The Pursuit of Happiness
Philosophical Reflections XX
Philosophy should not be an intellectual game that we play for amusement, then we go home and it has nothing to do with our lives. Nor is its purpose to generate a set of moral commandments which it is our duty to perform.
These views seem opposite, but share the same false essence: a dichotomy between Mind and Life. But the mind is neither impotent and irrelevant to our lives, nor an abstraction that can lay down a morality detached from life. The mind is our primary tool for understanding reality, which means it is our primary tool for achieving life and happiness: and that achievement is its purpose.
So the purpose of philosophy is neither entertainment nor a substitute God. Its purpose is life . Not only is the choice to live the foundation of values and hence ethics (Reflections 10), but more fundamentally, the need and desire to preserve and enhance your life are the raisons d’etre of all knowledge and philosophy (Reflections 1).
And the proper goal and reward of life is your own happiness.
Happiness is not a peripheral issue, but is intimately entwined with life. It is both the result of achieving the values you must have in service of your life and a cause of that life’s value to you.
Life and Values
The fundamental nature of life, and why it is a value, is that it exists and its continuing existence is conditional. It is in the metaphysical nature of life to seek to live: since life is self-generated, self-sustained action, by its essence it seeks its own continuance. That is why it is in the biological nature of life to choose to live: every living thing is built to try its utmost to preserve its life (including its continuation past death, through its offspring).
Life is action: which implies action directed to some immediate end or ends, which serve the ultimate end, life itself. By definition, those ends are values. Thus, life involves and requires the pursuit and attainment of values (and the avoidance of disvalues).
Life is self-generated action: which implies, something must prompt those actions. In their simplest form, the actions are hard-wired by the forces of evolution, as in the instincts of an insect or the beating of your heart. But when the actions are chosen by a consciousness (whether free-willed or not), that consciousness requires consciously apprehended motivation. To achieve the general goal of life, the discrete values that support it must be rewarded. At the simplest level, this is physical pleasure and pain in all their variations. At a higher level, it is emotional responses, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, curiosity, contentment etc. Thus, it is inherent in the nature of conscious life that physical and emotional responses are the reward for achieving values, and the penalty for failing to achieve them. Furthermore, if physical and emotional responses are to uphold life and not encourage disproportionate actions, their intensity must correlate with the actual values of the things they reward.
Thus, life by its nature requires the pursuit of values; achieving values, by their nature and the nature of conscious life, is pleasant and failure is unpleasant; and the greater the value, the greater the response. Thus you cannot pursue life separate from pleasure and happiness: they are tightly linked.
Free Will and Values
Yet man is not a mere animal, but a free-willed being whose actions are chosen. This adds a further dimension to the question of life and values. Whatever your biological urges, you can still choose to live, or to die; to act to benefit your life, or to harm it. There is no absolute forcing you to choose life: it is in the nature of a rational being to have free will, and it is in the nature of free will that choices are choices.
There are metaphysical reasons why one should choose life: existence is, and non-existence is not: and not to value existence, to give it up lightly as a thing of no consequence, is to prefer a zero over all of reality, to betray all you are and all you could be. There can be no values outside of reality, because values must exist: so there can be no reason to choose death (barring some tragedy), as the reasons for doing anything all lie in reality.
So fundamentally, life is a value because the realm of reality is all there is. But all that actually counts to you in that reality, all that serves your life in that realm, are those things that are values. And if life is a value because it encompasses the realm of all values: then it follows that if life is your aim and your love, then you must seek as many and the highest values as you are able. Which as we have seen, also means to seek the greatest happiness you can find.
Furthermore, whatever abstract reasons there are why you should value your life, it will only be a value to you if you experience it as a value in the real world. Only if you experience your life as a value can you pursue it as one. For if as a free-willed being you are to choose life, you must wantlife: to consistently make choices in the service of life, you must be motivated to do so, and motivations derive from experienced values. If life to you is a hell on earth, if all the realm of existence offers you is tears and the loss of all you love: then no amount of abstract knowledge that any and all values belong in the realm of existence can outweigh the fact that for you, that realm offers nothing but pain. You might still choose to live, in grim determination, or hope for the future, or revenge on your destroyers, or for whatever other values you might still see and seek: but your life is now a burden, not a value, a thing to be borne in pain, not lived for its own sake. But if your life is successful, if you are achieving your values and the emotional rewards that result, then the abstract and the concrete your knowledge of why life should be a value, and your direct experience of why your own life is one, in fact are mutually reinforcing.
Thus if life is your aim as by virtue of reason and reality it must be, at least at its start so must be pleasure, happiness and joy. They are inextricably linked. Life is impossible without values. And the achieving of values not only makes life possible, but provides pleasure, joy and happiness as the rewards of achieving them. And these are what make life itself worth living.
It could be asked, if man is a rational being with free will, and can decide what he wishes, what need is there to pursue happiness? Can he not simply look at reality and decide that since it is all there is, that is where he wants to be: and just do it, leading a life of cold, emotionless logic, seeking no values beyond the bare necessities of physical existence? Or for that matter, living a life of deliberate denial and suffering?
Well of course, he can. But there would be no earthly reason for it. Indeed, it is incompatible with reason. Life is not an abstraction separate from reality. Like everything else, life has a nature, and that nature cannot be ignored with impunity if living in reality is indeed your aim. The need for motivation is part of the nature of conscious life: the need for joy as the fuel of your existence is not an optional extra, but is inherent in your nature. To choose to live, while fighting that need, is to attempt a contradiction. To choose to live, while ignoring what makes life worth living, is to deny reality in the same way as a choice not to live at all: life is a value not merely because it is the realm of all existence, but because it is the realm of all values, all pleasure and all joy.
Reason, Values and Emotions
I’ve noted before (Reflections 11) that reason and emotion are not incompatible. The idea that they are that to be rational is to be a passionless robot, while to be emotional is irrational is so pervasive that further comment is desirable.
(“Emotion” here is in the context of normal human emotions. Pathological emotions due to psychological or other disorders are properly the domain of psychiatry, not philosophy, and do not concern us here.)
The core of the matter is that emotions are effects, not causes. They derive from values. If you see someone run over by a truck, then if the person is a stranger, your feelings will depend on how you value people you don’t know; if it is someone you hate, you might feel glad; if it is someone you love, you will feel fear, anger or despair. Emotions are neither determined by events nor random: they are determined by how we expect the events will affect our values. Your values can be explicit or implicit, rational or irrational, consistent or inconsistent: and thus your emotions can be rational or irrational. Of course, your values should be chosen by rational means: because it is only through rationality that one can know that a thing is a value, or not. For it is only through rationality that one can know anything . And if your values are rational or irrational, then so are the emotions that spring from them.
There is no dichotomy between reason and emotion, no choice to be made between living by reason and living by emotion. Each has its place, each place is vital and neither can substitute for the other in its proper sphere. Reason is your tool of knowledge, your means of survival, the fundamental basis of all your choices, including your values. Emotion is how you experience those values: pleasure and happiness are your reward for achieving them, and a critical part of why they are values, not merely by choice but in your experience, in reality . To say you must choose between reason and emotion is as meaningless as choosing between your heart and your lungs. To use your emotions as a tool of cognition is as wise as attempting to breathe with your heart. And to attempt to live without emotion makes as much sense as keeping your heart pumping blood on an airless world.
Cause and effect cannot be reversed. Emotion does not create a value: the value already exists. But whether that value is real, whether it furthers your life or damages it, has to be determined by reference to reality: both the nature of things in the world, and your own nature. Which means, by the use of reason. Emotion cannot substitute for reason as a tool of cognition: and reason cannot substitute for emotion in the experience of your values and the enjoyment of your life. Emotions do have this cognitive value: they will rapidly and accurately respond to threats or benefits to your values (assuming a correct interpretation of reality). But whether the values whose fate they are informing you of really are values, only reason can tell you.
Of course, you can survive without rational values though the extent that you manage to prosper is by the grace of whatever rationality you retain, and whatever rationality exists around you to create the values that support your life. But if such is your choice, then your aim is not to live life, but to get away with living: not to seek values and happiness, but to scrape by with as little effort as you can. Then do not wail, at the end of your life, that it was empty and without meaning. It was you who chose to make it so.
Pleasure and happiness are the reward of achieving values. But true happiness is more than just a short-term feeling, flitting from one random achievement to another. To fully enjoy your life, the happiness you must seek is long-term, real, and permanent. Ayn Rand called this a state of non-contradictory joy. And the only path to it is rationality, because it is only possible by being consistent with reality.
Reason is the art of non-contradictory identification: because reason is how our minds grasp reality, and there are no contradictions in reality. If your values are to further your life, if you are to gain joy from them and that joy is to be real, then your values must be based on reality. To the extent they are based on reality, they will form a consistent whole, without contradiction to each other or to reality (including the realities of limited time and resources). Then, there will be no conflict between your values. You will have a hierarchy of values, and may pursue one more than others: but seeking one will not destroy another, and the pleasure of achieving one will not be undermined by the pain of losing another.
Is this difficult? Does it require a relentless, focussed use of your mind, to choose your values and choose them well? It does. But the alternative is an unchosen life, an unfocussed mind, and self-imposed pain. All that you do is a matter of choice. You can choose the effort required to be happy, or not. All values have a price, and that includes life and happiness. Whether you are willing to pay that price is entirely up to you. But you owe it to yourself to choose with full knowledge of what you are choosing: to live life, or to let it pass you by.
The Joy of the Living
There is yet a further dimension to happiness: one not based on particular successes nor subject to particular failures, but based on the fundamental qualities of reality and your own character.
The three cardinal values derived from the value of life are reason, purpose and self-esteem (Reflections 12). Reason is how we know anything, including what is good for us or bad. Purpose is how we focus: how we choose, from the infinite possibilities that exist, the values we will seek in order to achieve our happiness. Self-esteem is the knowledge that we are able to and deserve to achieve them fundamentally, because we are rational, which encompasses the capable and the moral. As a result, to a rational person, there is more to happiness besides the direct reward of success. To be rational, and to choose life in the fullest sense, is to possess “the joy of the living in life”. It is the joy of simply being alive: not the joy of having achieved values, but of knowing they are there for the getting; not the joy of winning, but of knowing you are capable of fighting, and deserve all the rewards you can win.
Of course, you can still feel pain. That possibility is inherent in the nature of values. Nothing in life is guaranteed. That is why things are values: “value” presupposes alternative choices, and the risk of failure. But in the absence of total disaster, that pain cannot touch you at the core of your being. For at the core of a rational person is the conviction that the world is a place of values, and he or she is good . And what that implies, by the nature of values, is that life is fundamentally worth living; that all values must be fought for and setbacks are just part of the fight; and that all the happiness you want is deserved and within reach. It is waking each morning with bright eagerness for what the world has to offer rather than waking with the feeling of facing yet another gray, meaningless and futile day.
The joy of the living in life is a foundation-level of happiness, a height from which you survey the world and your life. To the man whose foundation is emptiness, apathy or pain, any happiness is hard-won and temporary, like occasional rays of sunshine flickering into a dark pit. But to the man whose foundation is the joy of the living in life, each victory is the sweeter for being a validation of his basic premises, and it is setbacks and pain which are the temporary and unreal in his life. The joy of the living in life is not some kind of mindless bliss that ignores reality. It is happiness based on a benevolent view of yourself and the universe, which recognises pain but knows that surrender to it is a betrayal of life and reality. Such joy is possible only to those who see the world as fundamentally a place of value, and themselves as fundamentally competent and good. Which means, possible only to the rational: for it is only by rationality that man can be efficacious, virtue is possible, and values can be achieved.
The Philosophy of Pain
You might think it is obvious that you should seek happiness: after all, surely it is in the nature of happiness that one should want it. Indeed, it is obvious to a rational person. But just observe the life-suppressing, duty-bound, rationalist morality of Kant; the pathetic whining of his heirs, the Existentialists; the death-worship of the Nihilists: philosophies that are spoken of with respect, not laughed off the planet as they deserve. Then you will see how corrupt philosophy has become, how far from serving its proper goal of human happiness and how necessary an antidote is.
Nor is this a rot restricted to Western philosophy. Observe Buddhism. According to it, the fundamental nature of life is suffering: and the solution is to value as little as possible, to suppress what does the valuing (your ego), to squash your tool for achieving those values (your mind), and aim to achieve a gigantic zero, Death dressed up as Paradise, the complete destruction of your Self (Nirvana).
These are philosophies which worship pain: in that pain is their central and overriding concern, around which all else revolves. Pain as the defining characteristic of the world. Escape from pain as the central aim. Relief of pain as the central ethic. Suffering of pain as the origin of rights. The absence of values, of mind, of self death, zero, nothingness as the shining goal to be reached, as the means and the reward of escaping a life not worth living.
Such beliefs embody a deadly reversal. They see that failing to achieve a value causes pain: and their answer is not to discover how values are achieved, but to stop seeking values. But life requires values, and to give up values is to give up life, pleasure and happiness. They are philosophies of failure, of giving up before the fight by virtue of it being a fight. As such, one of their core assumptions is that man’s mind is not efficacious: for no-one who appreciates the efficacy of reason could preach such philosophies. And since happiness can result only from successful living in reality, which is only possible through reason, what they offer is not happiness but a counterfeit: happiness without values the source of happiness; bliss without self that which experiences happiness; joy without mind the source of both the choosing and the winning of values.
What they seek is not to gain values, but to avoid disvalues; not to achieve happiness, but to escape pain; indeed, not even to escape pain, but to numb the capacity to feel. But to value life is not the same as to fear death. If all that holds you in the realm of existence is the fear of death, not the love of life: then it is not life that is your aim. It is defining your life by a negative, by avoidance of pain: not by the positive, the achievement of values and happiness. It is the difference between living to avoid punishment, or living to achieve rewards; between avoiding death, and living life. It is the difference between a life of grayness punctuated by the occasional ray of sunshine and the joy of the living in life.
Perhaps there was some excuse for such a default on life when living consisted of labour from dawn to dusk at the mercy of random warlords, when century followed century with little progress except in the weapons of force and loot. But we live in an age in which the explosion of reason, science and technology has demonstrated, on an astounding scale, the power of the free human mind to understand and deal with reality, and thereby to increase the potential for human life and happiness without limit.
So I reject all philosophies of failure and pain, root and branch. I say: worship life, values and happiness. Not the world as a vale of tears: but as the wellspring of all values. Not escape from pain: but the pursuit of happiness. Not relief from pain: but the creation of values. Not a zero: but the full pursuit of life, the fullest use of your mind, the best values you can find, your life lived to the full for your own happiness.
If the pursuit of happiness is your proper and moral purpose, isn’t that just hedonism? Not at all.
The essence of hedonism is that the (moral) good is what brings you pleasure. That is just another version of subjectivism: the good is what I feel like doing. Or, my whims determine reality.
Pleasure and happiness are not the standard of morality. They are its reward and purpose: but not its standard. To make them its standard is to put cause before effect. The standard of morality is what is proper for the life of a thinking being. And that standard, as we have seen in earlier Reflections , is rationality: which implies the loyalty to reality and to yourself embodied in virtues such as independence, honesty, justice, integrity, productiveness and pride. Hedonism, in contrast, just says you should seek pleasure: without thinking of how it might be achieved, or worrying over what victims’ virtue is paying for it. And nothing more than fleeting, meaningless pleasures can be achieved by living according to mindless whims.
Thus we see yet another of the false alternatives which riddle philosophy. The choice is not mindless pleasure without morality, versus mindless, stoic, duty-bound obedience to some kind of morality handed down from on high by God, Immanuel Kant or Robin Craig, in which your happiness is at best irrelevant and at worst an impediment. Your happiness is the purpose. But how you achieve it is by the opposite of both “alternatives”: by the use of your mind. By a moral life, which is a rational life. For you are an entity with specific requirements for life and happiness, and the world is full of other entities with their own specific attributes: and it is only by loyalty to your own nature and to the nature of all reality which requires loyalty to reason that happiness is possible.
Life and happiness depend on seeking values, and choosing the highest values you can find. So it is important to understand the nature of values.
Values are concretes not abstractions. Abstraction is how we understand the world, how we form concepts and deal with them, and hence with the reality from which they derive. But the only things that exist in the world are entities. This is Duality again: mind and matter, consciousness and reality. Concepts and abstractions exist in our minds based on what exists in reality. But it is vital to remember that although concepts and abstractions are reflections of reality a valid concept is an abstraction from things which exist and share essential qualities it is only those individual things that exist. As something cannot be a value unless it exists, it follows that only concrete existents can be values. You can value an abstraction, but only if the concretes it refers to are values to you. You cannot value “doghood” unless you value individual dogs. You cannot value “justice” yet have no concern for actual cases of justice and injustice. You cannot value “love” yet neither love nor seek to love anyone. You cannot value “humanity” and hate every person living or slaughter the innocent. Just as in Duality there can be no dichotomies between reason and reality, so there can be no dichotomies between values and reality.
Values exist. There are no values to be sought in imaginary realms beyond the grave, and all the values there are, are to be sought in this world. To give up the values you see in reality for the sake of supposed values outside of it, is to betray reality and yourself. It is to seek values you can’t see, by actions that can have no rational bearing on reaching them (there is no way to choose an action to reach an unknown): at the expense of values you can see and actions you can know. Add the fact that these supposed after-life values and the arbitrary ways to get them have no basis except the unsupported word of men you’ve never met making claims that are beyond verification, and the betrayal is complete.
A woman once told me she was concerned with more than this life, and was vitally interested in the next. “So what plans are you making for the next life, then?”, I asked. No reply was forthcoming. We all live in this life, and in fact, as we live our lives, that is all we are concerned with. I am saying that this is not only what we do, of necessity: but that it is the right, proper and moral thing to do.
The lesson is this: if you value life, get out there in the real world and seek real values. Nothing less will do, and nothing more is possible.
The Long and the Short of It
The cardinal value of purpose has already been mentioned, and now we can see deeper into that value. Values are the source of happiness, and the greater the value the greater the happiness that is its reward. It follows that if happiness is your goal, then the purpose(s) you choose for your life must be the highest you can achieve. Both parts are crucial: it must be the highest, because only by reaching the highest can you achieve the greatest happiness. But you must be able to achieve it, at least part of the way: because the achieving, and the knowledge that you can achieve, are the origin of that happiness.
However, your values cannot all be long-range visions that you might never reach. Even the joy of life cannot be maintained indefinitely in the complete absence of actual values: that is not possible to a human being, who is an integration of mind, body and emotion. It is not possible, because the joy of the living is predicated on the existence of values and your ability to get them: so it will wither if these are never forthcoming. Long-range goals are vital, if the greatest happiness you can achieve is your aim. But short-range pleasures are equally vital, if you are to have the fuel to go the distance. We’ll consider more aspects of this in future Reflections. For now, suffice it to say that the longest-range, greatest-scale purpose you can achieve is what you should seek, if life and happiness are your goal: but not only is this compatible with short-term pleasures, but those pleasures are essential. Some of these pleasures will come from achieving the intermediate steps in your goal: but many are simply for their own sake. Of course, they must not undermine your long-term values, and if your values are rational, they will not.
No one can tell any particular person exactly how many hours a day and days per week he or she should spend on their long-range visions versus shorter range pleasures, any more than one can set down how many hours they sleep: that depends on their individual nature. But what we can say, what is universal in human nature, is that everyone must take some time out for “sniffing the roses”, just as we all must sleep.
We have seen that the purpose of philosophy is life, and now we see that this means its purpose is your own happiness on earth. This is so contrary to most philosophy and ethics that it deserves repeating and stressing.
Reason is a value because it is your tool of knowledge, which means you need it to choose and win values, which are the source of life and happiness which is why you need knowledge in the first place. Purpose is a value, not because of whatever ancillary benefits it has for anyone else, but because the greatest happiness comes from the highest values you can reach. And morality is not a duty, not a set of rules laid down to protect other men from you or to mould you into their service: its purpose is your own life and happiness. As Ayn Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged:
His own happiness is man’s only moral purpose, but only his own virtue can achieve it. Virtue is not an end in itself. Virtue is not its own reward or sacrificial fodder for the reward of evil. Life is the reward of virtue and happiness is the goal and the reward of life.
More Is Better
We have seen that life is a value because reality contains all there is: yet of all that is, all that counts are values. Therefore, you must want the greatest values you can achieve. Or as a wise man once put it, “more is better.” Your life is a matter of choice. You can choose to die, or you can choose to live. You can choose to live a life of pain. Or a life of gray meaningless day succeeding gray meaningless day, for a life which is a sum of zeros, of unsought values and betrayed potential, whose final sum is “why did I bother?”. Or you can burn with desire for the values the earth can offer you, fight for them, and by achieving them, achieve the happiness that is at once the reward of values and the validation of the life at their foundation. You have probably heard the phrase carpe diem: seize the day. With that I concur, and add: seize life.
Philosophy can tell you how to live. And how to live is by the fullest use of your mind, at whatever level of intellectual ability you possess. Your mind as your tool of knowledge; as your means to choose consistent values, consistent with the world and with your own nature; as your means to gain those values; as your preeminent tool for achieving life and happiness, the most value-filled life and consequently the greatest happiness that it is within your capacity to achieve.
Philosophy can tell you how to live, but not make you live it. You are a being of free will, and how you live is a matter of choice. Choose life. It’s all there is. And choose values and happiness. They are what you live for.