Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The philosophy of Happiness

Here's romp through three articles that take on the subject of human happiness - and why Liberal notions of what that is will make you miserable.
First, this WAPO review looks at a new book on Benedict Spinoza. The book claims Spinoza as an important forerunner of the kind of Liberty that would be made famous by books like JS Mills' famous tome.
Spinoza recognizes that he needs what he himself calls his "cumbersome, geometric order." People, he shows, are constantly being led astray by the randomness of their sensual experience, by their imaginations and passions. Only mathematics provides a model for conclusions that cannot be refuted, that are either right or wrong: "I will write about human beings as though I were concerned with lines and planes and solids."
Surprisingly, the Ethics opens by establishing basic truths about God and nature. Everything that exists is part of the single substance of the deity, who, in fact, is identical with Nature, or as Spinoza invariably writes "God, or Nature." Because everything is inherent in God eternally, there are no goals or ends for man or the universe. As Matthew Stewart says in The Courtier and the Heretic (Norton), a highly recommended new biographical study of Spinoza and Leibniz, "To the fundamental question -- what makes us special? -- Spinoza offers a clear and devastating answer: nothing."
Nihilism isn't a promising beginning for finding out what makes people happy. Spinoza's mistake - and it's repeated in much Liberal thought - is that he can put his heart to one side and simply muscle his way into Nirvana with his brain. Of course, relying on one's brain is an act of faith, so one hasn't really discarded faith after all. All that's really accomplished is here is closing one eye and wondering why you can't read twice as fast. I think that lopsided outlook is likely what leads Spinoza to fail to differentiate God from nature as well, and this leads to a whole mess of problems not relevant here. (And why on earth is is surprising to begin a book on ethics by sketching ontology and epistemology? Where else would you start?)
Jumping to our own period, The Toronto Star recently carried this story about a team at Harvard studying - what else? - happiness. They find that most of us do a very poor job of predicting what will make us happy or sad in the future:
The Harvard researchers have also done extensive interviews with sports fans who just know they'll never smile again if their team loses but, of course, recover speedily after a loss.
"The human brain mispredicts the sources of its own satisfaction," Gilbert says, "and the reason is that we fail to understand how quickly we will adapt to both positive and negative events. People are consistently surprised by how quickly the abnormal becomes normal, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. When people say I could never get used to that, they are almost always wrong."
Gilbert believes we have an emotional immune system that helps us regain our equilibrium after catastrophic events.
"The studies of Holocaust survivors are clear - most went on to lead happy and productive lives," he says.
These findings brought to my mind almost immediately the terrible Teri Schaivo story of last year. I talked to a lot of people on the net about that and lost track of how many of them told me they supported Terri's "right to die" because they thought that no one could ever be happy in that condition. Even if it were possible, they said, it was extraordinarily unlikely. I didn't think so then, and I certainly don't think so now. I also don't think babies can be aborted because the parents can't buy clothes from Baby Gap. A centered person knows that this has nothing to do with happiness. The Liberal, on the other hand, sees someone contemplating doom and despair and offers the equivalent of a shrug. "It's up to you," they'll say, as if they were heroic or something.
The Star article goes on:
Is there a better way to predict what will make us happy than using our imagination?
"Yes," says [Gilbert], "but no one wants to use it. It's called surrugation, and it circumvents biases and errors. If you want to know how happy you'll be if you win the lottery, ask a lottery winner — it's a mixed blessing. Will having children make you happy? Observe people who have them."
People discount this approach because of what Gilbert calls "the myth of fingerprints."
"Most of us have the illusion of uniqueness," he says. "We believe that other people's reactions won't tell us about our likes and dislikes. But we are remarkably similar. We share the same biology, and others' experiences can teach us a great deal about our own.
"As long as we maintain our illusions about our uniqueness, we will continue to ignore information that's in front of our noses."
I see in this an affirmation that it is right to take important clues about moral ups and downs from the community that we are in, provided that that community has a tradition of affirming everyone's right to a respectable place in the social fabric. The record will likely not be perfect, but then kids don't sing opera on day one either. Our everyday "sensual experiences" are not random, as Spinoza contended, they are rooted in social traditions and norms that survive only because they are well adapted. Thus they do not deserve the scorn Liberals direct at them. They keep us connected and keep us from drifting into into billions of isolated islands when we are a human pangea of past, present and future.
Roger Scruton puts it like this in the WSJ:
Taking On Liberty and Principles together we find, in fact, a premonition of much that conservatives object to in the modern liberal worldview. The "harm" doctrine of On Liberty has been used again and again to subvert those aspects of law which are founded not in policy but in our inherited sense of the sacred and the prohibited. Hence this doctrine has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators. Meanwhile, the statist morality of "Principles" has flowed into the moral vacuum, so that the very same law that refuses to intervene to protect children from pornography will insist that every aspect of our lives be governed by regulations that put the state in charge.
Mill famously referred to the Conservative Party as "the stupider party," he being, from 1865, a member of Parliament in the Liberal interest. And no doubt the average Tory MP was no match for the brain that had conceived the "System of Logic"--an enduring classic and Mill's greatest achievement. Yet Mill suffered from the same defect as his father. He never understood that wisdom is deeper and rarer than rational thought. He never understood that the intellect, which flies so easily to its conclusions, relies on something else for its premises. Those conservatives who upheld what Mill called "the despotism of custom" against the "experiments in living" advocated in "On Liberty" were not stupid simply because they recognized the limits of the human intellect. They were, on the contrary, aware that freedom and custom are mutually dependent, and that to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.

No comments: