16 June, 2005
Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Tackling Hedonism Head-On
Though there are many things in this world that are worthy of attention, only one issue may be discussed first in this column. And rather than using this initial pulpit to discuss politics, or the environment, or the subjugation of non-human animals, I wish to bring up the one issue that most directly affects all of my readers, regardless of their cultural background. It is the single thread that binds all peoples and transcends boundaries of time, place, and happenstance. In the view of many, it is the most important issue that we may ever discuss, and as such, I feel justified in dedicating my first substantial article to the idea. This topic, debated even back during the pre-socratics, is on human happiness.
Human happiness, as it is intuitively understood, is the individual state that all humans aspire to, regardless of their views on life. Plato argued that individual human happiness comes only with leading the good life, which he described as being part of a well-functioning (i.e., happy) society. Aquinas argued that this good life came about only through being pat of the most perfect well-functioning society: the kingdom of god. Rand argued that the good life comes only from living 'separately' from society, focusing on the individual as the largest unit capable of human happiness. Aristotle said the good life has nothing to do with it; the only way to truly be happy is to philosophize with friends. But in all these vastly differing opinions, one constant remains: achieving human happiness is always considered as one of the most lofty of goals.
The most likely reason for placing such emphasis on hedonism is that it is the only measureable moral entity that we may observe. Some, like Kant, have seemingly argued against human happiness as the most important of issues; but a more sophisticated view of human happiness soon reveals that even categorical imperatives that apply even when against the desires of the individual go against them are in actuality hypothetical imperatives in disguise: if you agree to follow my normative views, then you will do such and such, even if you do not desire to do so. In effect, the categorical imperatives that I believe in are in reality the same as the hedonistic values that I follow most closely. All morality, in fact, can be understood as nothing more than hedonism, albeit sometimes a sophisticated form of hedonism that takes into account more than just one's present state of happiness.
I've used a lot of loaded philosophical terms so far, but even though I need them in order to be completely specific with my words, please understand that it is certainly not neccessary to consult a dictionary of philosophy in order to know what I am talking about. Essentially, human happiness is a concept that we may all talk about, and, indeed, that we all should discuss.
What is human happiness? Clearly, it is what pleases us. But the word 'pleasing' is not exact enough to capture the true meaning of human happiness. True happiness arises from many different sources; not just the pleasures of the flesh, but also of the mind. Aristotle counted receiving respect from one's peers and even personal attractiveness in the eyes of others as qualities that contribute to human happiness. Maybe not all of us achieve happiness in the same way; personally, I do not think I could truly be happy without sexual gratification, for example. But others might disagree. Some might be perfectly happy as social outcasts, or even in being complete morons. But regardless of how we each achieve happiness, the achieving of it is certainly one of the foremost issues that we may each have to deal with.
In the past few years, I've undergone a complete reversal in my personality and outlook on life. Activism has slowly grown to become an important part of my life, and spreading my own emotive views on normative judgments has become something of a personal quest. It is, in effect, my method of achieving human happines. Nevertheless, I have retained my strict philosophical viewpoint in dealing with such issues, and as such have been forced to reconcile with the fact that there is no particular reason why my personal brand of morality should apply to any other.
Retaining a responsible philosophical attitude while trying to get others to agree with my own moral beliefs is hard on my psyche, and ultimately damaging to my own happiness. But I cannot pretend that I know best when others could just as easily know better. Ultimately, my happiness would only be undermined if I were to ignore the philosophical examination that I by now am so used to participating in.
In the end, we're all hedonists. We have to be; there is no other moral-like property that we can observe. I personally believe that humans can never be happy unless nonhuman animals are justly treated. As much as I may wish this to be a categorical imperative, in the end, it is merely how I feel. And I must recognize the same for others.
How another feels life should be (the culmination of which would be their own personal happiness high point) is no better nor worse than my own, at least as far as can be observed. Whether it is Bush further entangling the federal government, big business, and the Christian right; or Plato sacrificing the wants and desires of the philosopher king for the good of the republic; or even the small business owner taking advantage of each employee, client, and supplier because the capitalistic system allows him no better alternative to succeed, the moral views (and thus the personal human happiness) of every being is no more nor less likely to be better nor worse of any other.
Human happiness is a laudable subject. But there is no way of determining which person's views on human happpiness we should follow, not even our own. But the one thing we do know is that in the end, it all is nothing more than hedonism. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do, try to do what would be best for you. In the end, that is all we can do.
Until next week, where I will discuss the role of punishment in society, I bid you all adieu. Be well.