Perhaps the most consistent philosophical end to life, its influence almost calls out to a deep-rooted conviction of the human psyche, the traces of the foregone animal1 left in man’s soul – the pursuit of happiness. From the cultivated Eudaimonia2 of Aristotle to the frivolous hedonism of the Last Man3, its deceptive gaze even allures philosophical adversaries4. In which case the deceit must be called out, undress happiness as to reveal the source of its shame.
The Happiness Hypothesis
The hypothesis essentially represents the ethical equivalent of the utilitarian rule6 or the pleasure principle in psychology7. The aim entails showing why the above is false, owing to its lack of footing and incoherence in the hypothesis itself.
Happiness: Supreme Ethical Category?
You know, happiness is for me a very conformist category. It doesn’t enter the frame. You have a serious ideological deviation at the very beginning of a famous proclamation of independence — you know, pursuit of happiness. If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do not really want or desire happiness, and I think it’s good that it is like that. For example, let’s be serious: when you are in a creative endeavor, in that wonderful fever–“My God, I’m onto something!” and so on–, happiness doesn’t enter it. You are ready to suffer. Sometimes scientists–I read history of quantum physics or earlier of radiation–were even ready to take into account the possibility that they will die because of some radiation and so on. Happiness is, for me, an unethical category.Slavoj Žižek, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Interesting? (Big Think)8
In his book Anarchy, State and Utopia9, philosopher Robert Nozick introduces the experience machine. Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us any pleasurable experience we could want. The experiences induced by the machine are indistinguishable from those the subject would have in real life. The question then is, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?
For almost people, the answer is an immediate no10. Any dismissive answer to the question invalidates any inherent value to pleasure, apart from being clearly not the supreme ethical benchmark11. Furthermore, the hypothesis (and its variants) are often taken as a priori, an unsupported assertion that doesn’t seem to be apparent at all12.
Return of the Banished Sibling
Assuming happiness must be prioritized, although still not inherently valued but there are certain benefits to this13, examine the hypothesis. The other condition pertains to minimizing suffering, which counterintuitively acts against happiness.
In the spirit of brevity, assume there exist only two types of emotions – Positive and Negative. Imagine them on a number line, facing opposite directions, marked by numbers with increasing intensity of the respective feeling14. Consider the following two claims
- Positive Emotions only exist relative to Negative Emotions
- The greater the intensity of negative emotions experienced, the greater the capability of experiencing intense positive emotions and vice-versa
Assume the non-existence of negative emotions. Here, the former number line reduces to a uni-directional ray, representing the positive emotions. Note that since the number line contains all emotions in our hypothetical world, the only emotions are the “positive” ones left by the initial line. Positive emotions are just emotions now, as the characteristic of positivity becomes irrelevant. In other words, there are no positive emotions anymore15.
Since positive emotions exist relative to their negative counterparts, the intensity of said emotions is measured with respect to appropriate yardsticks. The intensity of any positive emotion is precisely marked by its distance from the negative emotion of the greatest intensity, previously experienced. The same goes for the latter too.
If the proponents of the hypothesis were truly faithful to the goal of maximizing happiness, the subsequent implication would be to maximize pain along with it. That remains the only to develop the capability of greater happiness, a necessity for experiencing it, if ever. In reality, however, the actual motive behind this lies in limiting the contents of consciousness. An existence of minimal pain, along with it minimal happiness, blobs of feel-good nothingness floating through life. That is, until you die.
- Nod to evolution (biology)
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, February 14). Eudaimonia. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia
- Nietzsche’s conception of the last man. Here, used with the intention of referring to the psyche of present-day humans
- Perhaps in arguing against happiness, personally and with probable effect historically, those individuals might be tempted to give in. To seek happiness and negate everything that it is not (referring to suffering)
- A distinction between the ethical and the moral has to be made here. Ethical as in what one truly wants, and moral as in what is deemed generally good. My intuition tells me that moral is a subset of the ethical
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, February 2). Utilitarian rule. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarian_rule
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, January 24). Pleasure principle (psychology). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleasure_principle_(psychology)
- YouTube. (2012). Slavoj Žižek | Why Be Happy When You Could Be Interesting? | Big Think. YouTube. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U88jj6PSD7w.
- Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books. pp. 42–45. ISBN 0-465-09720-0.
- Note that I’m not using this as Ad Populum (Appeal to Popularity)
- Similar to the concept of meta-rule. Branching out: Rethinking the left vs. right spectrum. Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 6). Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://niranjankrishna.in/2023/03/06/branching-out-rethinking-the-left-vs-right-spectrum/
- Claiming the following on the basis of evolutionary/biological nature doesn’t work as well. Even if we assume humans are entirely biological, at least in the same way other animals are, deterministic, the metric to be optimized would be the survival of the gene, one that often might be benefitted by more pain (sacrifice). Refer to Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins.
- Off the top of my head, the biological benefits of dopamine come to mind. This is coming from a regular SSRI user
- Although emotions aren’t uni-dimensional in reality, this thought experiment suffices to prove the point under the constraint of the happiness hypothesis
- Similar to Heaven and Hell. Heaven becomes Heaven because hell exists. Otherwise, it just remains an afterworld