Quote of the month:
"Always take the short cut; and that is the rational one. Therefore say
and do everything according to soundest reason." - Marcus Aurelius,
The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle, check out what the Master said.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
of the Rational:
Essays About Nature
& Humanist Web
Americans are reasonably happy people. This is one of the findings of a
recently published survey of self-reported happiness worldwide (see Scientific
American November 2002). Interestingly, however, they are not the most happy
people on earth. That distinction goes to the populations of northern Europe,
despite the harsh winters and lack of sunshine. The rest of Western Europe,
Canada, Australia and New Zealand report levels of happiness similar to that of
the United States. Intermediate happiness can be found in most Asian countries
(including China), while lower levels are typical of South American countries,
and lower still is the self-appraised happiness of most Africans (though the
absolute minimum is found in Russia and in some of its former satellites).
Philosophers have discussed what makes humans happy or unhappy at least
since Aristotle wrote his Ethics, but it seems most obvious to ask the people
themselves (Aristotle was famous for not thinking of such simple solutions to
complex problems: he once claimed that women have a different number of teeth
than men, but it didn’t occur to him to open Mrs. Aristotle’s mouth and count
them!). As you might imagine, financial security is crucial to happiness.
Astoundingly, however, the level of income above which more money doesn’t seem
to matter for most people is low: only about $13,000 / year, or circa half of
the median American income! Above that, more importance is carried by factors
like health, attitude, professional occupation, and relationships (married or
divorced people are happier than single ones), which explains why people living
in countries with lower income but better social health indicators (such as
Scandinavian nations) report that they are significantly happier than the
highly capitalistic US.
Aristotle, however, seems to have gotten much right in his analysis of
happiness and how to achieve it. First off, he realized that we are constantly
trying to overcome an innate “weakness of the will” (the Greek word is
akrasia), a natural tendency we seem to have to simply satisfy our basic
instincts (food, sex, and power). Modern biology gives us important clues as to
where akrasia comes from: for most of our evolutionary history, we lived in
environments in which it was difficult to procure food, hard to find a mate
(and especially to have offspring), and where getting to be the alpha male was
the best way to insure both. Natural selection has therefore built into us
powerful instincts that drive us to constantly seek such things even today. The
difference, of course, is that, in our modern environment, food is usually
plentiful (at least in Western societies); you can find dates on the Internet
or scanning a newspaper, and neither of these requires you to be the President
of the United States to be successful.
Aristotle realized (and the modern survey confirms) that true
happiness—while requiring a certain amount of food, sex, and control over one’s
destiny—is a much more sophisticated affair than just meeting the basic needs.
That is why he attempted to explore how we can reach the goal of “eudaimonia,”
a word that, while normally translated as “happiness,” in fact implies more
than low-grade contentment. Aristotle suggested that we need to cultivate
virtue, because virtue is like a good acquired habit: it requires constant
reinforcement to oppose our natural tendency to yield to akratic temptations.
So, for example, most of us feel a natural attraction toward that double
cheeseburger, because of its amount of fat and proteins, both hard to find in
our prehistoric environment. But our rational self, knowing about cholesterol
and heart attack, can make a strong case that our eudaimonia would be increased
by not walking into a fast food place at all times of the day. Such case needs
to be made with ourselves every time we are faced with the same choice, which
is why keeping a reasonable diet is such an ordeal. According to Aristotle, you
also don’t want to go to the other extreme (sorry for the vegetarians among
you), and deprive yourself of life’s pleasures altogether. That would be erring
on the other side of his famous golden mean: for every virtue there are two
opposite vices, though one may be more easily avoided than the other.
Aristotle’s system is often referred to as “virtue ethics,” because it is
based on a theory of what it means to be virtuous in general, and does not
provide specific suggestions or rules of conduct for particular instances
(unlike, say duty-based ethics, of which most religious and some secular
systems are examples). That is why virtue ethics both appeal strongly to some
people (historically, especially the ancient Romans), and it is completely
repulsive for others (most religious fundamentalists, be they Jewish,
Christians, or Muslims). Virtue ethics is not about following somebody else’s
idea of what is right and wrong, it is about a continuous, difficult, and
uncertain process of self-discovery, during which one slowly comes to terms
with human nature and how it can be ameliorated.
Regardless of your favored system of ethics, I find consolation in Aristotle
every time I concede a cheeseburger to my akrasia, and I feel ecstatic when I
manage to feed my eudaimonia with a healthy portion of grilled fish. Our search
for happiness continues, and I suspect that its very pursuit has much to do
with what it means to be human.