Happiness and Principles

By Diana Mertz Brickell

Date: Fri, 7 Oct 1994 16:32:02 -0500 (CDT)

From: Diana Mertz Brickell dmbricke@artsci.wustl.edu

Newsgroups: alt.philosophy.objectivism

Subject: Happiness and Principles (really long!)

Paul's post about principles brings up a couple of interesting points, yet I think that he is approaching the issue in a manner that makes full investigation into the issues more roundabout than it needs to be. There are a number of questions that I think that we need to ask ourselves before we consider the consequences of not acting on principle.

1. To what does the concept happiness refer?

2. What is the relationship between happiness and life?

3. What are principles and what is their purpose?

4. Why might someone act against their principles?

Question One: To what does the concept happiness refer?

Determining the exact meaning of the various concepts of emotions would be a difficult task, and not one that I am going to endeavor to do. But, since it bears on this discussion, we do need to figure out to what the concept of happiness refers.

First, emotions can be separated into two distinct classes: those that indicate a positive relation between ourselves and reality (i.e. indicate that we are achieving values) and those that indicate that we are in a negative relations to reality (i.e. that we are not achieving our values). The first includes emotions such as joy, happiness, love, contentment, while the second includes fear, anger, and frustration (among others). Emotions can also be further subdivided into what sort of range or scope they have. Is an particular emotion just a reaction to an immediate circumstance, an evaluation of short-term situation, or the result of long-term considerations? Many emotions cover a whole range of values in terms of scope, for example, terror can be the immediate terror of being mugged or the chronic terror of a phobia. But there are some that have a more specific time scope, like elation, which is impossible to sustain for long periods of time. One of the reasons that happiness does get so much attention in philosophy is precisely because it refers to long-range issues, not just to the short term achievement of values. It is the ability of our conceptual faculty to understand and integrate past, present, and future that necessitates emotional responses to the awareness of our life as a whole. In other words, the fact that human have long-range goals and values necessitates emotions that cover a lengthy time span.

So, we have ascertained that happiness is a long-term, positive (automatic) evaluation of our relationship to reality. But, does it necessarily have to be consistent? What happens when our values either clash with reality or clash with each other? In both cases, the achievement of one value will prevent another from being achieved.

And, in fact, both types of contradiction (either with reality or each other) will frustrate the value of life. And if the value of life is being frustrated, happiness (which can be viewed as the emotional response to achieving life in the long term) will either be frustrated or destroyed. So, I would define happiness as the emotion resulting from the long-term achievement of objective values.

Question Two: What is the relationship between happiness and life?Well, I've already touched on this a bit, so it won't require such a lengthy explanation as the first question.

(Yeah!) People often talk as if there is some sort of conflict or lack of overlap between achieving life and achieving happiness. But, it seems clear from my exposition above that the act of achieving life consistently through time is going to result in the emotion of happiness. In other words, happiness is a way of indicating that you are achieving life. There is no dichotomy between the two.

Question Three: What are principles and what is their purpose?

Principles are means of reducing vast amounts of information about what is in our self-interest into manageable ideas on how we ought to act. Instead of having to decide every day whether it is in my self-interest accept reality for what it is, I form the concept of "honesty" and hold it as a principle, because I know that there is no time (in its given context) when the principle doesn't hold. If one does hold to the viewpoint that one can act against one's principle, then one is really acting on the principle that principles aren't (contextually) absolute. And what about that principle? Is it absolute itself? Can one break that principle and thus hold some principles as (contextually) absolute? All that you end up with is one big contradictory mess.

Question Four: Why might someone act against their principles?

The problems that arise when one's principles *aren't* (contextually) absolute bring into question the extent to which people actually do hold principles per se, or the extent to which they are really violating their principles.

One of the most important elements in a principle is that it reduces information about what is in one's *self-interest*. Thus principles that are against one's self-interest or arise from only partial understandings of what is in one's self-interest don't really have the status of principles. I guess that the best way that I can explain it is in the follow terms: to say that principles need not be in one's self-interest (like the Ten Commandments) is to undermine the whole purpose of having principles in the first place, which is to allow oneself to figure out the more subtle aspects of how one goes about successfully achieving life, instead of being burdened by unnecessary evaluation.

Because people often take a duty-based approach to ethics, they will form ideas about what one ought to do (I'll call them "ought ideas") without understanding why holding the ought-idea and acting upon it is in one's self-interest. And until one really *does* understand, acting upon it absolutely is violating one's self-interest. The person who thinks that "thou shalt not lie" is absolute, yet who lies to the murderer who barges into her house seeking her husband does not really have a problems with not acting on principle, but rather on having a conflicting set of ought-ideas, only some of which (like protecting the lives of those that she loves) are in her self-interest.

The consequences of having contradictory principles is, I think, exactly the same as having contradictory values. In applying one principle, one will necessarily contradict another, which will lead the the frustration of the ultimate value of life. Now, there are little contradictions and there are big ones, and the scope of the contradiction is going to have an effect on how much happiness one is forfeiting.


Paul, you asked if you were forgetting something in your evaluation, and I think that it is this: that the appearance of happiness is not always a reliable guide to someone's long-term emotional well-being. Until you are able to read their thoughts, especially when you see them conflicting over which of two contradictory values or principles, I'm not terribly sure that you can attribute to them such a positive emotional state.

-=- diana mertz brickell, brutal optimist -=-



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