Thursday 7 May 2015

Deep problems in 'the pursuit of happiness' as a goal for life

In criticizing utilitarianism (or a hedonic calculus) as the primary way of considering life, I have usually focused on the problem of dealing with conflicts between short-term and individual (or small scale) happiness and long-term (or societal) happiness - and also the theoretical and practical difficulties of measuring and summating happiness.

But another problem is that happiness is conceptualized as an outcome - do this and you will become happy - and therefore to aim at happiness seems to require a great deal of precise empirical knowledge of the cause and effect set-up of the world.

In other words, to be maximally happy, you need to know exactly what will make you happy - you need to know the causes that will have the effect of happiness.

So happiness as a goal becomes a kind of 'science' of learning about, and implementing, the causes of happiness. Indeed, 'implementing' is the key word - once the causes of happiness are known, then morality becomes a matter of applying those causes.

If soma makes people happy, then it becomes a moral duty to administer soma to people. The aim of life becomes ensuring that everybody has soma.


For the Christian, the main aim of life is love - love of God and 'neighbour' (ie. other people). Is love an outcome, like  happiness? Is love the kind of thing that is a consequence of doing other kinds of thing?

No, love is not that kind of thing. Love is - to a significant extent- a cause; something that affects what we do.

A loving parent is a different kind of cause than a hating parent; a leader who loves his country is a different kind of cause than a leader who despises his country.

Love is both a cause and an effect - Christians are told to add love to the world, and that more love is the hoped for outcome.

To have love as the primary goal in life does not require any empirical knowledge of cause and effect relationships in life; we can love, we can wish to love - to have love as the primary idea we do not need to do research, do not need to make discoveries about how things work.

Love makes sense as the main goal in life; it is something we can understand; it is just very difficult to attain.



David said...


Huxley 's Brave New world has been here for a while now but no one seems to care or have noticed this happen. And if you point this out to most people they will despise you for it as some kind of evil anarchist out to maliciously derail societal 'progress' on the path to 'the pursuit of happiness.'

David said...

"To have love as the primary goal in life does not require any empirical knowledge of cause and effect relationships in life; we can love, we can wish to love - to have love as the primary idea we do not need to do research, do not need to make discoveries about how things work."

What the world needs is love and not Soma. I am young but I understand that not long ago in history this did not need to be explained to people they just knew it. If you were a good doctor or nurse you just gave it as 'bedside manner.' Mother Theresa and Florence Nightingale were understood to be good nurses because they acted from the heart. Now Soma is fully operationalized and academized as a substitute for love the caring professions seem to have mostly have died inside except for the few individuals that know this healing power is intuitive and direct and comes from the heart. Studying CBT or Nursing or Clinical Psychology or whatever will provide v little or nothing without this. It seems obvious but is frustratingly actively denied by so many people.

Bruce Charlton said...


In a sense, yes

But it is not because SSRI/ 'antidepressants' make people happy - because they don't. When they work, they reduce emotional responsivity and emotional strength, so make people less able to be happy as well as less prone to down-swings in mood. (David Healy calls them 'serenic' - ie they make people serene - less affected by both stress and joys.

(This is a superb article about the effect of SSRIs: )

The reason the 'antidepressant' prescription rates go up and up, is drug dependence - once people have been taking 'antidepressants' for six months or a year, many find it so difficult to stop (because of withdrawal effects) that they cannot stop. So new prescriptions are continually being added to an ever-larger drug-dependent population.

I would say that a better comparison to soma was Miltown (meprobamate) in the 1950s or Valium (diazeapm) in the 1960s-70s; because these drugs were pleasant to take (for most people) - giving a similar feeling to low-dose alcohol.

David said...

@Bruce - thanks for the links will have a look at them. My point was that no kind of pill can replace love and that it is both sad and frustrating that the most effective intuitive forms of self - expression like Christian Charity are increasingly needed to be supported by some academic model (with a long list of et al.s) before anyone in health care will take it seriously. My hunch is that they are just frightened that if they admit love is the key then they will lose professional status/power and an exclusive *expert* status. I know there is more to mental health than this (ideally Christian faith having a full healing input) but this is an important barrier of institutional pride as far as I can tell. The pursuit of happiness won't cut it unless aimed at Heaven to sustain it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I was replying to your first comment - the second had not arrived.

I think the lack of 'love' is most evident from the fact that the mental health profession do not correct their errors, indeed do not want to know about them - indeed, go to considerable lengths to suppress knowledge of them...

dienw said...

"Happiness" is a synonym for "blessedness" which is a spiritual state in relation to God: the foolish and corrupt; the great mass of people: will choose the secular; it is the elect or Remnant which will choose the Divine relationship.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I think we have to accept love and happiness (or some other conception of the fundamental good) as primary goals. Otherwise "love" has no content.

If you love someone, you want what is best for them -- and if what is best for them is just "love," it's hard to see what exactly love would motivate us to do, or what kinds of behavior could be characterized as loving rather than hateful.

It's a little like saying everyone's purpose in life is "to help other people." The question immediately arises: Help them do what?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I don't think that works - but it would be fair to say that happiness is an attribute of love.

Abstractly, metaphysically, love is the irreducible binding principle which enables relationships between pre-existent primordial intelligences. In a physicsy metaphor it can be thought of somewhat like an attractive force, but Mormon Christian revelation says that the proper way to think of ultimate reality is 'anthropomorphically' - this tells us that love as the ultimate attractive principle of reality has properties closely-analogous to that of mortal earthly love.

To reject love is to be alone (Hell) - this is empirically unhappy, but is it necessarily unhappy? Perhaps not, perhaps solitary happiness is imaginable in principle - but just does not happen to occur in reality.

Either way, the demon has rejected the happiness of love, has chosen a specific happiness - of self, pride, hatred etc, above a more general happiness; and no doubt feels himself superior at having rejected optimal happiness and embraces suffering as a matter of principle.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I see happiness as a collateral benefit of living life with purpose doing things which one feels are meaningful.

I also think that there are natural mood altering activities that instil emotional states which we equate with happiness. Backpacking up a mountain trail makes me huff and puff like a mad thing, no doubt pumping endorphins as I push myself hard, and then as I turn the corner to lookout over nature's beauty I stand there awestruck. That is just an example. Watching children play and discover the world creates a vicarious / empathic joy - which is no doubt another neural chemical bit of natural mood altering. There are quite a few other examples, but the important thing to realise is that happiness is not a goal - never should be - but is a collateral benefit of doing things which in turn trigger neural chemical states that we equate with joy, awe, wonder, beauty, love, et cetera.

Now I will say that doing some of the things which makes a person happy is difficult if aspects of life induce anxiety, fear, pain, et cetera. The question is: Are there behavioural and life choices which are responsible for these negative emotional states, and is a person willing and able to do something to change those parts of their life by steering the ship towards something they perceive of as a good purpose that instills meaning, that challenges in the right ways. My hang-gliding instructor used to teach his students to always focus on where you want to go, not on the obstacle that you fear and want to avoid. When we do the latter we fixate on the bad outcome and zero right in on it, whereas if we keep our eyes and minds focused on the former we go where we want to go.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I'm not questioning the importance of love. I'm just saying there must be some other primary good as well. Otherwise, what would we do? Love is more a way-of-doing-things than a thing-to-do.

You love your children, so what behavior follows from that love? There's no answer to that question unless you have some other concept of good, something beyond just love itself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJa - It is that love is primary, not that it is the only thing. This means that whatever other motivations there are, they must be loving- 'embedded' in an environment of love.

This can be seen with happiness. If happiness were primary, then we would have to 'do to' people whatever would make them happy - maybe everyone would be happiest if they lived on an intravenous infusion of heroin and cocaine (or the supernatural equivalent).

More to the point, if you were a creator then you would not make Men as they are; and if you were not the creator you would want to re-make Man so he could be happy always (i.e. transhumanism -

For present purposes, it simply needs to be clear that putting happiness first is *different from* putting love first.

Wes said...

As the Rutles sang, "Love is the meaning of life, life is the meaning of love."

They may have just been making fun of the Beatles, but I also think they succinctly explain fundamental truths about reality that the restoration has brought to light.