Imagine if you will the following: Country A has a government which provides its citizens with free and adequate housing and two special daily pills free of charge. The first pill contains all daily nutritional requirements while the second pill guarantees a sense of happiness and contentment throughout the day and night. Our question then is: would such a state of affairs be both good and desirable?
On first thought, many would argue that the universal provision of housing and food is a general good. They are goods which are required for the furtherance of human happiness. Without them we would be significantly restrained in pursuing our future projects of self-realization. These are things we necessarily need to become who we most fully can be.
However, the last theoretical public provision, the happiness pill, is potentially more controversial.
First, is it a universal human right to be happy? Once again, one could argue that without some sense of happiness it becomes exceedingly hard to realize oneself and ones future projects to the fullest extent.
Conversely, one could also argue that without adversity and struggle, human beings fail to develop themselves intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Under this view, obstacles must be put in our way by either fate, society, or circumstance to become the final best versions of ourselves. In this way, achievement becomes an integral part of being a successful and fully rounded person.
Given this, the question now becomes, does one need to be generally disgruntled, in various bad moods, or downright seriously unhappy to be motivated towards self-development? If one is subjectively happy all the time, day and night, what possible motivation could there be for someone to change their life circumstances. If, as David Hume famously said, “Reason is the slave of the passions” 1 what reason could there conceivably be to better ourselves when our emotive life would be continuously bathed in a warm fuzzy feeling of contentment both with ourselves and our environment?
Indeed, arguing thus, we can begin to see how our theoretical “happy pill” might easily open the door to a paradoxical totalitarian society, maybe even the ultimate totalitarian society.
In our happy Totalitarianism all citizens would, indeed, feel themselves to be content. Yet, at the same time, their ability to change, to criticize, to acutely examine themselves and their environment would be sharply curtailed. Total happiness here would afford total control not unlike the world depicted in Huxley’s prescient novel “Brave New World” where the drug, soma, plays the same societal role as our happy pill.
Does this mean that we should be arguing for the beneficial moral function of all sorts of misery and discontent in the development of humankind? No, although such awful states of being did indeed play a not insignificant part in our historical development. After all, it is the experience of injustice that stimulates the thirst for its opposite. It is the knowledge and experience of evil that impels us to formulate and seek the good both politically and individually. In a sense, evil provides us with some necessary form of knowledge that leads us to the good, a yet higher state of knowledge. Moral development might well be a necessary dialectic between states of unhappiness resolved into higher states of happiness by which a kind of knowledge is attained in the first state which is in itself insufficient but through the further exercise of reason is made more tolerable because both its sources and consequences are now more fully understood. All this is another way of saying what Socrates believed long ago: That evil, which is also a profound state of unhappiness whether the doer knows it or not, is done through ignorance. While the good is predicated on knowledge and leads to the most profound state of happiness. Thus happiness is a kind of contented wisdom, gathered, in part, from prior states of unhappy ignorance.
Bringing our discussion up to the present day, are we trending to such a hypothetical state of social political affairs? In one sense, the rise of virtual reality should give us pause to think. Would the ever increasing sophistication and corollary immersive capabilities of virtual reality provide for a world where all would feel themselves increasingly content while progressively neglecting the actual concrete social-political relations in the real world? Similarly, would the advance of the biological sciences both genetically and pharmaceutically not soon be able to provide us with something analogous to our as yet unrealized happy pill? Is a society like ours, strongly predicated on the actual pursuit of happiness, in a potentially strong position to give away its freedom in exchange for spiritual states of contentment, happiness, and joy? And is this, in itself, not a symptom of yet another current existential situation, that of the loss of control over significant portions of ones life within an increasingly bureaucratic, administrative, oligarchic world society? The very same material situation and moral sense which led to the rise of the first Stoics?
What price then are we eventually willing to pay for what kinds of happiness?
- A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, 1738-1740. [↩]