Plato might say our problem is that we don’t have the skill of measurement and call for better education. Epicurus called the same thing a lack of prudence. And B.F. Skinner would agree that our immediate reinforcers or punishers seem much larger than distant rewards and punishments. It all boils down to a society full of people making poor choices. But I don't think it's entirely the case that people are unable to make wise choices. Some people measure well because they care more about making wise decisions while the rest just can’t be bothered to worry about long-term consequences. I think what makes the difference between those that measure well and those that don’t isn’t so much a skill they learned, but a personal disposition they inherited.
Most of the ancients insist that a citizen of any intelligence will prefer the joys of contemplation; sensuous entertainments are for the vulgar, the cretins or plebeians. But I wonder if we can be so quick to judge what different people enjoy because I believe what we find pleasurable to be largely innate. We are comfortable judging traits that we think are changeable: sloppiness or friendliness. We assign blame or praise for the actions associated with these characteristics. But we refrain from judgment of traits that are genetically determined: height, race, or gender. We might criticize someone for throwing like a girl (if we're willing to take on some feminist wrath) but typically not criticize her for being a girl as it’s largely unalterable.
But, since the genome project began, there are traits that were once seen as a choice and now are viewed more often as unalterable. Psychologists typically, hopefully, no longer try to convince gay men to go straight. Alcoholism is somewhat genetically predictable. And recent studies are insisting weight has less to do with diet than DNA. These are at once disempowering and comforting. It's not my fault, yet it's also not entirely within my control, if at all.
I propose that what we find pleasurable, what makes us happy, is determined by the axis of two dispositions: conscience and drive. My argument on the relationship between virtue and happiness rests on the premise that where we are on the continuum of each is primarily innate.
First, our conscience. At one end of the scale sit people with anti-social personality disorder. They have no desire towards kindness. If they want to get the privileges of freedom they can be trained to keep from harming others to avoid punishments, or they might just continue to harm and learn to avoid getting caught. But being kind just doesn't give them that warm-all-over glow. It's annoying. At the other end of the scale is the Mother Theresa type. They have a total and profound desire to act for the sake of others.
Regardless of the innate predisposition towards kindness or cruelty, we still have the free will to act against our basic personality. A psychopath could choose to be kind, and a Mother Theresa could choose to sell medical supplies for beer money, but these behaviours, while possible, wouldn’t make either happy. What makes them happy is not within their control.
Most of us are in the middle of these two ends. Personally, knowing the destruction consumerism takes on the environment or about specific companies that are exploiting or otherwise harming people, I avoid shopping, and shop carefully when necessary. But I will happily drive four hours to a cabin for yet another weekend away. The twinge of guilt I might feel about the amount of pollution I'm creating is no match for the enjoyment of the trip. And since it’s not my car, and I’ve never even owned a car, I can continue to foster and be praised for the illusion of extraordinary environmentalism, falling into the trap of loving honour more than loving the Good. I can be good to the environment worldwide, then add to the air pollution in my own province. I know what's right, what I should do, but I'm happy to add some future misery to my world. This is a complex continuum that dictates how happy we can be harming others, refraining from harm, and actively helping others.
Second for consideration is our drive, how much pleasure we get from our effort, from hard work. This is alluded to by Mill (and earlier by Nietzsche) in his acknowledgment that pleasure can come from excitement or tranquility. Those who prefer excitement are more willing to accept some pain in order to get a higher intensity of pleasure. They’ll work for their joys which could encompass anything from the physical pain of falling repeatedly trying to learn new skateboard tricks to the mental angst of struggling to understand a complex film or song. They get a rush from the challenge. They set their sights higher, but take a chance at greater disappointment or even death. People content with tranquility want less pain for their pleasures. They aim for security over intensity. They might prefer simpler, more mainstream art forms, and easier pastimes that are safe and effortless to enjoy, unable to grasp others’ intentional choice to actually be harmed for fun.
This continuum might also be useful for understanding relationships. The high drive type might be willing to tolerate, or enjoy even, arguments for the sake of a greater depth or intensity of relationship, and like existentialists, call their trials with knowledge of the self and other authenticity, and take, as a reward of sorts, a stance of superiority over those who can live without the angst. The more tranquil might lean towards a pleasant, low maintenance relationship, content with trivial discourse, careful not to rile anyone up with pointed questions. This type might be considered painfully dull by a someone seeking greater intensity. Some philosophies, like Taoism, suggest we should be able to see all people as equally valuable and interesting. But the Tao is not a philosophy for the driven.
The axis of these two innate behaviours, and some very generalized personality derivatives, might look something like this:
Low Drive with Weak Conscience: hedonist
Low Drive with Strong Conscience: kind when it's convenient to be so
High Drive with Weak Conscience: criminal
High Drive with Strong Conscience: activist
The generally kind person will avoid harming and try to help when it’s convenient. They’ll donate money if you come to their door, but they won’t go out of their way to learn about your cause or rally with you. The hedonist will take what they can as it comes their way. They’ll make just enough cash to get drunk on the weekend. The criminal group (including some CEOs) will work hard towards increasing their own profits regardless of harm it might cause others. And the activists will work hard to try to change the world and fire up all the others groups.
I won’t hazard a guess at the number of people that fit each category except to suggest that the high drive, strong conscience group is in the minority. That it’s difficult to get the majority of students in my eco-club, possibly the most environmentally concerned students in the school, to bring garbageless lunches once a week, supports this suggestion. Of course they care, but only if the tasks are relatively effortless.
There are two implications to this position: if what makes us happy is out of our control, then it can’t be judged nor altered. But we do praise Mother Theresa regardless how much joy she happens to get from her acts. And even if we feel a bit bad for a heartless killer with a troubled past, we do condemn a psychopath even if he’s unable to change. Like having an alcoholic co-worker who's constantly late for work, because we can understand why he acts in a manner that harms others, we can better understand his actions, but this understanding doesn’t excuse the behaviours.
It's just a chance luck-of-the-draw whether we’re born to enjoy harming or helping, but society can only survive if we chastise harm. We can look down on the corporate executive that exploits slave labour because he’s making a buck off their backs. It may not be his fault that this is what gives him pleasure, but it’s just unfortunate for him that his pleasure is not entirely applauded by our culture – well, by the few that care and have the will to mention it. And the Mother Theresas of the world are just lucky that what they enjoy brings honour. It’s similar to our aesthetic appeal to others. It’s genetically determined, but we still bear the burden that comes with our appearance for better or worse. Life isn’t fair.
But what’s worse is the second implication: that if what brings us pleasure isn’t controllable, and therefore can’t be altered, then it’s not possible to teach people to care about their actions, nor to motivate them to work for the benefit of the world. The activists can only create concern by making concern personally profitable, or by creating legislation that punishes exploitation harshly. And they can only motivate by making changes convenient for people, more convenient than the system they’re already used to. If we really want people to drive less, we need busses to stop right outside their doors and be free of charge. If we want students to compost, we have to walk by their food-filled hands with a green bucket at the ready.
For the activists, being happy and being virtuous is the same thing. For the criminals, it’s the opposite. They can only be moral or happy. The former group gets the honour, but the latter gets the cash.
Cross-posted from Project Earth Blog, June 9, 2010