Archive | February, 2019

Our duty to be grumpy

5 Feb

Christopher Kaczor’s assertion that we’re under a moral obligation to be happy really got up my nose (this blog, 1 Feb 2019). But as usual, when I explored a bit further, I had some second thoughts. Kaczor argues that our emotions have an effect on other people, so when we’re down people around us are more likely to get down as well. Everyone we meet might be a bit better off if we were only prepared to work on our individual happiness. 

This made sense to me.  Picture an evening in February. It’s pouring with rain, and I’m stumbling into Tesco’s while trying to wrestle my umbrella into a manageable shape. Someone pushes past me and snarls. I’m already feeling quite low – I’m struggling with an article I’m writing, Camden Council is digging up all the roads round our way, just getting to the shops takes quite an effort, that rude git has just knocked me out of his path – so now I definitely want to go home and shoot myself. If only the git had been kinder – if only everyone I came across were far less grumpy and whiny and selfish –  then maybe I wouldn’t right now be sinking into the existential morass …

Or vice versa, of course. If I’d been a bit more pleasant myself then perhaps the other shopper might be smiling now instead of snarling. Maybe what the world needs after all is a whole load of people who are trying their hardest to be happy … 

On reflection, I think what I want is just for people to be a bit kinder to each other, rather than being happy.  Insisting on the latter seems to me to take us into the territory of the happiness Czars, like the ones who are apparently running Pret a Manger at the moment (this blog, 1 August 2018).

Jeremy HardyI was thinking about all of this when I heard the news that Jeremy Hardy had just died, at the desperately early age of 57. Hardy wouldn’t have achieved anything if he’d concentrated on being cheerful and upbeat all of the time. Being grumpy and whiny and angry were his hallmarks as a comedian and political activist. (And God knows, there’s a lot to be angry about: I’ve just been reading about Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which tells us that the activities of the big tech companies are far far worse than we even imagined.)  But everyone who knew Hardy says that he was an extremely kind and generous man. That’s vital, it seems to me. Being kind on the personal level, and grumpy and challenging in the public arena, that’s maybe the way to go. And trying not to worry too much about being happy as well. 

As a mere listener – someone who enjoyed and profited from his wonderful political rants – I’m going to miss Jeremy Hardy enormously. 

 

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Aristotle meets the Dalai Lama

1 Feb

Aristotle-Face1 Dalai Lama 2

Generally speaking, in spite of the fuss we make about its onset, January is not a month for happiness. Personally I’m not sorry it’s over. However, its early stages are often marked by discourses on the happiness theme, and one of them was provided by Mark Tully in Something Understood, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 6. This is the date when Christians celebrate the festival of the epiphany – meaning revelation or ‘bringing to the light’.

According to Tully the Dalai Lama (not himself a Christian, of course) believes that  the purpose of our life is to seek happiness – that the whole motion of our life is towards it. But is this a reasonable goal? Yes, the Dalai Lama replies. We can attain happiness by training our minds. Inner discipline helps us to transform our attitudes – our approach to living. We need to identify the factors in our lives that lead to happiness and those that lead to suffering, and then gradually eliminate the latter, and cultivate the former. 

Although I’m not in general a fan of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ idea, I’m really not disagreeing with any of this. I do want to be happy, and unlike some of the friends I talk to I believe that happiness is something we can work at. Some people have made the decision not to aim at happiness, and I respect them for this – it’s a reasonable and I think in some ways a moral point of view.  But most of us seek it, and this is probably a necessary thing, and possibly even a good one, provided it doesn’t lead to complacency (which I suspect is not something we can accuse the Dalai Lama of). But I do feel strongly that the pursuit of happiness is a personal endeavour – a product of the principle of individualism – and that it isn’t going to change the world. As a species we might even be better off without it. 

One reason why I’m inclined to favour the Dalai Lama’s views is that they seem to be quite close to those of Aristotle, although I do find Aristotle a bit more convincing. In the Nicomachean Ethics the philosopher argues that what distinguishes us humans from other animals is that we have a rational soul: our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason is our distinguishing feature – our ‘telos’ or end. So if we use our reason well, we are living well as human beings, and this is what our happiness (our ‘eudaimonia’) consists of.  Living well means doing something, not just being in a particular condition – it means pursuing those lifelong activities which will satisfy the rational part of our being. But Aristotle also makes it clear that in order to be happy we need other things as well – such as friends, money, and political power –  because our capacity to live in accordance with reason will be diminished if we lack these advantages.

“This gives rise to the question, can happiness be learnt, or acquired by training? … or is it bestowed by some divine dispensation or even by fortune?  Well, if anything that humans have is a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness is divinely given … Still, even if happiness isn’t sent to us from heaven, but is gained by virtue and by some kind of study or practice, it does nevertheless seem to be one of the most divine things that exists.”    

(Nicomachean Ethics 1097b-1099b ). 

Does this mean that we also have a duty to be happy, as one of Tully’s other contributors – theologian Christopher Kaczor – was arguing? I’m afraid that it might, but for the time being I’m resisting the idea.  When you’re feeling depressed, the last thing you need is someone standing over you, saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it! You’re under a moral obligation to be happy, don’t you realise that?’ This approach, I find, isn’t remotely helpful.