Secular Confession, Proposition Two
- In the end you have to do what makes you happy.
Well, yes. Most people would agree with this tautological statement. After all, happiness is that condition for which we should willingly sacrifice lesser contentments. There are, however, two caveats.
The lesser one is: Be careful what you mean by "have to." When a schoolboy says, "I have to use the bathroom," he is stating a physiological requirement only a bit removed from, "What goes up what goes down." Are we actually compelled to do what makes us happy? Obviously not, otherwise more people would be contented with their lot.
So, in this proposition "have to" is a social or moral obligation, as in, the pregnant teen felt she had to get married. (Oh, for those far-off days!) But if happiness is a moral obligation, that obligation must be based on something beyond this mere statement, either a general creed, a philosophical position, or some superior power such as a god. In the context of this "confession," such an acknowledgment seems inconsistent with the overall position of selfish hedonism, so let us reduce it to something more like, "It makes sense to put your own happiness above other concerns. After all, it's whatever turns you on, floats your boat, etc."
With that minor point settled, we can turn to the major problem. What do we mean by happiness? If we went to a fastfood joint or a bar or an opium den, asking what is happiness, the people we met might say something like, "This!" By which they mean a Big Mac, a Martini, or a pipe dream. Questioned more closely, they would say happiness is a feeling, "I just can't describe it, but you know what I mean." This is subjective happiness, which, like the perception of color or the effect of music, is not something it is easy to argue abut. De gustibus non disputandum.
However, happiness is as often used to describe an objective state. After all, it means the quality of meeting with hap, that is, with a chance or fortune that people would regard as good. The New Testament likes the word eudaimonia, a state of blessed good fortune. For ancient philosophers in general, happiness is much less a subjective than an objective condition. A man who is wasting his family's money and destroying his health on crack, crystal meth, or Rex's cheap beer, cannot be considered happy.
It follows that it cannot be up to me, as individual, to decide who is happy. People like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, John Lennon, Keith Richard, might think they were or are happy, because they have fame and sufficient wealth to indulge their appetites, but there are those who would pity them all. So whatever we mean by happiness will depend on some ethical code--and by ethical I mean a code that has to do with the most effective manner of living.
Herodotus' account of the meeting of Croesus and Solon is one of the most impressive stabs at answering this question. The wealthy tyrant asks the sage about the happiest people he has met, and the sage names a man who died when his family and city were doing well and then a pair of sons who gave their mother glory. "What about ME?" whined they tyrant. A few years later, he was deprived of all he had. For an ancient Greek, a man could not be considered happy, no matter how much wealth, power, fame he had as an individual, unless the moral community in which he lived--family, friends, fellow-citizens--was thriving.
Of course we know what people mean when they say happiness is everything. They mean the happiness of the crackhead prostitute.