Thursday, April 15, 2010

The structure of happiness

In the previous post, I said that even thought I'd agree with many people that happiness is what gives the ultimate worth, value and significance of life (and hence one "meaning" of life), it is (or more accurately should) not be the purpose of life. But why shouldn't it be?

I think to explain this, we have to ask what is happiness. I think it is distinct from pleasure. Happiness, as I understand it, is intentional (that is, it is "about something" or has an "aboutness" property). Pleasure is not. Pleasure is just good feeling and as such, we can think of pleasure machines which think, feel, do nothing but experience a sense of pleasure. Happiness, OTOH, is always for some reason which the experiencer of that emotion or state or whatever, can tell you. It is dependent on beliefs about the world. We make ourselves care about the world by making ourselves vulnerable to its vicissitudes by adopting certain normative values about the world. Some things should be and other shouldn't. That's what it means to have values. When things that should be the case obtain, we experience a positive attitude based on our allegiance to those state of affairs being valuable. So a happy person can always tell you why she is happy but someone who experiences pleasure may not necessarily do so. Someone who lives their entire lives only for pleasure (a hedonist or wanton) does not seek happiness because they make their own pleasure the object of their desire. The person who seeks happiness, OTOH, seeks it only through the obtaining of a state of affairs which they deem of value. Thus, I think that a hedonist or wanton cannot attain happiness, only pleasure.

But think about what the hedonist does. Her life's goal is to manipulate things, however other things may be, so that she experiences pleasure. How is this from treating oneself (and others) as a means to an end (the experience of pleasure)? So at least on a Kantian note, one would be violating one's duty to self and others by making pleasure as one's ultimate goal in life. But happiness cannot be sought by itself because it is by its very nature, intentional (or perhaps being metaphorical, "transparent") thus obtained only through an indirect route, through the obtaining of the deemed valuable state of affairs.

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