Happiness Versus Meaning? No Thanks!

 Posted by on 11 June 2013 at 1:00 pm  Altruism, Ethics, Happiness
Jun 112013

I disagree with much of this article — There’s More to Life Than Being Happy — but it raises some interesting questions about the relationship between happiness and meaning. Here’s a tidbit:

In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

There’s much more, so I hope that you’ll go read the whole article.

Here’s my basic view: I don’t see that seeking happiness and seeking meaning are two opposing pursuits. That’s because I don’t accept the “taker” versus “giver” ethics used by the psychologists cited. That’s the standard false alternative perpetrated by an ethics of self-sacrifice, whereby a person is obliged to always choose being serving himself (which is necessary but evil) and serving others (which is self-destructive but good). Instead, I advocate and practical the morality of trade — whereby I give as much as I get from others. For me, that’s why I’m able to have a life that’s rich in meaning and happiness. Because I live by the principles and virtues of rational egoism, I don’t need to choose between them.

I discussed this topic in more depth in answering a question about the value of happiness on the 3 March 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the questions’s archive page.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!

Gratitude Versus Resentment

 Posted by on 18 October 2012 at 10:00 am  Altruism, Ethics, Medicine, Psychology
Oct 182012

Here’s an interesting thought, from a post on Kevin MD on supposedly “greedy” doctors:

The extent to which the value of a service to an individual approaches infinity (such as a human life saved), is the extent to which a person expects it to be provided to them for free. Any charge for this infinitely valuable service will not be considered a very fortunate undercharge. Instead, the extent to which there is any charge at all for the infinitely valuable service, is the extent to which the receiver of the service will harbor undue resentment toward whomever profited any amount from providing it.

Undoubtedly, altruism begets such resentment. (Altruism is the view that each person’s highest moral duty is to serve others.) The altruist patient resents that the doctor “takes advantage” of him by saving his life, then requiring payment for services rendered. Given his great need, the doctor should have saved his life without demanding payment, according to the altruist patient. The doctor’s bill is, on this view, morally wrong.

In contrast, the rational egoist experiences gratitude in such circumstances. (Egoism holds that each person’s own life and happiness are his highest moral purpose.) He knows that the doctor saved his life — and payment is the least that he can offer in return. The egoist recognizes that the doctor is his own man, and that neither of them has a claim on the life or time of the other.

Which kind of person would you like to be?

P.S. Did you recognize our old friend the troll Johnny Blaze?

P.P.S. Paul has some comments on this article on We Stand FIRM.

Mar 182002

As Paul has been away at a conference for the past few days, I have spent a few hours in those days in rather dubious pursuits. Perhaps the worst was a few night ago. After watching my beloved Batman Beyond, I stuck around the Cartoon Network to watch some bizarre Japanese cartoon. As it turns out, the cartoon contained an interesting moral lesson, although not the one intended.

In the cartoon, a young boy has died. But there is a possibility of his returning to life if he properly cares for a magic egg. If he behaves badly, the egg will hatch a terrible monster which will bite his head off. If he behaves well, the egg will hatch a powerful creature necessary to return his spirit to his body. But his house catches fire and threatens to destroy his body, without which he will not be able to return to life. A girl he cares for runs into the blazing house to rescue his body, but she gets trapped by the fire. The boy is thus faced with a stark moral choice. He can throw the egg into the fire to save the girl, but thereby ruin his chances of returning to life. Or he can save the egg for himself and allow his friend to die. (Of course, if the boy allows the girl to die, his body will also be destroyed, along with any hope of rebirth. But the cartoon doesn’t consider this fact.) The boy overcomes his “selfish” desire for life and throws down the egg. The gods are so impressed with this noble act that they return him to his body despite the destruction of the egg. In fact, the gods inform the boy that had the egg hatched, the creature would have surely eaten him for his bad behavior. (Sorry for the long summary, but the story line was too bizarre for a short synopsis.)

The moral of the story, of course, is that selfless behavior is rewarded. By acting to save the life of his friend, he ends up saving both of their lives. If he had acted to save his own life, both he and the girl would have died. Only by acting against his own apparent interests can the boy has all of his wishes realized.

This moral message is fairly common, particularly in children’s literature. Adults sell the ideal of altruism to children by giving it an egoistic veneer. They claim that rewards will be heaped upon those who act selflessly. Those rewards may come from God after death, from other people, or even from psychological satisfaction. Those rewards may be delayed, but they will come. In essence, this dressed-up altruism asserts that the best way to obtain happiness is to not pursue it. Or even more strongly: the best way to obtain happiness is to pursue the happiness of others at the expense of one’s own happiness.

Of course, when the issue is put so starkly it seems rather ridiculous. Imagine a person who has $50 in his wallet. He wants to buy a $75 gift for his beloved wife. Would the best way to acquire the extra $25 be to give away the $50 dollars he has? Should he then expect to magically receive $75 back? Or should he just directly pursue the needed $25 by going to the ATM and removing the funds from his account? Obviously, we get the stuff we want by pursuing it, not renouncing it. That’s how life works.

Two objections could be made to this simple observation when applied to happiness. First, we do occasionally receive good stuff unexpectedly, like an inheritance from an aunt we never knew existed. Such gains cannot be relied upon, precisely because they are unexpected and unusual. Most of the time, we must work to achieve what we want. Second, some people pursue their happiness in all the wrong ways, thereby making themselves miserable. But the irrationality of some people’s means of acquiring something says nothing about the actual value of that thing. Just because some people attempt to obtain a job by threatening lawsuits doesn’t mean that pursuing a job is bad.

Altruism, if presented honestly, would advocate the sacrifice of oneself to others as an end-in-itself. To motivate altruism with hope or expectation of reward, as the cartoon did, is to appeal to egoism. But egoism and altruism are not compatible, no matter how often people accept the silly contradiction. Kant understood this problem, which is why his moral theory seems so harsh and extreme. He, at least, was consistent on this issue. (Although not well-grounded, as Will Wilkinson argues in this essay.)

I’m not advocating any form of psychological egoism. People clearly can and do act against their interests, both in full knowledge and in ignorance. My point is rather that to make altruism a palatable moral theory for a wide audience, its advocates must sugar-coat it with a veneer of self-interest. They must promise people rewards for their sacrifices. They falsely promise a positive cost-benefit analysis in the long run. Why? Because naked altruism would be abhorrent to most even moderately self-respecting people.

But by dressing up the wolf in sheep’s clothing during childhood, the indignity of altruism remains hidden from the sight of most people.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha