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Happiness by a Proper Standard
By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
Many people seem to vacillate between “doing what is right” and “pursuing their happiness”, which, largely due to their religious upbringing, puts them in a bind either way. To do what is right generally means to do one’s duty or to follow principles not connected to living a joyful life on earth. A joyful life is considered “selfish” and is to be avoided by most moralities, so in order to pursue their happiness, many people eschew morality and just do what they feel like doing, acting on feeling in an effort to satisfy themselves. The trouble is, either stance is not in favor of one’s joyful life – religious morality because it says to avoid happiness on earth, and following one’s feelings because it doesn’t generally end up being good for oneself. Suffering, by most moralities, is considered a virtue, and no reasonable man would want to suffer his whole life through; so they cheat every once in a while and do what they feel like doing.
But feelings (or one’s emotions) are not tools of cognition (thinking) and are not pre-programmed to do those things which are in-fact good for oneself. Take a drug addiction (say cocaine): It may very well make you feel good while the hit lasts, but at the cost of disconnecting one’s mind from reality. Trouble is, reality is still there, and believing one can jump off a tall roof while high is not going to be good for one’s own life. So, if a morality of duty will make one miserable, and following feelings can be dangerous to one’s health, what’s the alternative to really pursuing a happiness that is both good for you and moral? *
Ayn Rand came up with the solution by coming up with a standard of morality that is based upon man’s factual nature. One doesn’t follow one’s duty nor one’s feelings, but rather pre-decides, before acting , what is in one’s best interest taking all the relevant facts into account. And since happiness is the result of successful living, acting according to what is good for oneself will lead to a happiness based on man’s nature – it will be good for oneself and one will experience joy due to the accomplishment of living a fact-based successful life. An example of this is to eat nutritious meals; these are good for oneself, so it is moral to eat well, and by eating well one will achieve an overall feeling-good about oneself on the biological level. On a more consciousness level, it is moral to think about the facts relative to one’s own life – those facts influencing one’s life – and to think it through before taking an action with regard to those facts. Thinking is a joyful process; the ability to reason is a natural aspect of being human, and a rational man gains psychological pleasure when he is thinking something through. Consequently, one does things in one’s life – both physically (biologically) and in tuned with one’s consciousness – that lead to a successful state of joy in accomplishing goals that are beneficial to oneself.
The heroes of Ayn Rand’s two most popular novels – The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – contain many such examples of her moral characters gaining through rational action those values which sustain their own individual lives – to show what it means to be moral by a rational standard – and enjoying their lives greatly in the process. Howard Roark goes on to gain a great, uncompromising career; and John Galt goes on to gain his freedom to live his own life in a world run-amuck with irrational philosophy that seeks to enslave him. Their struggle was not easy, in either novel, but by following the principles of a fact-based, man-centered morality, they were able to be successful, in the long-run, because they put the facts on their side by using reason as a guide. The same can happen in any man’s life, so long as he is rational and going by the facts according to what those facts mean towards his own life by a rational standard. By acting on those goals which are in fact beneficial to his life – on all levels – his happiness can be achieved in a moral state of living well. As Tara Smith put it in her book on egoism (Viable Values), to be moral by a rational standard means gaining more life to live and to be happy about it – one gains a more joyful life, because one is not fighting either the reality of man’s nature or reality in general, attaining a harmony between both.
[ * There seems to be some confusion on this point about emotions, even among younger students of Objectivism. Emotions do not come about due to a thought process – a process of taking the facts into account using reason, judging those facts by a man-centered standard, and giving the output in the form of feeling an emotion. If this is the way it was, then following one’s emotions would present no problem. However, emotions come about due to a subconscious process of taking one’s value premises and making an automatic response based upon those value premises. But one’s value premises are not automatically pro-man’s-life; one’s value premises are generally accepted due to what you are taught is right or wrong, and what you pick up from the culture in general, and the value premises one figures out on one’s own. The problem is that without a proper explicit rational standard, one’s emotions come about due to a hodge-podge of conflicting value premises. Some of those subconsciously accepted value premises may well be for your life – you are happy that you got a new job that you will love – but many of them will be anti-life – your priest convinced you not to marry that girl who loves sex and enjoying her own life, and you feel happy about his advice. Similarly, one may come to accept the idea that geeks are silly and prone to being ridiculous in public, due to modern TV sitcoms and high school peer pressure, while this dampens your own enthusiasm to figure things out on your own and to rejecting reason as a guide to a happy life, feeling good about this all along. It is with regard to emotions and accepting emotions as a guide that Ayn Rand most cautioned that one ought to check one’s premises to find out if they are for your life or against your life. It is very sound advice and ought to be taken seriously in a joyful manner of living one’s own life as the proper purpose to achieve happiness and success.]