I have been reflecting on some of the themes in one of my favourite songs by Jay-Z, Beach Chair. And one line particularly struck me because the logic underlying it seemed like something taken directly out of the pages of existential philosophers such as Sartre and Nietzsche.
“I don’t know why we here, since we gotta be here, life is but a beach chair”
The understanding implicit in this line is that there is no objective reason we know of as to why we are here. We do not know what life is for, what should we be objectively aiming towards in life. However being the sort of creatures we are, we cannot help but have to live in pursuit of something. Life must be for something, about something, it must mean something. And if that purpose is not given to us, then we must generate it ourselves. What this understanding firstly reveals is a fundamental feature of human beings in that we are teleological beings. The structure of human life is fundamentally orientated towards some aim, pursuit, end or teleos. What is the end that all our actions are aiming to obtain? Well there are ends and goods we desire as means to other ends; and then there is an end or good we desire for its own sake. This chief end or the highest good which we desire for its own sake we call generally happiness.
This idea is one that people of different philosophies can agree on even though they might disagree on the precise nature of what happiness consists in. Beginning with some reflection of our own experience we find that we do know then in some sense why we are here – that is to obtain the chief good which is happiness. However, in another important sense we do not know why we are here if we are clueless about what happiness consists in. There are two broad schools of thought on the form of happiness- one says it is subjective and the other that it objective. The modern view which in my previous essay, I called the ethic of authenticity/ethic of self-fulfillment, a term coined by Charles Taylor in his lectures on the Modern Malaise; would hold that happiness is subjective. Each person being different and unique must discover within themselves what will make them happy. There is no objective source of happiness. This idea is so thoroughly embedded in our modern understanding of life that it is assumed and seen as self evident and obvious. However, the more classical and ancient understanding of life, articulated best by the likes of Aristotle, Aquinas and Jesus believed that happiness was an objective good. Each person, unique as they are, all have the same chief end or good because we all share the same nature.
This last point needs further elaboration because our own experience seems to confirm the fact that people desire and delight in different things; some people delight in making music, others drawing, dancing, engineering – the list is endless. I have already sketched out some problems in my previous essay with the view that following your desires, whatever they are, because they are your own leads to fulfillment. Let us quickly recap what those are. We do not have one single homogeneous desire but a complex set of desires which can conflict with one another and we must choose between. That choice we make cannot itself be determined by the desire alone but by other reasons and considerations. The crucial point is this: our desires do not simply originate within us and therefore reflect our true authentic self. The formation of our desires is a far more complex process that involves our beliefs about the good, as well as participation in social practices that habituate and orientate us towards certain ends. On the more ancient understanding of our desires, part of the story of happiness is having well-ordered desires and affections. In other words, our affections and desires can mislead and misdirect and therefore need to be properly calibrated. But calibration assumes there is some proper objective standard with which we compare and calibrate our lives in accordance with.
Going back to the point about our nature. What we need to note is that human beings have these desires and capacities precisely because of the kind of thing we are. We do not expect trees, ants and cows to possess these desires and capacities simply because that is not their nature or essence. It is our nature, the kind of thing that we are, that grounds our capacity and desires. If we look at a tree and the powers and abilities it has we can recognize that it needs to use those capacities in a particular way in order to flourish as the kind of living thing it is. I have a delightful little bonsai tree which for example has roots in order to soak up water; if the roots are defective and therefore it cannot soak up enough water it will die of thirst. It has leaves which absorb energy from sunlight to provide itself with the necessary energy to grow. All its powers which botanists and biologists can detail in exquisite detail must be exercised by the tree in a particular way for it to flourish as a tree. The general principle is that each living thing has a nature or essence from which flows its power and capacities which are directed towards certain ends and goods, and when exercised properly and the object of the capacities is obtained, it leads to its flourishing. It would be an odd world, an absurd one in fact, if all living organisms except human beings followed this principle. Flourishing when applied to human beings is what we call happiness – to flourish as a human being is to obtain the highest good or ultimate end which our nature is directed towards. This flourishing of human beings is as objective as the fact that trees need a certain amount of water to grow properly. Much more can be said and should be said, however what has been said is enough to make my point.
Another reason why happiness cannot be subjective, an ultimate good which is different for everyone, is because of the basic structure of human beings and our relationship to what we perceive as desirable. Think of your favourite song, one of my favourite songs is you guessed it, Beach Chair by Jay-Z. Now try to change that song from being one of your favourites, to a song you hate by simply willing it. You cannot right? Let us try it with one of your favourite meals, like sushi for example, try changing that favorite meal of yours to one of your most disliked meals simply by choosing and willing it. Can’t do it right? What this quick experiment reveals is that what determines whether some object is desirable for us, is not simply our willing and choosing it. This means then that we consider to be desirable is not completely subjective. If it were we could simply by willing and choosing change what we find most desirable instantly.
The same holds true for what we take to be the ultimate good or object of our happiness. We perceive, apprehend, grasp and think that the object of our pursuit is desirable, and then the will follows and is drawn to it and then moves us towards obtaining it. Each person is drawn to their object of pursuit because of their perception and judgment which is moulded by a number of factors such as the social practices and habits we engage in. This judgment and perception does not confer onto the object of our pursuit its desirability, but rather recognizes and grasps its desirability and worthiness which exists independently of our perception and judgment. It is not my desiring my favourite song, which makes it a good song, rather it is my perception and judgment (which can be defective and faulty but also can be improved) which recognizes and grasps properties and elements that make up the song to be good. The better trained and properly calibrated my judgments and perceptions are; the more apt I am able to recognize what is objectively good, true and beautiful.
This is a difficult point to make because it seems then there is a contradiction in what I am saying. There is some object A; which one person loves and another hates. This difference in affections towards the same object cannot lie in the object itself but in the subjects that perceive it differently – but then that means loving the object is subjective; it is determined by a person’s subjective judgment. In this sense yes – the loving and hating of the object lies in the subject. However, it does not mean firstly; we cannot objectively say which of the person’s judgments are good and bad. Suppose the object A is food – someone who hates foods we immediately recognize as having improper affections towards food. So we can talk objectively about people’s subjective perceptions and judgments, although there are many cases where this is no easy task.
Secondly each person makes their judgments based on what they perceive as objective properties and qualities of the object in question; which we take as existing independently of us. My dislike of too much spice in my food, is from my perspective objective, because it is not as if I taste my food, and then decide whether to like it or not. Rather I simply dislike the food because of how it tastes. However, that does not mean that with time I cannot train myself to like spicy food. The point is that my dislike of spicy food is from my perspective objective.
This principle is not a new one – we see it all around us in our everyday life. Someone trained in art; can recognize genuine works of art from fakes one – their judgment and perception has been well calibrated for this task. A good doctor can pick up and recognize what is wrong better than a bad doctor looking at the same patient with their symptoms.
The implications of what I have suggested so far opens up the possibility that as people, the reason we pursue happiness in different things is not because there are different things that are the highest goods that will satisfy our nature, but because we differ in our knowledge, judgments and perceptions about the precise nature of that chief good, that ultimate end. We do not know what the chief good and ultimate end of our nature is. It is in this sense we can agree with Jay-Z that “I don’t know why we here”; and so we each turn to different things in trying to find that ultimate perfect good which will satisfy us.
The last point on the form and structure of happiness. As I said we seek something which is good not as a means to an end, but an end in itself. This means that once this object of our happiness is obtained, nothing more will be desired beyond it. To use an analogy with food, what we desire is a food of sorts which once eaten will completely fill our hunger such that we will have no hunger anymore permanently. What we desire, What Thomas Aquinas describes as “the object of our will”, is a universal good. An end, or object which is good in every aspect such that nothing beyond it could be desired. No finite good is universally good because there are always some aspects which can be improved to make it better and more satisfying. Sushi is one of my favourite meals; and I have found while eating it that my pleasure diminishes as I realize that it is about to finish and this enjoyment will end soon as well. I have also noticed that my satisfaction from eating sushi reaches a tolerance effect and hence I do not eat it at every single meal – I always need to have variety in my meals. Our hunger for ultimate happiness is for a good which once obtained is able to satisfy once and for all without diminishing in satisfaction -it is good and perfect in every aspect that once obtained nothing more beyond it can be desired. Our hearts are like nomads in the desert of existence searching for an oasis to quench our infinite thirst.
People pursue happiness in different objects not because it is subjective but because we differ in our perceptions and judgments about what happiness objectively consists in. So then in one sense, we know why are here – to find ultimate happiness. As Blaise Pascal put it “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end”. In another sense however we do not know why we are here because we are ignorant of what precisely our ultimate happiness consists in. However we are not completely ignorant because our desire itself, tells us in a way, what sort of things we seek from this ultimate good. What we ultimately hunger and desire is a universal good, an object able to satisfy and fulfill us once and for all without lacking anything. So then our pursuit of happiness, is the pursuit of the fulfillment, completion and perfection of our nature as human beings.