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Happiness Lost In Translation

Awhile ago, I bookmarked the following interesting article by Max Borders at Tech Central Station Daily:

TCS Daily - Happily Burying Bentham

Now, I'm all for burying Bentham, along with all the other spokesman for contradictory moral philosophies, but a few statements by Borders deserve scrutiny.

While, in identifying these correlations Crick and Koch missed the point and failed to cross the explanatory gap between the mind and the brain, at least their work can contribute something meaningful in our efforts to unravel the mysteries of consciousness.

I read Koch's The Quest for Consciousness a few years ago, while contemplating pursuing a PhD program in either computational neurobiology or cognitive neuroscience (I decided against it, mostly due to major influences of tax money, aka stolen loot, and governmental meddling in the sciences in general and brain science in particular). Crick and Koch didn't miss the point, for the whole point of brain research of mental events is to identify the fundamental NCC's (neural correlates of consciousness), in order to understand how complex interactions of neurons give rise to one's mental experiences. In short, the mind is what the brain does. Unfortunately, dualism still lingers in such notions as the "explanatory gap."

Thus many of the best and brightest political scientists, sociologists, economists and legal scholars are channeling Bentham when they work. After all, it was Bentham who wrote that "[t]he greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." Even beloved economists who challenge happiness researchers sometimes assume basic utilitarian premises in the process.


Before discussing why, I should admit that it's darn near impossible not to get pulled into the "greatest happiness" conversation from time to time -- usually without realizing it. Because that's what folks expect when they talk about policy, particularly when politics is supposed to be about the "public good."

Those who ponder such things as the "public good" or "greatest happiness for the greatest number,"—i.e., those who attempt to take on the role of central planners by using or advocating the use of the coercive means of government to get things done—are engaging in enormous moral contradictions. Politics actually isn't a useful or helpful enterprise for human beings; it's purely destructive and harmful, because its means are anti-reason and anti-life. No one has the right to impose a product or service at the barrel of a gun, but this is precisely what those in government and their abettors and accessories do. Naturally, those who believe that they or others need aspects of their lives to be governed by other individuals (who call themselves "government") will find it "darn near impossible not to get pulled into" the politics of happiness.

Here are the main points that Borders focused on in his criticisms of happiness research, much of which I can sympathize with. Yet, some essentials are missing here.

1. Happiness is radically subjective.

Is this an objective statement? After all, one has to use one's consciousness in order to determine objective truths. Many corrupt philosophies throughout the ages have relied on people not noticing this fallacy. While the contents and processes of your consciousness are oftentimes not readily observable by others, you yourself are aware of them. In addition to pertaining to self-experience not accessible to others, subjectivity also means not taking into account all the available evidence, facts, or ideas, so that one's context is limited, biased, or distorted. An objective assessment of happiness doesn't necessary depend on its observations by others (who are purportedly using their own "subjective" consciousness, btw).

2. Happiness resists definition.

A concept's definition depends on uniting the distinguishing characteristics of the mental units being integrated, while setting aside the various measurements entailed in the concept. If happiness were an undefinable concept, it would then be invalid, i.e., not able to be integrated in accordance with any particular referents in reality. Just because some people struggle with the definition of a concept doesn't mean that the concept itself can't be adequately defined. In a scholarly nutshell, happiness is the experience of the achievement of one's values and virtues in accordance with an objective ethical system that's consciously or subconsciously held (an ethics that holds your individual life and well-being as primary). Guiltless joy is another way of describing it. Living in accordance with your sage-self, or authentic self, is another. Obviously, there are many other definitions pertaining to this concept, but it's important to focus on the essentials.

3. Happiness eludes temporality.

This much is true. Happiness is also related to context, so you can be relatively happy in a given context but happier in another context.

4. Happiness is relative and contextualized.

This is also true, and I totally agree that context must be self-determined. Happiness is self-determined, based on the thinking we have done or failed to do. Being "overloaded at work" or being "driven crazy by one's kids," however, demonstrates what happens when one's perspective shifts from self-assertiveness and appreciation of others to self-doubt and irritability.

5. Happiness is not really measurable.

This really depends on what variables one is measuring. People can definitely report what's going on in their conscious minds and even subconscious minds (with a little practice). I agree, however, that what one measures and one's degree of success in this endeavor has nothing to offer "public policy."

6. Happiness is immune to categories.

Aristotle's focus on eudaemonia is an essential aspect of happiness. But to say that happiness can't be categorized is about as incorrect as saying that it can't be defined.

7. Happiness is irreducible.

I sense that this is another attempt for the author to promote dualism and the inaccessibility of mind from scientific scrutiny. Again, the mind is what the brain does, and the facets of our happiness can indeed be investigated and understood. Of course, this is not to say that understanding the brain in any way detracts from our experiences. Brain knowledge will never negate self-knowledge.

8. Happiness is bound by the physical body.

Certainly, a "sustained high" isn't possible, but happiness isn't about sustained highs, at least in the thrill-seeking sense. Clearing away contradictory beliefs and focusing on being mindful of your precious and amazing mortal life in the cosmos, regardless your circumstances, will enable a heightened level of happiness. Since your feelings are the result of subconscious assumptions and premises, such things can always be assessed and reassessed in order to best serve your life and well-being. Taking emotional "ups and downs" as the given, as inescapable and normal, runs the risk of becoming a prescription for a less self-aware and less self-actualized life, a more ordinary and less happy life.

9. Happiness is not always goodness

I generally agree with the assessment here. Most happiness researchers seem to be cultural relativists. They evidently believe that any socio-economic context may be conducive to happiness, depending on the results and interpretations of their surveys. They almost consistently avoid the vital element of striving to better one's existence—self-actualization. Free markets and free minds are one in the same. That the world is enslaved at present reveals that we've got some self-actualizing to do as a species. Self-actualization entails fully individuating and fully recognizing the virtue of independence, which of course hinges on the principle of self-ownership and all it entails.

10. Happiness is resistant to aggregation.

Happiness researchers basically haven't rid their belief systems of contradictions, so their approach will never yield essential conclusions. Instead, they'll continue to churn out bromides about being grateful and maintaining social connections as main ways to achieving their ill-defined notions happiness. "Public policy," no matter which direction it takes, will continue to be a disaster for human flourishing.

Happiness is a path each person pursues on his own. Our best hope is for institutions that offer opportunities to prosper, the broadest range of lifestyle choices, and toleration for individual acts of value exchange, self-creation, and personal discovery.

Now that I can wholeheartedly agree with, assuming said institutions aren't coercive, which in this day and age isn't the case.

Eudaemonia to you,