True happiness: The role of morality in the folk concept of happiness

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 146 (2):165-181 (2017)
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Abstract

Recent scientific research has settled on a purely descriptive definition of happiness that is focused solely on agents’ psychological states (high positive affect, low negative affect, high life satisfaction). In contrast to this understanding, recent research has suggested that the ordinary concept of happiness is also sensitive to the moral value of agents’ lives. Five studies systematically investigate and explain the impact of morality on ordinary assessments of happiness. Study 1 demonstrates that moral judgments influence assessments of happiness not only for untrained participants, but also for academic researchers and even in those who study happiness specifically. Studies 2 and 3 then respectively ask whether this effect may be explained by general motivational biases or beliefs in a just world. In both cases, we find evidence against these explanations. Study 4 shows that the impact of moral judgments cannot be explained by changes in the perception of descriptive psychological states. Finally, Study 5 compares the impact of moral and non-moral value, and provides evidence that unlike non-moral value, moral value is part of the criteria that govern the ordinary concept of happiness. Taken together, these studies provide a specific explanation of how and why the ordinary concept of happiness deviates from the definition used by researchers studying happiness.

Author Profiles

Jonathan Phillips
Dartmouth College
Christian Mott
Columbia University
Joshua Knobe
Yale University

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