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Objectivity, Relativism, & the Pursuit of Happiness



2,151 words

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by Rollo Walker of a 1999 lecture on “Objectivity, Relativism, and Well-Being [2].” This text only includes the first half of the transcript, and it has been massively condensed and rewritten.

Socrates is famous for arguing that all human beings pursue happiness; specifically, he said that we are all searching for the good, and when we finally figure out what the good is, it’s happiness, or well-being. The Greek word is “eudaimonia.”

The Socratic position is based on the observation that in any given situation we always have a certain range of options. Sometimes we have many options. Sometimes we have only a few. We also have the freedom to choose among them.  Given that we always have some options, and given the freedom to choose among those options, human beings will always choose the option that seems to them the best. Even if we decide to kill ourselves, presumably this is because we think that death is the better option. So by the very nature of human rationality, human choice, and human action, there’s a directedness towards what is regarded as good. Human beings are pursuing the good in every choice, and Socrates argues that ultimately the good life for man is happiness.

If we’re all pursuing happiness, then the only choice we have in the matter is how to pursue happiness, whether to pursue it intelligently or not. This essay is really for people who wish to pursue it intelligently. No further thought or reading is required to pursue it stupidly.

The claim that human beings are all pursuing happiness runs up against what we can call the Jeffrey Dahmer problem. If Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer and cannibal, was pursuing happiness, we have to conclude that some people pursue happiness in really strange ways. To handle such examples, we have to put a lot of weight on the provisos that from the choices available to us, we choose the best as we see it. All human beings choose the good as they see it from the options that are available to them. So if we object to Jeffrey Dahmer’s decisions, Socrates would say that’s because we think he was mistaken about the good. Jeffrey Dahmer could have spent his evenings visiting sick people or going to the library, or reading to improve his mind, but instead he lured people back to his apartment, killed them, had sex with them, and ate them. Why? Because of all the options available as he saw it, that was the best use of his time. Now, again, he was gravely mistaken about that, according to Socrates, but still, the structure of his action was oriented toward the good as he saw it.

The corollary of the claim that we’re always pursuing the good as we see it is this: Nobody chooses evil as such. Meaning: nobody does something that they regard as evil. Nobody chooses to do evil as evil. They only choose evil because they think it is good. People only choose evil under the guise of the good. Even people who loudly proclaim they are doing evil, are only doing “evil”—evil in scare quotes, meaning evil as other people see it, not evil as they see it. The rebellious teenagers who get into Satanism and heavy metal are embracing what their parents see as “evil”—but they do this because they think that upsetting their parents is a good thing to do.

Now we need to introduce the concepts of virtue and vice. To do that, we need to distinguish between a potentiality and a propensity. A potentiality is simply the ability to do something. A propensity is an inclination to do something. Virtues are propensities to do the good. Vices are propensities to do evil. A person has the potential to do both good and evil, but a virtuous person tends toward the good and a vicious person tends toward the evil.

For Socrates, virtue is simply knowledge of the good. Vice is simply ignorance of the good. Virtue is the propensity to do the right thing at the right place and the right time. The virtue of courage is a kind of knowledge of when to fight and when not to fight, when to hold oneself back or run away. The vice of cowardice is a lack of knowledge of when it’s appropriate to stand one’s ground. To the coward, a bad act appears as the best option, namely running away when he shouldn’t. Vice is a kind of derangement of the mind, a clouding of our moral sensibilities, so the things that aren’t good show up as good, and things that are good show up as bad.

But how is simple knowledge or ignorance of the good a propensity to act? Can’t we know the right thing but not do it? Don’t we need an additional motivational factor to turn knowledge or ignorance of the good into a propensity to act in good or bad ways? For Socrates, the answer is simple. The good is what motivates us to act. Once one thinks something is good, that alone is sufficient motive to do it. One does not need an additional reason or incentive to do it.

Of course things are more complicated than that. For instance, parents who wish to raise virtuous children, and legislators who wish to mold virtuous citizens, use rewards and punishments as additional incentives to virtuous behavior. And Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics analyzes the phenomenon of “weakness of will” (akrasia), in which people who know what is good fail to do it. But Aristotle’s analysis preserves Socrates’ essential claim that to know the good is to do it. But one does need to add some caveats. First, one must be a mature moral agent, not a child or a childish adult. Second, our knowledge of the good cannot be overwhelmed by passion. Third, sometimes people can know what is right but fail to see the applicability of this knowledge in particular circumstances. But when one sees clearly, unimpeded by passion, knowledge of the good alone is enough to lead to virtuous action.

Does Socrates believe that evil people are morally culpable? After all, he holds that nobody chooses evil as evil. We all have good intentions. We all mean well. If we all mean well, are people who choose to do bad things culpable? The simple answer is yes, we are morally culpable because we have a moral obligation to know the truth about what’s right and wrong. In fact, we are highly motivated to know the difference, because the good life is what we are all pursuing. So ignorance of the truth about the most important things in life is highly blameworthy.

The deep metaphysical assumption of Socrates’ ethics is that there’s a right and wrong answer about what the good is. If you can be right or wrong about the good life, that means that there’s some kind of objective standard of what constitutes goodness. For Socrates, this standard is provided by nature. For Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, there is what is right “by nature” as opposed to what is right “by convention.” But our opinions and conventions about what is right can be mistaken by the standard of what is right by nature.

How are norms given by nature? The clearest example is physical health. Doctors, nutritionists, and physical trainers know from observation what makes the human body healthy and what makes it sick. Socrates and Plato define virtue as the health of the soul and vice as a sickness of the soul.

The question then becomes: “How do you discover what the sickness and the health of the soul are?” The answer is: essentially the same way that doctors determine what makes the body healthy or sick. Medicine is both empirical and normative. Ninety-eight point six is held up as the normal temperature. How have we discovered this? By looking at how humans flourish and how they suffer. Ethics can be a science in the exact same way by observing the nature of the soul and what makes it flourish and what makes it sick. And just as knowledge makes doctors authorities about health and sickness, knowledge can make moral philosophers authorities about virtue and vice.

The greatest challenge to Socratic moral realism is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the most wide-spread belief about ethics in our culture today. Relativism is the claim that there are no objective moral truths. Instead, what counts as moral truth is relative. To say a truth is relative is to say that it is not true for everyone. It is true for only a subset of people: for a particular culture or for a sovereign individual who creates his own values.

Relativism is basically the idea that in the pursuit of happiness, there are no right or wrong answers. Each individual has the sovereign authority to set norms for himself, and you can’t be wrong about these norms. So, if you want to declare that something is good for you, you have the sovereign power to declare that that is good for you. Relativism is an ancient idea. It is as old as youth itself. It merely makes a philosophy of the youthful attitude that whatever is me is good.

If moral relativism is true, you can stop reading here, because relativism implies that the intelligent pursuit of happiness is no better than the stupid or mindless pursuit of happiness, because all answers have an equal claim to truth. If moral relativism is true, there are no wrong answers. So, you don’t have to think or work very hard to live a good life. You can be passive, and you can be secure in your passivity that no one can challenge the choices that you’ve made.

If relativism is the view that human beings can decide at will that one thing is good (for them) and another thing is evil (for them), and they can’t be wrong, then if relativism were true, what outcome would we predict in the pursuit of happiness? Obviously, virtually everybody would be happy. Why? Because relativism basically claims that in the game of life, each person gets to make up the rules as he goes along. And under those circumstances, you’d have to be a complete moron or lunatic not to win.

If you and I are playing a game of cards and you have the power to change the rules at any point, you would almost necessarily win, unless you just didn’t care about it. Because no matter what cards I put down, you could say, “Well, in the previous round, that would have been a winning hand, but this is the fourth round, and so all the rules are reversed.” And I’d say, “Okay, take my money.” And we’d keep playing, and you’d keep changing the rules, and you’d come out the winner.

The strong relativist claim is that individuals get to decide what makes them happy, and they can’t be wrong. If the relativist is right, the question is: Why in the world would anyone be unhappy? What’s your excuse for losing the game of life if you can rig it in your favor? There would be no excuse! It would be an extraordinarily odd thing to find anybody who’s unhappy if they can define happiness for them, and no one can say that they’re wrong.

But the fact is that most people are unhappy. I’m a fairly happy guy, but I am not entirely happy with my life. But if relativism were true, then I can define whatever I’m doing, in the very minute I am doing it, as happiness. And in that case, I should be completely happy in every moment. But I don’t have that superpower, which means that moral relativism is false.

My refutation of moral relativism is a simple modus tollens syllogism:

i. If moral relativism were true, then anyone who wants to be happy would be entirely happy.

ii. Most people are not happy.


Therefore, moral relativism is false.

Life is a game. There are rules, there are risks, and there are winners and losers. If moral relativism is true, then life is not a very serious game. If you can define your own happiness and can’t be wrong about it, then you can’t really lose. You’ve got no excuse for not being happy already.

But you’re not happy. Which means that relativism is false. There are right and wrong ways of living our lives. And if we are unhappy, we are doing something wrong. We are missing some important truths about the pursuit of happiness. This means that we need to start taking life seriously, which means taking moral questions seriously, which means taking philosophy seriously. Because the stakes we are playing for are our very lives.