retread| The Happiness Thing I 4 November 2006Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Philosophy, Psychology.
Retreads are quality posts that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally published by ABD on 13 Apr 2006.
We are pleasure seeking creatures. This is how Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of utilitarianism, put it:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. … They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.
As we know from our lived experience, however, happiness plays hard-to-get. She eludes her most ardent suitors, and sometimes arrives at the doorstep of the most unlikely prospects.
I just learned something cool in my class on utilitarianism yesterday: the paradox of hedonism (thank you, Michael Stocker). Someone who seeks pleasure (i.e., a hedonist) will naturally direct his actions toward the pursuit of pleasure. Everything he does will be justified by this rationale, and everyone he interacts with will become a means to this goal. Not the most admirable approach, we might say, but surely a rational one. Except that by treating his friends and loved ones as means, the hedonist is at the very same time compromising those relationships. Insofar as human relationships are not purely instrumental things, the most satisfying ones do not emerge from people looking out for their own happiness. A lover of pleasure does not a lover make.
As it turns out, then, there is something self-defeating about the pursuit of happiness. There is more to the story, of course, but I thought this would be a good beginning.
A sequel to this piece has also been posted: “>The Happiness Thing II.