The Happiness Thing II 13 July 2006Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy.
Happiness is elusive, and seems to slip away as soon as we are about to put our hands on it. In the first post of this series, I talked about how the conscious pursuit of pleasure (i.e., hedonism) can be self-defeating. A reasonable response to this problem would be to say that we shouldn’t have defined happiness so narrowly in the first place. If only we could get the right definition of happiness, we would avoid the problems that the hedonist runs into.
Not so easy. The history of philosophy is littered with attempts to get the right definition of happiness. Try it yourself.
Think of three, four or five things without which you could not imagine a happy, complete and fulfilling life. If you can do without something, take it out. If something has already been mentioned or can be included in another item on the list, take it out. If the list looks incomplete, keep adding items. Would pleasure be on the list? What else? What about dignity? Honor? Stability? Meaningful relationships? Freedom? Contribution to a greater purpose?
The problem is that no one has been able to draw up a complete and uncontroversial list of ingredients for the good life. We all want to make life choices that produce happiness, but we don’t really know what happiness means. As says to Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any way will take you there.”
Now you might say that an objective definition of happiness is simply impossible. And since we can’t all agree on a single list, why not just let every person have his own list? This is the essential insight of contemporary liberalism: “Anything goes!” (Not to be confused with an older form of liberalism, which promoted the toleration of different lifestyles but not the lifestyles themselves.)
Now this only looks like a solution. In fact, it’s the flipside of the same problem. As soon as we move from an objective definition of happiness to subjective ones, we open the door to life choices and lifestyles that we would not otherwise approve of. This is not simply a case of having a different opinion (you think travel is integral to happiness, I don’t), but of having a moral objection to someone’s subjective definition of happiness. Some of the more obvious examples of “bad” life choices or lifestyles include sadism, masochism, drug addiction, prostitution, incest and cannibalism (homosexuality would have been on this list some decades back). Most people have a problem with these examples not simply because they would not wish them upon themselves, but because they would not wish them upon anyone.
Take the example of two friends who find each other online. One is a sadist, the other a masochist and both like the idea of cannibalism. They are of sound mind and body, and draw up a contract with mutual consent that stipulates that Friend A will eat one finger of Friend B every week. Ten fingers, ten weeks. What’s the problem? Not the most delicate example, but it drives home the point.
So we’re back to square one. If hedonism is not a satisfactory definition of happiness, then what is? Coming up with any objective definition runs the risk of someone claiming that it is not complete or comprehensive enough. Sliding from objective to subjective definitions runs the risk of someone coming up with a life choice or lifestyle that others would find morally objectionable. We’re no closer, it seems, to figuring out what happiness is and how we should go about getting some of it for ourselves.