Skip to content

RE: Free Will: Happiness and the Foundations of Morality

This week I'm dipping into the swamps of social metaphysics in academia! For those not familiar with the term,  social metaphysics was outlined by Nathaniel Branden in The Psychology of Self-Esteem (his blog articles might be of value to you too ).
 
In a nutshell, when the nature of one's reality is based on other people's ideas, assessments, judgments, opinions, emotions, and behaviors—essentially their codes of morality—then one's metaphysical worldview is social in nature, rather than reality-based and objective. Yet, an objective metaphysics is what reasoning human beings need, in order to live according to their own individual rational self-interest. For some reason, mainstream academic philosophers and psychologists have a hard time looking at reality objectively. Instead, they look to others (who also have a hard time looking at reality objectively).

Ethics should be about furthering your own life and well-being, your own self-esteem and happiness. We need to live an independent, self-oriented ethics rather a dependent, other (self)-oriented ethics. I explored this subject in detail in a section in The Psychology of Liberty titled "Freedom—An Ethical Issue."

So, in this video interview between Cato policy wonk Will Wilkinson and moral psychologist Jon Haidt, they discuss the following in relation to Haidt's book, The Happiness Hypothesis:

Free Will: Happiness and the Foundations of Morality

Self-righteous liberals think it’s OK to eat dogs (06:55)
Who says morality has a single foundation? (10:48)
Should we let parents treat kids as they please? (06:09)
Why America is so religious (04:09)
Why are Europeans getting happier? (06:08)
How moral truth is like the market value of gold (08:17)

While they covered a lot of interesting tidbits, I wanted to focus on some of the essentials, which were discussed near the end of the interview. At around 40 mins into it, Haidt stated that there is a "wisdom" in various moral views throughout society (conservatism, progressivism, etc.), so we need a "balance."

Religion makes people happier; conservative values make people happier. Order, tradition, and predictability generally makes people happier. Now, some people don't fit. There going to say, 'What are you talking about? I hate living there,' and they're going to get out.

Unfortunately, so long as people judge people's values and behaviors according to tribal notions, "happiness" for them contains many aspects of self-delusion and delusion of others. There is no valid substitute to cultivation of your own values and virtues, based on your own life and well-being. Religion is notorious for discouraging people from living an ethics of enlightened selfishness, which is the only way to love anyone or anything honestly, as Branden has noted. Selfishness according to religious dogma is the primary sin, because it distracts one from worshipping something else (the big G, for instance).

At 45:15 Haidt stated that "the psychology of morality and the psychology of religion are indistinguishable." Well, he likely sees it this way because he's also bought into the notion of social-based ethics. "Religare" is Latin for "to bind" (people together) after all, so the very word religion is necessarily tribal in nature. While I'm certainly a major advocate of people interacting in groups, forming close-knit communities, and trading in widespread commerce, etc., the purpose of morality needs to be understood and integrated by individuals, for individuals. In other words we must clearly distinguish the psychology of morality from the psychology of religion. The purpose of morality is to outline a set of values and virtues that serve your happiness. The purpose of religion, deliberate or not, is to have you surrender your mind to some purported "higher" authority than your own mind (even though none exists). That's the essential difference.

Around 47:27, Haidt stated that "we can't find a single principle that explains happiness" across cultures and countries, based on the data. Might this be because the researchers aren't taking a philosophically objective approach to the nature of this individual experience? Without logically integrating the nature of a human mind and life, how can compiling statistics about groups amount to much, other than an indicator of how unenlightened the world is at present?

At 49:50, Haidt stated that "what we need is a sense of belonging, cohesiveness, and purpose." Maybe those things sound appealing, but without a coherent understanding of an objective system of values and virtues, lots of things can go wrong. The state of the world reveals this. The human mind needs to integrate reality (which includes the reality of the self) in a non-contradictory way. Without a conceptually comprehensible grasp of his surroundings, man has only the "group" to fall back on, which of course begs the question of whether members of the group have done much thinking of their own.

Around 54:40, the notion that "society" creates certain moral truths, based on historical and ideological context rears its ugly, contradictory head. While it's true that knowledge is contextual, moral knowledge is something that is readily available to any thinking human being. No one can escape the universal nature of ethics. Since we are all reasoning beings, it follows that what applies to one person in terms of being objectively moral, applies to others as well. While personal preferences, such as subjective tastes and pleasures, are rooted in our particular perceptions and our own specific life experiences, objective values and virtues reflect our nature as conceptual beings. Thus, whether one is a slave in ancient Rome or a rights-respecting person who's been thrown in a cage for "breaking the law" here in America, the invalid moral code of the "masters" is still exposed for all to see. Treating people in a disrespectful fashion, no matter their size, color, age, gender, or any other non-essential aspect, matters a lot to those on the bad end of that immoral stick. This has remained a constant throughout human history.

At 57:10 Haidt stated, "It becomes an empirical question what kinds of societies are best for people," even though he and Wilkinson generally agree with the tenets of classical liberalism. When one abandons the realm of objective morality, all that one is left with is arguments from effect (such as utilitarianism). The term "best" needs to be properly defined in this discussion. Only individuals can know what's best for them, based on their own circumstances and in relation to others. Since classical liberalism harbors the irrational and immoral notion that some individuals who call themselves "government" have the "right" to rule over other individuals (e.g., via taxation and regulation), it too must be rejected immediately, if not sooner, as a highly disrespectful code of ethics. The initiation of force, which includes extortion and fraud, by a single person or even a group of people calling themselves government, is the ultimate form of disrespect.

At 58:42 Haidt stated, "I think a generally liberal democracy is the best, and that involves settings highest on the harm and fairness lower on the in-group/authority/purity foundations." (More info on these foundations can be found here). He continued by noting that instead of needing religion and patriotism, 

We need groups to participate in that we respect, that we join with to pursue noble ends. And if you have a purely liberal, the extreme liberal society, in which everybody is their own project of self-creation, in which all relationships are fully voluntary, and everything is done on a straight utilitarian calculus, I think what you end up with is a nation of shoppers who feel empty inside. (59:10)

And Wilkinson ends with a seemingly humorous quip, "I think meaning is overrated." If relationships aren't fully voluntary, then we have no meaningful relationships. Meaning comes from independent persons establishing bonds of goodwill, respect, and love, based on objective (universally applicable) values and virtues. It takes a free, reasoning mind to ascribe meaning, after all, and in this day and age of coercive institutions and mind-numbing mythologies, no more noble end exists.

Be your own project of self-creation, so that you don't feel empty inside, no matter what the various social metaphysicians contend.

W

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
Share