The question that’s been on my mind today is whether or not people always are motivated to act based on what’s best for them.
Let me give some background first. Aristotle is the one who many would say initially poses this question to his readers in his Nichomachean Ethics. His argument can basically be summed up as saying that humans always act for the purpose of, or with their end aimed towards the ‘good.’ That is, we always desire the things which we think are best for us, and form our intentions accordingly.
The first clarification that needs to be made is obviously this: What is the good, anyway? Aristotle tries to give further definition to this point by stating that it is something with intrinsic value which should be sought after for its own sake. He believes that anything which merely serves as a mean to an end therefore is not a plausible definition, since it is only instrumentally good. The somewhat trite object of goodness that Aristotle gives us is happiness. However, this doesn’t automatically push him into the hedonist camp. This is because he goes further in claiming that this universally applicable good is achieved in a particular way – by the expression (or functioning) of the human soul’s capacity of reasoning. Aristotle wouldn’t say that reason’s end is not of some sort of pleasure, but rather of a sense of a high ethical standard of virtue. This is what is entailed from the definition of happiness which he is considering. My interpretation of Aristotle here is that what we as humans do is simply reason to a practical conclusion whose end goals is to make ourselves, and everyone else, happy. This is the mission of politics as he’d put it. It is our duty to ensure that we first deliberate on our own morals to the point where we can generate a general truth which can be applied in crafting the foundational laws which our society can follow, so as to maximize the amount of social well-being which we can achieve as a society.
But my point isn’t dealing with this. Instead, I hope by now that you see that there is a stumbling point in Aristotle’s ethics. All I’m saying is that Aristotle may be overlooking the fact that reason may not be the best method to follow if one’s end is happiness. There are plenty of counterexamples to the claim. Of course, beyond anything else, everyone has an idea of the mad genius; someone who has followed reason to the limit and then some. Constant rumination over potentially logical inconsistencies in one’s set of beliefs is, frankly, unhealthy, as evidenced by historical figures such as Beethoven or Newton. They were masters of their craft, but with their revolutionary ideas and accomplishments came a price tag. To put it as sympathetically as I possibly can, I’d say they went a little bit over the edge. So It can be seen that the purest application of reason may tend to lead one into a state of mental instability, rather than the desired end of mental tranquility which is characteristic of being happy or content.
So now the paradox which we are faced with is this: If it is true that we desire happiness for its own sake, why is it that often become unhappy in this search? That is, why does an earnest desire to pursue happiness, which supposedly is the ultimate good toward which we aim at, usually lead us to being, in a practical sense, unhappy?
We can think of this paradox in many ways, but let’s keep this in line with Aristotle’s suggestion of using reason as a means to an end. The issue that I have with him is that there is a breakdown in our understanding of the problem when we attempt to resolve it by filling in the gap between us and our happiness with our faculty of reason. Namely, this is the case when we say that we desire what’s good, or that which will ultimately make us happy. I think that the problem lies in misrepresenting, or oversimplifying, how humans desire things. Obviously, humans are often led by their emotions, which also often inform their desires. So it is simply not true that we construct our desires out of concrete, rational building-blocks, but instead are swayed by feathery, visceral considerations. I would say that happiness depends on one’s awareness and dedication to one’s own investment into the world around him/her, and therefore cannot be comprised of something so unstable. In short, happiness would seem to be intuitively more than the sum of our feelings toward the world and our place in it.
But even still, reason does not offer us give us a higher success rate. This is because reason needs something which can ground it, or relate it to tangible issues and people for which one hopes to attain happiness by successfully involving him/herself with. Reason, on its own, is seemingly indifferent to anything other than its own cold, forlorn disinterestedness. It must be integrated more thoroughly into a broader frame of reference in order for us to make sense of it and apply it to something which can benefit us. That is what disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, ethics or any of the other humanities, are for!
So to try to resolve this paradox, I think that what we have to do is to understand that it’s not necessarily true that we’re becoming unhappy by seeking happiness, but rather that we are being mislead in thinking that happiness falls under an either/or dichotomy. It would be therefore fallacious to argue that our desiring of the good, in-itself, is what gives rise to our dreadful experience of unhappiness, because this act of desiring, rather than its object, is ultimately what’s to blame. To explain further, it’s this notion of desire which constitutes the paradox. I would argue that we don’t actually, in the strictest sense, desire happiness, because we either want it too little or too much. This is justified by example in the cases which I brought up earlier – the madman wants happiness too permanently, while the sensitive person wants it too temporarily. The point is that, when we see that acquiring happiness is essentially treading a temperate middle-ground, we actually become happy. When this is realized, we can develop the kind of virtue which Aristotle was so fond of, while also being able to ease ourselves into a mental balancing act on the narrow beam which we call life.
The common paradox which I gave above is, in the end, only reduced to a common misinterpretation. When we are skilled at controlling ourselves and our desires, happiness no longer seems to be such a distant vacation home which only is bought through great expense. If Aristotle was right in saying that happiness is the ultimate good which we desire, then I think that there is something to say about this good. It is that happiness is, more than anything else, a virtue which is not always a given, but rather something which requires a lot of patience and self-adjusting for us to finally grab hold of and walk firmly and evenly toward.