Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Root of Happiness

Near the end of The Mustard Seed, the main character, Brian Raines, reflects on the past year of his life, and concludes:

“The root of happiness is the conviction (supported by experience) that you are competent and morally entitled to succeed on this Earth.”

Recently, I asked a friend of mine for his opinion of that quote. And much to my surprise, his reaction was quite negative.

First, he misunderstood the quote itself, by interpreting it to mean that “EVERYONE is morally entitled to succeed.”

To clarify, I wrote back, “the quote is referring to the individual’s conviction that HE personally is morally entitled to succeed.”

But this didn’t satisfy my friend:

“One of my concerns with your definition is that there is no way for one to determine if what they’re experiencing is in fact success…If one thinks it is success, when it’s not, then his or her convictions are inaccurate. And inaccurate convictions would lead to a false happiness, based on your definition.

In my response, I addressed each point.

On who determines “success.”

“The individual himself is the one who ‘determines if what they’re experiencing is in fact success.’ Now, if we want to discuss what the individual SHOULD consider to be ‘successful,’ then that is an issue which is separate from (although closely related to) the tangibility of happiness. But whatever that definition is, the individual himself is the one who will use it to judge his performance – and that, in turn, will be a major influence on his overall level of happiness.”

On the accuracy of that determination…

“Ah…now we’re getting closer…yes, hopefully…and thus, there is a feedback loop…the lack of success = less happiness = a reevaluation of what qualifies as success = new definition = more happiness…thus, the paradigm of happiness can be seen as a “learning experience.”

And on the topic of “false happiness.”

“I’m reluctant to use the term ‘false happiness.’ The happiness you had as a 3-year old playing with G.I. Joe may seem 'false’ if you played with G.I. Joe today…but it was real enough at the time…the 'realness' of that happiness is what I’m trying to explain…I’m groping, admittedly…but I think any solid definition of happiness has to account for the wide variety of human experience – across ages, cultures, etc.”

Later, I expanded on that point...

“You’re associating the original quote with moral relativism, which is not the intention. It is a merely an observation of the human condition. An observation which has to take in a wide variety of human behaviors and emotions – the happiness of a brand-new mother (selfless), the happiness of a man just elected to political office (selfish), the happiness of a Nazi soldier bayoneting a baby (evil). Etc, etc.”

So where do things stand now?

Well, I don’t think I’ve convinced my friend. However, I still want to use this email exchange as a way to elucidate a point I probably should have made clearer in The Mustard Seed – which is that while happiness is (to some extent) SUBJECTIVE (see the G.I. Joe analogy above) – a person can increase their happiness by practicing OBJECTIVE moral values.

What would motivate someone to practice OBJECTIVE moral values? I would venture to say “the raising of consciousness.”

For example, a 10-year old boy might find happiness by punching his younger brother…but at the age of 20, he no longer finds happiness in that activity, because he’s been taught (correctly) that it is immoral to inflict suffering on other human beings…but even so, at that same age of 20, he still finds happiness in killing deer with his shotgun…then, later on, when he turns 30, he no longer finds happiness through hunting, because he learned (through his college roommate) that animals feel suffering too, and it’s immoral to inflict suffering on any creature…finally, when he turns 40, when he has his own son, who he loves deeply, he finds happiness through teaching his son about the beauties of nature, and going camping with his son to personally experience its beauty.

Now, granted, that might seem like a trite example…but I think it hints at a larger point…which is that happiness is a function of our “convictions supported by experience,” and that “the raising of consciousness” churns the wheel of conviction AND the wheel of experience towards more positive activities…and those positive activities are more likely to facilitate happiness… indeed, I would certainly wager that the happiness of that 40-year old man engaging in a loving, productive activity is greater than the happiness he experienced as a 10-year old indulging in mindless, juvenile activities.


As I explained in The Mustard Seed, people have a “power instinct” – the need to spiritually inject a part of themselves in the lives of others. The content of that “power instinct” usually changes over the course of a person’s life. And in some cases, it becomes corrupted (say, through emotional or physical violence). The key is to channel the power instinct towards a positive purpose. Therefore, because the 40-year old has a grander, deeper ability to express his “power instinct,” his level of happiness is greater than it was as a 10-year old (when his “power instinct” was limited to primitive, uncreative purposes – such as injuring his younger brother).

If that is true, then it is certainly reasonable to insist that happiness is linked to morality (or should I say, “TRUE morality”), even if the experience of happiness is subjective, and, in some cases, people can even find happiness through genuinely evil acts. The greatest form of happiness is the most moral - which is the most beautiful. And that is love itself.


**UPDATE, JUN. 13, 2009**

In my humble opinion, the pleasure that some people find through committing evil is so common and evident throughout history that it almost trite to post even one example, but as my email discussion with my friend proves, some people (perhaps most people) are quite hostile to this fact. With that in mind, I will post a brief section from one of the most famous novels of all-time: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

In this passage, one of the main characters, Ivan, is exploring man’s capacity for cruelty, and he says to his brother Alyosha (warning, not for the faint of heart):

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mother’s eyes. Doing it before the mother’s eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They’ve planned a diversion; they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs with glee, holds out its little hands to the pistol, and he pulls the trigger in the baby’s face and blows out its brains. Artistic, wasn’t it? By the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say.”

Apparently, these events actually happened; Dostoevsky simply adopted them for his novel.

At the Uncommon Descent website, Barry Arrington hosts a debate on whether the Turks’ behavior can be morally justified.

“There are certain things that, as Dr. J. Budziszewski says, ‘you can’t not know.’ You can’t not know that ripping babies from their mother’s arms, throwing them in the air and catching them on a bayonet is evil. Everyone reading this post knows this to be true without the slightest doubt or reservation. Jack is simply and obviously wrong when he says a soldier is free to choose moral standards in which such an act is good. There is no such freedom.

Anyone who says that it is not self-evident that the soldier’s act was evil is lying. It is quite literally unthinkable to imagine a moral system in which such an act is good.

Just as the statement ‘two plus two equals eight’ is wrong in an absolute sense, the soldier’s act was evil in an absolute sense. The fact that the soldier’s act was evil transcends time, place, circumstances, opinion, and every other variable one might imagine. From this I conclude the act violated a transcendent moral standard, and from this I further conclude that a transcendent moral standard exists.”
Personally, I disagree with Mr. Arrington assertion that the Turks “can’t not know” that their act “violated a transcendent moral standard” (I explain my opinion here). Furthermore, while I think that Mr. Arrington's theory deserves a serious debate, ultimately, it’s a side-show. After all, how many people are going to defend the Turks’ behavior? The real question isn’t: Can this behavior morally justified? Rather, the question is: Why does this behavior exist at all? Why does it occur in every part of the world in every period of history?

That would be a far more interesting moral debate.

A useful paradigm of ethics and happiness must explain the Turks’ behavior: What Heather Manning called the “joy of evil.”

But we can’t do that until we acknowledge that the “joy of evil” actually exists.


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