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.

The meaning of life

Philosophers have nearly forgotten this oldest and perhaps most important question. Other than being the title of a somewhat philosophical movie, it is worth pursuing as a topic of contemplation and it seems to be making a comeback in the discipline.

Before any deep pondering can be done, I think it is important to parse this question as it is ambiguous. By "meaning" I take that the question can really be asking two (or more relevant that I'm not aware of) very different things. So what are the meanings of 'meaning' as it is used in that question?

I suspect that one can either mean, What is the purpose or aim of life? or one may mean, What is the thing that gives life its ultimate worth, value or significance.

These are different questions and confusing them may contribute to a crude analysis of the answer to that question.

I think that the answers to these two questions are different but I suspect for most people and many philosophies they are the same. It makes some sense to say that what gives life it ultimate worth, value or significance is also what people should seek (their purpose). So many people (such as utilitarians, e.g.) may say that the answer is happiness. They may then argue that if happiness is that which gives life it ultimate worth, etc, then that is also what people should ultimately aim for in life and to achieve the greatest amount of it possible. I don't think that should be the case even though I agree that happiness is what gives life its ultimate worth, etc.

Here is where I think the distinction I made comes in handy. I think that the aim or purpose of life is something different; it is to be the best person one can be (a goal approaching a limit). Sometimes, achieving happiness comes at the price of achieving goodness of character (but the relationship is extremely complex). It's hard to imagine how someone who is very virtuous can be happy in an unjust, evil world. Someone who is very good will likely experience lots of resentment, indignation, righteous anger, etc etc, emotions that are not conducive to a happy life. If they are truly good, it is hard to see how they can easily overcome such negative emotions in the face of evil and in fact it is precisely these very emotions which partly make up their good character which block their ability to achieve that happiness. The attainment of happiness sometimes comes at the cost of good character. Some people can live happy lives oblivious or ignorant by choice to the evil surrounding them (such as a Happy German during the Nazi regime). Others, better people, cannot do so.