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| Sounds Reasonable: A Manifesto
This essay is written in an attempt to explain my views on what we owe other people in our common quest to attain happiness.
In my view, some fundamental truths must be accepted as such, in order to form the basis for philosophical inquiry. The first such truth I would like to introduce is the idea that human beings are all basically the same, with similar hopes, fears, and desires. That our neighbor is fundamentally like ourselves. This truly is a reasonable assumption, and it underlies the most basic religious commandment: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It follows from this that a prescription for happiness that we want to apply to others should also apply to ourselves.
Happiness is clearly not only a matter of possessing things; it is also, and perhaps more importantly, about inner attitude – the way one approaches life. Ask a child how to make someone happy, and the child will likely say: give that person a present, an ice-cream cone, a new bike. Let’s extend that to all material things: if we provide a person with what is needed to sustain life, or if we “teach a man to fish,” does that guarantee happiness? After the Civil War, the government famously decided to give each Black man 20 acres and a mule, to allow each Black family to have what is needed to sustain life. Today, in most parts of the country, anyone possessing title to 20 acres of good land would indeed be wealthy.
It doesn’t take much reflection to conclude that, in addition to the material things, we must also have health, to enjoy them. So government and private programs to eradicate disease are a major contributor to happiness as well.
Yet the world is full of uncomfortable examples of healthy people, endowed with material goods, who are not happy – who are angry, depressed, full of hate, obsessive, neurotic, destructive. Like to as one might, it is impossible to just sweep them away as spoiled or decadent, and deny the fact of their unhappiness – especially because it seems to be the pathology of people who have it all -- but who still are moved to conquer, exploit, and oppress others -- which is the engine behind the unhappiness of so many who otherwise would be happy. Did the Mongols have to sweep westward and lay waste much of civilization? Did the Nazis have to move into Poland and begin their campaign of extermination? What motivated Stalin to create the Gulag? And below this in scale, but not necessarily in moral import, where does all of the petty cruelty and viciousness that mars many a family, company, or political campaign stand when it comes to creating happiness?
Let’s take a step back and put forward a couple of facts, drawn from history and our own observations. It does appear that there are cycles in human events, that good times come, and bad times follow. Good regimes and rulers lift up a mass of people, and war and rivalries destroy much of the flower of what is good. Such a good time has been much of American history, at least for us Americans. Let’s make that us White Americans, but include Black Americans for the last fifty years or so. This means, the freedom to express one’s thoughts without oppression, the ability to raise one’s standard of living, access to opportunity and to Western civilization’s intellectual and artistic heritage. Good times occur when one is not under the thumb of the oppressor, the conqueror, when one is not subject to prejudice and unfair, arbitrary treatment. The time of the good king or the good president, bears some relationship to a good time for a tribe in less developed culture, or even a good time for a family, where family members are blessed with good health and some economic security to raise their sights above the struggle required for mere survival and allow them to participate in the great conversation of civilized life.
From this discussion so far, it seems clear that you can’t deal with the question of living standards – how to secure a good life for your fellow man or woman – without dealing with the question of human evil: apparently the biggest obstacle to happiness since we attained mastery over our natural environment and acquired the technical know-how to feed and clothe all of our brothers and sisters, to heat their homes and provide them with books and learning. We do possess that ability now; we often don’t use it for political or other reasons which might as well be put under the heading of evil.
If ‘human evil’ did not exist, we would create a material paradise on earth for our sisters and brothers. This is of course what utopian thinkers and writers promise, from Plato’s Republic onward. The eradication or suppression of evil, however, often becomes uncomfortably intertwined with the ending of personal liberty. Consider totalitarian regimes, which put their citizens under such strictures that they outlawed most freedoms we consider essential in the name of an artificial harmony where everyone had material security. This led to police states in which material goods came to be scarce, such as today’s North Korea. In fiction, Huxley’s Brave New World and Williamson’s The Humanoids give men material abundance at the cost of freedom and self-determination. The latest anti-utopian fantasy, The Matrix, brings it all full-circle to posit that our world, with all of its joys, fears, successes and failures, is just an illusion, and that we are all kept slaves maintained in stasis to satisfy the needs of machine intelligences, which feed on us. This is a very similar idea to Christian conceptions of the earth as a battleground between demons and angels, with the demons, like the machine intelligences in The Matrix, able to see a greater reality than we can grasp, and using us as pawns. The machine intelligences end conflict only to subjugate us for their own ends, a much worse fate than open war, which still allows for freedom even if in the midst of conflict and oppression.
The collapse of grand schemes to suppress human evil by fiat seems to add force to the Western ideal of civilization built on a framework of fair laws, impartially administered. With all men and women subject to such an evolving framework, we continually make our society more free and tolerant, while avoiding pitfalls that may lead to oppression. But can we hope that growing freedoms actually lead to more stability, rather than just to another cycle, where good times are succeeded by bad? Can we hope that George Bush’s America, which seems to be back-pedaling on the environment, and to be giving governmental aid to the richest at the expense of the poorest, and to be waging a foreign war for that wealthy elite, will encounter a self-correction and restore more fairness, equality, and opportunity for more Americans?
Let’s take the discussion back to individual responsibility and happiness, and say that in order for a government to be good, the people must participate and take responsibility for its civic life. Democracy doesn’t function well when the people abdicate their responsibility for its functioning. Yet the rise of the American “corpocracy,” in which our own government, in partnership with large companies, creates and manipulates public opinion, while allowing for very little real input, is an insidious attacker of democracy – the ability of the ordinary person to have a meaningful say in our society. On the other hand, the sheer technical issues associated with allowing 300 million people to have a voice are daunting. Isn’t it necessary for people to be only heard en masse, through their own associations, organizations, and other representatives? But then, doesn’t the framework of laws exist, in part, to blunt the privilege of wealth, which would otherwise create a very tilted playing field? And isn’t it true that the wealthy class, waking up to their great economic and technological power, doesn’t really want to give it up and wants to weaken the laws that would force a diminution of its power? This would seem to reinforce the conclusion that our American good times may be coming to an end, with a predatory class again able to trample the laws and reduce the overall quality of life.
To the two requirements for a good life – that is, sufficient material possessions and a way to limit human evil – I would like to add a third, which is really an expansion of another necessity – health – mentioned earlier. This is a healthy environment, a life-giving natural ecosystem of which we are a part. This third requirement has grown in importance because of the growing human population, which threatens to so dominate our plant that many plant and animal species, which we depend on for our own survival and pleasure, are themselves threatened with extinction. The ability of humans to limit their own expanding populations must be a part of the mix, and so this issue must take its place among the essential requirements for happiness for all of us.
So, it is not enough to supply material aid, and a good government of laws: we must also be prepared to put limits on our natural tendency to procreate and populate our world, to save our world. One might say that this environmental mandate is or should be part of our framework of laws, which is true. But there is something more: it is an expression of wisdom and a sense of proportion and scale, which is the old Greek idea of ‘temperance,’ or balance and moderation. Just as a person has a responsibility to bring temperance and moderation – inner virtues – to the conduct of his or her own life, so does society have the obligation to bring these virtues into its own self-regulation. This is most clearly seen in our responsibility to the environment and to limiting population growth. Civilized societies should reflect this concern.
At this point, let’s set aside the public argument and go to the personal, the private, the individual. Individual happiness, clearly enough, is considerably more mysterious than societal happiness. In contemplating what makes each of us happy, we rub up against such puzzling phenomena as the happiness that comes from seeing someone else meet a fate which spares us (schadenfreude), the joy in very small things amidst great suffering (such as the great joy prisoners take in sunlight or a scrap of bread) or the religious ecstasy of those who may be suffering great persecution. Can anything really compare to the joy of the early Christians, surrounded on all sides by imperial Rome, meeting and celebrating the eucharist in hideaways together, knowing the truth of their faith? An artist may take supreme joy in the act of creation, even though he is starving. Isn’t the fleeing joy experienced by Winston Smith and Julia, in 1984, the more precious for the fact that it flourishes amidst great and overwhelming danger? And, what of the warrior who goes singing to his death? Most would agree that to have loved without fear, to have been courageous in the face of death, is a kind of happiness that supersedes mere survival and material comfort.
This leads to the conclusion that material comfort is not an end in itself: its function is to allow people to experience freedom, to test their limits, to do something worth doing, to take up fights worth fighting. Life becomes a joyful struggle; in fact, joining the struggle is the only way to achieve real joy. Paradoxically, to the degree that joy flourishes under oppression, much of the claim of a just society to be the guarantor of happiness is suspect. Apparently, there is much within us which will pursue joy and the thrill of self-development whatever political system we live under and whatever the material conditions under which we live. So the social construct immediately becomes less important, and the individual’s own integrity and ability to meet life’s challenges becomes more important. Solzhenitsyn grows spiritually in the Gulag, as do the Tibetan monks whose faith is tested by Chinese repression. Black slaves, long suffering, acquire a wisdom that eludes their White captors. Let’s get more mundane: can much be compared with a personal triumph over a personal problem, such as weight, depression, or disease? Do any of these, practically speaking, much depend on the political system we live under?
So, let’s sum up our argument: happiness depends on something that is inalienable in us, part of our makeup as human beings: our ability to struggle. The greatest tyranny may be the one that artificially removes that ability, perhaps by chemical or technological means. We have a responsibility to help our fellow man in attaining material security and freedom from oppression while making sure that we do not upset the environmental balance which sustains life on earth. We have a responsibility to limit population growth. We must seek to grow in personal virtue – cultivating wisdom and temperance – just as we strive, as public citizens, to lead our society toward justice and fairness for all.