Reuben Strayer

Happiness and You

Happiness, as it is conventionally defined, seems to be an instinctive pursuit. Meaning, it is clear that the desire to be happy dominates our thought and decisions, if not actively, than at least subconsciously. We will forgo the Webster's definition but suffice it to say that happiness is commonly viewed in conjuntion with pleasure or things that feel good; and furthermore, that pleasure is what leads to happiness. However, it does not take a great deal of additional evalution to conclude that a life made up of many pleasures will not necessarily result in a happy life (whatever that is), so we may discard the "common notion" of happiness immedietly and search for a more concise and consistent assessment. It is important to note that we are proceeding with the premise that happiness is good by any definition, that is to say, it is something worth attaining. We will also assume that happiness is not only worthy of attaining but attainable by our conscious thoughts and/or actions, meaning, we make choices that affect our happiness. This presumption ties happiness to morality, or the code that governs how we should think and act. Certainly this is not a straightforward relationship, however, we can generalize to say that all moral codes purport to promote community happiness; thus the central overlap between morality and happiness is how and when the pursuit of individual happiness opposes the moral directive toward community happiness. We must then determine the nature of happiness and also what morality will most readily allow its realization.

If happiness does not necessarily follow from pleasure because a life of pleasure does not always mean a happy life then from what does happiness necessarily follow? Nietzsche may have said it best in his "looping of life" guideline: a life worth living again and again must be a happy life. Note that this discards the Christian dogma of happiness - that a virtuous life will, regardless of earthly misfortune, lead to happy afterlife. This is not only a philosophically useless argument since it operates on the premise of the existance of a life after death, which is controversial, but it seems less like a path to happiness than a motivation to act according to Christian virtue. To determine the essence of happiness, we should first look outside the human realm because the complexity of human emotion and interaction, as well as the evolution of societies with its pressures and priorities serve only cloud our inquiry. Certainly it is ridiculous to evaluate the happiness or nonhappiness of a stone. Or is it? At this point we must discuss the notion of happiness as an end. Aristotle gave much consideration to this notion and concluded that eudaimonia, or living in accordance with reason, must be the ultimate end for humans because reason is what makes humans distinct and special. The Aristotelian idea of telos is significant here; it says that everything has a purpose or end. For example, the "purpose" of a rock is to sit on the ground, and any rock that sits on the ground is fulfilling its purpose by existing in accordance with its telos. The notion of telos is disputable because it is impossible to generalize such an overriding "purpose" to coexist with human free will, but telos is an extension of the much less debatable principle of sufficient reason, which claims that everything that happens, happens for a reason. If we assume this then it is natural to question for what reason decisions are made. In this context the stone instance is absurd because stones don't make decisions, but in the case of a plant the issue becomes at least relevant. Plants simply grow and reproduce, with the Darwinian goal of continuing the species. Although characterizing a plant as happy may be strange it is natural to call a stong and asexually active plant flourishing. As we move up the evolutionary chain, we notice that pigs are not unlike plants in many ways, but we can comfortably label a strong and healthy pig happy. But would even a strong and healthy pig be happy to stay in one place permanently? Clearly not - the pig demands more than the plant for its happiness: not only strength and health but an opportunity to slosh about in the mud, explore, and create olfactory diversions. The trend here becomes obvious and the question then is what makes humans different than pigs. Undoubtably, as Aristotle (and Kant) concluded, it is rationality or reason that creates the distinction. It then follows that humans, in addition to being healthy, strong, and having an opportunity to slosh about in the mud, must exercise their ability to reason. Returning then to the question of why humans make their decisions, we find that such an investigation acutally leads to a chain of 'why's:' For example, why does one take a shotcut to his destination? The first answer would be "so he can get there faster," but then we must ask, "why would one want to get there faster?" To which he might reply, "so he could save time." We would continue this harassing string of 'why's' until surely he would respond, "because it makes him happy." At that point our questioning would cease because it seems absurd to ask why one would want to be happy. Hence, happiness is not necessarily the general telos or purpose that Aristotle claimed but it is at least the ultimate motivation for all individual actions. Even in exteme cases, such as choosing pain for oneself for the benefit of others, it may be argued that seeing the others' benefit provides enough happiness to overcome the "negative happiness" caused by the choice for pain.

Mills said that it is better to be an unhappy human than a happy pig. Clearly it is not hard to live one's life in accordance with the stipulations for being a happy pig but it has already been established that this is not enough to make a human happy - he needs to exercise his reason. At the core of this reason - the ability to think, evaluate, speculate, and repsond - is the ability to make a choice. In the previous example, it was the freedom to make the choice to take the shortcut to the destination as opposed to the safer, longer route that led us down the prossession of 'why's' and delivered us to our destination of happiness. Humans must exercise their rationality to flourish - and it is the autonomous, rational mind and the freedom to make choices that hold the key to achieving happiness. This conclusion follows from the earlier claim that the ultimate motivation of all actions is happiness; if that claim is presumed than it is clear that making a choice (which follows from there being the opportunity to make that choice) is the fundamental "unit" of happiness since it is the only thing from which happiness necessarily follows. It is inhererent in this resolution that it is not necessarily the outcome of the choice that makes us happy, which makes intuitive sense: if the aforementioned shortcut passes through private property and the tresspasser is arrested, the consequence of the choice did not make him at all happy. Additionally, it is useful to examine the causes of unhappiness: Firstly, the common method of punishment for criminals is jail, or denial of the freedom to make a choice. Obviously it is not just the inability of the perpetrator to recommit the crime which encourages jail sentances - "paying a debt to society" implies the mandated abatement of happiness. Also, many of the great political and social uprisings including civil and international wars - where happiness has been compromised to the point of destruction and slaughter - have been a result of oppressive regimes, or institutions that restrict the freedom of a class of people.

How is it that making choices will necessarily lead to happiness? Certainly it is not unreasonable to imagine someone who has made all his choices and is still unhappy, Sartre would go as far as to say that anyone who is unhappy is unhappy because of their choices. There must be something beyond simply choosing, then, that promotes happiness, and it is how one goes about making choices. We must carry the notion of "freedom" to make the choice further to mean that the choice must be free of all internal and external influences, meaning, it must be a result of your rational will alone. This is somewhat unclear, because most likely outside influences necessitate the need for a choice in the first place. What is meant here is not making a choice free of circumstance, but free of inclination. The most prevailing example of an inclination is the maintenance of the status quo, or following the well-trod path. Inclinations are often internal, as well, as in the case of the call for proximal pleasure. The key then is the thwarting of these inclinations, the separation of the choice from societal and inner pressures, and the sole reliance on one's rationality as a means to make decisions. From this we can say that if choices are made in this manner they will lead to happiness by definition. Each made choice entails irreversable consequences, so that if one does not make choices free of inclinations then he will find himself living a life of regret, but if choices are made rationally than regardless of the outcome of the choice it was the right choice - by definition.

Since happiness is innately tied to the freedom to make choices, and that freedom is most fundamentally under the auspices of the code of morality (before, for example, law), the nature of a moral code conducive to the achievment of happiness must be delineated. Kant's interpretation of a morality based on reason itself seems appealing, but his interpretation makes the assumption that human reason is universal so that upon reflection every individual should arrive at the same conclusion from the same problem. This ludicrousy points to a greater weakness in any morality: any system of ethics that limits freedom, even for the end of community happiness, shall be oppressive to some degree because any code must, by virtue of our individuality, be arbritrary. Additionally, the acceptance of a moral code is self-defeating: if an individual must look to society's interpretation of morality to base his decisions than not only is his freedom limited but he loses the chance to determine his own code of conduct and deprives him of his internal morality - the end which any moral code seeks in the first place! This MacIntyre-like thesis proposes that ethics can only be individually defined by action, experience, and practice. Obviously society could not function by jungle rule and it is germane to point out the difference between law, and the respect for law, and morality. And though a further investigation is beyond our scope, it is readily obvious that a premise of of this morality is the universal acceptance of both the need for law and for the respecting of laws whether or not they coincide with individual moralities.

In conclusion, it is both the freedom to make a choice and the choice based solely on reason itself from which happiness necessarily follows, and any system of ethics by its very nature impedes on this freedom, so the only acceptable morality is one based on individual experience and resolution. Naturally it is implausable to live in a world where choice is categorically unrestricted; our free will must often be compromised, so in a practical sense it is the minimization of these restrictions that becomes the cardinal pursuit - it is how we choose to advance toward this end that determines whether we, in the most basic sense, should flourish.