On Philosophy

February 20, 2007

Freedom From Happiness

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:01 am

What constitutes being free? Is it to be free of the influence of external forces when you make your choices? If it is then many of us are not as free as we could be. Our desire to be happy is in many ways an external force, not in the sense that something else makes us want to be happy, but rather than we did not choose to have this motivation, we were simply born with it. Of course if you freely chose to be motivated by happiness then you would be free, but that is not the situation we are in.

Of course do we even want to be free in this way? Why resist the motivations that we are born with? Well, if I were Kant I would probably say something about the nobility of human nature, but I am not Kant. One reason that we might want our motivations to be freely chosen is simply that our intelligence is probably superior to evolutionary forces, meaning that the motivations we would freely choose would be superior to those we just happen to be born with. Of course what superior means in this context remains to be defined. It might simply mean that the motivations we would rationally choose would conflict with each other less than the motivations we actually find ourselves with. For example, our desire to be happy often conflicts with many of our other desires (such as to follow the law, ect), and thus it might be better if we valued our happiness less (or valued the law less).

So let us assume that we do want our motivations to be freely chosen, so on what basis then should we choose them? Well, it doesn’t make sense to try to choose as if we had no motivations, because then we would have no reason to make one choice instead of another; in fact we would be unable to make any choice at all. Of course there are those who have said that we should freely choose in this way, but they always assume that there is some motivation left over, such as rationality, or self-interest. This to me appears to be a mistake, since what reason can there be to pick one motivation over another as foundational? To make one particular motivation the foundation would simply be to have your choices compelled by it instead of your existing set of motivations, since that motivation itself was not freely chosen by you.

So instead of trying to make a free choice from nothing, which seems impossible, let us instead consider a free re-evaluation of our motivations from within the framework of our existing motivations. The point of the re-evaluation is not to acquire new and better motivations, but rather to improve our existing set of motivations by reducing, or, better yet, eliminating, any conflicts between them. This was, after all, our motivation for wanting a free choice to begin with. The motivations that we have, and the degree to which they influence us, are a product of our experiences. Because they are not picked with forethought, but are instead acquired rather haphazardly, they are not the kind of motivations that we would expect to have as a result of the ideal choice. Some things we value too much and some too little, and thus the need for improvement in the first place.

Of course there is no one optimal set of motivations that a free re-evaluation will lead to. Let us say that you value two things equally, and that they are in conflict with each other. A free re-evaluation will point out that you need to lose one or the other, but not which one it should be. Both are equally good choices, at least as far as the standards presented here can inform us about them. Which brings me back to my original topic, happiness. Being strongly motivated by happiness conflicts with almost every other motivation. It is not like, say, a desire to finish a painting co-existing with a desire to complete a sculpture, where each one can receive some time, and eventually both can be done. In most cases the pursuit of our other desires can lead us to be occasionally unhappy. For example, sometimes working on the sculpture may be hard or unpleasant, you may become injured or have to sacrifice some luxuries in order to get it done. And thus if you placed a high value on your own happiness you would never be able to complete the sculpture. Of course there are some motivations that the pursuit of happiness does not conflict with, for example if you desire to eat chocolate whenever convenient, and chocolate makes you happy, then this may be compatible, but such motivations are not common. Now the free re-evaluation does not say that we have to get rid of happiness as a motivation, nor that we can’t enjoy ourselves when we are happy. It simply presents us with a choice, either to keep most of those motivation that conflict with the pursuit of happiness and to value our happiness less, so that it doesn’t get in their way, or to continue to put happiness first but to give up those other motivations which would interfere with it.

Of course you could always resist the free re-evaluation altogether, but in that case you would simply continue to be pulled back and forth by your motivations. Not only does this seem inherently undesirable, but it is unlikely to make you happy either. Well, I know what choice I would make.

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