Positive Thinking, Positive Psychology, and The Nature of Virtue

James Society Session at SAAP, 2009

Stephen Fishman & Lucille McCarthy


            The co-authors of this presentation believe that one of the most significant contemporary developments of James' discussion of the principles of "healthy-mindedness" is occurring today in Positive Psychology.  The co-authors also believe that, for philosophy, the most important developments in Positive Psychology are twofold.  These are (1) Positive Psychology's claim that it has evidence that use of positive personality traits like hope, optimism, zest, and passion, regardless of motives or consequences, are ways to exhibit virtue.  And (2) its claim it has evidence that exercise of these positive traits, regardless of motives or consequences, leads to the good life and "authentic happiness" (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis).  We say that these are significant developments because, if true, we have scientific support for the long-standing desire (at least since Luther's time) to show that moral behavior is a guarantee of happiness and that we have a moral obligation to be hopeful and optimistic.  In this presentation, the co-authors focus on Positive Psychology's claims to have shown that exercising one's character strengths are ways to exhibit virtue or is the same as acting morally and living a morally good life.


The Nature of Virtue

            Although it seems clear to us that in many cases virtuous behavior leads to happiness, we raise questions about Positive Psychology's use of the word "virtue."  More specifically, we question its view that the exercise of such personal traits as hopefulness, optimism, passion, and zest are "ways we achieve the virtues" regardless of their consequences or the reasons these "strengths of character" are used (Seligman, op. cit., p. 133, 137).  For example, we believe that hope is not a virtue when one acts hopefully for domination over others.  We believe that the same is true when optimism, passion, and zest are marshaled for personal advantage or aggrandizement.  Failure to make this distinction allows Seligman to conclude that a millionaire options trader, champion bridge player, and avid sports fan leads "a good life" because he has exercised his "signature strengths" and, thus, has achieved virtue (Seligman, op. cit., pp. 35, 111-112).  We speculate that those who believe that virtuous behavior is moral behavior because it includes working for the common good would disagree with Seligman's choice of an exemplar of the virtuous and good life.  In addition, we speculate that the list of those disagreeing would include figures like Socrates, Mill, Dewey, and James.   For us, James' understanding of the conditions of virtuous behavior is encapsulated in a question he once asked and answered for his audience.  James' question was: "Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built?"  His response: "To hear the question is to answer it in but one possible way, if one have a normal constituted heart" ("Is Life Worth Living," 1895).