I believe humans do not take the center stage in this universe, and in understanding our nature, we owe it to the rest of the animal kingdom at least in this world, to share with them or include them in this quest for understanding. Philosophy tries to tie in all the knowledge that we have, and in this particular question, the knowledge of behaviour and nature of other creatures that we shares this world with is significant.
Humans, like all other animals, have instinctive desires that must be satisfied. At the primary level, animals eat, drink, sleep, seek shelter, mate and reproduce: all in the name of satisfying what the primordial brain was programmed to do – to survive and continue the species. These we share with all other animals, except that with a more complex brain, we are gifted with reason.
With or without reason, satisfaction is still key. When animals get what they instinctively need, they become satisfied and then stop until the need arises again, but with men, they not only need, but also want, and they become happy as a result of satisfying this need or want. Satisfying our instinctive needs such as hunger results to temporary satisfaction, but we only see happiness in its glory if we get what we want.
Happiness is an emotion or a state of being that is formed because of reason resulting from satisfaction. There is no such condition as a man that is satisfied but is unhappy. If you just had a meal but is quite unhappy, it’s because you were not satisfied with the food. If we see a friend that is obviously happy, we are inclined to ask, “Hey, you seem happy today, how so?” And the response will always have a reason: “I’m happy because..”. And if we understand it, then we agree and share in the friend’s happiness; but if the underlying reason is irrational, we’ll be doubtful as to the sanity of this person. Happiness must conform to what is rationally satisfying.
If we remove reason, will we ever know happiness? Is an animal of lesser intelligence, such as a cat, truly happy if it satisfies its hunger, or when it finishes copulating? The animal is not aware of it because it does not have reason; but nevertheless, it is satisfied from the biological pleasure. In this case, reason is not involved because the feeling of pleasure is a result of bodily functions that are not initiated by thinking, but by the senses as required by the body. Examples of such are scratching an itchy ear, sexual orgasm, or a cold drink on a hot day. One does not need to use reason in order to affirm this kind of happiness when such activities are being done.
In both forms of achieving happiness (sense- and reason-initiated) the common characteristic is that the state of happiness is achieved because of its good effect. These two forms of worldly happiness both bring goodness: reason-initiated happiness is good for the well being; whereas, sense-initiated happiness is good for the body. Is goodness therefore the underlying motivation for happiness?
In the sense-initiated form, it is easy to prove this point, because it is how nature designed living creatures to fulfil what is supposed to occur naturally. Animals that do not reason are motivated to do what is instinctively good for them because nature rewards these activities by giving them immediate pleasure. Copulating feels good, because nature designed it to be that way in order to motivate creatures to reproduce. Eating feels good, because it satisfies hunger, nature’s way of telling the body to nourish itself in order for the organism to continue living. Exercise in the long run makes us happy because it is good for the body.
But introduce reason and immediately the proposition is challenged. If it’s goodness that motivates us to be happy, why do some people find it pleasurable to commit things that are not good? That’s because what’s good for others does not necessarily equate to goodness for the individual and vice versa. With reason, the intended purpose of happiness becomes somehow ‘distorted’. Is it in nature’s good for man to consume resources to a point of depletion and total destruction? In contrast, does man find it good if his house is flooded or burned down due to floods or forest fires, natural events that are part of the normal cycle of the environment over the millennia?
The underlying truth in the above examples is: goodness is relative and is most meaningful only to the person that thinks it. Indeed, whatever a sane man does is supposedly what he knows as good for himself or to his family or community, but he can never know for sure what is absolutely good because man’s judgment of goodness is not universal or absolute. In the previous example, he may see it good to use resources wantonly, but it is in reality bad for the whole environment which he is a part of, which in consequence is bad for him. In contrast, he may see it bad that his house is flooded, but it is in reality good for the whole because it ensured nourishment to the whole flora in the environment which he incidentally took shelter in, which in consequence is good for him. Man’s reason is flawed because his knowledge is limited. Therefore, he may not even know for sure if whatever he does, for the sake of his happiness, is for his own good.
In discerning what is good, the limitations of man come into focus. He may be equipped with reason, but his quest for happiness is not that superior from the instinctive desire for happiness in other creatures that cannot reason, due his flawed nature. If man’s reasoning is not always consistent with real goodness in his pursuit of happiness, can a man truly be called happy when he thinks he’s happy? In other words, is the happiness we seek and feel worthy?
The story of the Brahman by Voltaire accurately describes this problem. The woman was happy, but he wouldn’t take part in the happiness of her ignorance, because his reasoning dictates that to be happy but stupid is not worthy. He considers that the woman ought not to be happy in her condition; whereas, all the other people who look up to the Brahman think he ought to be happy in his wisdom; whereas, the Brahman clearly does not think he ought to be happy because he thinks his knowledge is not good enough.
In these examples, it is obvious that the happiness we know of is relative in much the same way as our individual perception of goodness is relative. If it’s relative, then is there a way for us to correctly and uniformly judge a person’s happiness in a way that eliminates the flaws and inconsistencies of an individual’s point of view? I think there is, because if there is ‘relative’, there must be a ‘constant’.
To illustrate using Einstein’s idea of relativity: we may be riding a plane in our atmosphere that flies quite fast, but to an alien located outside the planet observing it, the plane is too slow compared to the movement of the planet as it travels through space. Speed is relative to the observer; but there is a way to truly measure speed, and that is to compare it with something that is constant no matter where the observer is, and that is light, because its speed is constant whether you’re on a plane, in outer space, or in another planet.
To apply the similarity: if the happiness we know of is relative, then what is the constant that measures its genuine value? I think this constant is knowledge of true goodness. If we know true goodness, then it is easy to judge if the happiness experienced by one man as a result of his actions is truly worthy. If we know what true goodness is, we would all be in the same level of happiness if we ever encounter the same scenarios cited above. For example, if true goodness means having exceptional wisdom, then the woman in the Brahman’s story will admit herself that she should be miserable, and she would certainly be, if she is a rational person. The one thing that is certain when this constant is known is that we will be able to judge for sure if the happiness we see in ourselves or in others is true.
If goodness is what measures the value of happiness, then goodness validates it. Happiness, therefore, is not just sought for its essence, but because there’s a reason behind it: a purpose. If one form of happiness is judged as truly worthy, then it is said that the purpose behind it was achieved. This purpose is also the thing that validates it.
True goodness, therefore, is not just the means to measure the value of happiness (the constant in the analogy of relative speed), but it is also, and more importantly, the end of happiness (the higher purpose). To test the truthfulness of this proposition, we can cite any form of action of man, investigate his motivations, and ultimately get to the bottom line: achieving goodness.
In the narrative, the Brahman wanted to satisfy his curiosity about his existence because he thinks he would be happy if he satisfies this want. The ignorant woman decided to just be satisfied with her beliefs in Vishnu and just be happy with it. The two cases differ in that the former ended up feeling unhappy, while the latter is just happy. But the commonality between them is that whatever their motivations for happiness, the end result of their motivation to be happy is goodness. The former thinks it will be good for him and to his fellowmen to have the knowledge he seeks, the latter thinks it’s good for her to simply believe.
To cite a real-life scenario: An elderly woman is happy when her daughter visits her; the daughter is happy when she does so. They are naturally made to feel happy because the act is good for them – good for the woman because it diminishes her loneliness, whereas it’s good for the daughter because it shows her love for her mother. In the end, the act is good for their relationship. Meanwhile, it would be unnatural to picture the daughter talk to herself in her car on her way to her mother’s home: “I’m seeing my mother because it is ultimately good for both of us and our relationship.” That would sound very awkwardly scripted indeed (unless she is a very serious psychologist). The realistic picture would be that she is smiling in anticipation of seeing her mother because she misses her. It would make her happy to see her. The point is, the happiness that we seek is just a mask for the higher purpose which is to achieve goodness.
Man, flawed as he is, may consistently strive for happiness, but unconsciously or otherwise, he is really striving for that purpose which he considers good for him. However, since all the worldly goodness is not true, the happiness we experience does not last so that we seek more of it. It does not last because the good effect is not truly good, because the reason employed by man to envision this ‘goodness’ is flawed to start with. It is thus rational to say that true happiness can only be achieved by having knowledge of true goodness which is grasped only by having perfect reason. And since Truth and Perfection is never a possibility in man’s condition, true happiness is unachievable.
So, then, Is happiness the end or purpose of man? It is apparent that all of us seek it, but if there is a higher end for happiness, then happiness is not our end. Man, by nature, is restless in his pursuit for happiness, but he is on a deeper level pursuing goodness because it is happiness’s measure and purpose.
What then is the purpose of man? It could be that our purpose is that ultimate goodness which is off our grasp. The universe seems to work by itself; everything in it, including us, exists in accordance with its rules. Who is to say what or who governs these rules, so that things happen as they do just for the fulfilment of this entity’s own good? It is conclusively the next question to undertake.