This is a good time to stop for a breather in LI’s long march through the mythology, philosophy and history of the dispute between wisdom and happiness and pose the age old question: who the fuck cares?
LI’s notion, from the beginning, is that happiness is both an ambiguous concept and one that can’t, really, operate either to determine and organize our moods (thus making moods like sorrow or boredom into ‘negative’ moods) or to give a purpose to our life. On a social level, the critique of happiness is aimed at happiness triumphant, a socio-economic system that is embodied in the treadmill of production which is bringing us to the edge of environmental collapse. The connection between these two levels is in the figural structure – the ideal roles and persons that symbolize a human life through time. Finally, I am not interested in nostalgia, or in concealing the dialectical formation of these figures within the oppressive conditions of past societies. On the other hand, the figures that have replaced them are not only also connected to the oppressive conditions of the happiness triumphant society, but are drivers of an unsustainable collective system: forever young, forever greedy.
So, in the interest of this breather, I went to blog search on Google and looked around for posts on “the necessity of unhappiness”. I turned up … well, nothing. But looking around for the philosophy and psychology of happiness turned up quite a bit. The happiness gurus pullulate in the gated community – the Seligmans advance like some mythical core of smily faced reapers. However, they are merely the guard around a more core group, convinced that capitalism is and should be the end of history. The libertarians, the techno-utopians, that lot. Of the blogs I’ve found on this recently, one of my favorites was Will Wilkerson, who writes for the Cato Institute. Wilkerson’s idea about happiness is a perfect consort to neo-classical economics – which is why I found his review of a review of John F. Schumaker’s In Search of Happiness interesting. The review summarizes Schumaker’s argument like this:
“Schumaker argues that those who conceive of happiness as “subjective well-being” — comprised of the satisfaction of individual desires and the presence of high levels of positive affect (and minimal negative affect) — have failed to recognize that genuine happiness likely consists of more than satisfaction and pleasure. At the very minimum, we must recognize that the quality of a person’s happiness necessarily depends upon the kinds of values which inform a person’s understanding of happiness and thus set the parameters for how one pursues the happy life. On Schumaker’s view, the values of individualist, materialist cultures are far too shallow, amoral, and non-sustainable for their realization to lead to a genuinely happy life. Because of this, Schumaker declares that, “in reality I believe that a heart-felt happiness is beyond the reach of most people who regard consumer culture to be their psychological home”.
To which Wilkerson replies:
“This strikes me as just stupid. Why not simply say that if individidualist, materialist cultures lead to happiness in the “subjective well-being” sense, which they do (much more so than poor, collectivist cultures), then some forms of happiness are shallow, amoral, and unsustainable. The book might be more honestly titled Against What Brainwashed People Like You Think Happiness Is. I really can’t see the intellectual virtue of such a tendentiously moralized conception of happiness. From Pianalto’s review, it seems pretty clear Shumaker believes that material and cultural progress is immoral, and wants us to live more like hunter-gatherers.”
I find Wilkerson’s response revealing, especially in the reduction of bad faith or self deception to brain washing. This reduction says a lot about the libertarian notion of the self. For the libertarian, the self is not just ideally transparent to itself, not just ideally totally informed, not just ideally conflict free – it really is all of these things. Thus it is impervious to bad faith. The self knows more about itself than any outside observer, so the self has no intellectual or emotional issues that the outside observer could ever help it with. In essence, the libertarian self is like one of those car drivers who refuses to ask for directions, for doing so would unbearably injure his self regard.
Actually, though, bad faith is not brain washing. Sartre’s example of bad faith is useful to recall. A woman is having an intellectual discussion with a man, when the man puts his hand on her leg. The woman has a choice of calling attention to the copping of the feel, or ignoring it. But to ignore it, she has to disassociate herself, somehow, from the leg. In bad faith, that is just what she does. In this case, as in other cases of self-deception, the conflict between ideas and desires is solved by means of compromises that don’t look like brain washing, but look like wishful thinking, or selective ignorance, or the triumph of hope over experience. In real life, we recognize that the sincerity of a person’s feelings or ideas is not an accurate indicator of what that person will do or is capable of doing - thus, no matter how sincerely a man may promis a bank officer that he can and will pay off a loan, the bank will make its own judgment about his creditworthiness.
Because the libertarian self is self-sufficient to the point of autism, the libertarian has to come up with an explanation of the fact that, in life, people do help each other, that people sometimes require counseling and aid from another people. The libertarian bias is to emphasize the suspiciousness of anybody actually being altruistic enough and knowledgeable enough to help anybody else. The person external to the self who actually lends advice to the self is obviously, then, expressing his own need to control – his own power lust. This makes sense: if our picture of the completely self sufficient person is correct, the only way that person would allow someone else to suggest or aid him or her is under a kind of mind controlling influence. Thus, there are only two positions – one of complete self control, one of brainwashing.
This strikes me as a very poor interpretation of human interaction, but it does contain one truth. It is true that all selves bring with them their self interest and biases. It is true that no person who takes an interest in telling you about yourself is doing so on a completely disinterested basis. Anybody who has been around people in the helping professions – psychiatrists, social workers, etc. – will recognize how much the need to be boss is part of the core motive set.
For these reasons, Wilkerson’s criticism on the brainwashing front, then, seems to be a wash. A better criticism is that Schumacher, by making the traditional move of defining happiness in terms of higher and lower happinesses - happiness distinguished by its quality – a move made by Mill in Utilitarianism, and one that has roots in the Stoics – is actually moving the definitional goal posts. What we have, here, is conceptual creep – the use of a term to mean more than the term usually means.
What is behind this conceptual creep? The stubborn notion that social welfare is defined by the increase in happiness. The stubborn notion that, in other words, the goal is to avoid all unhappiness.
My view is that this seriously disconnects from the way lives are lived over time. To put it in a too compressed form: to remain true to the spirit of the enlightenment slogan of the pursuit of happiness, we have to turn it into something else: the ideal of a society in which every individual can afford unhappiness. Can afford to be sick. Can afford to grieve. Can afford to be sorrowful. Can afford to be bored. That affordance is about not bottoming out while doing something about the unhappiness, responding to it, experiencing it. Not efficiently negating it.
Which points us to another sociological fact. As societies become more affluent, the pursuit of unhappiness emerges pretty quickly, and not just in fringe cultures. The sullenness of adolescence, the mid-life crises of middle age, the goth music grad student culture, these aren’t accidents. Affluence allows for what you might call different climates of temperament. Unhappiness is the purest response to the very idea that happiness is the ultimate parameter by which to judge one’s life and one’s society. If the enlightenment notion of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has any value, it is in the idea of the pursuit itself – an object that is desirable because it promises happiness is valued because its pursuit is correlated with unhappiness. The test or contest is encoded in the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.
Schumacher puts himself in a conceptual and terminological straightjacket by repeating the happiness language, making it easy for Wilkerson to mock him. Far better to admit that as a social and individual ideal, happiness is fucked up.
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads