On Philosophy

March 2, 2007

Freedom From Unhappiness

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I proposed that happiness could be caused in basically two ways, involuntarily and by achieving one’s Ends. Involuntary happiness, which occurs because of chemical and not rational reasons (for example, a spontaneous good mood, a drug high, ect), is philosophically less interesting. Since it isn’t something that can be affected by the will there is little point in discussing it. However with respect to the kinds of happiness that is achieved by meeting ones ends there is more we can say. Certainly by studying the nature of Ends we can at least make some predictions about what will and what won’t lead to happiness.

But instead of directly tackling happiness let me instead tackle unhappiness, its mirror image. In my opinion addressing unhappiness is more important, because in general it is more powerful than happiness. Unhappiness and happiness are not like negative and positive numbers such that a lot of one can cancel out some of the other, leaving a remainder. The mind simply cares more about unhappiness than happiness. Thus a little bit of unhappiness can make a person unhappy overall even if they have more reasons to be happy. And thus if happiness is preferred to unhappiness it is better to focus on removing unhappiness. Like happiness there is involuntary unhappiness, and there is little we can say about it either. But unhappiness can also be caused by failing to meet ones Ends, and discussing such unhappiness might have some value, as our choices can make it more or less likely. There are two basic ways in which one can fail to meet ones Ends, by a failure of the will and by having Ends that unavoidably lead to unhappiness.

A failure of the will can lead to unhappiness because even though a person may have Ends that would make them happy, if they were satisfied, they may fail to take actions that would lead to those Ends being satisfied. For example, laziness is an example of a failure of the will. When we are lazy we fail to act in a way that will satisfy our Ends, even though we know that we have good reason to do so (or know that at the very least doing so will make us happy). A misallocation of the will can also lead to unhappiness. Not all Ends are equally important, but they are all Ends. Thus to be happy a person needs to give some attention to all of their Ends, although not necessarily equal attention. If a person misallocates their will by focusing only on some of their Ends then the Ends they aren’t satisfying will make them unhappy. Another problem that can lead to unhappiness, which I classify under this heading, is having poor judgment. Admittedly poor judgment isn’t exactly a feature of the will, but it is a problem with the person and not with their Ends. And a person can have poor judgment in basically two ways, they can misjudge the results of their actions, and thus fail to satisfy their Ends even when they are trying to. Or they can have poor judgment about their Ends, and come to the conclusion that they have one set of Ends when they really have another. Thus they will try to act to satisfy the Ends they think they have, or think they should have, while ignoring the Ends that would really make them happy if satisfied. All of these “failures of the will” are problems with the person, either with the way they go about satisfying their Ends or with their understanding of their Ends. And thus all are correctable, because with work people can change. By simply observing themselves, and noticing what makes them happy, and what works and what doesn’t, people can learn, if they choose, what their real Ends are and how they are best reached.

But it is also possible for a person to fail to meet their Ends because their Ends are in some way defective. The most obvious way Ends can be defective is for them to be at odds with each other, for the satisfaction of one End to conflict with the satisfaction of another. And thus a person with such Ends would almost constantly be unhappy, because to do something that would make them happy is to do something that makes them unhappy. But I have said enough about this already. Another way an End can be defective is if it is naturally impossible to satisfy (although a person with such an End may not know it). For example, if my End is to fly by flapping my arms then I will usually be unhappy, because of my many failures to achieve my End. Such Ends cannot be fixed, only discarded. Similarly an End might be undesirable because it is almost impossible, or possible but outside of the capabilities of the person who has the End. For example, someone might want to be as good of an artist as Michelangelo. It is possible to be that good, but it is outside the capabilities of most people, and even if one had the capability it would still not be possible to satisfy that End without years and years of practice. Such Ends don’t need to be discarded, but they do need to be relativized to the person’s capabilities. For example, it would be better to have the End of being the best artist it is possible to be. Such an End leads to the same hard work and same achievements (in order to become the best you can possibly become), but because it is something you can succeed at constantly, by putting in hard work towards that goal, then you will be happy, instead of always being unhappy because you are still inferior to Michelangelo.

Admittedly there is no getting rid of unhappiness altogether, because involuntary unhappiness will always exist. However, the majority of unhappiness, in my opinion, seems to come from sources which it is possible to have some control over. For example, it is possible to change your Ends, from Ends that lead to unhappiness by being impossible to satisfy to Ends that could be satisfied. And it is also possible to change you attitudes from ones that lead to Ends remaining unsatisfied to those that don’t. But both these improvements require a kind of introspective sensitivity, you have to be aware of your attitudes and aware of your Ends in order to improve. And I think failing to do that, failing to really understand yourself, is at the root of many of the problems that people have, because you can’t simply aim directly at happiness or freedom from unhappiness and expect to reach those targets.

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