With what energies I’ve dedicated to my blogging this week I’ve been researching the matter of populist anarchy. That seems to be a significant new/old meme, in that many bright young people seem to be getting hooked on it these days. I want to see why, and see if I can point out the logical problems inherent in the promotion of such ideologies.
But that is going to take some time for me, so in the mean time I’ve decided to cheat: In the interest of providing fresh content here on a regular basis I’ve decided to dust off some of the more popular essays I wrote while I was still using Myspace as a blogging platform. (Yes, I know, I was terribly lame and retro to bother with them to begin with four years ago, but to quote Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then. I’m so much younger now.”)
By far the most popular thing I wrote there back in the day was an attempt at serializing an abbreviated version of an unfinished manuscript I have tucked away in various forms of storage called Kristian’s Ethics. For a few months I presented to the world some of the basic ideas about what I personally wish to pass on to the next generation, written with the intent of being accessible to any bright person with at least a junior high level command of English (or whatever other language these ideas might later be translated into). This series raised my average hit level there by at least a factor of 3 or 4, so apparently it rang true for many. Here then is the original introduction to that series, slightly re-edited for typos and the like.
In fact these ideas are rather central to my thinking on a number of levels. This started as a manuscript for an ethics book for my younger son, Kristian, when he was an infant that I was struggling to get visitation rights with, after his mother had left me before he was born. I was thinking about what life lessons I would most want to pass on to him, that circumstances made it look like I would not be able to teach him in a normal father-to-son sort of way. Without going into too much detail, I am relatively satisfied with my relationship with Kris these days but I still resent the limited time I’ve been able to spend with him over the years, the absurd boundaries that certain forces have put between us and how little influence I’ve had in key areas of his life. Those who know me well personally know exactly who/what I am talking about; those that don’t shouldn’t worry too much about it.
In any case, I determined that the most important life lessons I should pass on to my son had to do with learning to be happy. I took two precedents in using this approach: Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Taken in a holistic and balanced way, I believe that a wise search for personal happiness is the best starting point for developing personal virtues, a sense of empathy, a sustainable lifestyle and all of the other things that are generally associated with ethics. I’m happy to argue that point with anyone who might disagree, but for now I’ll just move along with the summary here.
I believe that there are five general categories for sources of happiness, and without doing too much violence to the English language, it is possible to give each of these categories a name beginning with the letter C: Comparison, Comfort, Control, Confidence and Connection.
“These are set here in what I see as a rough order of importance, from lowest to highest, but this is not to be taken too seriously. Every one of these categories includes things that are in some respects necessary in order to lead a balanced, happy life, and any one of them taken too exclusively or too far can do more harm than good. You should also remember that these categories are only tools for general understanding. As Aristotle also wisely pointed out, we should not try to define an area with greater precision than the area itself allows for. Such a list can never completely cover every possible goal, and in fact I don’t intent it to…
“What I’m trying so hard to say is that when it comes to real life, I don’t want you to try to fit all reality into this or any other set of neat little categories. I hope that you would rather just use these categories to make life a little less confusing for you so that you can enjoy it just a little better.”
To briefly summarize what I have in mind with each of these categories I’ll give you a quick outline of the main points in the chapter I wrote about each.
Comparison involves elements of being the same as and trying to be better than everyone else. The former has to do with concepts of “fairness;” the latter, competition. These can be useful means of achieving things, but they are particularly dangerous as ends unto themselves.
The next category, Comfort, is here taken to refer to basic biological urges to do things we are genetically programmed to appreciate and enjoy on a physical level; things which can easily be explained by a “selfish gene” theory. These would include sub-categories of at least flavor appreciation, intoxication, sexuality and smooth, painless function. The problems with this approach relate to the disconnect between the physical feelings and the practical risks involved in doing whatever physically feels good, ranging from obesity problems to STDs.
Moving on to my next category, Control, this includes many things related to the term “empowerment,” in which there really isn’t any clear border between what we call “freedom” and what we call “power.” This power/freedom can be exercised in terms of physical power––the ability to make physical items move the way you want them to, socio-political power––the ability to influence and change other people’s minds about things, economic power––the ability to buy whatever you desire, and philosophical power––the ability to formulate ideas and paradigms that regulate societies. Power trips have their own limits though in terms of the long-term satisfaction they provide. You need something worth doing with that power, more than just fulfilling your animal desires.
That leads to the matter of Confidence: having a sense of “being a good person” and “making the world a better place” according to some standard or another. The standards that are applicable here are inevitably based on some metaphysical premise of where the world comes from and what is most important in it. (This relates to chapter 8 in my book, Thinking Aloud is Allowed.) Besides all of the uncertainties involved in metaphysics though, this sort of approach to happiness doesn’t entirely work in the sense that confidence that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong isn’t a very satisfying feeling.
That leads us in turn to the importance of Connection––with other people, other animals and the world as a whole––for enabling us to live truly happy lives. This can involve nurturing instincts, functional partnerships, an aesthetic sense of harmony, romantic feelings related to sexuality, literal or figurative kinship, Platonic mental stimulation or mystical connections related to religious experience. All of these enable us to experience a sense that “myself” goes beyond the limits of my skin. That may be as good as the human experience gets, but it still needs to be balanced out with some sort of “individual integrity factors” coming from the other sources of happiness to be stable.
Consideration of those factors makes up Part 1 of this manuscript. Part 2 explains how I recommend pursuing these factors in terms of my religious identity as a “post-evangelical” Christian. Then Part 3 –– the most essentially incomplete section as of yet –– relates to applying these ideas in concrete socio-economic situations and in terms of everyday moral decision making.
In the weeks to come, when I don’t have any particularly inspiring thoughts related to current events or personal experiences, I will continue on with summarizing the details of this theory and showing its practical application to everyday life as I see it. Meanwhile I am hoping for comments, critiques and feedback in general here to help sharpen these ideas towards the end of properly publishing them someday, or at least leaving them to posterity in some more systematic form.
Just out of curiosity, how many readers here actually followed this series on the retro site back in the pre-Obama days? (The original blog heading was, My General Theory of Happiness.)How many new readers are seriously interested in seeing it repeated in full? Comments are still more than welcome here.