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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

In Defence of the Pursuit of Happiness

Demanding American utopianism, on virtues, happiness, and flourishing.

Regulars to the blog might dimly be aware of a broader project I am currently conducting with my comrade Logan O’Hara, looking at a reconceptualization of marxist philosophy and building on the traditions of marxist humanism, American pragmatism, standpoint epistemology, and now increasingly panpsychism. Another thread in this work is examining the necessity of a marxist virtue ethics, which has reacquainted me with an old interest in the subject.

Within virtue ethics, Aristotle’s concept of Eudaimonia is often regarded as central. This is the end of the virtues, what everybody necessarily but often falteringly aspires towards and the good person, facilitated by the good society, nurtures in themselves. Understandably, then, offering up a good translation of the word is a highly important and therefore contentious matter. Two candidates are generally offered: flourishing, and happiness.

Although I am not aware of any survey on the matter, my impression is that flourishing is generally the preferred of these options. This is largely for two reasons: first, flourishing conveys a sense of momentum in line with virtue ethics stress on a process of virtuous cultivation, whereas happiness comes across as more of a static state; second, happiness is used in a lot of contexts not at all conducive to the long-term good, and even to the satisfaction of self-destructive and/or anti-social whims.

Against this view that we ought to prefer flourishing as a translation, however, it is posited that flourishing is overly abstract, that it conveys little of the internal psychological necessity of Eudaimonia and therefore flattens out the concept. I find both the arguments against happiness and the arguments against flourishing to be persuasive; Eudaimonia conveys both words simultaneously, and is therefore ultimately perhaps best left untranslated and carefully explained to unfamiliar readers.

However, while I accept the arguments against substituting Eudaimonia with happiness, I do also believe that there is much to be said for reclaiming the notion of happiness from its general debasement. And there is a rather good example of this debasement having taken hold of popular thought, on which I have been reflecting a little. In my typical roundabout way, that is what I want to address in this blog.

There is a phrase used in the United States Declaration of Independence that comes under some criticism; that is, the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I will not get into the history of this document, and I will only now briefly mention the Lockean roots of its ideas, chiefly concerned with the types of property rights that as a marxist I see as expressions of the interests of the capitalist class, interests I would very much like to see historically overcome through the struggle of a revolutionary working class in and for itself.

However, I do want to defend the notion that embodying the pursuit of happiness as foundational to a society’s self-conception is a wholly praiseworthy thing in itself. Even, as I will mention at the end of this essay, dimly radical. Indeed, the phrase itself is wonderfully Eudaimonic in that it simultaneously captures the idea of a process (i.e. “pursuit”) and the substantiveness of the ideal psychological state of human being (i.e. “happiness”).

A condensed version of the argument against the pursuit of happiness is provided by the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. He argues that, “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” The argument here is that happiness cannot be attained by its own pursuit. This strikes me as both true and irrelevant. That is, it is not in fact, as it appears, an effective argument against the pursuit of happiness, but an argument for the indirect pursuit of happiness. Hawthorne uses the metaphor of “sitting down quietly” to hint at that method.

I cannot see what else this metaphor could be a stand-in for but a system of virtues. The point is again that when debased, happiness is a self-defeating thing. But is debased happiness even happiness at all? Clearly this is a semantic argument, and so it will come down at some level to arbitrary definitions; so, to rephrase, should we allow the word the connotes to the highest state of human satisfaction to additionally mean the transitory pleasures that can arise from antisocial and/or self-destructive acts.

A lot of caution is needed, here, because I would equally want to speak up for pleasures. And what pleasures are often considered antisocial and/or self-destructive is often highly linked to reactionary political projects aimed at delegitimizing the pleasures that compel a marginalised group. The pleasure of women, disabled people, queer people, minority cultural and subcultural groups, etc. are often framed as simply, and circularly, inherently antisocial and/or self-destructive. But it is equally and certainly true that there do exist antisocial and self-destructive pleasures, and so it ought to be asked whether these pleasures produce anything with even a proximate resemblance to a Eudaimonic happiness?

I do not believe that they do. Rather, these pleasures are usually not enjoyed as a positive psychological pursuit, but as a negative flight from something else. Take compulsive overspending, gambling, physical self-harm, and substance abuse as a handful of examples of such behaviours. It is fairly widely accepted now that these actions and the addictive conditions that underscore them are pursued as coping and survival mechanisms. To take just one of those examples, people self-harm as a maladaptive mechanism to handle deeper, quite often emotional, pains. Happiness is not the goal, surviving unhappiness is the end here.

To go back to Hawthorne’s metaphor, generally only a child will, in total futility, frit around a garden chasing an agile butterfly, likely only to meet with the disappointment of killing the insect in the unlikely event the query is captured. A child chases the butterfly in this manner not out of the kinds of compulsions I described above, but merely in a more simple and less harmful naïvety about the world and their own capacities. The pursuit of happiness, to continue the metaphor, must be learned. (Again, perfectly in-line with the insights of virtue ethics thought.)

Where fundamentally maladaptive pleasure pursuit is occurring, however, this is still an example of a kind of naïvety. Mental illness is often resplendent with instances of naïve thinking. Although learning to overcome such things cannot be merely a formal exercise in knowledge acquisition, because what is being learned often involves unlearning complex traumas. That is, as any psychodynamic practitioner will inform you, carelessly undoing even maladaptive coping strategies for traumas can leave someone over exposed to worst psychological problems. However, at root, a mistake in thinking is occurring for both the child and those relying on maladaptive coping strategies.

The pursuit of happiness, of Eudaimonia, is perhaps potentially one of the most radical things a society can then substantiate politically as a “right”. It is safe to say that the United States of America, and indeed no capitalist society, has come anywhere close to realising the radical implications of such a right, which would necessitate nothing short of the dismantling of all systems not directed towards human betterment, which would include the very basis of the United States in the sanctification and naturalisation of capitalist conceptions of property that at their root at the greatest impediment to human Eudaimonia. We should then, far from rejecting this pursuit, make it a demand on the unrealized utopianism of this capitalist state.


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