Excerpts on happiness

July 30, 2015

 

It’s a cliché but it’s worth repeating: one cause of modern loneliness is the attitude of treating people as means to an end, namely happiness. “If a person doesn’t entertain me or stimulate me,” people implicitly think, “I’ll end my relationship with him.” Relationships have become conditional on stimulation and the achievement of satisfaction. But what’s needed is commitment. You commit to someone as an end in himself, as you commit to an end. Commitment should be conditional, if at all, only on the other’s respect for your humanity, on his treating you as an end. (No physical abuse, etc.)

 

Why does the modern attitude cause unhappiness? Because happiness comes from the interaction between oneself and a significant other. Happiness is relational: “happiness was born a twin,” said Byron. The interaction between two equals, not between a lesser partner (a means) and a greater partner (an end). You necessarily desire recognition from someone you respect as you do yourself, because only someone fully human can fully affirm or confirm you. But we tend not to respect others as we do ourselves, i.e. as ends, which means we can’t have a significant other (in the truest sense) in our lives. –One of the reasons for our lack of respect for others is that this is (unconsciously) a defense against rejection. If we don’t let ourselves truly respect them, or if we don’t get very attached to them, we won’t care if they reject us. Perhaps we interact with them in a friendly, affectionate way, but we don’t really allow them to become a part of our psyche. Unfortunately this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we withhold true respect for people out of an unconscious fear of rejection, our doing so will cause them to reject us precisely because they can probably sense our lack of engagement with them. –Well, that’s a simplification. Many people are fully engaged when they’re with their acquaintances but can’t develop deeper relationships anyway. This isn’t mainly their fault; it is because society as a whole has instilled in people an underlying emotional distance (atomism), a veritable structure of feeling that conditions how they relate to others.

 

Commitment is fundamentally not a hedonistic stance. It’s a moral stance: it means commitment to the person, not to his or her function as satisfying you in some way. Hedonism even in a less crude sense than Benthamism or (in a different way) Freudianism has very little to do with the good life, with genuine happiness. The moral stance is not only the most moral one; it also makes possible your greater happiness than any other stance.

 

In short, you must care for, not use. Things are meant to be used; people are meant to be cared for. It’s the practical versus the affective mode of being: the first should characterize your relationship to things, the second your relationship to people (and “aesthetic objects,” like nature). But modernity is the upside-down world: we care for things and use people (and nature). Is it any wonder we’re unhappy? We’re misdirecting or suppressing our emotional energies. We’re victims of social “reification,” in Marxian jargon.

 

*

 

What does it mean to treat someone as an end? Literally it means to adopt that person as a goal, as something you want to bring about. That is to say, you want to (help) bring about his sense of self, his desires, his “objective interests”—all of which, in the end, amount to his freedom, or his self-confirmation (as a free being). A person essentially is the urge or the movement toward self-confirmation, and self-confirmation is, by definition, a matter of freedom, because it’s self-confirmation (the self’s achievement of itself). So, Kant’s formulations of morality in terms of both autonomy/freedom and treating others as ends do, in a sense, entail each other, as he thought. And they both entail specific--socialist--commitments with regard to the organization of society.

 

*

 

Morality, a prerequisite for happiness.— Strictly speaking, humans are not “ends in themselves,” i.e. intrinsically valuable, because nothing is. The notion doesn’t make sense. (“Ends” are relative to values and desires; the notion of objective value is meaningless.) But they are, or can be, valued for their own sake, so to speak: my valuing someone’s self is effectively synonymous with my valuing my own self-confirmation, since it is through the mediation of another valued self that I confirm myself (my implicit self-love). My valuing myself is, in a sense, my valuing others. If I don’t respect others then I don’t fully respect myself, because it is through being respected (or loved) by someone whom I respect that I respect myself. Thus, if I am to fulfill myself, to attain a sort of complete self-confirmation, I have to value others as I value myself. Arguably that’s impossible, maybe even incoherent. But it can be approximated.

 

In any case, morally speaking you should act as if people are intrinsically valuable. That’s what morality is.

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NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright