Happiness requires conscious awareness
Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman reports as his most important insight: events affect our happiness only while we’re aware of them. Discovering the capacities that conscious awareness confers on human performance has proven daunting; even the old paradigm case for necessary conscious awareness, sight, is possible in neurology patients lacking conscious awareness of visual information. The strict proposition that happiness is completely dependent on the contents of consciousness should give psychologists pause, as happiness and unhappiness may be awareness’s only identified consequences. Kahneman cites supporting studies, but in fact his conclusion can be reached by reflection, as by considering an example he supplies: the pleasure an owner receives from a luxury automobile is limited to that obtained when dwelling on it. “The answer may surprise you but is straightforward: you get pleasure or displeasure when you think about your car, which is probably not very often.” The issue isn’t just that we define happiness as a conscious state of mind but that humans care exclusively about what we’re conscious of. But—this is the reason Kahneman’s insight can be reached by pure reflection—the sense in which we care only about what’s conscious is the sense of care implying conscious awareness: we don’t consciously care about what isn’t conscious. A tautology; what’s remarkable is that—despite our goal-directed behavior being driven by preconscious motives—we attach supreme importance to those rewards that find representation in conscious awareness, seeing ourselves as holding a specific self-interest in the hedonic valence (degree of positivity or negativity) of our conscious mental states. As Freud wrote, “What [does everybody] demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive for happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.”
Demonstrating the logical eliminability of the happiness concept are nonhedonic ethical theories that, by defining utility as the satisfaction of preferences, dispense with conscious satisfaction as the criterion for well-being, which they peculiarly imply is enhanced by merely formal “satisfaction” obtaining after death. That the doctrine gains any traction (mainly with economists looking to rationalize the market as stage for “revealed preference”) points to the logical arbitrariness of the happiness criterion of well-being. Yet its distance from the actual human investment in the happiness construct makes this version of utilitarianism seem absurd. On the other hand, limiting the concept of utility to satisfactions that the agent learns of—disregarding their subjective valence—seems arbitrary. (If satisfaction matters even if it brings no pleasure, why should the agent have to learn of the occurrence?) Happiness is the referent of utility in a compelling utilitarianism where the emotional valence of experience produces a complete ordering of outcomes. But the seductiveness of pleasure utilitarianism depends on falsely assuming the possibility of comparing all appetitive and aversive reinforcers based on their intensity, usurping through valence the explanatory tasks of habit. There is no single dimension of abstract valence.
Conscious awareness is a linguistic adaptation
Our concept of happiness incorporates the elevated importance we attach to our conscious valences, but the choice of the particular valences we value must be something of a personal and cultural construct. What explains the elevated moral importance we attach to conscious valences? The function of the outward manifestation of affect is communication, and the importance of communication in the evolution of human emotion is shown in the interconnection between the brain’s emotional circuits and the facial musculature. Since emotion is expressive, linguistic organisms would presumably find it useful to articulate information previously conveyed mainly by the face. We know by introspection that we can’t articulate a thought without thinking it consciously. (I’ll return to the broader significance of this truism.). This provides a skeletal evolutionary account as to why emotional valence is prominent among the contents of consciousness.
The foregoing by itself doesn’t explain why we regard conscious emotional valence as the sum and substance of well-being. A recanted insight into the function of happiness by social scientist Robin Hanson helps with an answer. Hanson proposed that happiness evolved to signal satisfaction with group, and he provides evidence of the link between happiness and satisfactory affiliation: the smile as both an expression of joy and submission and the role of pain as a cry for help. I would add: 1) we respond to the unhappiness of others around us as being reproachful; 2) Kahneman again, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.” In their struggle for existence, organisms would benefit if they could articulate the degree of their satisfaction with their fellows to negotiate adjustments. The importance of conscious valence in our concept of well-being expresses humanity’s deep sociality.
One further theoretical step takes us to a theory of the adaptive function of conscious awareness itself, the following theory being almost obvious in light of the role of conscious emotional valence. Humans are conscious of information that prehistorically was adaptive to communicate to our fellows, making awareness fundamentally an instrument of communication rather than of thought. One activity introspection shows we can’t perform without consciousness is that of articulating our thoughts in speech. What Freud called the Preconscious may suffice for everything except communication.
“Awareness,” as I hope has been clear, refers to mental contents, not (illusory) phenomenal qualities. My concern here is with the specific awareness of valence. We can now meaningfully ask whether nonlinguistic animals have similar valences. Are they happy or unhappy? If conscious awareness is a linguistic adaptation, we shouldn’t expect it in nonlinguistic animals. Presumably having implication for neurophysiology, the conclusion that nonlinguistic animals don’t have conscious awareness doesn’t seem to imply new conclusions about their behavior. But for some moral realists, it might have implications for animal entitlements, since organisms incapable of happiness are free of suffering.