Sunday, February 21, 2010
The Pursuit of Happiness
Think of something in your life you would like to improve. What springs to mind? Your physical condition? Your financial situation? Your career? What have you always wanted to achieve? Have you wanted to write a novel? A symphony? Ever dreamt of climbing a mountain or swimming the English channel?
Think of an action you would like to take that would lead you to one of these goals. To get into shape you need to hit the gym. To improve your finances you need to make a plan. To write a novel you will need to learn technical issues such as plot construction or style. To write a symphony you need to learn how to read music. To climb or swim you will need to acquire muscles and stamina.
As a mental exercise, choose a goal and picture some process of getting there.
Now, picture a moral action. Picture yourself 'being a good person'. What, to you, does that entail? Are you helping a beggar in the street? Are you volunteering? Recycling? Taking care of a relative?
I would be willing to place a bet that if you pictured a 'moral action' it was NOT the same action that you had visualized in example #1. I would also bet that when you picture yourself 'being a good person' you pictured yourself interacting with others, while in example #1 you saw yourself alone.
Is it possible to be moral in and of yourself? What is the moral status of an entirely 'selfish' action like self-improvement? This is the question that we must answer first. If achieving our goals is self-serving, if time spent on becoming better is time stolen from the service we owe to others, we will feel perpetually guilty about pursuing our dreams.
We hear it all the time: "I want to exercise but I can't take the time from my work" "I wanted to be a singer but I had a family to support" "My dad wanted me to inherit his business, so I put my own dreams on the back burner". Many people put others before themselves and feel pride in doing so, even when the result is dashed dreams and resentment all around. This may manifest itself in large life-altering ways, such as the man who sacrifices his medical career to help raise a disabled brother. Or it may manifest itself in small things, such as a wife who cannot study for her G.E.D. because she has to get dinner on the table.
The moral codes we learn as children and attempt to live by as adults are antithetical to achievement.
There will always be someone who needs your ingenuity, your hard work, your time and resources more than you do. Even if you are without parents, husband, wife, children or friends, you will still have neighbors who need assistance, strangers in foreign lands who need your help, multitudes around the globe for whom you can sacrifice every desire or dream, to whom you can give away every resource you may ever possess, and for whom you can slave away every moment of your mercifully brief days.
Would it be moral to do so?
Even on the smallest scale, is it truly moral to deny yourself your human potential, to squander the possibility of your own greatness, to renounce your dreams and happiness? Is it moral to squander talent, to put blinders on vision? These are questions we're going to have to answer.
Some might say that the moral justification of self-improvement is so that one may be of better service to others. Let's consider this. Why does a man spend hours in the gym building impressive shoulder muscles? Is it on the off-chance that he will be able to render a service to others, like lifting a truck from on top of an old lady? Does personal pride, health, sexual attractiveness, etc have nothing to do with it? Why does a person spend years studying music, mastering orchestration, texture, timbre, harmony and counterpoint? Does he justify all that effort by hoping that some depressed audience member might hear his symphony, have his mood lifted and therefore avoid suicide? Does a desire to bring into concrete life some inner vision of his own never enter into it?
We're not used to questioning the moral status of these actions. It is not a part of the culture to do so. Why is moral status important? Because morality- our sense of right and wrong and the rules that drive it- is the subconscious agent that provides our emotional fuel.
A man who seriously doubts his moral right to take rational action for his own benefit will always be hindered in his ability to achieve. His confidence will always be low, his drive will always be less, he will question, doubt, and provide himself with excuses to quit. He will be less enthusiastic, have less pride in his outcome, and this will undercut his every choice.
The first step to embracing a different moral code is to realize that morality is not some boring duty to be accepted unenthusiastically, but that it's is a vital tool for achieving and prospering in this life -- if it's the right morality. Accept a morality of ethical self-interest, and you will find your confidence returning and your dreams, at last, to be realizable.
Stop being the enemy of your own life. Live without fear, and learn that you have a moral right to the pursuit of happiness.