Many people profess to be confused about the question of life’s meaning, of whether there’s a best way of life: the question is a philosophical one, and since philosophy has so little cultural prestige, people suspect that the question is idle. These people are doubly mistaken, since their behaviours if not their words indicate that they typically accept not just the question, but the hedonist’s answer to it. The best way of life is assumed to be the one filled with the most happiness, which is to say the most contentment and pleasure.
But should happiness be the ultimate goal of a person’s life? There’s a clue in the fact that people are widely thought to be perfectly happy only in heaven, when God shows his face and directly rules over creation. The myth of heaven, in which disembodied people feel ultimate joy on a spiritual plane, implies, of course, that there are presently obstacles to feeling happy. In theistic terms, the main obstacle is God’s remoteness from the world, which permits the inhumane forces of nature to dictate the course of our lives. Some people win the lottery, others get hit by lightning, while nothing of lasting significance happens to the majority.
In nontheistic terms, there’s no God and there’s just the frigid, impersonal universe, evolving along its alien trajectory. Far from being at home in nature, we live in one of the few, relatively miniscule spots that aren’t perfectly lethal to us; were we to try to explore the outer reaches, we’d be snuffed out. We can take pockets of the Earth with us in spaceships, but we’d die within them before passing much beyond merely the neighbourhood of our own solar system. Most of the universe is thus effectively hostile towards us, has no mind that can be changed on the subject, and seems far beyond our power to modify to our benefit. Even on Earth, our oasis, the universe rears its alien head in the frugality of natural selection, which equips species with barely enough adaptations to survive, if even with those, so that shortages of resources are commonplace and many people suffer rather than flourish. A meteor could destroy us all as one wiped out the dinosaurs, making nonsense of any pretension to our cosmic importance. I’ll call the set of such obstacles to our happiness, whether they be characterized theistically or nontheistically, Our Existential Situation (OES).
OES, then, necessitates the myth of heaven in an afterlife, on the assumption that happiness is the ultimate good in life. We can’t be perfectly happy here and now, and some of us are prevented from being even remotely happy, but there will be a time and a place in which everything will change for the better. I’d add, though, that when our response to OES is weighed by an ethical standard, we’re left with the normative implication that happiness should not be our ultimate goal in the first place.
Kinds of Happiness Despite OES
To see this, consider the spectrum of possible relations between happiness and OES. At one extreme, in heaven, there’s an ontological split between the two. The situation becomes ideal for happiness, because the natural barriers are obliterated by God at a metaphysical, supernatural level. Next, the philosopher, Robert Nozick, conceived of a thought experiment in which there’s only a physical split between the two: imagine there’s a virtual reality machine that makes the user happy in a simulated world, as the machine prevents the real world from impinging on the user. In this case, the person’s happiness would be more fragile than the supernaturally-guaranteed sort in heaven, because the machine, being just another part of nature, could break down, interfering with the virtual paradise. Then there’s the case in which there’s only a psychological split between them: a happy person may be ignorant of the facts of OES or else may pretend that there’s no such thing, subscribing to myths or fairy tales so that the individual effectively lives in a make-believe world without the need of an external happiness machine. Finally, there’s the case in which there’s no split between them, in which OES thus prevents someone from being happy. This prevention can be physical, as in the case of a natural disaster or a genetic deformity, or psychological, as in the case of the melancholic pessimist or ascetic who becomes morbidly fixated on the facts of OES and feels that contentment is unseemly under those circumstances.
Let’s consider the positions in this spectrum from an ethical standpoint. Details are sketchy about heaven, and not just because no one’s been there and back; as Christopher Hitchens likes to say, heaven represents a “celestial dictatorship” in which we’re swept up in God’s arms and forced to have our minds blown by the infinite majesty of his presence. The fact that theists are more scared of hell than of heaven shows that they still operate with a childishly anthropomorphic view of God. Being hugged by a human parent may be comforting, but the prospect of being “hugged” by the necessarily alien source of all creation, and thus of OES, should terrify us, which is why “fear of God” is a proper synonym for “faith in God.” Ethically speaking, then, a finite creature’s endurance of heaven should be heroic. But of course, this esoteric, mystical understanding of what theism amounts to undermines the exoteric promise that people are happy in heaven. Anyone who would be so happy must have access to a psychological means of keeping the terror at bay, which reduces this position in the spectrum to the case of the psychological split between OES and happiness. I’ll reserve judgment, then, until I come to that position.
What of the ethics of entering the happiness machine? According to Nozick, were we given the option, most would choose to remain in the real world despite the loss of perfect feelings of happiness, which suggests that happiness isn’t a matter of mere feelings. Regardless, the ethical failing of opting for the machine would seem to be cowardice, since the machine would provide an escape hatch from earthly troubles. The nobler, heroic choice would be to face those troubles regardless of the cost to one’s feelings. As for the psychological split, the ethical judgment seems similar. The mental walls have the same effect as the machine’s physical walls that prevent harsh reality from intruding on a dream world. It’s hard to believe anyone could be ignorant of any aspect of OES, but even were this possible, such a person would be either mentally incompetent and thus incapable of human levels of happiness, or else guilty of the vice of incuriosity if not that of cowardice. Lastly, there’s the tragic hero who carries on with no illusions, whose confrontation with the facts of OES takes its toll on his or her capacity for pleasure. Such a person could be expected to lose in life’s races, because the pessimist tends to be shunned and social connections are needed for success as well as for happiness. Now, the person who is physically prevented from being happy may be just a victim with no special virtue, unless she stands up to the alien face of nature despite the personal cost, as in the case of someone who chooses to go on living with a severe physical deformity. In any case, ethically speaking, the tragic hero shines.
Assuming, then, that we should be ethical and that OES is a fact, we shouldn’t seek to be happy. That’s my unsettling conclusion. Note that the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, could take the primary ethical goal, on the contrary, to be happiness, because he anthropomorphized nature instead of knowing about the stomach-churning reality of OES. Aristotle viewed all of nature as imbued with purpose, so that rocks literally succeed when they move downward to their natural home, while air succeeds when it rises, and all of nature works towards The Good. We could feel at home amidst so much teleology, so many human values possessed animistically by everything in the universe. But scientists have shown that that’s not our existential situation. And so happiness, contentment, or joy makes sense in some situations but not in others: in our actual situation, happiness is not just often mixed with anxiety, sorrow, or pain, but is always awkward and guilt-producing as soon as we step back and appreciate OES.
Knowledge versus Happiness
Take, for example, a child who begs his mother for a lollipop, is awarded the treat and is overjoyed, slurping the sugar out of it. This is an uncontroversial, perhaps even archetypal case of joyous contentment. We praise the boy for enjoying his treat, for “taking life easy” while he can (assuming the boy doesn’t have excessive access to candy, causing obesity). We smile and perhaps feel a tinge of bittersweet nostalgia, longing to relive our own such carefree moments.
But widen your perspective to encompass the child’s existential predicament, his inhumane physical environment that makes possible his pain just as much as his pleasure. We then see that his pleasure is due partly to his ignorance of the scope of OES, to his disinterest in planning obsessively for the future in which the indifferent world will threaten to crush his dreams. The child doesn’t know the evolutionary reason why he loves the taste of sugar despite its ruinous effect on the body when consumed in abundance. Moreover, the child lacks self-control and his parents have to restrain his self-destructive impulses. Mother Nature thus created this grotesque relationship between the infant or child, on the one hand, and the parent on the other, betting that the parent’s pity for the former’s helplessness will cause the adult to care for the little one. And does Mother Nature do this for the child’s benefit? No, nature selects the genes, and the parent’s pity is a mechanism for propagating them. What good are the genes by themselves? What’s their value without the travails of their host organisms? If none, then those travails are absurd. When viewed in this broader context, it becomes harder to smile innocently at the child’s beaming face as he stuffs his gullet with candy, harder to excuse his moment of joy as a respite from OES: there is no escape from the fact that sensitive, sentient beings don’t belong in brutal nature.
This problem with happiness is a very old one. In one of the founding myths of western cultures, the story of the Garden of Eden, Life is divided from Knowledge, our human representatives eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but before they can eat from the other tree, they’re cast out of the garden and condemned to years of toil and misery. The Tree of Knowledge symbolizes, in part, an appreciation of OES, a god’s eye view of what’s outside the garden, such as the fact that God sent a serpent to test his human creations, and the Tree of Life symbolizes not just immortality but the capacity to live well, as a god in heaven. From the beginning of recorded history, then, we’ve suspected that consciousness of our surroundings may be a curse, or at least that it’s comparable to a two-sided sword. There’s a conflict between understanding what’s actually going on in the natural world, and being able to feel good about being in that world.
The monotheist tends to whitewash this conflict by blaming us for it: we simply suffer from original sin which prevents us from seeing that this is the best of all possible worlds, that there’s good in everything and that God who is the ultimate good sustains the universe for a higher reason which makes sense of the suffering and of the universe’s apparent indifference to life. Thus the monotheist blames the messenger. We don’t make the world as it is, nor are we responsible for our manifestly dark existential situation; we just discover that the enchanted perspective enjoyed by people who lived prior to modern science is like the ignorance of Adam and Eve before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Even as they frolicked in the garden, blissfully unaware of the serpent (i.e. God’s higher plan for humans) or of their capacity for tragic knowledge, the serpent and the tree existed in the garden, according to the myth. Likewise, the natural properties of the universe, which are quantified by exotic mathematical languages and explained by mind-blowing scientific theories, and which alienate animals with anthropocentric instincts like us, have always been objectively there, the causes of all of our potential pains.
My point, then, isn’t that pleasure of any kind is always wrong; rather, my point is that ethical pleasure must somehow overcome knowledge of OES. What counts as happiness is typically pleasure that derives from luck, ignorance, or vices such as cowardice or self-absorption, and is thus condemnable. What’s the ethical alternative to this pleasure that’s artificially walled off from knowledge of OES? Pleasure tainted by a tragic sensibility, joy periodically cut short by an internal reminder of the terrifying broader context of all human affairs, and a heroic commitment never to feel perfectly comfortable in nature, a place which can no longer be our home. Science shows that we’re effectively stranded in hostile territory, and that our activities are irrelevant to cosmic processes that are beyond our control and that impinge on us in many ways. Ethical pleasure must therefore be felt by a tragic, Nietzschean hero, someone who understands OES and has the will to creatively overcome it.
Instrumentalism and Consumerism
There’s a liberal gambit for avoiding the thrust of this conclusion, which is to identify happiness with success in attaining any goal at all. Thus, the serial killer who succeeds at murdering is “happy” and the tragic hero who successfully overcomes OES is simply “happy.” What makes this response a liberal one is its telltale avoidance of evaluating goals, its scientistic, systems managerial focus on the abstract efficiency of means. The liberal thus misses the difference between the positions in the spectrum, considered above. The persons in heaven, in a happiness machine, in psychological denial of OES, and tragically at one with OES may all be abstractly successful in achieving some goal or other, but the difference between their goals makes for different kinds of life, and those differences have ethical consequences.
The liberal’s notion of happiness is individualistic and subjective, and thus facilitates consumption-driven societies in which mental states are sold along with material goods, by associative advertising. As I say in my rant on liberalism, the liberal’s anachronistic faith is that everyone is equal, as rational beings who have sovereign authority over themselves. If people come to different conclusions about what makes them happy, so be it; the world is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. This Kantian individualism collapses into postmodern nihilism, into a power vacuum occupied in capitalistic democracies by demagogues who tell so-called autonomous moral ends unto themselves (i.e. rational persons) what to think, feel, and consume.
Then there’s the positive psychologist who explains the mechanisms associated with happiness as opposed to those that cause mental illness. For example, one aspect of happiness is thought to be a feeling of flow rather than of anxiety while at work. As with the liberal, the positive psychologist can’t address the normative question, of whether happiness should be a person’s ultimate goal, and still claim to be practicing science. Just as a psychologist can only presuppose the badness of quantitatively abnormal mental states, or risk committing the naturalistic fallacy of attempting to derive normative statement from scientific factual ones, the psychologist can only presuppose the rightness of the most desired goal, for the same reason.
Liberalism and positive psychology, then, are accomplices to the double failure of the pursuit of materialistic happiness. The first ethical failure is the foolhardy plan to be happy in spite of our existential predicament. In the long run, OES won’t let us be happy unless happiness is understood as something tragic. The second such failure is our settling for the lowest kinds of pleasure and for fleeting moments of contentment, which are all that a capitalistic, materialistic culture can afford us. After all, the reason pleasure is our highest goal in the West is that capitalism is driven by our weaknesses, such as our egoism and greed. As I explained in Conservatism, the idea is that human society should be just as wild as the jungle, since competition compels the environment to pick out novel forms of complexity, and according to libertarian conservatism, this natural selection is the most divine creative force. So instead of trying to out-think nature, we should unleash our primitive impulses, thinking only of short-term, personal profit and giving in to fallacious associative advertisements; thus, we let nature take its course and separate successes from failures. When reduced to pleasure-seeking animals, we feel that happiness, rather than some more ascetic duty, is our life’s purpose.
But this social Darwinism backfires. Even were happiness our ultimate good, capitalism tends to make the majority miserable. Businesses churn out an endless stream of services and toys to play with, but in a free market in which the government is naturally corrupted, the predators at the top devise Ponzi schemes to siphon money from the bottom and--thinking only of their own short-term, personal profit--restrict the wages of the middle class so that eventually they can’t afford most products. In this way, the holy pecking order is safeguarded. And instead of living like hedonic kings enjoying a feast in our mansions, we often eat fast food and live in houses we can’t afford, but we’re manipulated into believing that we’re living the good life. Ronald McDonald is always smiling, so a flash of base pleasure from consuming fatty food must be the very stuff of happiness; like that clown, we wear painted-on smiles. (See Scientism.)
On top of the pressure on us from wall-to-wall advertising, cognitive psychologists have experimentally confirmed that we’re prone to a host of fallacies and biases, called “heuristics,” most of which have the evolutionary function of inuring us to unpleasant facts by papering over them. Our thought processes are evidently adapted to distort the truth to make us feel comfortable in what would otherwise seem a terrifying alien environment, to distract us from OES so that we can conduct our sexual transactions and preserve the genes.
Again, liberal and psychological instrumentalism complement this charade, since these cheerleaders for happiness can’t challenge the society’s underlying normative assumptions and can speak only to how we might more efficiently succeed at being happy, within the status quo parameters. If we want, above all, to be happy, despite the facts of OES that make our world horribly absurd, and we delude ourselves into feeling happy when we’re really victimized and bewildered, that’s because our cultural standards have been so lowered to make way for oligarchic capitalism, for the reduction of high renaissance culture--the product of religious rationalizations of monarchy, the rise of scientific reason, and godlike artistry--to a beastly struggle for survival so that a new class of more nihilistic predatorial oligarchs can lord it over the rest of us from their perches in the natural pecking order. Given this calamity, the liberal and the positive psychologist accept its underlying causes and, respectively, merely fine-tune the system like a wannabe engineer or investigate the more nitty gritty, proximal causes of the most desired mental state.
Most people want to be happy; if they can’t be rich or famous, at least they can still be content with what little they have. But an appreciation of OES turns everything on its head. The rich and the famous are ethically worse off than the poor, not because the poor inherit the kingdom of God, but because the poor can’t build such elaborate fantasy worlds to protect them from that which makes their life absurd: their alienation from the natural world. Human life does have a meaning, in the sense of a value, and that value is, as Kurtz says in Apocalypse Now, “the horror, the horror.” Our life also has an ethical purpose, which is to deal heroically with that horror, not to try to escape from it by fleeing to transitory, base pleasures that aren’t earned by confronting our predicament which is the fact that we’re fragile, sentient beings in an alien cosmos that destroys as freely as it creates. Precisely because we are so fragile, because we evolved not to ethically challenge the cosmos but to be preoccupied with a social game that mixes the gene pool so that Mother Nature can keep her options open to fill some future niche with a fresh species, we succumb to vainglorious myths and to the temptation to follow our instincts and submit to religious or to capitalistic dominance hierarchies.
One of these myths is that we ought to be pleased when we succeed in our work so that we can rest contented, with no regrets. This myth fails to take into account the fact that the more knowledge we acquire, the more we must regret having been born at all in the nightmare of our dependence on the practices of an inhumane cosmos for our very survival, let alone our happiness. No amount of hard work can obviate that regret, unless it’s the work of suicide which is itself cowardly. That regret is just the anxiety of a hapless animal that’s cursed to have discovered its existential plight. Pure happiness, joy or contentment is a nonstarter for such a tragic creature. Ethically speaking, anyone’s happiness on Earth is as obscene as any immaterial spirit’s bliss in heaven while knowing about the everlasting holocaust in hell. So if we must smile when the natural cycle spins to our benefit, let’s smile half-heartedly, sparing some revulsion for the fact that for sentient beings alone, that cycle, spinning mindlessly, uplifting and crushing each of us in turn, might as well be a torture device.