Monday, November 03, 2003

Misery is happiness. Ignorance is bliss.

Spent last week at a research conference in smoky LA with my research group. One night, after SL and I had a few drinks at the hotel bar, we ended up talking once again about the nature of happiness. He was claiming that we make all our choices because we believe those choices will make us happy; i.e., that happiness is the ultimate value. Therefore, when we make sacrifices that make us unhappy in one way, we're really doing it because it makes us happier in some other way. Sounds reasonable enough, but my friends who read this blog already know that I disagree completely.

We arrived at this subject while talking about ambition and why we're bothering to finish our Ph.D.'s. Suppose you're an ambitious person who believes that a person's career reflects strongly on his or her value as a human being. You've got a "successful" job, which brings you prestige and intellectual satisfaction; but that job takes a lot of your time, and getting that job entailed sacrifices --- like going to grad school for six years instead of getting a job in industry, making lots of money, and finding a serious girlfriend. Suppose you also know that you might get more pleasure out of life with a much less demanding career: you could take longer vacations; you could spend a lot more time with your future kids; etc. In this scenario, SL would say that, if you choose a more prestigious career over a more hedonic life, you're making that decision because it makes you more truly happy.

That's fine, as far as it goes, and in particular cases it might be true. But SL made the further (and in my opinion erroneous) claim that this example demonstrates a larger principle: Everything we do, we do for happiness. So, for example, if our principles lead us to make great sacrifices that ultimately make us miserable, we're still taking those actions because on some deeper level, it's really making us happy.

I think this claim imples a rather odd definition of happiness. I define happiness as a sensation of joy and contentment --- a definition that clearly distinguishes happiness from non-happiness, and also matches most people's casual intuition. SL's definition has neither of these virtues: it's both tautological (happiness is whatever you choose, because you choose that which (you hope) makes you happy) and counterintuitive. For example, if some dim and dusty corner of your conscience knows that you're doing "the right thing" with your life, but you're nevertheless miserable in your day-to-day experience --- if you're so emotionally tormented that you wake each morning with a palpable lancing pain shooting through your heart, and that pain doesn't go away until you fall asleep at night --- then I would not say that you are "happy" by any usual definition of the word. Yet people knowingly make choices that lead them into this position.

So, to convince SL that he was wrong, I presented him with a dilemma, in the spirit of my three thought experiments: Suppose I could offer you foolproof brain surgery that would make you perfectly content to sit in a corner drooling for the rest of your life. Would you accept this surgery?

"No," he said, "but only because you could never convince me that it would work. What if you make a mistake?"

I said: "Okay, a million people have received this surgery, and every single one of them has reported absolute bliss. Once a month they wake up from their drooling stupor and say, 'Man, I feel so fucking happy! Having the surgery was the greatest decision I ever made.' And then they start drooling again."

He smiled and thought for a moment, then said: "Well, then I'd say yes."

"Most people would not make that choice," I said. "And anyway, you're lying. I don't believe you'd make that choice, if I really offered it to you."

Ultimately, he agreed that he wouldn't accept if I really made the offer. He claimed this didn't contradict his framework, because accepting would make him extremely unhappy in the present. Hence, even though the unhappiness would be short-lived, the intensity of that unhappiness would be so great that it would outweigh the lifetime of happiness that awaited him.

At this point we finally reached our hotel room, so the conversation ended. (We were walking from the elevator --- and if you think this is a long conversation to have whilst walking from the elevator to the hotel room, you haven't been to the Anaheim Hilton.) However, if we'd had more time, I would have said that I wasn't satisfied by his answer. I think his explanation --- that present unhappiness counterbalances future happiness --- does not suffice to explain his rejection. Suppose I could arbitrarily increase both your longevity and the intensity of your happiness --- suppose it would be a continuous, eternal orgasm of bliss. There's only so much unhappiness that the human form is capable of experiencing in a finite time period. If you're really being honest with yourself, there's no way your momentary unhappiness prior to the operation would exceed a million-year orgasm.

So, the notion that happiness is the ultimate value requires convoluted reasoning, and it leads to some suspicious conclusions. Isn't it simpler and more elegant to say that happiness is one among many values, and that we choose among those values based on the form of our characters?

In my opinion, the happiness-maximization doctrine reeks of the fallacy of the Rational Human Being (a close cousin of Economic Man): by making happiness the ultimate value, we can pretend that all our actions stem from rational maximization of the Happiness Utility Function. This gives us the comforting illusion that we're sensible people in control of our destinies.

I don't believe we're rational actors at all. In fact, I don't believe we're even really decision-making entities in the form that people usually assume. I think that our brains long ago evolved to provide so much surplus capacity that mind viruses have hijacked the extra space, in much the same way that a rainforest provides so much surplus biomass and energy that it's home to billions of competing species besides the trees themselves. These mind viruses take many names --- aesthetics, religiosity, curiosity, etc. --- and when you make a decision, it's usually only because one of these viruses has momentarily prevailed over the others.

Your brain is not an organism; it's an ecosystem. Does a rainforest rationally act to optimize its proportion of red ants versus black ants? No; it's just a battlefield where sometimes the red ants win, and sometimes the black ants win. Searching for a motivation behind the victories is meaningless. Ask, instead, for the reason.

Your character has a shape. Your life is the trajectory that this shape carves through the ether of the world, just as a leaf and a rock will carve different trajectories through the air depending on their shapes. Conscience or ambition or any number of things may lead your path away from happiness. Is this a tragedy? Not necessarily. It depends on what you value.