The Journal of Value Inquiry

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 419–431 | Cite as



Joy has not received much philosophical attention. While joy is sometimes mentioned in discussions of hedonism, happiness, desire, or religion, it is rarely considered in itself. It generally appears in discussions only as a by-product of more significant matters, such as living a good life or attaining clarity of mind. Much about the nature of joy has remained unclear, such as whether it is a distinctive state, a feeling, or an emotion, and also why it is experienced and if it has a functional role. By understanding the nature, role, and importance of joy, we can see that joy is an intense, positively toned emotion, whose inherent connection to the desire for self-preservation renders it inappropriate for providing the basis for theories of morality.

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Joy is often regarded as a kind of happiness, pleasure, and a fleeting feeling, but none of these notions adequately captures the nature of joy. For the most part, accounts of happiness fall into two categories, either concerning psychological happiness, with happiness as a state of mind, or prudential happiness, with happiness as a condition of life.1 Accounts of psychological happiness are often linked with feelings of pleasure, Philosophers who take such a view often hold that to say that an individual is in a happy state is to suggest that the individual is experiencing more pleasure than pain at the time, where two types of pleasure may be distinguished, sensory pleasure and attitudinal pleasure.

To say that someone has a sensory pleasure at a particular time is to say, as Fred Feldman puts it, that “he feels pleasurable sensations then.”2 For example, the pleasure generated by the warmth of the sun or the taste of a flavorful dish may be called sensory. It seems intuitively correct, however, to say that this kind of pleasure is much milder in form than joy. For instance, somebody sitting comfortably on a couch watching his favorite film may reasonably be called happy. He is relaxed, at ease, and presumably experiencing little or no anxiety or distress. However, it would be strange to claim that he is then joyful. His experience is not intense enough. In contrast, attitudinal pleasures, in Feldman’s words, “need not have any ‘feel’.”3 Instead, they comprise a certain attitude toward a particular situation. For instance, if an individual says that he is glad to have the opportunity to attend a university, the pleasure that he describes is attitudinal, not sensory. While attitudinal pleasures are closer to joy than sensory pleasures, they seem, to a certain extent, to be reducible to contentment. Indeed, as Richard Kraut observes, “when we say that someone is living happily, we imply that he has certain attitudes towards his life: he is very glad to be alive.”4 With respect to attitudinal pleasure, as Daniel Haybron says: “to be happy is [just] to be satisfied or pleased with one’s life.”5 Yet joy, as Robert Solomon explains, goes far beyond contentment and is a “passion that renders our world not only satisfactory but ‘wonderful’.”6 Indeed, joy, by its nature, involves a feeling over a particular threshold. Joy cannot be joy without a certain intensity which the designation happiness, in the psychological sense, does not convey.

When referring to happiness in the prudential sense, we do not talk about a particular moment in time, but instead of the state of a life as a whole. Let us take as a paradigm case the notion of eudaimonia that Aristotle puts forward. Aristotle asserts that happiness, or eudaimonia, is a good which is sought that is final in being sought for its own sake and self-sufficient.7 Once a person has arrived at happiness, there is nothing else he requires. Furthermore, Aristotle claims that happiness is an achievement which “is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training.”8 Attaining happiness does not involve chance but is accomplished primarily through our own actions. In addition, eudaimonia, once achieved, “is not easily taken from one.”9 In trying to categorize joy as a kind of prudential happiness, we falter almost immediately at the thought that joy is something which can be pursued. Aristotle claims that prudential happiness may be caused by the exercise of virtue, both moral and intellectual, and that “among people who engage in moral action, those who spend more time engaging in moral action are happier.”10 Thus it seems reasonable to assert that we may consciously pursue prudential happiness by living a life of virtue. Conversely, Spinoza notes that “anything can be the accidental cause of joy.”11 On his view, there is no obvious path to joy, since the means of attaining it are indeterminable. This being the case, it would seem strange to assert that a person could consciously strive for joy, as he can in the case of eudaimonia. Thus there appears to be a fundamental difference between the two states. Some philosophers might try to object that joy can in fact be sought after, as in the joy which results from drug-taking. Nevertheless, while it is true that taking drugs can produce at least some of the feelings associated with joy, it would be odd to suggest that a drug-induced state and joy are one and the same experience.

Let us consider a case set out by Robert Solomon in which a student drinks eight cups of coffee while studying for an exam and feels excited, irritable, and all the sensations he would have if he were angry, but despite such feelings he is not angry. This shows that anger is much more than a particular set of feelings and that, as Solomon asserts, “when I do have those feelings when I am angry, the feelings are at most an accompaniment to the anger, like the excitable fans following an athletic team.”12 Thus, the presence of the feelings associated with anger does not necessitate the presence of anger itself. Similarly, in a positive drug-induced state, though an individual experiences the same feelings he would if he were joyful, some of the picture is still missing. After all, joy, too, is more than a set of feelings. For example, it involves intentionality and can be rational or irrational. Thus, while it may be possible to induce a joy-like state through artificial means, it seems unreasonable to suggest that drugs can be used to stimulate an experience of real joy.

An Aristotelian might pose a different objection, arguing that eudaimonia requires external goods such as friendship or wealth, at least to some extent, and, as a result, that happiness, like joy, involves an element of chance. It is worth asking whether such external goods are a productive or constituent means to eudaimonia, if objects such as friendship and wealth cause happiness, or are simply part of what makes up happiness. Aristotle does not provide a clear answer. At times he calls such goods “instruments,” tools without which eudaimonia could not be attained, while at other times he claims that a lack of such goods simply “takes the luster from happiness,” that happiness might reasonably be attained without such goods but is greatly improved by them.13 If happiness might reasonably be attained without such goods, then the distinction between prudential happiness and joy remains. After all, if external goods do nothing to bring about eudaimonia, then the notion that a person is the cause of his own prudential happiness remains true. If, instead, external goods, which depend to some extent on chance, are a productive means to eudaimonia, and thus play a role in causing it, an Aristotelian might think that he has grounds to assert a connection between happiness and joy after all. But even then, it would remain the case that there is a much stronger element of control involved in happiness than there is in joy. Indeed, despite the fact that some fortune may be required to achieve goods like wealth and friendship, once such goods have been attained the happiness of an individual is still dependent on the exercise of virtue, which comes about as a direct result of the decisions the individual makes. Joy, in contrast, is much more likely to have an accidental cause, and thus requires a different kind of fortune entirely.

In saying that eudaimonia is not easily taken from a person, Aristotle takes the position that happiness is something which is long-lasting and stable. Although it is difficult to attain, once achieved it remains with us. Joy, in contrast, is confined to shorter periods of time. Indeed, while it might be reasonable to say that an individual had a joyful moment, or a joyful day, for instance, it would be strange to claim that he had a joyful year or a joyful life. Instead it would be more accurate to say that his year or his life had many of occasions of joy within it. From all this, we may conclude that prudential happiness is fundamentally more complex than joy. It is a cumulative notion and a state which we can work toward. Conversely, joy is more accurately described as an isolated occurrence of extreme positivity, which may reasonably have an accidental cause, making it somewhat unpredictable. Accounts of happiness do not, by themselves, reveal the essence of joy. Psychological approaches are too weak. They fail to capture the exuberance of joyfulness, and prudential accounts engage with a condition which is far more complex than joy. Joy is not a kind of happiness.

In his New Essays on Human Understanding, Leibniz writes: “Joy appears to me to signify a state in which pleasure predominates in us.”14 Similarly, Spinoza says that “the affect of joy which is related to the mind and body at once I call pleasure or cheerfulness.”15 Even so, pleasure is far too mild to be put on a par with joy. Indeed, while the two phenomena may be linked, there is no necessary connection between them. It is often the case that people experience pleasure, either sensory or attitudinal, without joy, as in the feeling from a back scratch or an arm tickle. While the resulting sensation may well be agreeable or even satisfying, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that what is felt is joy. Equally, a person may be glad that his dinner is hot or that he is having his favorite dessert, but it would be odd to assert that such events rendered him joyous. It is possible that a person could experience joy, while at the same time feeling no pleasure. Leibniz, perhaps not altogether consistently, writes: “In the midst of acute agony the mind can be joyful, as used to happen to martyrs.”16 This suggests that joy is a kind of enlightened state beyond desire and suffering as a result of which all feelings of sensory pain are dissipated. If that is the case, then while joy is felt there is an absence of both sensory pleasure and pain. It may be suggested that while there is no sensory pleasure in this situation, the individual could have an experience of attitudinal pleasure. However, in the face of an experience as intense as joy, milder feelings such as pleasure would likely be eclipsed, as is evident in a parallel situation of extreme fear. In a moment of terror, for example when faced with imminent death, it seems unlikely that a person would also experience some kind of attitudinal pain. Somebody would likely not, for example, think it was a shame that he had had such bad luck or be disappointed that he might not see tomorrow. Similarly, in a moment of joy, it seems strange to suggest that a person might be pleased that things had turned out so well for him, or feel glad that he had managed to achieve enlightenment. Indeed, any pleasant experience he did have would surely be overshadowed by the more powerful state of joyfulness.

Pleasure is something which is commonly felt on behalf of another person. We may take pleasure in the accomplishments of a friend, for example. It is much less likely, however, that an individual would feel joyful simply because of some achievement of a friend. Indeed, inasmuch as joy is something which is generally felt in relation to an individual and his well-being, the experience of joy in consequence of the good fortune or pleasure of somebody else comes most often as a result of the belief that the individual himself is the source of the fortune or pleasure. As Spinoza observes: “If someone has done something which he imagines affects others with Joy, he will be affected with Joy accompanied by the idea of himself as cause, or he will regard himself with Joy.”17 If this is the case, it would seem that the joy experienced is not truly for the other person, but instead for the individual and for the positive effect that he has had. Thus it becomes clear that joy cannot be identified with pleasure either. Joy is felt much more potently and discriminately than pleasure.

While it is true that joy is an emotion that is felt for short periods of time, especially when compared with prudential happiness, in order to describe a sensation as fleeting, we must be able to give it a clear and distinct start and end point. For example, it is reasonable to say that when a person has a feeling of butterflies in his stomach, the feeling started a minute before he went on stage to speak and ended immediately with the conclusion of his address. In this example, the sensation has a clear stimulus. It is caused by nerves felt in anticipation of speaking in front of an audience and correlated with the events which caused it. The same cannot be said of joy, however. It would be odd to say that somebody had joy that began at three o’clock in the afternoon and ended at dinner time, when it is often the case that there is no particular event which prompts the joyousness in the first place. Joy is not fleeting, and it is questionable whether it can rightly be called a feeling.

At the most basic level, as Irwin Goldstein has said, a feeling may be described as a “sensation or other introspectable episode identified solely by its felt quality.”18 Feelings are internal states which have certain phenomenal properties. There is something it is like to feel hot, relaxed, or in pain. Gilbert Ryle provides a thorough analysis of what it is to feel, distinguishing seven variant meanings of the word “feel.” The most relevant cases have to do with the use of the word “in connection with such complements as aches, tickles, and other local pervasive discomforts,” and “when followed by an adjective of… ‘general condition’,” as in feeling grumpy or tired.19 In the first instance, Ryle explains that “to feel a tickle and to have a tickle seem to be the same thing.”20 It would be completely unreasonable to assert that an individual had a tickle which he could not feel. Given this, it seems to follow that only the individual who has a feeling can really know his experience of a sensation, that he alone can be truly aware of his present condition. This implies that individuals have privileged access to their feelings. The additional condition that Ryle offers refers to a state which is, in most cases, associated with some particular mental or physical sensation. For instance, when someone feels tired, he may feel drained, irritable, and lethargic. His body may begin to ache and his eyes might feel heavy. It is the presence of such particular sensations, or at least some combination of them, which alerts the person to his tiredness.

From Ryle’s characterizations alone, it would not be unreasonable to try to identify joy as a feeling. Joy has a particular phenomenal feel. The experience of joy is unlike anything else including other positive states such as happiness or pleasure. As a result, a person cannot be wrong about being joyful. Whatever causes his joy, if he experiences the phenomenal aspects which are specific to joy, then he can be feeling nothing else. While it may be possible for another person to detect his joy by observing him brighten or smile, or become giddy or excitable, nobody else can experience his joy as he does. Furthermore, though it is not localized like an ache or a tickle, there is a particular sensation connected with joy. Indeed, it would be misspeaking to say that a person is overjoyed, yet has no experience of mental or bodily euphoria. Nevertheless, labeling joy as a feeling is problematic. We are left unable to accommodate an intentional structure for joy. While feelings may have a specific cause, they have no object in the sense of being about something. Joy, in contrast, has a definite object. We can feel joyous about our good fortune, a beautiful day, or being in love. It is as a result of such shortcomings that joy should not be termed a feeling but an emotion.

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While emotions and feelings are arguably different, emotions are typically associated with particular feelings. Emotions are constituted, at least in part, by many of the same features with which feelings are identified. They involve internal states with particular phenomenal aspects which are usually, if not always, associated with some mental or physical sensation. However, where feelings and emotions diverge is their intentionality. While we may simply feel, “emotions are about something.”21 Solomon argues that this distinction comes from the fact that emotions are judgments. They are “constitutive interpretations of the world.”22 For instance, anger, he argues, involves the assessment that the individual concerned has been wronged in some way. If emotions are judgments, then it follows that they must be about something, where the object of the anger of an individual is whoever or whatever wronged him. Feelings, in contrast, may be described simply as involuntary responses to some stimuli. For example, a person may feel nauseous from the smell of a rancid chicken or feel cold from a drop in temperature. It would be unintelligible to suggest that the person feels nauseous at the chicken or cold about the temperature dropping. Thus, we do not “make our feelings or our physiological states in anything like the same sense” as we do when we make judgments.23 While feelings can have particular triggers, they cannot be directed at anything.

It may be suggested that not all emotions have such an object, for instance, depression, which seems ambiguous in its direction. When a person is depressed, he feels negative about everything and about nothing in particular. However, this is better described as a mood, and while moods may have some specific cause, unlike emotions, they “attend to the world as a whole, typically without focusing on any particular object or situation.”24 Admittedly, there are certain instances in which moods may in fact seem to have objects. For example, a person might seem to be depressed about his financial situation, or about the degenerating state of the environment. If this is the case, we might imagine that intentionality need not be distinctive of emotions. Solomon argues that while moods, such as depression, are “aimed at the world in general,” they are “constructed upon a base of particular emotions which remain at [their] core, visible but no longer distinctive.”25 If he is right, it would be reasonable to suggest that, while the emotions on which a mood is based are about some particular object, the mood is still directionless. Thus, while we may think that somebody is depressed about his financial situation, what has actually occurred is a sadness both caused by and directed at his monetary status, which grows and develops into a state that casts “somber shadows on every object and incident of [his] experience.”26 While his poor financial situation may have triggered his negative feelings, the state which subsequently arises, the depression, is, in itself, about nothing in particular.

It may still be asked what we should say about objectless emotions that are clearly not moods, for instance if a person were to experience a general fear of nothing in particular. But the question reveals a misunderstanding. While it is reasonable to say that an individual may experience a fear and not know what the fear is directed at, it cannot be concluded from this alone that no object exists and that the individual is afraid of nothing. It is more likely that, as William Lyons maintains, “the object is not properly formulable or expressible, as with fear of something which is subconscious.”27 Thus, it becomes clear that intentionality is an essential, defining feature of an emotion and that the particular object of an emotion is what constitutes it.28 Emotions which are objectless are either moods, possibly derived from emotions but not emotions in themselves, or only objectless in appearance, and not in reality.

Unlike feelings, as Goldstein observes, “emotions can be irrational or rational, unjustified or justified.”29 People may have good reasons for experiencing the emotions they do. People can be right or wrong in their anger or jealousy in a way that is incoherent when speaking of feelings of nausea or tiredness. It is important to appreciate the difference between a reason and a cause here. Both feelings and emotions may have causes. For example, a person may be tired because he stayed out late or angry because he was insulted by another person. Reasons, however, involve an appraisal or a decision. They involve a conscious or rational reaction. Feelings cannot have reasons because they are essentially involuntary reactions and thus not conscious or rational. Emotions, in contrast, involve evaluative thoughts. Thus, when an individual is insulted, he can assess the situation, gauge that he has been wronged and become justifiably angry. On this basis, joy can also be seen to be an emotion. It is reasonable to call an instance of joy warranted or unwarranted. Generally speaking, it would be fitting for someone to be joyous at rain after being lost in a desert, but inappropriate for someone to feel joy at finding a penny on a sidewalk.

Emotions can be categorized according to whether they are predominantly positive or negative in nature, or as Jesse Prinz puts it, whether they are positive or negative in their “hedonic tone.”30 It is clear that joy is an intrinsically positive emotion, which, according to Prinz, suggests that a joyful state “includes an inner positive reinforcer,” that “says something like ‘More of this!’”31 Like other positive emotions such as pride and love, we want to sustain joy, though joy is distinct from other positive emotions. As Richard Lazarus observes, pride has a very specific cause, our own accomplishments or the accomplishments of “someone or group with whom we identify.”32 As a result, pride is inner-directed. When an individual experiences pride, the object of his emotion is himself.33 Even when a person takes pride in the accomplishments of others, it seems reasonable to suggest that he is “implicitly taking credit for success” of others.34 If somebody takes pride in his country or the moral character of his child, the person must first believe himself to be an essential part of the country or responsible for the moral character of the child. Discussions of joy in relation to other people reveal that joy is also often self-directed. Individuals often experience joy at the good fortune of another individual when they believe themselves to be the cause or source of the fortune. However, where pride must be self-directed, a person’s joy may be outwardly directed as well. The object of the joy a person feels could as easily be a life-changing job offer as himself as an agent of well-being. Also unlike joy, pride need not be a positive emotion. While pride may reflect self-respect or self-esteem in taking satisfaction in accomplishments or other matters, it may also exhibit an excess, an overestimation in taking satisfaction. It is hard to imagine that joy could have similarly negative associations. It is doubtful whether a glut of joy is even possible, and, even if it were, it seems likely that the excess would be construed as positive, not negative, for the person experiencing it.

Love is closer to joy in that it is more straightforwardly good. Solomon goes so far as to call it “the most desirable of the passions.”35 Most forms of love are “explicitly concerned with the welfare and happiness of other people,” though self-love is no doubt possible.36 In this way, love is clearly distinct from joy. Although joy may be directed both inwardly and outwardly, we almost always find ourselves at its epicenter. For instance, when a person experiences joy at a life-changing job offer, the joy is a result of a personal gain. Although such an offer may equally benefit individuals dependent on him, the joy he experiences will nonetheless be directly related to the effect that he, as provider, can have on their lives. Similarly, as Spinoza maintains, if the person experiences joy “at the thought of [himself] as an agent of wellbeing,” the joy he feels is not for the person he has helped, but at the idea of himself as the cause of the happiness of the other person.37 Love and joy do have certain conspicuous similarities, however. Both are inextricably connected with the notion of desire. With respect to love, the ultimate aim is, as Solomon puts it, “to satisfy and make happy the other, whose desires one now accepts as one’s own.”38 The idea is that when two people are in love, they become “the ultimate ‘we,’ where distinction between separate selves loses all meaning.”39 When a person makes it his objective to satisfy and make happy somebody else, he does the same for himself as a consequence. Thus, love is an endeavor to meet the desires of a collective unit. The connection between joy and desire, however, is much more complex.

Spinoza asserts that many desires involve, at the most basic level, “the striving to persevere in one’s being.”40 They are a manifestation of the need inherent in people to ensure their continued existence. For instance, because people desire the strength to lead active lives, they eat food and drink water. Yet, the desire alone is not always enough to motivate action. For example, although somebody knows that in order to maintain his strength he must eat and drink at regular intervals, it is possible that, under certain circumstances, an individual may not feel like doing so. Thus, while there is often a catalyst which acts as a motivational force, equipping individuals to better preserve themselves, in the case of the desire to maintain strength, the force being hunger, or thirst, not all cases are so straightforward. If somebody is threatened with a knife and has a desire to maintain his bodily integrity, his response is likely to be to fight or flee, depending on the level of the threat. In the event, it is fear which indicates to the person that he should do something to protect himself, though, in reality, what motivates him to action is the potential for pain and his inherent aversion to it. Indeed, though there may never be pain, its mere possibility gives the person good reason to try to get himself out of the menacing situation.

According to Spinoza, joy and the potential for joy play a similar motivational role. Michell Gabhart maintains that on the view advanced by Spinoza, when an individual experiences joy, what is occurring is a momentary awareness of “the success of striving” for self-preservation, of his “power relative to external influences.”41 Joy may be seen as an emotional reward for a person in successfully satisfying his desire to persevere in his existence. When faced with a particular decision, the potential for joy, the possibility that the person could attain such an intensely positive state, can provide ample motivation for him to act. If, for example, he believes that teaching is his calling and, as a result, that a position in a school would bring him joy, he would, as a consequence, have good reason to pursue teaching. Joy and the prospect of joy are instrumental in increasing striving for self-preservation, because both of them motivate individuals to satisfy their desires.

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Spinoza holds that the connection between joy and desire can help people to determine what is good. He considers good and evil to be “modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another.”42 This suggests that what is good is not universal or objective but dependent on the individual concerned. For instance, someone who is averse to hunting may consider guns to be an evil, while someone who must hunt to survive may consider guns to be a good. In this case, it is not the nature of guns on which the individuals differ but the relationship of a gun to their desires. When a person says that something is good or evil, he reveals his preferences, feelings, or attitudes toward the thing. Hence, we arrive at Spinoza’s claim that “we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.”43 When a person calls guns evil, what he is revealing that he does not like guns or desire to use guns. Another person may call guns good, revealing that he likes guns or that he has a desire to use guns.

Despite this step towards subjectivity, Spinoza believes there are certain basic desires which all people share and that “each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.”44 It may be concluded that, in general, what is good for an individual is whatever advances such perseverance. Spinoza also claims that joy is the passion by which the striving for self-preservation is increased. Thus, it follows that, because all people fundamentally desire self-preservation and joy is what enables them to better achieve it, what is good for people includes “every kind of Joy, and whatever leads to it.”45 In the case of the teaching position, what is good for the individual is both the job in itself, and the joy that could result from it. The person benefits from the job because it improves his life, and the joy provides him with a mental reward, which reminds him that the prospect of joy is a sound motivational force after all.

The position that Spinoza advances is controversial. At times, Spinoza seems to suggest that the satisfaction of any desire will lead to joy, which fails to account for desires that are not even directed toward joy. Let us suppose that a co-worker who constantly bullies his colleagues, breaks their equipment, and plays pranks on them is accused of stealing from the company, though he is not guilty of theft. If one of the beleaguered colleagues who has come to greatly dislike the co-worker nevertheless has a strong sense of right and wrong and desires that the co-worker not be unfairly punished for an offence he did not commit, even though the beleaguered colleague may gain nothing personally from an acquittal of the co-worker and may face future harassment by the co-worker, he may still desire the acquittal. In this case, the outcome that the beleaguered colleague desires does not cause him any joy. While it is plausible that the indirect consequence of his action is some sort of pleasant feeling from knowledge of justice served or from an idea of himself as a person of moral integrity, this kind of response is hardly intense enough to be considered joy. Thus, in cases where the immediate consequence of the desire of an individual is not directed at joy, it seems unlikely, perhaps even impossible, that joy will result.

In reply, it might be said that there are two types of desires, desires that are linked to self-preservation and desires that are not. Joy, Spinoza might argue, is inextricably connected with desires that are linked to self-preservation but may in fact have no relation to desires that are not so linked. As it is, there is no reason why fulfillment of a desire for right action should have the same effect on a person as an offer of a life-changing job. Let us consider the emotion fear. It usually makes more sense for a person to fear more for his own well-being than for the well-being of someone else. If someone else is in a dangerous situation, a person may desire that the other person get out of danger, but it seems unlikely that he would experience the same terror and distress that he would if he himself were in danger. The emotion is likely to be felt much more potently when it is related to him. Similarly, given his strong sense of right and wrong, the beleaguered colleague may well desire that his co-worker be exonerated, but it seems unlikely that the moral victory would result in joy, as the events are not directly related to him and his self-preservation. But while it may be true that not every desire leads to joy, it is reasonable to maintain that a relationship between joy and desire does exist and that calling someone joyful carries the implication that some desire relating to his well-being has been satisfied. In the case of joy at rain after a long time in the desert, the desire is simple, the water straightforwardly being an assurance of continued existence. In the case of a life-changing job offer, the desire fulfilled could be many things from financial security to a career that provides an intellectual challenge. We may still ask, however, whether the consequent correlation between joy, desire and what is good can remain as well.

On the one hand, reformulating the relationship undermines a tenet of Spinoza that “we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.”46 If it is not the case that anything that a person desires leads to joy, then it cannot be the case that anything that the person desires can be called good for him, though this does not preclude such desires being good for others. The reason for this is that in order for something to be called good for him, it must contribute to, or be necessary for, his self-preservation, and since joy is the passion by which our striving for self-preservation is increased, it follows that if the desire does not result in joy, it does not contribute, even indirectly, to this striving for continued existence. On the other hand, if desire is the mental state that satisfies the need for continued existence, and if the experience of joy implies that the desire for self-preservation has been fulfilled, then joy, and whatever leads to it, can still be called good for him, because it signifies the successful striving for perseverance in his being. Joy is still a mental reward for achieving momentary certainty of his continued existence, and, consequently, the prospect of joy still acts as a motivational force which contributes to his striving for self-preservation.

While this elucidates a plausible connection between joy and what is good for us, a moral theory based on the relationship would be problematic. If, as Spinoza suggests, individuals are always motivated by the prospect of their own joy, then as a consequence, individuals fail to consider the needs of others who are affected by their actions. This approach, if applied to moral decision-making, would seem problematic because it would be inherently self-centered. Spinoza attempts to reply to an accusation of egoism when he says that “the rational principle of seeking our own advantage teaches us the necessity of joining with men.”47 The idea is that in order to successfully persevere in our own life, we must seek to preserve the lives of others as well. All individuals require the co-operation of other people in order to survive, improve their lives, and gain a general sense of well-being. They should even protect the interests of individuals who have the potential to threaten them in some way. Yet, as is clear from the beleaguered colleague case, the desire to help other people is a desire whose fulfillment has no immediate effect on the desirer and his well-being and, as a result, cannot directly contribute to his joy. At best, helping others has the potential to open up the possibility of resources and relationships, which may, in turn, help individuals to improve their lives. However, since the fulfillment of the desire to help other people cannot, in itself, result in joy, the prospect of joy can play no role in motivating decisions related to this kind of desire. Thus it seems that joy and the desire to help others are inherently at odds. Desires which concern the welfare of others cannot result in joy for the desirer, and desires which do result in joy for the desirer can only be related to him and his self-preservation. As a result of this conflict, it would be both selfish and impractical to try to ground an ethical theory in joy or the prospect of it.

Nevertheless, joy can still play other important roles in our lives. For instance, as Antonio Damasio maintains, joy signifies “optimal physiological coordination and smooth running of the operations of life;”48 The experience of joy demonstrates to individuals that their lives are going exceptionally well. Consequently, joy may be considered a normative response to great things, and thus has the capacity to alert individuals to what is of importance to them. If, for example, a person were offered a job he was desperately vying for, yet felt no joy at the opportunity, he would come to the realization that the job was not as important to him as he had originally suspected. Conversely, if he were to feel joy at the return of a necklace which he believed to be of little value to him, his emotional response would help him understand how much the object really meant. Thus the importance of joy lies always in its relation to an individual. It signals to an individual what he has reason to do and want by showing him what is in his self-interest and as a result may be called good for him.49


  1. 1.

    See Daniel M. Haybron, “Happiness and Pleasure,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 62, no. 3, May 2001, pp. 502–503.

  2. 2.

    Fred Feldman, Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 55.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., p. 56.

  4. 4.

    Richard Kraut, “Two Conceptions of Happiness,” Philosophical Review, vol. 88, no. 2, April 1979, p. 170.

  5. 5.

    Haybron, op. cit., p. 508.

  6. 6.

    Robert C. Solomon, The Passions (New York: Anchor Press, 1976), p. 335.

  7. 7.

    Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998),1097a, p. 11.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., 1099b, p. 18.

  9. 9.

    Ibid., 1095b, p. 6.

  10. 10.

    Robert Heinaman, “Eudaimonia and Self-Sufficiency in ‘The Nicomachean Ethics,’” Phronesis. Vol. 33, No. 1 (1988), p. 34.

  11. 11.

    Spinoza, The Ethics, trans. and ed. Edwin Curley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 503.

  12. 12.

    Solomon, op. cit., p. 335.

  13. 13.

    Aristotle, op. cit., 1099a, p. 17.

  14. 14.

    G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding. trans. and ed. Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 166.

  15. 15.

    Spinoza, op. cit., pp. 500–501.

  16. 16.

    Leibniz, op. cit., p. 166.

  17. 17.

    Spinoza, op. cit., p. 510.

  18. 18.

    Irwin Goldstein, “Are Emotions Feelings?: A Further Look at Hedonic Theories of Emotions,” Consciousness & Emotion, vol. 3, no. 1, 2002, p. 24.

  19. 19.

    Gilbert Ryle, “Feelings,” The Philosophical Quarterly. vol. 1, no. 3, April, 1951, p. 194.

  20. 20.


  21. 21.


  22. 22.

    Solomon, “The Logic of Emotions,” Noûs, vol. 11, no. 1, p. 46.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., p. 47.

  24. 24.

    Solomon, The Passions, p. 133.

  25. 25.


  26. 26.

    Ibid., p. 173.

  27. 27.

    William Lyons, Emotion (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 75.

  28. 28.

    Solomon, The Passions, p. 173.

  29. 29.

    Goldstein, op. cit, p. 24.

  30. 30.

    Jesse J. Prinz, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 161.

  31. 31.

    Ibid., pp. 173–174.

  32. 32.

    Richard S. Lazarus, Stress and Emotion (New York: Springer Publishing Company Inc., 2006), p. 250.

  33. 33.

    Solomon, The Passions, p. 346.

  34. 34.

    Lazarus, op. cit., p. 251.

  35. 35.

    Solomon, The Passions, p. 336.

  36. 36.

    Ibid., p. 337.

  37. 37.

    Spinoz, op. cit., p. 510.

  38. 38.

    Solomon, The Passions, p. 338.

  39. 39.


  40. 40.

    Spinoza, op. cit. p. 528.

  41. 41.

    Mitchell Gabhart, “Spinoza on Self-Preservation and Self-Destruction,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 37, no. 4, October, 1999, p. 618.

  42. 42.

    Spinoza, op. cit., p. 545.

  43. 43.

    Ibid., p. 500.

  44. 44.

    Ibid., p. 498.

  45. 45.

    Ibid., p. 516.

  46. 46.

    Ibid., p. 500.

  47. 47.

    Ibid, p. 566.

  48. 48.

    Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Books, 2003), p. 137.

  49. 49.

    I would like to thank Thomas Magnell, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Value Inquiry, for his comments and help in revision. I would also like to thank Michael Brady at the University of Glasgow for all of his advice.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GlasgowGlasgow Scotland, UK

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