KE part 4 (evaluating control-based happiness)

On I go with re-editing and re-blogging my three year old series of posts based on my “Kristian’s Ethics” manuscript.

Having outlined my basic approach and discussed the pursuit of happiness by way of comparison and comfort, I now move on to the third c-word: control. I began explaining this to my son years back by way of a true story (or so the person telling me claimed) that I heard during my years as a bar tender in Helsinki, shortly after the Berlin Wall and all it represented came down:

This Western businessman I was serving told me a story of the culture clashes he had faced while trying to set up a business in Eastern Europe. As he told it, as free enterprise was just becoming possible in that part of the world, he went to this Eastern European country, hired a few local assistants and set up an import/export office. The office was an immediate success in marketing at least; orders started coming in left and right, and to keep up with the demand the entrepreneur himself had to work sixteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week. The problem was that he had to do most of the work alone; every weekday afternoon at five o’clock all of his local work force would put on their coats and head for the door. Working nights and weekends was out of the question for them. Overtime was a concept that was untranslatable into their language. The business man begged and pleaded and negotiated with these people until finally one Friday afternoon one fellow explained things to him in rather crude terms: “Look,” he said, “I’m done with this shit for the week. I’m going home to open a bottle of brandy. I’m going to get so drunk that I can’t stand up, then I’m going to go to bed and screw my girlfriend until I wear the skin off my dick.  Tomorrow I’ll get up around noon, open the next bottle and start the party all over again, and I’ll keep it going all the way through ‘til Sunday.  Meanwhile, you’ll be here driving yourself crazy with this shit, and if you go anywhere it will only be back to your hotel room to collapse because you’re too tired to do anything else. Why should I want to be more like you?”

The poor businessman couldn’t answer, and he couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for himself. He thought of himself as a free and single playboy, but he wasn’t really living up to it. He kept going with his own rat race while his hired help was getting what he thought he wanted for himself in life.

He wasn’t being as illogical as he thought he was though. Most people, given a chance to see everything about the businessman’s and the worker’s lives, and given a choice of having one or the other for themselves, would still choose the businessman’s life; and as time has gone on more and more Eastern Europeans have become workaholic businessmen themselves. Why? Because he had something that most people consider to be more important than comfort: control. He could control what his company did, where he lived, what he owned, where he traveled, who worked for him, and to a certain extent he could even control the economic relationships between different countries. Compared to that, the only things that the worker could control was (to a certain extent) what time he could come and go, what he drank on the weekend and, if he was lucky, what woman he would sleep with.

I use the term control here less in the sense of having order and predictability in life––though that is an important side effect––and more in terms of being able to cause the things of your own choosing to happen. It involves the exercise of power as a primary element, but also a certain skill at channeling that power with precision and being able to foresee and regulate the consequences of the exercise of this power.

There is a common but erroneous conception of there being good and bad forms of control, with a clear border of sorts between them. The good ones would have names like empowerment, freedom, liberty, self-determination and autonomy. The bad ones would be labeled with terms like tyranny, domination, subjugation and dictatorship. The word authority has a rather variable connotation between these, in that it is technically defined in sociology as “the legitimate exercise of power,” but it is also the primary factor limiting the exercise of freedom or liberty which everyone wants for themselves.

In practice no line can be drawn between “good control” and “bad control,” because we humans are interactive creatures. Everything I choose to do has effects on those around me, and everything those around me do has an effect on me. If I have complete freedom to do whatever I feel like doing, regardless of how those around me feel about it, I am effectively subjugating them. On the other hand, if I have no control over the actions of other, I end up lacking freedom from their harassment and freedom to interact with them in ways that I find satisfying. I illustrated this with a paraphrased version of a story that I borrowed from someplace I can’t actually remember. (Extra points if someone can find the original source.)

Let’s imagine that once upon a time there was a village where there was perfect freedom: everyone could do whatever they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it. Well, as it happened, what some people felt like doing was going around punching other people in the nose as hard as they could. They claimed that it was part of their basic freedom to use their fists as they wished, and they were perfectly willing to grant the same freedom to those around them. Most of the people in the village, however, preferred freedom from having their noses broken to freedom to break other people’s noses; so they passed a law that forbid spontaneous nose punching.  The nose punchers were deeply insulted by this new law.  They claimed that this was a terrible restriction of their basic personal liberties, and that the village was taking away their greatest joy in life. Eventually many of them moved away to form their own village, where starting a fist-fight when you felt like it was a guaranteed civil liberty. So then you had the pretty-nosed village and the happy-fisted village side by side, and the question must now be asked, which one was more free?

The traditional reciprocity argument of limiting yourself to actions that you can accept everyone else doing doesn’t do much to help us solve this one. In their own ways each village was being perfectly reasonable. And while this may sound a bit absurd to some, if you substitute the nose punching with smoking, trading in pornography, experimenting with “chemical recreation” of various sorts, playing loud music, auto racing or even the building of nuclear power plants, you can see the same dynamic as relevant to issues of our own time. Sometimes in order to achieve happiness it is important to exercise control over more than yourself, and developing means of controlling yourself, your environment and other people in it can be a very important part of any person’s happiness.

So how do we do that? What means of control are we talking about? I would itemize four basic types: physical, political, economic and philosophical control.

Physical control is perhaps best symbolized by various larger vehicles marketed as “freedom machines,” ranging from cruising motorcycles to sport convertibles to SUVs to private jets. Not only being able to go wherever you want whenever you want as fast as you want, but being able to get tons of metal to move at great speeds precisely according to your whim can give guys in particular a great rush. In the old days an important part of this rush was making it happen with the strength of one’s own muscles, and sometimes that still applies, in sports in particular; but less and less it would seem, as sports become more technology and equipment oriented. This also spills over into our primitive violent urges to dominate other people through physical aggression, but in the contemporary world that technique of controlling other people has become largely outdated.

Techniques of influencing other people can be referred to as political control. I use this as a broad term for pretty much any exercise of social influence, down to children manipulating their parents into giving them the toys they want. The means of exercising this sort of control over others are too many to itemize. Carnegie’s famous work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, doesn’t even scratch the surface. Suffice to say, advertisers and lobbyists have worked on getting this down to a science, but it still remains more of an art, and on the micro level at least, women seem to have an advantage over men in this area. But there is one way that more than any other seems to work these days as a means of getting people to do what you want them to: pay them.

This is what I mean by economic control. These days wealth is not, strictly speaking, an abundance of material possessions; it is a measure of a person’s culturally accepted capacity to pay for things –– to get others to give them what they want or do what they want in exchange for a certain portion of their money –– their recognized purchasing power. With certain cultural skills, this form of control can be used to expand itself exponentially these days, until the system becomes so abstract that it starts to crumble from within. Since I am not an economist by training I have to limit myself in terms of how far I try to go in analyzing the monetary system, but suffice to say, it is the major measure of the capacity to exercise control in the world today, and it is in itself rapidly spiraling out of control.

Given my own biases as a teacher though, I consider one form of control to be more important than money: the power of original and valuable thoughts and ideas. I refer to this category with the blanket term of philosophical control. This can include conceptual areas ranging from inventiveness to hegemony, but explaining those would take more bandwidth than I’m ready to use here this weekend. Once again, suffice to say that if you have sufficiently powerful ideas or wisdom, you can usually parlay that into economic wealth. (I’ve never managed it myself, but I do believe it can be done.) Beyond that, there are some things that some people will not do for money, but there are far fewer things that people would not do on the basis of a commitment to an ideal they have become convinced of.

All that being said, Nietzsche’s theories not withstanding, I do not believe the will to power, or the desire for “freedom” and control, to be the ultimate source of satisfaction in human life. While a certain amount of freedom is necessary for anyone to be happy, and while control tends to be more important to people than physical pleasures once we get beyond the basic survival level, obviously the world’s most powerful people are not the world’s happiest people. It has become a cheap cliché to say that money cannot buy you happiness. There can be exceptions to this, but they require that the money is used to gain something other than influence over others. It’s not enough to be in control; we need to have something worth doing with that control. That’s where this serialized theory of happiness is going next.



Filed under Economics, Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Philosophy

3 responses to “KE part 4 (evaluating control-based happiness)

  1. Wisdom does not guarantee “control” ( which is probably, as a matter of fact, illusory at best.) But it’s an essential element.

    Take the example of the five-year old with a real steering wheel on a real car! — but barely able to see over the dashboard. Control? Not without some means of connecting one’s actions to the outcome — which demands accurate information about the world one is trying to affect, and an adequate model of how that world will respond.

    Actually, if I were to succeed in bringing the whole world into compliance with my own limited imagination and sense of what’s best for me, I would not be more happy, but less so. A world that could no longer surprise me? Replacing my crazy friends with cheerful robots?

    If I knew that God would reliably grant all of my prayers, I would be so scared I’d need to drink myself horizontal and wear the skin off my sentimental attachment…

    And if I knew that God wouldn’t do a thing I asked for, I would be almost as badly off.

    I don’t need to be able to specify outcomes. Being able to expect a wise and loving response; that’s reason for happiness…

    • I don’t think there’s anything there we fundamentally disagree about, Forrest. Wisdom and love as values unto themselves are coming in this series. For that matter, you are right, the thrill that people seek through power/freedom does not require absolute control to be satisfying. Perhaps the 5-year-old at the steering wheel is an apt illustration of even imaginary control providing a certain sense of happiness. I’ve tried to state that, like comfort, I’m stretching the use of this term a bit from its standard implications. The same goes for “confidence” which comes next.

      There’s an exercise I do with 15-year-olds in teaching ethics, where I take a set of survey results from a Finnish textbook on the subject as to what people in this country consider most important in life, and present them to the kids in alphabetical order:
      contact with nature, family safety, freedom, health, honesty, meaningful work, personal balance, personal responsibility, purpose in life, self-respect, true friendship and world peace. After discussing what these mean in practice I then give them the task of putting them in order of importance, usually by putting it to a vote within the class. Results vary considerably from year to year and class to class, but more often than not the overall winner is “Freedom”. The point of this essay is really to explore why that might be, what that entails in practice, and why that would not be my personal first choice.

  2. Pingback: The Problem with Death | Huisjen's Philosophy Blog

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