders us the victims of such perpetrators in a sense, which incites our indignation and calls forth attending desire for vengeance. When we see or hear of people who are poor, hungry, disadvantaged, or abused, we may find some relief from our pangs of compassion by diverting them into righteous anger aimed at those we hold responsible for such suffering. Though its original aim is benevolent, the motive of compassion understood as shared suffering does not save us from the ills of condemning judgment.

Compassion so understood is probably an aspect of our natural empathy with others by which we tend to share their mirth and joy as well as their suffering, their “weal” as well as their “woe” in the translated words of Schopenhauer. We are easily affected by the expressed feelings of others. We are moved not only by their sorrow, but by the contagion of their laughter and smiles as well. But such natural sharing of feelings does not in itself provide a motive aside from the qualities of the feelings we share. We are moved to escape uncomfortable feelings and wish to retain those we find pleasant. Shared pain moves us to seek release while we would like to sustain shared joy.

Motives for benevolence are not exhausted, however, by the desire to do right unto others for the sake of doing right or the wish to relieve the shared pain of compassion. It may be the natural expression of something akin to the appreciate love I describe in the book that is uncontaminated by emotions associated with ego.

This is the pure love of the agape variety. First, it requires acceptance of what a person or other aspect of experience is. It is contradictory to claim love so understood for whom and what you do not accept. To say you accept some aspects of a person but not others by no means resolves the contradiction; the love so claimed is for preferred aspects of a person rather than love of the person as such. But love is obviously more than mere acceptance; it entails appreciation. An affective consequence of acceptance is the relative lack of tension, of peace. The experience of appreciation is the experience of valuing. It is the subjective bestowal of worth. The affective experience of valuing unmitigated by emotions associated with ego is joy. Such love is not only independent of judgment of the accusing variety, it precludes it. We must shed negative judgment to reap its rewards.

Such pure, nonjudgmental love may seem beyond the reach of the average mortal, including the followers of Christ who are expressly admonished to strive for it, but we all can experience the commensurate rewards of less perfect acceptance and appreciation. Moments of quiet enjoyment when our thoughts are relatively accepting and appreciative of the people and environment of current experience, or of recalled experiences, are moments of comparative lack of tension, broadened and brightened focus of awareness, absence of compulsive thoughts, and relief from perceived obligation to condemn and contend. Just as grievance incites negative thought patterns, acceptance and appreciation engage positive patterns of thought. Though simplistic, we might reasonably discern the general rule that negative thoughts about others entail negative affective consequences while positive thoughts entail the opposite.

There is justice of the reaping-what-one-sows variety, a sort of instant karma if you will, in reaping undesirable feelings for wishing ill and pleasant feelings for wishing well. This might be thought the retributive justice of the heart. Such justice automatically rewards benevolence and punishes vengeance. There is what I call a strategic golden rule widely understood as the prime motive for benevolence: Do good unto others because it is the best way to get them to do good unto you. Here we revise this rule: Not only do, but wish unto others what you would experience, for what you wish and do unto them determine the quality of what you feel.

This implies an immediate balancing in the accounting of the heart, however much the ego may despise an accounting that punishes what it pronounces the obligatory judgment of others’ sins. Yet there is an elegant perfection of balance in the justice of the heart as well as a potent motive for benevolence.

The higher aspirations for affective wellbeing—the higher aspirations for happiness—entail the acceptance and appreciation of others. If, as many contend on the basis of personal experience, the wish for the wellbeing of others is entailed in appreciating them, that it is a natural expression of appreciation, then we have found a source for benevolence beyond the insufficiency implied in the word motive. Nonetheless, the benefits of this state of mind provide a compelling motive to seek it. One reaps rewards in appreciating the worth of another and wishing them well whether they are victim or perpetrator, while one is denied these rewards and subjected to affective ills in condemning them. Wishing well, even when someone has violated the asserted rules of justice, serves the heart that wishes it.

The appreciation of love implies no obligation to judge and provides no cause for judgment. It does not posit a good that entails its opposite in contrast to prevailing notions of justice, where justice necessarily defines injustice; they are two sides of the same coin. Love so understood does not set qualifying conditions that determine whether appreciation should be given or withheld. Love so understood must be unconditional to be experienced.

The accounting of the heart affords an alternative perspective on distributive justice. In keeping with the affective theory of value, ultimate value exists in feelings. The true value of all goods to be distributed therefore lies in their contribution to the experience of preferred feelings. They have no value aside from this. Feelings have a peculiar attribute the goods of the world do not possess. The “giver” does not lose in the “giving” of feelings for others. The more we wish another ill, the greater the affective ill our malice inflicts on us. The more we appreciate, the greater our joy.

The gain of the “receiver” of appreciation may seem intangible, but in truth the affective gain of the receiver of worldly goods is intangible as well. The perceived joy of the receiver enhances rather than diminishes our own joy; the “supply” grows with the giving. There is no sacrifice involved in terms of affective value, no balancing of gain with loss. And there are no inherent limits to how much one can give or to the number of beneficiaries. In the rule that one must receive as one gives, there is a fairness and equality in the accounting of the goods of the heart that is impossible to realize in the accounting of the goods of the world.

This notion of justice as nonjudgmental appreciation has deep roots. It is the explicit heart of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is admonished in the Quran. It is advised in the ancient Upanishads of the Hindus. It is held to be both a requirement and an expression of enlightenment by Buddhists. It is reflected in both Eastern and Western systems of ethics. It can be found in core teachings of all modern religions and reasoned humanistic philosophies.

Joseph Fletcher expounded a Christian-based “situation ethics” based on an understanding of love similar to the one presented here. He explained that

Christian situation ethics has only one norm or principle or law (call it what you will) that is binding and unexceptionable, always good and right regardless of the circumstances. That is “love”—the agape of the summary commandment to love God and the neighbor. Everything else without exception, all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love in any situation. … Love is for people, not for principles; i.e., it is personal—and therefore when the impersonal universal conflicts with the personal particular, the latter prevails in situation ethics.14

In regard to the relation between love and justice, Fletcher asks

How are we to love justice, how are we to be just about love, how are love and justice related? If to love is to seek the neighbor’s welfare, and justice is being fair as between neighbors, then how do we put these two things together in our acts, in the situation? The answer is that in the Christian ethic the twain become one.15

Though I do believe love understood as unconditional appreciation has a plausible claim to being the foundation of morality, I shall leave it undefended at present. Rather I offer what I shall henceforth call the angel notion of justice for two reasons. First, I offer it as an alternative to notions of justice that imply an obligation to condemn in order to undergird a student’s decision to minimize such judgment should they so choose in light of their enhanced awareness of the affective consequences. Unless they see a reasonable defense against social pressures to condemn, they may not be able to consider it a reasonable choice.

Second, I wish to propose a way we might try to connect the higher aspirations of the heart with a fundamental moral premise of religions and humanistic philosophies and what I believe is an essential premise of liberal democracy: inherent human worth. To respect such worth is the core virtue of democratic citizenship, the virtue on which all others are founded. I believe it is incumbent on institutions of liberal education to seek to ground this virtue in the hearts of students as a requisite of both the farther reaches of happiness and of the future health of liberal social order. To the degree we might succeed in this, the better we would serve the higher affective aspirations of each child and the better we would serve the more benevolent purposes for which we commonly invoke the concept of justice.

The angel notion of justice offers a conceptual blueprint of the connection between heart and respect for human worth by pointing to the rewards of going beyond conceptual respect to the actual experience of appreciating the worth of others, of bestowing worth through our appreciation. The notion favors the effort to strengthen the motives for respect and thereby inspire greater commitment to seeing it honored.

Yet in order for the angel notion to qualify as a plausible alternative to other notions of justice, we must meet the objection that it would prove insufficient to the causes of social justice and security. How would it move us to avert what harm we may, to serve the needy it is in our power to serve, and to lend our aid to efforts to improve the lot of at least some portion of humanity? How would it address the practical concerns for which we employ the concept of justice and harness the passions of judgment? Appreciation may involve the wish to share the joy it entails, but joy does not focus on pain, therefore it is unlikely to fuel the desire to alleviate shared pain. And how can we hope to deter those who would harm us and others without relying on fear? Do we not depend on fear to inspire our wariness and fuel our resistance, and on inspiring fear in the potential perpetrator to deter them?

Let us approach these questions with a narrow example that reflects a common experience. Consider the just treatment of someone you deeply love. For the sake of example, let it be a daughter. Though you may believe it necessary to punish her transgressions for her own good or the protection of yourself and others, love uncontaminated by the emotions of ego would never move you to inflict pain for the sake of vengeance, for the sake of balancing the scales of justice. The wish for her greater good, her happiness, would guide even your punishments, which would not exceed what you deem necessary to the aim of preventing future transgressions. Her “mistakes” would not diminish her worth in your eyes or curb your desire for her happiness. Love would not allow you to magnify her imperfections at the expense of your deeper sense of her worth.

You need not take on the burdens of her cares and suffering to be nonetheless sensitive to them and gladly seek to relieve them. What you feel you could prudently give her for the sake of her happiness, you would enjoy giving. The aim of justice in regard to your daughter would have the same aim as love: her happiness. And in the accounting of the heart, you thereby serve your own happiness as well.

Such is the justice we deem meet for those for whom we hold special affection. Note that Mill’s vengeful “sentiment of justice” need play no role in it. The appreciation of love affords no opening for fear and anger. It is not love so understood we experience when we are under the influence of these feelings. It does not depart from benevolent intent in seeing the requirements of justice in anything but the good of the beloved “perpetrator” as well as the victims of her acts. It does not accord rules a value beyond their contribution to this good; it does not render them an end in themselves.

The justice of love does not impugn the worth of loved ones by pronouncing them deserving of pain. It does not imply that their worth lies in what they do rather than what and who they are, or that their worth is conditional. It does not condemn them to be henceforth indelibly branded with the mark of sin. In other words, this justice neither obliges nor gives grounds for condemning judgment and its attendant ills.

I know this seems a rather high standard to apply to those beyond our circle of special affection. It implies a Christ-like ability to love those most would consider enemies as well as those most would see as annoying neighbors. But there are more earthly examples in Gandhi and Martin Luther King who emphasized love and abjured condemnation and hatred to advance causes that inspired—and changed—the hearts of many millions. There are thousands of less famous examples of those who served causes without condemning those who opposed them even in the face of vitriol and abuse. The lack of judgment arguably strengthened rather than weakened their causes. Lack of judgment can lower psychological defenses, open the door to sincere communication, and move people to examine their motives. It speaks to a higher image of self than the condemning visage we see in the mirror of honest self reflection.

Movements that avoid impugning the moral worth of opponents and remain passive in their resistance can seem woefully weak in the face of the anger and aggression at first. But they have inspired the one change capable of sustaining the gains of social progress: a change of heart. Martin Luther King, for example, left a legacy of progressive change far beyond anything militancy did or could achieve. Militancy provokes fear and justifies enmity that undermines the sustainability of every step forward. King’s message bade us look within for our better selves, which he seemed confident we would find. And his confidence, I believe, proved largely justified.

Our acceptance and appreciation of those around us has more profound effect than putting our shoulders to the wheels of causes. I have experienced and often heard how the accepting and appreciating attitude of one person can change a small social environment, a change that can ripple far beyond its source. Accepting and appreciating a person can be a greater gift than any other we might bestow. Much of what we do in life is motivated by the desire to gain this from others in the belief it is necessary to our happiness. It is no small matter to find it freely given.

Whether due to the natural contagion of feelings or the awakening or unblocking of the love that ever bides within us, we tend to respond in kind. The response may not be as quick and sure as fear and anger due to our wariness and emotional defenses, but love understood as acceptance and appreciation feeds the deepest yearning of our hearts while feelings of aversion betray it. People tend to gladly respond to such love when they come to believe it is sincere.

There may be no practical alternative to relying on fear of punishment to deter criminal behavior, but the utility of punishing for revenge is worthy of great doubt. It hardens and distresses the hearts of both criminals and those who would visit revenge on them. Future security is better served by softening their hearts with our acceptance and appreciation of their inherent worth. I suspect that in all dimensions of social utility, heeding the angel notion of justice would eventually prove superior in its practical results.

But it is not my purpose here to mount a defense this speculation. My present purpose is to suggest that presenting the notion to students as an alternative and providing them the experience of its benefits might show them a more propitious path to happiness and foster the virtue of respect for inherent human worth. I believe each student personally stands to benefit, and this is reason enough to suggest the notion. Still, I harbor some hope that an understanding of justice more aligned with the aspirations of the heart would benefit future generations as a whole.

I dream of a far friendlier social climate and more constrained use of power than presently prevails. The realization of this dream will require more than a less judgmental understanding of justice, of course. Along the path to this vision, future generations must learn to consider all their cherished ideals and values in the light cast by their hearts.


1. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics” in Aristotle: On Man in the Universe (Roslyn, N.Y.: Walter J. Black, 1943) p. 157.
2. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Classics-Unbound, Kindle edition, 2008, acquired May 27, 2008 from Amazon.com, Location 810.
3. Ibid. Location 812.
4. Robert C. Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995) p. 30.
5. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Location 820.
6. Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991).
7. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Evergreen Review, Kindle edition, 2008, acquired September 1, 2008 from Amazon.com. Location 683.
8. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Location 270.
9. Michael J. Sandel, Justice, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Kindle edition, 2009, acquired November 26, 2009 from Amazon.com. Location 1029.
10. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) pp. 3-4.
11. Robert C. Solomon, A Passion for Justice, pp. 42-3.
12. See Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1998).
13. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Location 25.
14. Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966) pp. 30-31.
15. Ibid, p. 88.

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Synopsis of Educating Angels

What sort of education would be worthy of angels? I argue it would be an education focused on helping them achieve their deepest aspiration: happiness. Contemporary education ignores the question of children’s happiness. Schools aren’t in the happiness business. For the most part, they’re in the preparing-workers business. Children are treated more as means to economic ends than as ends in themselves in today’s schools.

I don’t think this moral lapse is due to not caring enough about our children. It has more to do with people being unaware that schools could do far more than they do to improve kids’ chances for realizing happiness. If parents understood schools could do more for the happiness of their children, I believe they would insist on it.

Educating Angels gives a practical understanding of happiness as a feeling you want to keep feeling and defines the pursuit of happiness as the steps you take to feel better than you do at present. Seen in this light, empowering students’ lifelong pursuit of happiness involves helping them gain the insights and skills that allow them to feel as they choose from moment to moment as well as in the long-term. The book showcases classroom-tested methods that have proven quite effective in helping kids feel better. And also behave better, learn better, relate better, and treat others more kindly.

Education Angels outlines a happiness pedagogy from kindergarten through college that would result in happier people and better societies. It paints an inspiring picture of an education worthy of angels and a future worthy of humanity.

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Six Insights That Call for Happiness Education

When you seriously consider what children are taught in our schools, and the reasons given for teaching it, it is clear that their education aims first and foremost at meeting the presumed needs of society. This is not troubling if you assume that meeting the needs of society is the best way to serve the individual good of each child as well. But what if it isn’t? What if, in deeply pondering what the true good of a human being is, you realized it is almost completely neglected in our schools?

When you combine this realization with the understanding that the greater good of society cannot be served by neglecting the greater good of the individuals that comprise it, you arrive at the insight that something is fundamentally wrong with public education as we know it throughout the world. This disturbing conclusion follows from insight into what the greater good of a human being is.

You could simply accept what philosophers through the ages have said: the main aspiration of human beings is happiness. But this is too vague and ambiguous to be practical. You have to look deeper to understand the wellsprings of human motive.
The core insight is what I call the “affective theory of value,” which is similar but not synonymous with the “emotive theory of value” associated with Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayers, and others. Robert Solomon comes close to my view that feelings entail the core experience of valuing when he says “Every value and everything meaningful—as well as everything vile, offensive, or painful—comes into life through the passions.”1

The next four paragraphs are a somewhat fuller explanation of this insight taken from an earlier version of the book, though most of it is word-for-word in the published version. I dwell on it because it undergirds the thesis of the book.

The core subjective value of any experience is entailed in feeling. We can distinguish between feelings that move us to seek a preferable experience—emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, lust, boredom and various other forms of dissatisfaction with present experience—and what we might call states of mind that are at least temporarily sufficient—happiness, fulfillment, joy, peace of mind, etc. This is an important distinction, but I include both emotions that move us to seek a preferable feeling and states of mind desired for their own sake in the word ‘feelings’ in a broad sense. Remove feeling in this broad sense from an experience and one is left with, at most, a robotic awareness of sensory data and perhaps a sentient acknowledgement of cause and effect without a motive to seek experience, to care about what you are experiencing, or to establish any preference among experiences.

Sensory perceptions have no experiential value shorn of the feelings that are associated with them. Even considered solely as sources of information about your environment, the value of such information derives from a purpose you are moved to pursue, and feeling in a broad sense is both the motive force and the target of human purpose. The same is true of thoughts; without motive to think them, without prospect of affective benefit, they would have no more experiential value than the calculation of a computer with no interest whatsoever either in the process or the result. Feeling is therefore the core value of experience, the treasure we seek in trying to arrange what we prefer to experience and without which experience would be no more than acknowledgment of data without purpose, and therefore without meaning in the sense of value.

Affect both entails and determines the value—positive, neutral, or negative—of all experience. Of course, the usual meaning of value is what we desire, appreciate, or find useful to our purposes. We usually do not speak of value in regard to what we loathe or do not care about. To value usually means to hold in positive regard. It is in this sense that feeling is the treasure we seek in experience; we seek preferable feelings. We are moved to attain a feeling preferable to what we are presently feeling, and experiencing the feeling at which we aim is the reward of attainment. The proximate objects of our pursuits may be people, possessions, comfort, entertainment, love, esteem, meaning, understanding, truth, circumstances and all else that glitters in the eyes of our minds, but their value lies in the feelings we hope they will evoke.

The desirability of the feelings we associate with experiencing these things is our subjective judgment of their relative value. Thus to speak of value without consequence to the human heart is to speak of value without consequence to human experience. It is the heart that bestows value, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind.

I combine the affective theory of value and the understanding that the desire for a preferable feeling moves us in all we do in a single core insight into human motive. In the light of this insight, the neglect of children’s hearts in our schools may impoverish the subjective value of their life experiences. This neglect may diminish the experiential quality of their lives.

I say “may” because it depends on whether schools can realistically improve students’ prospects for feeling better than otherwise. The answer to the question of whether schools can contribute more than they do to the affective quality of children’s lives requires two further insights.

The third insight is a practical understanding of the pursuit of happiness as the moment-to-moment steps we take to experience a preferable feeling. These steps may be the steps of our bodies to arrange external experiences we associate with preferable feelings. Or they may be the steps of our minds to conjure such feelings. The importance of internal steps is revealed in the fourth insight: feelings are responses to our thoughts, in particular to our judgments, rather than direct responses to perceptions per se. In other words, our external experiences do not determine our feelings; our judgments of our experiences determine them.

These two insights point to the fifth: the ability to manage thoughts and judgments is the ability to influence what we feel. The sixth insight is that the knowledge and skills that help us feel better than otherwise and improve our chances for more happiness in our lives can be learned, and taught. In fact they have been successfully taught in thousands of schools with impressive results. We have the means, but do we have the will?

We can profoundly improve the subjective quality of our children’s lives in our schools if we choose to do so. The question is: do we think our kids are worth the time and effort to make the necessary changes?

1. Robert C. Solomon, The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hacket Publishing, 1993) p. 71.

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What educators have to say about Educating Angels

“As soon as I opened Educating Angels, I felt I was in the presence of a visionary whose voice is critical to our current education policy-making. I have been in hundreds of schools, first as a counselor and teacher, then as a teaching storyteller. Armstrong is so often right. This book is a revelation. Read it; give it to a school board member.”

Jim May, former Illinois school teacher and counselor, now an Emmy-award winning storyteller and author

“Every teacher, parent and education administrator should read this book. It is the most radical that they will read this year.”

Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College UK and author of Why Schools? Why Universities?

“Armstrong answers the question, ‘What does it mean to be well-educated?’ with a provocative paradigm shift. Educating Angels is a must-read for anyone truly seeking the best for our children and our society. Tony Armstrong’s cogent, persuasive argument is the perfect complement to our current STEM-centered educational environment.”

Caren Neile, Professor at Florida International University and author, The Great American Story

“Imagine an educational system designed to foster mindfulness and self-actualization leading to individual happiness. In his book, Tony Armstrong does just that and explains how to build it for our children.”

Tim Couch, Texas teacher in his 21st year

“Insisting on changing the tone and focus of the debates over public education, this book is unique in its insistence on the pedagogy of happiness. Theoretically robust and thoroughly practical, it provides an outline of educational transformation from K-12 all the way to higher education as a means by which individuals are empowered and thereby become more engaged citizens in modern democracies. This courageous and lucid book is an indispensable manual for those who care to change the present in order to promote a better future, with ample references to western and eastern philosophies and the current state of scientific studies on the nature of human happiness.”

Raphael Sassower, Professor of philosophy, University of Colorado, author of A Sanctuary of Their Own

“Tony Armstrong’s Educating Angels offers a simple yet profound research-based, holistic philosophy that makes our children the priority in our schools as opposed to treating them as tools for an ever changing, unstable economic system. Dr. Armstrong envisions (and cites examples of) schools where children learn to think for themselves, develop self-awareness, compassion, confidence and develop resilience to deal with life’s inevitable challenges; schools where graduation rates are up and diagnoses for emotional problems are down. In short, schools where children learn how to pursue happiness. I can see Educating Angels having a long-lasting, profound impact.”

Kathy Doyle, recipient of multiple Teacher of the Year awards, author of Allies for Justice

“Amid the charlatans and profiteers who aim to make education more efficient, this book challenges the assumptions of a broken system and calls for us to reimagine the education of our children as if they matter to us.”

Jeffrey Mask, Professor of philosophy and religion , Wesley College, author of At Liberty Under God

“Dr. Armstrong provides a comprehensive guide and resource to exploring the teaching of happiness. After providing an excellent justification for altering the nature of education, he provides concrete examples of how this “new” pedagogy of happiness could be implemented in classrooms from pre-K to college.”

Joseph Yuichi Howard, Professor of political science, University of Central Arkansas.

Educating Angels is a must read for those who worry about the state of education and our children.”

Joann Prewitt, former teacher and retired Education Associate, Delaware Department of Education

ForeWord Review

Educators at all levels will benefit from considering Armstrong’s ideas and their possible implementation in the classroom.

In this refreshing inquiry into the true purpose of education, Tony Armstrong turns away from the current focus on subjects like STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and standardized tests, and offers an intriguing alternative. With Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness, Armstrong calls for a paradigm shift away from education that treats students as a means to an economic end, toward practices that support the goal of achieving each student’s happiness.

Presenting his own thoughts, as well as ideas from an impressive variety of experts, Armstrong makes a strong case that encouraging happiness as the core of education would not only result in more satisfied students, but also a more engaged citizenry.

Armstrong opens with angel imagery—“My students might be angels … the light of angelic soul shines through their eyes … I see the worth of angels in them”—that suggests the book may have an overriding spiritual tenor. It doesn’t. While the author is indeed a visionary with strong beliefs about the sanctity of each person’s experience, he is also a college professor and a lifelong student of philosophy, psychology, and logic. Thus Educating Angels has an academic, intellectual tone. In clear, sophisticated language, Armstrong asks the reader not to follow his ideas blindly, but to examine the evidence that leads him to conclude: “If happiness is the common end of all human striving, and public education is the main means for governments to empower each citizen to pursue his own ends, it follows that empowering the pursuit of happiness is the main purpose of public education.”

In well-organized and comprehensively referenced chapters, the author delves into topics such as the purpose of education, the nature of happiness, and the sources of happiness. These are not mere musings; Armstrong uses data from his own research, as well as ideas from philosophers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke and contemporary psychology writers like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman to support the need for a new type of curriculum. For instance, Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “flow” indicates that students engaged in their areas of strength will work harder and longer, accomplish more, and be more satisfied than those forced to pursue a distributed course of study across a variety of subjects.

As rigorous as Armstrong’s academic inquiry is, his theory might come to nothing without a consideration of the methods by which schools can teach happiness. Fittingly, the longest chapter in the book offers myriad practical suggestions for developing a new “happiness pedagogy.” A small sampling of methods includes: teaching mindfulness, encouraging a wide range of creative expression, practicing gratitude and forgiveness, and encouraging students to reflect on their own unique gifts. Armstrong breaks this down into grade levels, sowing the seeds of a comprehensive curriculum to be implemented from kindergarten to college. He also mentions inspiring programs already in place, such as Inner Kids, MindUP of the Hawn Foundation, and the Mindfulness in Education Network.

“If education can contribute more to our children’s happiness, it ought to,” concludes Armstrong. Educating Angels persuasively argues that this isn’t an impossibly lofty goal, but an entirely achievable one. Educators at all levels will benefit from considering Armstrong’s ideas and their possible implementation in the classroom.

Sheila M. Trask, November 26, 2013

VOYA Review

Teacher of twenty-five years, professor, and author Tony Armstrong challenges us to reform our schools and educate our youth by teaching a happiness curriculum in kindergarten through college. Armstrong argues that the ultimate goal in life is happiness; thus, we should teach and prepare our youth to reach this goal. The happiness pedagogy teaches youth to be mindful of their own and others’ feelings. It also teaches students to develop self-actualization and how to understand their thoughts and reasoning as well as those others. It fosters creative behavior, philosophizing, and learning about world religions. This book has potential to give our education system a facelift. Educating Angels is informative, as well as positive and upbeat. It is an empowering read for educators and parents. It is well researched: Armstrong clearly justifies why and how students need to learn how to use their feelings to learn. To create a happiness pedagogy, educators will develop activities for their students which practice using inner awareness, social awareness, means to influence feelings, expression, and engagement and inquiry. It is thought that, through this curriculum, students will become better citizens and happier people. This book has the potential to be the next big evolutional movement in education. Consider this title a must-have for professional collections in school and public libraries.

Reviewer: Julia Bowersox

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Becoming a Happiness Education Crusader

I don’t recall really wanting to be a teacher until midway through graduate school. I wanted to be an academic engaged in the creative work of theorizing and scholarship. But then I had what I call a “relevance” crisis. It dawned on me that my academic pursuits weren’t likely to make any meaningful difference in the life of anyone but me. I saw that the difference I make in the lives of my students will be my biggest contribution to life on this planet beyond what I contribute to the lives of my family. That’s when I became a teacher in heart as well as vocation.

I began my full-time teaching career in 1991 at a small private college in Delaware. I arrived with the idealism of a Young Turk, teaming up with other new arrivals at the college to devise and advocate a project that would continually improve our methods of teaching at the college. “If teaching is our purpose, we should strive to be one of the best teaching colleges!” I proclaimed. Boy, was I naïve. Our project hit a wall of resentment and fear and died an early death.

But I was relatively free to hone the methods I thought most likely to make a difference in my political science courses. The trouble is, I started to ponder what difference it is most worthwhile to make. That naturally led to the question: “What is the deepest aspiration of a human being?” Oops. This is the sort of question that opens the door to the realization that what we teach in schools, from K-12 through college, is not really all that relevant to the deepest human aspiration. This realization started me down the long road to writing Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness.

Philosophers throughout the ages have generally agreed that happiness is what human beings are really looking for in all they do. Happiness is a word that crops up a lot when you talk to parents about what they want most for their children. But schools don’t directly aim to serve this aspiration. The word ‘happiness’ is seldom heard in the debates about the ends and means of education. You won’t often find it in many school mission statements.

Schools don’t really aim to serve the personal aspirations of students, anyway. For the most part, the educational systems around the world aim to make kids useful for society—which powerful interest groups translate as useful for the national economy. We treat our children as means to social ends in our schools rather than as ends in themselves. This realization hit me hard and it continues to stoke my moral ardor for a fundamental reorientation of education.

At first, I limited my efforts to trying to bring the exploration of happiness into some of my own classes. After all, I teach political philosophy, which explores the question of what sort of government and policies best promotes happiness. I also championed a new honors program that requires four seminars that engage students in exploring Big Questions like the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the good life, and the social good. All these questions relate to the question of happiness, so I considered the implementation of the program a success for the cause.

With the exception of a couple colleagues, though, my larger advocacy of making happiness a theme of the core curriculum fell on deaf ears. I simply found it nearly impossible to have a serious discussion about empowering the pursuit of happiness as an end of education. “You can’t teach happiness!” “Promoting happiness promotes selfishness!” “You can’t assess happiness!” I had reasonable answers to all the objections, but few were willing to hear or consider them. At best, I was humored.

Looking back, this was for the best. My frustration drove me to research happiness and how it might be taught in schools, which led to writing Educating Angels.

I discovered a treasure trove of philosophical insights, robust findings of research on happiness, and class-room tested methods designed to promote “well-being.” Kids can be taught to better manage their feelings and develop a more positive outlook. Inner awareness can also lead them to consciously recognize that it feels good to do good and think well of others while treating others poorly and judging them inevitably brings unpleasant feelings. The discerning pursuit of happiness would make them less selfish. Methods of assessing happiness have been developed, but this is beside the point. We should strive to make the most meaningful difference in our schools, not the difference it is easiest to assess.

When I began writing Educating Angels, I thought I was pretty much alone in advocating that empowering students’ pursuit of happiness should be the explicit primary purpose of education. This is not the case. There is a growing international movement for making happiness a central concern in schools. For example, an alliance of leading education organizations in the UK created Action for Happiness in Schools. I also found dozens of websites of organizations that promote various aspects of happiness education in the U.S. It was a relief to learn I was joining a movement rather than trying to create one from scratch.

My quest to make the most meaningful difference I can in the lives of students led to writing a manifesto on happiness education, and I am assuming a new role as public advocate of the cause. I am now a happiness education crusader. I invite you to join me.

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Q & A on Educating Angels

Q: Do you think you’ll persuade many people that empowering the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of education?

A: I think almost everyone would agree that schools should contribute to students’ happiness, but not many I’ve talked to about it see a practical point to making it the explicit primary purpose of education. Education is already meant to give students a better life, so why confuse things with nebulous talk about happiness?

But if you’re not consciously aiming at a target, the chances are slim you’ll hit it. I think I make a very good case that we can considerably improve children’s prospects for a happier life, and that, since we can, we should. I think the claim that we should teach children to look for happiness within as we inform their pursuit without will resonate with a lot of people. I think many of those who read the book will find it persuasive.

Q: Do you think happiness can really be taught in schools?

A: Not happiness per se. The essence of freedom is deciding for yourself what happiness is and pursuing it as you see fit. We are educating students to be free citizens of a free society. We should not be teaching a particular notion of happiness in our schools. But we can empower the pursuit of happiness as each student comes to see it by helping them develop the skills of inner awareness and having them explore different perspectives on the nature, sources, and means of happiness.

Inner awareness is essential, because the ability to change how you feel from within requires it. It gives students a better idea of what they really want to feel, and opens the door to conscious control of thoughts as a means to change feelings. The evidence so far suggests children can be readily taught the basic skills of inner awareness. Exploring alternative perspectives on happiness would make them aware of choices and would improve their discernment in choosing what to feel and how to feel it.

This would be no small achievement. In the accounting of their hearts, it would be the most valuable outcome of their education.

Q: How much experience do you have using the methods you propose?

A: Teaching mindfulness would be a stretch in political science courses, so, no, I have not tried that yet. My knowledge about teaching inner awareness comes from reading about what others have done. But I have long used the alternative perspective approach where possible for the past fifteen years. I have had an opportunity to guide students on an exploration of the Big Questions of philosophy using alternative perspective and community of inquiry approaches in my honors courses. I have taught the Nature of Reality and the Social Good for most of the past seven years. I have been quite pleased by the level of engagement and students’ dawning awareness of the personal value of inquiry into these questions.

Q: You are pushing a “transformation” of education. How difficult—and expensive—do you think the changes you recommend would be?

A: The politics of educational change can be brutal, but the changes I propose will be relatively easy and inexpensive to implement in schools. I am suggesting that space be made in existing curricula, perhaps a single class, throughout the years of public education. The class would be dedicated to teaching and practicing the skills of inner awareness in grade school, and to age-appropriate inquiry into happiness and other Big Questions of life throughout the years of public education.

There would be some initial costs due to faculty training and outside consulting, but there is no reason the operating costs of schools would increase in general. Other changes, such as the adaptation of traditional subject matter, would evolve over time. What I advocate would change the “heart” of education, which would indeed constitute a transformation, but it wouldn’t require scrapping the current system to replace it with an entirely new one.

Q: Will teachers have reason to worry about the changes you want to bring about?

A: Change is always worrisome. Teachers have seen changes come and go with more cost than benefit. But the changes I advocate would free teachers willing to participate from the ghettoes of their subjects. And it would also free them from the role of transmitting authoritative facts to uninterested students. Being a guide of inquiry rather than an expert is liberating and a lot more fun. It takes practice, though. You have to be quick on your mental feet, adept at steering wandering discussions back to the topic, and good about keeping your personal biases from showing. You also have to refrain from jumping in to dominate discussions when they start running aground. I’m still working on that one.

Q: Some of the big concerns today are socially and economically disadvantaged children being left behind, of kids being doped with Ritalin because they can’t pay attention, and of young adults graduating without the basic skills they need to make a living.

You don’t really say much about these issues in your book. Does that make your message less relevant to the reality in our schools?

A: I address the issue of basic skills directly in several places in the book, and the other issues indirectly. These problems confront us no matter what we try to teach. They would be no more problematic for trying to empower children’s pursuit of happiness than for trying to teach them the traditional basics. In fact, the probability that children would experience some immediate affective rewards in learning the skills of inner awareness makes me believe they would be less problematic. The approaches dedicated to empowering their pursuit of happiness avoid competition and comparison. They open the way for emphasizing intrinsic motivation rather than the far less effective extrinsic motivators such as grades. Students who are less adept in their cognitive abilities may find some pride in their affective abilities.

Not all students will be able or willing to taste the riper fruits of what they are taught, but that is true of anything we teach. From what I have read about teaching various versions of mindfulness in schools, it has led to less disruption and fighting, calmer students better able to focus, and enhanced social skills. Apparently they learn better. The skills of inner awareness and a pedagogy more clearly devoted to their happiness may reduce some of the problems in schools. The argument that we should hold off on empowering children’s pursuit of happiness because some are disadvantaged doesn’t hold water. Is this a reason to shortchange their hearts? Focusing on their pursuit of happiness will not wave away their problems, but if it helps them gain at least some ability to feel better than otherwise, they will be better off than they are now.

Q: You come down pretty hard on higher education for emphasizing scholarship and money over the happiness of their students. How do you think that will play in the ivory tower?

A: No doubt it will touch a nerve. But I am only adding my voice to a growing chorus of criticisms about higher education. I know many academics will be rather irritated by the call to give the difference we make in the lives of students emphatic priority over scholarship. This would threaten the status, prestige, prerogatives, distribution of funds, and relative power based on current priorities.

I may be overly provocative here, glossing over the social utility of some scholarship and the efforts to make higher education more meaningful and coherent, but I wish to make the moral issue as clear as possible. We cannot pursue diverse aims without compromising most or all of them. The aim of making the most meaningful difference we can in the lives of our students is seriously—in my experience blatantly—compromised by prevailing priorities in academe. The defense of the status quo should not be allowed to hide behind moral obfuscations. The status quo in academe betrays the higher interests of our students, and that is a big moral issue. It is also a practical issue in terms of the good of society of general.

I think many of my colleagues would find the changes I advocate congenial and non-threatening. There is already a great push to make education more meaningful and coherent, and a great deal of rhetoric is devoted to caring about students. A core curriculum dedicated to exploring perspectives on the nature, sources, and means of happiness would aim for the greatest difference in the lives of students we could hope to make. The primary universal aspiration of human beings is the obvious unifying theme of education, the natural focus for a coherent integration of all disciplines.

I believe the potential contribution of the liberal arts to this aspiration also provides the most compelling argument for the practical value of those disciplines.

I am relatively confident many in academe will come to see that the changes I advocate are in their better interests.

Q: What do you think the main criticism of your book will be?

A: The main criticism will be that I am advocating another touchy-feely diversion from the basics. You can’t be happy without a job, they will say. We should concentrate on the skills kids will need to get a job in a highly competitive global economy.

The contention that the basics and “21st century skills” would suffer if empowering the pursuit of happiness were our main focus is false. In fact, the methods of philosophical inquiry I advocate would continually exercise these skills. Reading, writing, critical thinking, creative thinking, social skills, awareness of the social environment, thinking outside the box, and a broad foundation of knowledge are required by inquiry into alternative perspectives on the Big Questions of life. The approach provides a far more meaningful context and engaging vehicle for learning, and this will likely translate into greater motive for learning. Students will be more likely to learn if what we teach is more immediately meaningful to them. Done wisely and well, empowering the pursuit of happiness will not be a diversion from the basics; it will be a better way to teach them.

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