Friday, June 29, 2007

Happiness and meaning

Ruthie muses:

"I've just realized (out of the blue) that that would no longer be my wish. I'd wish for wisdom. I would wish to know the truth— the absolute truth— about everything I've ever wondered.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Truth can hurt.

But it's just occurred to me that I'd rather live meaningfully than happily."

The most complete enthusiast for happiness in modern politics is Lord Layard. He works from the assumption of a utilitarianism particularly focussed on the sensory experience of satisfaction as revealed by "happiness surveys" (that he puts far too much faith in). There are massive flaws with his political agenda even if one does wish to maximise happiness which I won't go into here. Instead, let's consider the more fundamental question of whether if we knew how to make everyone happy, perhaps because a genie offered to make it that way, we would be right to do so.

It is a struggle to name a more obviously important novel than A Brave New World, although Rasselas is a candidate. It has to be the start of a critique of the strong-form utilitarianism that Layard espouses.

The book isn't a direct intellectual case against utilitarianism. It paints a picture of the utilitarian society at its most successful: Everyone is happy with their place. Intoxication and license provide sensory pleasure. The deeper feeling that can drive us to a mellow distraction has been minimised and eliminated where possible. Under the kind of analysis that Layard employs it would have to be seen as a triumph. In any comparison of happiness surveys the London of A Brave New World would undoubtedly emerge triumphant as its inhabitants enjoy what Christopher Hitchens has described as "a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus."

However, it is a deeply pointless society. Happiness is a superficial emotion. It is generally a satisfaction with the condition a person finds themselves in which can either be created by good conditions or low expectations. Layard focusses primarily on combatting inequality such that high expectations, which most will be unable to meet, are not created. It is the case for not wanting anything that you do not have, and may not be able to achieve.

This is intrinsically a manifesto for pointlessness. If you take Layard's logic properly to its conclusions not just inequalities in wealth would need to be tackled. All status competition creates pressures and unhappinesses in the vast majority who never reach a given pinnacle. After all, I do not wish to be Damon Buffini, for all the private equity magnate's wealth. I have other standards to which I hold myself. Money is a fine thing to have but my dreams are rarely of fabulous wealth. There are people who have inspired me and set an awe-inspiring standard for my behaviour and achievements. Others who, in my less noble moments, I envy. When I compare my lot to theirs I rarely think of their wealth but of other achievements. A much deeper and sadder equality than a uniformity of wealth would need to be created for us to see the end of the stresses of status competition.

It is easy for Layard to attack the impulse to emulate those of greater material wealth; he can appeal to old prejudices that seeking wealth is a grubby and disreputable practice. However, one of my aspirations is to fight great political battles. I am envious of those who have lived and triumphed in momentous days. I hope to emulate them one day. This will undoubtedly mean that I work harder, have less of the leisure time Layard is so keen for people to maintain (what free time I have will often be spent doing more political things such as blogging) and am more stressed and discontented from time to time than if I had no such driving objective. Would a happiness with my place make me a better person, would it be better if I were that way? I don't think so and I don't think I'm alone in taking that conclusion. Having a reach within your grasp is a sad fate.

My challenge to Ruthie would have to be: Does she really want to know everything? Couldn't perfect knowledge rob her life of meaning, particularly as a journalist, just as surely as perfect happiness?

I think enlightenment is the moment you rub a lamp, discover a genie and are offered wishes but then turn them down entirely without regret. Not because your life is one of idle contentment but because you both accept and love your struggle.

That enlightenment would seem to lead to a deeper happiness than the satisfaction that utilitarians seek. It is a spiritual rather than a material condition. It is not somewhere that others can take us but an ideal we have to find in ourselves.

1 comment:

Ruthie said...

I think perhaps the word I should have used was "pleasure."

Ephemeral pleasure vs. lasting truth. That's the dichotomy I was getting at.

I don't know that I'd want perfect knowledge, come to think of it-- just the absolute truth about the most important things, like the existence of God and the soul, the nature of being, that sort of thing. The learning process of attaining other sorts of knowledge-- like learning to cook something new, or speak a different language-- is part of the fun. I wouldn't want to miss that.

Lord Layard sounds like a lot of fun.