Happiness and how to defeat it (part 1)

Some Utilitarians claim that humans are happiness maximisers or at least a large component of utility is happiness. Besides happiness (nor pleasure) is not everyone’s goal. Utility maximisation has a near-term bias, and preference theory leaves a lot to be desired.

Utilitarians are not hedonists, per se, but perhaps this is only moderated by the downsides attributed to excess.

Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Some people defer happiness in their engagements of so-called labours of love. Stereotypical entrepreneurs, forego near-term happiness in the hope of some future benefit. Given the low probability of even a remotely positive outcome, this is taking a lottery mentality. In the US, much entrepreneurship is reserved for the children of the affluent. This is a hobby, and they typically have several safety nets for the almost inevitable ensuing failure.

In any case, if happiness is a goal, rational choice and homo economicus have surely gone missing.

Four Nobel Truths

Buddhism has its Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is suffering
  • Suffering is due to attachment
  • There is a way to overcome attachment
  • Follow the Eightfold Path

Happiness-seeking is precisely what will ensure unhappiness. One might even argue that this is the general malaise evident in Western society. As Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and others have pointed out, people rather satisfice, a strategy of getting to good enough. Perhaps this is not letting perfection be enemy of the good, or perhaps this is somehow realising the asymptotic path of diminishing returns ahead.

Happiness should not be a goal; it’s a side-effect, a result of pursuing one’s interests. And happiness is ephemeral. We’re likely all aware of the person who was asking for just one thing to achieve happiness is quickly seeking the next thing because happiness comes with an expiration date.

An Inconvenient Truth

Ghost in the Machine - Jacob Sutton (Photographer)

It seems to me that the largest or largest complaint people claiming a realist, objective moralist perspective is:

How would it work if morals were not objective?

This is also a common defence by Christians who claim:

If there were no God, then people would just be mindless hedonists.

This is the same line of defence used by statists of all stripes, whether Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Monarchist, Oligarch, or otherwise.

Anarchy can’t work because everything would just be chaos.

It is also the same argument mounted, as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, against a strong genetic component to human behaviour.

If we believe that, then what will prevent the next Nazi Holocaust?

In the end, because these people cannot fathom how it might work, it is easy to assuage cognitive dissonance through self-delusion. It’s as if the people defending actually know that they are wrong, but that if they deny it loudly enough, then, like religion, others will believe it’s just so, that they’ll follow the deceiving confederate in a psychology experiment.

The problem is that there is no god, there is no objective morality, government is unnecessary, and much behaviour and temperament have significant genetic foundations unaffected by environmental factors.