3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
Having a moral purpose implies that one's purpose in life is within the context of a moral sense, for how can a person conceive of a moral purpose for himself unless he has some concept of what actions, what goals, what intentions, that he may choose lie within the compass of morality? A moral sense is therefore implied when Rand defines man's moral purpose in her famous synopsis:
"My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life..." --Ayn Rand
Right off, we are aware that this is an inadequate definition of moral purpose. Happiness is a universally desired state; no normal human being wants to be unhappy. To say that it is a person's moral purpose says little unless we consider what is his source of happiness. From a philosophical point of view, it is not merely happiness, but the means by which a person achieves happiness that has moral significance. The question really is, Is happiness man's only purpose? Is anything that produces happiness therefore good and desirable? Does happiness take precedence over all other considerations? For example, if knowing the truth makes you unhappy, would your moral purpose be served with a lie?
When we realize that happiness is a nonspecific standard, that what makes one person happy might make another miserable, that what might make a happy Hitler dance a jig can be the most evil, immoral act the world has seen, we then realize that happiness as a moral purpose is essentially meaningless. As a friend pointed out, all of Rand's characters in her novels are happy, regardless of their abominable characters; which all too well illustrates that "happiness" as a moral purpose says virtually nothing. To say that Hitler shouldn't have been happy doing evil only illustrates that this standard--happiness --is abstract and indefinite, and is not an objective standard at all. Happiness, in other words, may mean something different for each and every person. In fact, in a free society, it probably should. But to define moral purpose in terms of happiness says nothing unless we also define by what means the happiness was obtained.
When we consider the moral purpose of an individual, we are considering his existence in its broadest sense. We are asking, What is the purpose of his life? What are the dynamics of his existence? What is it that makes life meaningful? What, indeed, is the point of it all?
To say that it is merely happiness leaves unanswered anything that relates to man's existence in that broader sense. We would hope that human life, lived to its fullest, produces happiness. If it doesn't, then all our efforts are farcical. Yet we are unable to define precisely what, for each individual, will produce that happiness, nor should we. If a man is free, he should be able to pursue his happiness within certain moral restraints, and the basis of those restraints forms the true definition of moral purpose. If we define moral purpose as happiness, what we are left with is just another floating abstraction that has no practicable application and little meaning. At most, therefore, we as a society cannot be specific about happiness, but can only grant to every person the RIGHT TO PURSUE HAPPINESS, to determine what, for himself, that shall be, and to grant the right for him to find out for himself what that shall be within the limits of a society of persons all engaged in the same pursuit. An indispensable part of the moral purpose of an individual, then, is his relationship to others in the society in which he lives. And an understanding of that is important in the study of government, for as Jefferson wrote:
"The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812.
Happiness can never be merely an individual consideration, because individual happiness must be compatible with the happiness of others in a just society. This social relationship is not accidental or incidental; it is an intrinsic part of existence and of the consideration of moral purpose. To pursue happiness while ignoring the social relationship, with its duties and responsibilities, is to seal oneself off from the deeper meaning, as well as the deeper necessity, of what it means to be alive.
Happiness as a moral purpose, therefore, implies a social right to pursue happiness, and considers our relationship to others in society, which involves morality itself. We do not pursue happiness in isolation, but in and through our interactions with others. Thus, moral purpose is not a matter only of that which brings us our own happiness. It is a matter of our moral relationship to others as well. As members of a social group, all of whom are seeking happiness, our happiness necessarily has a link to, a common concern with, the happiness of others in the group.
"God has formed us moral agents... that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own." --Thomas Jefferson to Miles King, 1814.
Man is, above all, a social animal. His happiness is not to be found in isolation from other humans. Without the presence and nurture of others, he would be without language, without the broad based understanding necessary for his fullest development, and without everything that makes him a civilized human being. To ignore this interrelationship is to ignore the most obvious aspect of man's life. It is not possible to formulate a moral purpose for man apart from this fundamental relationship. And thus it is that morality itself--his principles of conduct--relates to his acts towards others.
"Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality... The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.
The whole purpose of morality is to enable us to live in a society of other humans, not merely to seek our own ends. When Rand says that "his own happiness" is the moral purpose of man's life, she thus builds a wall of separation between the individual and society, and narrows her philosophy to one of selfishness and alienation--which, in fact, is borne out by other aspects thereof. But our moral purpose necessarily involves our relationship to others, and our moral sense is, to a great degree, an instinctual part of our being.
"I believe that justice is instinct and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823.
Rand, however, takes a different course and discounts any innate moral sense.
Rand ... meant that happiness is or ought to be every man and woman's goal. She did NOT say that happiness is the foundation for one's personal ethics... [Abusive language deleted.]
Nowhere is it stated in this essay that Rand said happiness is the foundation for one's personal ethics. In fact, the word "ethics" was not mentioned. What she said was that her philosophy regarded "[man's] own happiness as the moral purpose of his life..." She was not speaking of goals, but of Moral Purpose. And it is a mistake to confuse moral purpose with personal ethics. Personal ethics has reference to individual behavior, i.e., principles or standards of right and wrong. It would be foolish indeed to suggest a system of morality in which whatever makes one happy is right, and whatever makes one unhappy is wrong. That is the system of personal morality adopted by criminals and others who have no real ethical system at all. It is a system in which individuals do whatever they feel like doing without regard to any principles whatsoever.
Such ideas are completely foreign to the discussion here, of course. Moral Purpose refers to the meaning of life. What does life mean, what is its purpose when considered in the context of the totality of existence -- those are the questions considered when we speak of Moral Purpose. It just so happens, however, that such considerations DO have a moral dimension, not in the sense of a system of personal ethics, but in the sense of the relationship of the person to other persons, to other existential beings, and to the world itself. That is what we are talking about when we speak of Moral Purpose.
But to define Moral Purpose so narrowly in terms of an individual's own happiness is truly the ultimate expression of "selfishness." It is a glorification of the self and a failure to see oneself as a part of the whole realm of nature, indeed, of the universe itself. It is a kind of "ME" worship, and as we pointed out above, it ultimately is meaningless as a moral purpose because happiness can and does mean something different to every human being, and it can be derived from activities that represent the highest morality in one person and the lowest morality in another.
Thus, our criticism of this doctrine of Rand was based on its narrowness and meaninglessness. In asserting that happiness is man's moral purpose, Rand does worse than say nothing; she replaces what could be a profound issue with what is empty drivel; she replaces philosophy with banality -- the same banality that exudes from "selfishness as virtue."
Needless to say, to confuse all this with a system of personal ethics is to miss the meaning of the term, "Moral Purpose."
One possible thing Objectivists might say about your description of "happiness," is that it is not based on whatever makes them happy, but on whatever is "rational." Objectivists will say something to the effect that happiness is achieved when they are in total harmony with reality, via reason using the laws of logic. And they will say that "egoism," the pursuit of one's own happiness, conforms to reality via reason. Happiness is therefore based on what is "right" (i.e. conforming to reality via reason), and "right" is obviously not determined by whatever society's conclusions are.
This must necessarily be put into the category of redefining reality in order to fit a theory. To define happiness as a state of pure rationality is to completely ignore the commonly understood meaning of the term, "happiness." This alone fully illustrates the artificiality of Objectivism. Subjective states are no-no's, so what to do when we run up against something that is obviously a subjective state? Why, we just call it something else -- we redefine it so that it is no longer a subjective state, and then we simply deny that it exists as previously understood. Such a belief system creates a robotic mentality, which believes and disbelieves, not based on observation and experience, but on a conformity to a theoretical position. The result cannot be a mind in harmony with reality, but a mind that views the world through a mechanical set of theories.
My own thoughts about this are that since Objectivists are "happy" when they are in harmony with reality, and since reality is the universe and its laws, this results in a sort of "determinism," i.e., it's as if they seek to act as a function of nature, to be as mechanical as the universe is. Any behavior which does not ultimately conform to "reality" (via the process of reason) is "irrational."
My own reading of all this is that there is nothing natural about it whatsoever. It is an abstract, intellectual construction, superimposed on what is natural and divorced from what is real. It might very well have a complex, logical consistency within itself, but it lacks any connection to the real world.
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