Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Goals, Values & Meta-Ethics


This website is addressed to people who identify as Western (and to others who share our outlook). It's about our future as a group. Much of the information here is general, however, and could apply to any group.

But before we begin, we need to ensure that we're all on the same page i.e. all sharing the same goals, broadly speaking.

For this website, I'm going to assume that the pursuit of happiness is our goal as individuals. At least for most of us, most of the time. Most of the things that matter in life can be justified in terms of their consequences for human feelings of pleasure or pain, happiness or misery, etc. That's a fairly obvious observation.

It's easy to see why this is the case because happiness (human feeling) is the only universally intelligible source of value judgments (in terms of end goals). We all agree there are many aspects of life where our feelings of pleasure and pain tell us what are preferred outcomes. So, it's no surprise that happiness is our predominant motivation.

Indeed, from a scientific point of view, feelings of pleasure and pain are the only known motivational reward system for intentional human action. So, from a technical point of view, we might be tempted to say that the pursuit of happiness is our only goal i.e. that all human thought and action can be dissected and found, at bottom, to have pleasure and pain as their end-goal motivation. That's true, but it's not a helpful viewpoint for our discussion.


Despite being able to argue technically that all human action is motivated towards pleasure and away from pain, nonetheless, not all human action is best described as the pursuit of happiness. And it's useful to distinguish between behaviour which is in direct pursuit of earthly happiness, and other behaviour that is more tangential or indirect or unintelligible. It's useful because the direct pursuit of earthly happiness is universally intelligible grounds for productive debate, whereas other behaviour is difficult or impossible to debate.

There are two main variables in the brain: beliefs and values (or knowledge and desires) and these can both be skewed away from the direct pursuit of earthly happiness. For example, our beliefs are not always empirically testable, such as with religion, and so can't confidently be said to always be in direct pursuit of earthly happiness. And our values do not always come from personal feelings of like and dislike, such as with inherited customs, so likewise these are not always in direct pursuit of happiness. (Obviously religion and custom are not always directed away from earthly happiness, and often they contain much accumulated wisdom, but they can be tangential to happiness at times).

And so, despite the pursuit of happiness being technically our only motivation, not all behaviour should be labelled as such. And further, not all people are willing or able to articulate all their motivations in terms of happiness, pleasure and pain. Sometimes our motivations are murky, and we rely on intuition or gut instincts without really knowing at bottom what is driving us. So, not all behaviour fits neatly into the happiness box.

This distinction between the pursuit of happiness and other tangential behaviour is important for two reasons (a) only empirically testable beliefs and universally intelligible sources of value can be grounds for universally intelligible debates about desirable ends and means, and that's important when trying to reach a wide audience, but (b) nonetheless many people subscribe to speculative beliefs and second-hand values and, in the interests of trying to keep our group united and strong, we need to try and accommodate different viewpoints even if they can't be articulated in terms of the pursuit of happiness.


That's a long-winded way of saying the pursuit of happiness is a good base for common discussion about most our goals, but not everyone is willing or able to articulate all their motivations in terms of happiness, and we need to try and accommodate them nonetheless. We need to deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be.

So far, so good. Most of our actions are in the pursuit of happiness, and this is common ground for universally intelligible debates about the shape of our future. We can move forward on this common ground, while acknowledging that not everything fits neatly into the happiness box.

Now, some people of religious or traditional background will claim that happiness cannot be the main source of our value judgments because mere feelings are not enough to create a moral order. And this will lead to mindless hedonism, nihilism, moral decay, anarchy, lack of purpose, etc.

That's a bold statement. Maybe the're right, maybe they're wrong. Nobody really knows. But it's a moot point because happiness, being the only universally intelligible source of value judgments, is the only ground to engage most of our group. The alternative, speculative religious belief and inherited customs, are not universally intelligible and hence will leave many of our group feeling cold, confused and excluded. Religion/custom is thus not an intelligible way to engage the masses, and will leave many behind. (Religion and tradition, however, are still an integral part of many people's makeup and we should not swing to the other extreme of expecting everyone to subscribe 100% to universally intelligible standards of beliefs and values, because that will then leave many religious people feeling excluded). We need to keep our group as big and united as we can.

It's true that we are the midst of a cultural free-fall, due to radical individualism. But changing the goalposts from religion/tradition to the pursuit of happiness does not necessarily mean that we have to accept such a free-fall as inevitable. Prudent change-management might suggest that change is not a good idea until we have a clear idea of where we're going, and preserving social cohesion might be another handbrake on rapid change. The point is that change, if desirable, can be managed. It's not necessarily a fatalistic free-fall.

To summarise: the pursuit of happiness, in comparison to religion/tradition, is universally intelligible and will have widespread support as the basis for most of our goals. Just about anyone can agree on the pursuit of happiness as our main goal, whether religious or non-religious, left or right, traditionalist or open to new ideas. In the end, most of us are generally arguing about the best way to achieve earthly happiness, as we see it, and the pursuit of happiness is the most productive ground for debates, and the most productive way of moving our group forward towards common goals, while acknowledging that not everything will fit neatly into the happiness box and we need to deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be.


On a final note, although we might achieve widespread agreement, in principle, of the pursuit of happiness as our main goal, that's only a foundation. That foundation does not necessarily entail any inherent lifestyle, culture or politics. Indeed, there are a myriad of different lifestyles, cultures and philosophies that arguably promote reasonable happiness. Maintaining some overarching unity, despite the malleability of human nature, will not be easy. But more about that later.

Note that "overarching unity" does not necessarily imply a technocratic model of governance, nor does it imply one uniform mono-culture. It's all up for debate. Nothing is inherently fixed in the pursuit of happiness. Although, the increasing study of human nature should have much to inform us about what our natural inclinations might be. And we should probably work with these natural inclinations, rather than against them, generally speaking.


So, what does the pursuit of happiness mean in practical terms? It determines how we approach matters of ethics, morals, standards of right and wrong, policies, laws, culture, lifestyle, etc. These are all statements of goals, or desired outcomes. And all such goals are matters of the heart i.e. what is the most satisfying outcome. At least, for most of us, most of the time.

It means that when arguing for or against a policy, the arbiter of right and wrong (in terms of end goals) is the outcome that feels the most satisfying. In the words of Jared Taylor: subjective reasons are sufficient.

For example, in regards to immigration/integration policies, there is no need to resort to intellectual arguments (although they can be useful). We can simply argue that we prefer to live among a more homogeneous than diverse population because it's a more pleasant place to live. Happiness is the goal, and we can argue on those grounds alone.

Note the important distinction here between goals, and the means used to achieve those goals. Subjective reasons are necessary for our end goals, but they are generally not appropriate for the means used to achieving those goals.

As mentioned earlier, there are two main variables in the brain: beliefs and desires. Desires are our end goals, and these are subjective feelings. But in the realm of beliefs/knowledge (with respect to solving earthly problems) we generally do not want subjective beliefs. In solving earthly problems, we generally favour empirical knowledge of the world as the means to achieve our goals.

Also note, that the pursuit of happiness does not necessarily imply an impulsive or hedonistic style of behaviour. Often our long-term happiness involves balancing a whole set of competing desires e.g. selfish behaviour competes with our desire for community/group cohesion, short-term indulgence competes with long-term health, etc. So, the pursuit of happiness does not necessarily mean blindly following our impulsive urges.

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