Delight Springs

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The meaning of happiness

Happiness and meaning belong together: we want our happiness to count for something, to have a point, to mean and (after we're gone) have meant that our lives are worth living. And we want the meanings of our lives to make us happy.

That's my hypothesis. It's why I'm partial to J.S. Mill's supplemental extension of Jeremy Bentham's greatest happiness principle: the point is not for the greatest number of us merely to wallow happily, contentedly, and filthily in our respective sties, ingloriously thoughtless and complacent in dull porcine mediocrity.The point is to be lifted in our happiness, to become better human beings for it. It's not to sink back in it, in our mudholes and on our couches and (ahem) our hammocks.

And it's why the next rendition of my Philosophy of Happiness course, HAP 101 as I call it (PHIL 3160 in the MTSU course catalogue), is devoted to the question of meaning. Should we settle for the lowest common denominator of our happiness, the path of least resistance, the quantifiably greatest hedonic calculation?

Anti-elitist democratism might argue that we should.  Pluralistic toleration and humane simplicity, not to mention simple opportunity, support Benthamism. Life is short, pleasure can be sporadic: get it while you can. "There is no why," Kurt Vonnegut once said, we're just all here "trapped in the amber of the moment." We should just do our best to enjoy our captivity, and (he often added, to his great credit) be kind.

Yes, but... Kurt also spent a lifetime trying to work out the personal trauma of the insanity of war, the firebombing of Dresden, the repeated failure of human beings to learn from their errors and treat one another kindly. He spent a lifetime searching for, and to a greater extent than he probably realized, creating meaning for his happy readers.

And Kurt also said, meaningfully, “being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.” No reason why decency can't be squared with happiness, is there?

Well, that's some of what our course will be about. I considered adopting Lisa Bortolotti's anthology Philosophy and Happiness (Palgrave '09) as one of our texts, since Part I is all about "Happiness and the Meaningful Life."

But they want $105 for it! One more sign, in the age of digital information, that expensive textbooks are doomed. Fortunately a proof version of Thaddeus Metz's opening essay is here. I don't like his conclusion that happiness and meaning "are distinct not only conceptually but also substantially," but at Internet prices I'll invite our class to discuss it. (Isn't it just like a  certain sort of philosopher, though, to devote great energies to defending a counter-intuitive conclusion whose truth would leave us more confused and less satisfied with our lives than we began?)

Anyway, the best words on this subject are free, in the public domain, and in public libraries. Words like J.S. Mill's...
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
 Looking forward to considering all sides of this question in class, in (yikes) just a few weeks. "Endless summer," where art thou?

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