The pursuit of happiness


Libertarians talk a good game about freedom and the state, but not about the deeper needs that people have. That’s a common criticism I hear, and not entirely unwarranted – it’s easy to mistake an argument that something should be allowed for an argument that that thing is morally good. This is incorrect: the law should be ethical – not necessarily moral – allowing people to act as they want inasmuch as it doesn’t impinge on other people’s ability to do so. (An example of the distinction here is adultery, which is usually immoral but should not be illegal since it doesn’t infringe on anybody else’s private property rights.)

Last night, the ASI hosted a lecture by Professor Tara Smith, who holds the BB&T professorship for the study of Objectivism at the University of Texas. Prof Smith argued that to lead a good life, selfishness (properly understood) was key. This doesn’t mean throwing everybody around you under a bus, but the realization that happiness isn’t transferable. You can’t make somebody else happy – according to Prof Smith, making yourself happy is the noblest goal that people can strive for.

The question of what happiness is is more difficult, to my mind. Smith talked a lot about the importance of “rationality” in finding true happiness. about the problems with hedonism being that it tends to sacrifice long-term happiness for short-term pleasure. I wonder how meaningful this dichotomy is: does a smoker sacrifice long-term happiness (given, say, an increased risk of disease) for the short-term pleasure of a cigarette? Probably not – the overall “short-term” pleasure may outweigh the “long-term” happiness. Hedonism can be a perfectly rational decision: a hangover doesn’t mean that the previous night’s drinking was irrational.

She argued that pride and productiveness are important in the pursuit of happiness. Aristotle said that pride “seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them”. Properly understood, she said, pride was the self-respect needed to think yourself worthy of happiness, and fundamental to its pursuit. Productiveness was another key point: seeing work not as a necessary evil, but as a good in and of itself. This attitude is in stark contrast to the old fashioned (and distinctly statist) idea that work is a gruelling evil to be suffered – a sort of penance for being alive – rather than a valuable part of one’s life. There's no need for a split between work and happiness, and the idea that both should be cherished as virtues is, to me, deeply appealing.