On Philosophy

May 20, 2009

The Constitution of Happiness

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 5:08 pm

The problem of human happiness, like so many difficult philosophical problems, has both an obvious answer and, at the same time, is completely obscure. The problem of human happiness is the question “why are people unhappy?” or, if you are more of an optimist – as I try to be – it is the question “how can we become happy?”. The obvious answer is that if we are unhappy it is because we don’t have the things that they want, and that we could become happy if we were simply able to get our hands on them. Class dismissed! But the problem isn’t so easily solved. The obvious answer simply raises more questions. Why do we want the things that we do? Should we desire them? Why are desires connected to happiness? Are they the only source of happiness? What these further questions illustrate is that to successfully grapple with this problem we need an account of the nature of happiness.

So let’s first get clear about what we mean by happiness. I think we all know what the term “happiness” means, but I suppose that there is no harm in making sure that we are all on the same page. Happiness then is a pleasurable feeling, which can be described as an emotion or as a state of mind. Subjectively happiness is a kind of “primary good”, meaning that we enjoy happiness for its own sake. If someone asked us why we liked being happy we couldn’t explain it to them, we like happiness without having a reason for liking it. (Indeed explanations of why we like things, when spelled out in full detail, all rest on the fact that one thing or another makes us happy. Thus we can hardly explain happiness in terms of liking if we explain liking in terms of happiness.) We can also draw a distinction between happiness and a pleasurable experience. A pleasurable experience is momentary while happiness subsists over an extended period of time. Pleasure is fleeting while happiness has a kind of stability. Which is not to deny that there is connection between the two; perhaps repeated pleasurable experiences give rise to happiness.

Now we can return to the naïve answer to the problem of happiness, which was that happiness comes from pleasure, which comes from getting what we want. Or, in other words, from fulfilling our desires. But how are desires connected to pleasurable feelings? We know from experience that they are connected, that is not in question. But we want to know what it is about a desire that produces happiness. Does fulfilling every desires produce pleasure? I don’t think so. Consider some very simple desires, such as the desire to stretch your legs when they are cramping up. Does fulfilling this desire make you happy? Certainly it removes discomfort, which may give it the illusion of producing pleasure, since you are better off afterwards. But not being in discomfort is hardly the same as pleasure. (Historical footnote: Plato once made a similar point in the Republic.)

What this shows is that some desires produce pleasure while others don’t. There must be some feature that is the cause of this division. This mysterious feature, it would seem, is what connects desires to pleasure. Let’s take a look at some desires. The desire to eat when you are hungry. The desire to eat your favorite food. The desire for more money. The desire for a new car. Of these four only the first appears to be the kind that removes discomfort rather than producing pleasure. The difference seems to be that it is a desire away from something rather than towards something. It is a desire to get away from hunger. The other three are desires towards something, good food, money, and a new car, respectively. But what makes the things that desires pull us towards different from those they pull us away from? Why don’t I have a positive desire towards hunger and a negative desire away from what I now consider my favorite food? Is it something in the things themselves? It doesn’t seem likely since someone with an eating disorder may very well have those reversed desires.

What distinguishes the things desires pull us towards from those that they push us away from is the constitution of value. The constitution of value is a way of describing how we create value in the world. Or, in other words, how it comes to be that some things seem better to us and others worse. The constitution of value theory makes us the cause of this, specifically our constituting acts. A constituting act is a mental act or choice which amounts to the association of some significance with an object of experience. For example, words mean what they mean to us because of such constituting acts: through a constituting act we associate a meaning with a sound or with some written symbol. Through such acts meaning is given to otherwise meaningless physical events. The constitution of value operates in essentially the same way, except that, rather than meaning being associated with things, value is. Such constituting acts are the foundation of our judgments concerning what is and isn’t important; we constitute some things as having value, and other things as valueless. And what we constitute as having value is what we desire, and what we constitute as having negative value (as being bad) is what we desire to avoid.

Given this, the solution to the problem of happiness may seem to lie in how we constitute value in the world. Since constituting acts are something we preform they must be under our control. Thus we could, in theory, choose to constitute the world of value differently. To cease to be unhappy all we would have to do is stop constituting things we lack as valuable, reserving value only for the things we currently possess. Thus we would be happy, because all our desires would be fulfilled. But if things were really this easy there would be no problem of happiness, people would have figured it out for themselves already. One problem is that, while the constitution of value is under our control, we cannot change it on a whim. Once we start to constituting something as having value it has a kind of inertia; it requires work to change how we constitute it. Secondly, not all pleasures and pains come from desires; we are simply hard-wired to derive pain from some things and pleasure from others. And it is exceedingly difficult to constitute something as valuable which causes us pain, or to constitute something as valueless which gives us pleasure.

Still, these are not insurmountable difficulties. It is possible to change how we constitute value in the world if we work at it long enough. Obviously since what we possess is constantly in a state of flux we would have to choose very carefully what to constitute as having positive or negative value. You wouldn’t want to work hard to constitute something as valuable that you would then lose. Thus the outcome of this effort is likely to be a person who constitutes little as valuable, and even less as having negative value. This is very close the ascetic ideal, where little is valued and thus where the individual has few or no desires.

But I have my doubts whether this is really a solution either. The problem of happiness was only in part the problem of avoiding unhappiness. The other part was trying to gain happiness. Being free of desires might be a way to avoid unhappiness, but it doesn’t seem likely to produce happiness. But suppose that somehow we managed to constitute the world in some extremely unlikely way, such that we had many desires and they were always being satisfied. This is to be as charitable as possible to the idea that we can be happy by adjusting how we constitute value in the world. Even if this could be achieved I still doubt that it would produce happiness. Previously happiness was distinguished from a mere moment of pleasure by defining happiness as having a kind of stability. A single moment of pleasure, which is the end product of a fulfilled desire, is not stable. It is extremely unstable because it naturally fades away in a short amount of time. A succession of these pleasures, however long it is extended, is not stable either. It is unstable because it is entirely contingent on whatever is behind those moments of pleasure to continue to produce them. In other words: “happiness” is such a scheme is still subject to the whims of fate, no matter how pleasant we posit them to be. But true happiness breeds further happiness, and doesn’t require continual external inputs to persist (although it may require us to avoid pains).

The core problem with these solutions is that they are focused on how we constitute value in the external world. But, no matter how we choose to constitute value in it, those acts are still dependent, to some degree, on what there is out there to constitute as valuable. But the external world is not the only possible target of constituting acts. It is possible to direct these acts at abstractions and ideas, for example, which obviously are independent of what is actually present in the world. More importantly, it is also possible to direct constituting acts at the self. In other words, we can, and do, constitute bits and pieces of our lives, our personalities, our abilities, and our dispositions. The obvious implication is that we can constitute ourselves as valuable. And since we can never be separated from ourselves that this will provide a stable source of happiness, and thus of pleasure. Love thyself, as they say.

As usual the obvious solution is no solution at all. To explain why I must overthrow the simplistic model of desire that we have been using so far, namely the theory that value judgments breed desires, which produce pleasure when satisfied, which in turn have some unspecified causal connection to happiness. This model isn’t necessarily wrong as much as it is overly simplistic, and leaves out important relationships. The first of these stems from the nature of desire. Desire intrinsically involves separation – to desire something you must lack it, and a desire is a drive to negate that separation. Some separations are greater than others and thus require more work to overcome. And this effort is inexorably bound up with the constitution of value: the more work we have done to bridge a separation the more valuable what is on the other side will seem. This is because one of the primary uses of constitution is self-justification; we constitute the world so as to make sense of it, and to make sense of our role in it. This is not the only reason we constitute things as we do, but it certainly is a major one.

Let me illustrate how this model works through an example. To get the ball rolling we must first suppose that we constitute something as valuable for an unspecified reason. Perhaps someone tells us it is valuable. Or perhaps it is just an impulse. Now in most cases we probably would quickly cease to judge this thing to be valuable as quickly as we started (our interest gets caught by some new shiny thing). But in some cases during that short time we do or say something that commits us to it. Perhaps we remark to a friend how nice it is. Or perhaps we do some research about how much it would cost to buy one. Now we have made some effort to annul the separation between us an it, or at least committed ourselves to that effort. To explain these event to ourselves we thus continue to constitute that thing as valuable. Which in turn may eventually lead us to put more effort into acquiring it, which will in turn increase our estimation of its value. Thus for anything which we are not hard-wired to find pleasure in there is a correlation between how much work we have put into getting it and how much pleasure it gives us (because work correlates with value).

This why you can’t derive happiness from constituting something that you already have or are as valuable. Really constituting it as valuable, and not just saying the words, is hard or impossible since you don’t have to work for it. This is why the luster of every new thing wears off; once you have it you no longer have to work for it, and are thus no longer driven to constitute it as valuable to justify your efforts to posses it. For this reason happiness cannot be achieved under this model by constituting some fixed point or points as valuable – once you get there you can derive no further pleasure from them. If the problem of happiness has a solution it must be through constituting some direction of movement as valuable, rather than a fixed point. Allow me to elaborate. If we constitute some process as valuable – ideally one without a terminating point – then we can continue to derive pleasure from it through putting in the work to move one step further along it. The fact that we have to work to move further along it reinforces our constitution of it as valuable. And because it is a process rather than a fixed point there is no danger that we will actually get hold of what we seek and thus tire of it. For example, someone might constitute the process of becoming a better artist as valuable. If they do they can work every day at improving their art and derive happiness from that. They will never become a perfect artist and have no room left for improvement, since perfection can never be realized, only approached.

Given the above this is what we have as a solution to the problem of happiness: constitute what you are doing as valuable and refrain from constituting as valuable anything external to yourself except as it contributes to the first part. Is this solution too cheap? Does it make happiness unrealistically easy to obtain? Hopefully not. Since work is never out of the equation we are never promised free happiness. Additionally, constitution is seen as participating in a kind of feedback loop with some essentially random inputs. In layman’s terms this means that while it is possible to influence how we constitute the world it is never directly under our control in the same way the decision to raise our arm is. Again, this shows that happiness in this model must be both chosen and earned; wishful thinking will not make it fall into our lap.

Perhaps these questions can be better answered if we consider why people are unhappy under this model, and see whether what prevents them from being happy is an actual obstacle. The root of unhappiness, in this model, is being unhappy with what you do. In other words, you may get things that you value – and thus have moments of pleasure – but what you are doing does not seem part of a process that you constitute as valuable. Is this possible? Since I have explained the constitution of value as in part being a process of self-justification it might appear that I am committed to the claim that if you do something you must see it as valuable. But this is not really the case. All I am committed to is that value plays some role in explaining your actions, not necessarily such a direct one. And I think that in the case of unhappy people they explain why they do things they don’t particularly enjoy – often jobs they don’t particularly enjoy – by taking them as having merely instrumental value towards grasping some fixed points that they constitute as intrinsically valuable (i.e. a new car). But since grasping one fixed point of value after another does not produce happiness these people may never be happy, even though they see all their actions as serving their desires.

This then is my sketch of a solution to the problem of happiness. Constitute the process of your life as valuable and you will be happy. Admittedly there is much more that could be said here. The process of our life is not one process towards one destination, but a number of journeys that are interwoven. And it is rarely the case that a person commits to every such process process early in their lives and then stays with it forever. There are some processes that we hope we stick with forever, such as the process of becoming a better companion to one’s life partner. But there are others, such as the process of becoming a better Tetris player, that we fully expect to engage in only for a time. And so more should be said about how we constitute a process as valuable, which processes we should constitute as valuable, and how we can change our constitution of such a process. But I’m not going to say those things here and now.

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