Happiness and Human Nature

For centuries, books like Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Epictetus' Handbook, and Spinoza's Ethics have attempted to accomplish a most difficult but worthwhile task: provide simple guidelines for achieving human well being. Today's burgeoning self-help sections in bookstores are but a continuation in mass-market form.

Such books, particularly Spinoza's and Aristotle's--but also more recent works based on the empirical study of human happiness such as Jon Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis--have been of use to me in my own life. Empirical science has confirmed many of the ideas put forth by great philosophical psychologists like Aristotle, Spinoza, and Hume.

But there is a problem. Happiness is not easy. Today, who lives a fulfilling existence is too much the product of chance. An easy-going temperament seems to be more than half the battle. If I'm born with the wrong genes, I become overly prone to depression, anxiety, and other psychological ailments. In such cases, no matter how good my life might become, I will always be able to create new problems for myself. And not just the mentally ill, but the bulk of humanity does this to a greater or lesser extent. We are naturally inclined to pursue things that do not actually lead to our happiness and fulfillment.

Part of the problem is that a happiness is a social achievement. If you're not brought up the right way, if you live in a society that tends to isolate and alienate individuals, then you're far less likely to be happy. So, indeed, a more just arrangement of social life would result in more happy people.

And yet, there are still limits to this. Imagine what you take to be a perfect world, a utopia. If you leave human beings precisely as they are, you will still find the bulk of them acting in ways that are at least partially self-destructive.

So the real problem is this: nature does not make it easy for us to be happy. This should be no surprise to any student of evolution, for we know that evolution tends not towards the well-being of organisms, but only to their survival and reproduction (and, even here, it's a bloody process of trial and error with many miserable failures). In short, happiness is an accident of nature, of human nature.

Why should we leave with this state of affairs? Why should we simply accept that only the rarest of individuals lives a truly decent life? If we are committed to equality, we should think that fortune (whether it comes in winning the genetic lottery or being born in the right place and time or whatever) has an unacceptably large influence over who flourishes. But we can change this.

Consider a new approach. Instead of learning about human nature to find the tricks to being happy, why not just change human nature to make happiness a more natural result? More specifically, why not give every individual the opportunity to change themselves to find happiness in their own way. Whether people choose to take pills or to use the old-fashioned (and highly ineffective) methods of character building, each should be free to pursue happiness as she sees it. There's no reason it has to be so difficult for so many people.

These are perhaps overly utopian thoughts for a period of substantial economic decline. Nevertheless, we will soon enter an age when we have new powers to change the shape of human life. It would be folly to leave well enough alone when there is so much unnecessary suffering in the world, especially when such a large portion is suffering that people cause themselves because of defects in their temperament.


What's new about omnilibertarianism?

This is a question that I definitely need to answer if I wish to be recognized as original. There's a lot of research to do before I can say for sure, but I think I've found at least one thing that's novel. Omnilibertarianism endorses a new kind of freedom: the freedom of identity.

The beauty of the freedom of identity is that it fuses the notion of freedom as choice and freedom as self-determination into an elegant whole. As much as is possible, everything should be free to become what it wants to be. This is a transhuman freedom, in the sense that it ought to be extended beyond humanity, to apply to as much of the world as possible (ideally, I mean).

Of course, there must be limits to the kinds of identity choices we can make. These come in a variety of forms. First, there are limits to what is physically possible. As we observe, experiment, and learn more about the universe, we may find that the limits are different than we thought they were. Nevertheless, some things are just not physically possible.

Second, there are the limits of what is technologically possible. Perhaps there's a way to travel faster than the speed of light, but it may be that we will never have the capacity to do so. In a narrower sense, we can talk about what is technologically possible today (as opposed to what is technologically possible at any future point). Determining what will be possible tomorrow will require the third kind of limit.

That is, legal limits. Laws should be in place that discourage individuals and organizations from choosing things which threaten the freedom or well-being of others (whether individuals, groups, or civilization as a whole). This means something like the criminal justice system that we have today, but possibly with new forms of punishment. This would also mean regulations on the development of technologies to ensure their safety and effectiveness, laws to protect the environment, and a whole slew of other legal measures which must be put in place to ensure the perpetuation (and hopefully the further growth) of civilization. (This third category entails quite a bit, so I may have to break it up further later.)

The limits that we set (the legal ones, which can also have an influence on the technological ones) must be enabling to freedom of choice. To do this, a government must also be enable to ensure its own survival. Part of this means adapting as conditions in the world change. But, government (regardless of its form) is something that we create, and so it is up to us to ensure that the laws keep progressing along with everything else. The US Constitution gives us a fine example of a small set of governing principles which must be held constant as other laws change, but which are even themselves susceptible to revision with sufficient democratic support.

The freedom of identity, the right of every individual to bodily and mental self-determination, must become one of our core governing principles. Not only should individuals be able to pursue happiness according to how they understand it, they should be free to become whatever they wish, within the limits discussed above. In short, Omnilibertarianism advocates the creation of new rights for individuals. (As for groups and the question of whether and what rights they have, that is something I need to think more about it...)



Freedom is something that I've taken for granted in my life, but I now see it as the most distinctive and valuable feature of humanity. The first freedom should be the freedom to define freedom as you see fit. The second should be to be as free as you want to be. The minimalist conception of freedom as individual choice (while, without doubt, partially a substantive account of what freedom is) is the best conception, because it allows for the greatest diversity in different conceptions of freedom. If realized, it would enable effective freedom for all who are willing to seize it.

Freedom must be understood as an achievement, not as a given. However, it has certain conditions of possibility. Many of these are beyond human control (we are irreducibly finite beings with freedom that will always be limited), but we are fortunate to live in an age in which, soon, we will be able to increase our freedom as much as possible.

Freedom is a human construction. That makes it no less valuable, for indeed all things of value are human constructions--value itself is something we have created, as the peculiar kinds of natural beings that we are. Thus, there is no right or wrong conception of what I will call positive freedom. People differ on what this term means, and on how much value they place upon it, and that's fine. But what I call a minimalist or negative conception of freedom is a prerequisite both for any other conception of freedom to be more than just articulated and believed, but to be realized. "Individual choice" then, is this minimalist conception which enables the possibility of all values, whether they be libertarian or otherwise.

Society undoubtedly shapes individuals in important ways. But a true adult, that is to say, an actually free person (in the positive conception of freedom that I believe, and will argue for) is someone who is willing to take responsibility for themselves, and not to play the role of victim. We are all, to varying extents, victims of history. But to remain victims is a choice, whether we acknowledge it or not. By taking responsibility for yourself, and by articulating and acting upon your own set of values, you become a full human being.

However, this process of maturation presupposes a certain kind of society, one that enables individuals to choose and act upon their own values. There will always be limits to what values are acceptable, because some conceptions of value can be forced on a populace, whether it be by means of an institution like the state or like the so-called "free" market. My libertarianism is not a species of neoliberalism by any stretch of the imagination.

No, what we need is for most of us to agree on one basic idea, my idea. It's not merely my idea, of course, for it has deep roots in the history of philosophy and many expressions articulated by contemporary thinkers. To not agree on a basic minimalist conception of freedom is to close down the possibility of alternative values. Since people differ, and since they are inevitably going to value different things whether we want them to or not, it is folly for a state to try to impose substantive values on its populace. Nevertheless, some amount of coercion is inevitable, because there will always be people who seek to obtain power over others.

But why not make this coercion as minimal as possible? Omnilibertarianism, as I will show in the days and years ahead, offers the most minimal coercion possible. If we maximize individual choice, including the choice to define freedom however one likes, then there is no sense in which we could be freer--with the exception of those who conceive of freedom as a species of tyranny, but these are few and far between.

This, in sum, is the problem: how do we peaceably co-exist? Omnilibertarianism offers us a solution. It is my purpose in life to show the world that this is so.

(I don't even know who reads my blog anymore, but expect more posts of this sort in the near future. As I suggested in the initial "Omnilibertarianism" post, I have had what I take to be a great idea, and now I wish to share it with the world. In part, this is what I'm doing now by blogging about it. But I also need to refine the idea, and so expect more free writing, reflections from different perspectives and with different starting points. If that does not interest you, then you may wish to find other things to read. If it does interest you, then I greatly appreciate your feedback and commentary. I will not promise to answer every question or objection, but I appreciate any insights that you are willing to share, and will try to offer at least a minimal response to any comment offered in good faith.)

Reflections on My Idea

People do not sufficiently appreciate it, but individual choice totally changes what it means to be human. Throughout history, the character of human lives has been determined almost entirely by one of two things: nature and custom. Without doubt, custom has undergone a major assault in the modern era. Traditional authorities no longer have the power they once had, as more individuals are allowed to do what Kant saw as the necessary condition for enlightenment: thinking for oneself.

Modernity also saw instantiated the ages-old idea that human beings should be the masters of nature. Thanks to thinkers like Spinoza, Hume, and Darwin, intelligent people now realize that nature is indifferent to us, that life is the product of unintelligent natural forces and historical accidents. This is not an occasion for despair, but rather for maturity. There is no God to protect us. Even if there are powerful beings that exist outside the universe, there is no evidence to believe that they intervene in human affairs. As Hume persuasively argued in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the quality of the world suggests, at best, divine indifference.

Without some kind of theological argument, some assurance that nature tends toward human good, there is no reason to believe that the natural world is as it should be. If we understand evolution, we realize that forces like natural and sexual selection at best tend to the survival and reproduction of organisms, but not to their well-being. Human well being is an accident of nature. What that means, is that if we leave it up to nature, there's no reason to suppose it will happen.

The time has come to wage an assault on the natural world, much like the assault on tradition and custom that modernity has spawned. What is natural is not what is good. Human beings are the sole creators of value in this world, and we must not shy away from that responsibility. This is why everything that can be made into a matter of individual choice ought to be. This would be what it means to grow up as a species. Individual choice, if taken to its logical conclusions, is actually an extremely robust conception of freedom, and I will convince as many people as I can of this.

We are not sufficiently thinking about the long term. Global warming is one consequence of this, as are the various problems we face with energy supplies. However, the universe is teeming with energy, and we just have to figure out how to get at it to accomplish our ends. We must think beyond the challenges that we face today with the economy and the environment, and consider the future that awaits us and our offspring.

What kind of world do we want to live in? Science and technology will, within centuries if not sooner, give us the power to answer this question. We must not back down from it. But each individual must answer for themselves. If a person does not want to embrace maturity, if they want to stick to the old customary ideas, or to what nature has forced upon us, they should have that right. We should not force people to be free.

However, we should force them to reflect on their lives, and to set their own values and priorities. When more aspects of human identity come under our control, individuals will be forced to face this question: when is it worthwhile to expend time and effort in making a choice, and when is it okay to delegate those choices to others? It's a question of setting priorities. In the consumerist world we live in today, people spend too much of their time on what should be utterly trivial choices. If the state manufactured a single kind of toothpaste that it distributed to the whole populace (based on, say, what scientific research recommends is best for human teeth), that would be okay. It's not worth fighting over the right to pick Colgate over Crest. Or, at least, each individual has to make that determination for themselves.

Those human beings who opt to enhance themselves will be increasing both their freedom and their responsibility as they heighten their powers. But there is no need for everyone to have to do this. People should be able to legitimately opt out. Nonetheless, I will make arguments (such as I'm doing now) to encourage people to accept my positive understanding of freedom. But this positive freedom must be grounded in a widely-accepted form of negative freedom, in which the state "nudges" individuals in certain directions (based on evidence obtained from science and other sorts of human inquiry), but ultimately gives people the option to opt out. So long as I do not pose a significant threat to the freedom or well-being of others, I ought to be allowed legally to make any choice I desire about the character and circumstances of my life.

The issue is maximizing freedom. Individual choice provides us with a conception of freedom thin enough to be minimally coercive (one of the few things it prohibits is the coercion of others), but thick enough to serve as a starting point for any further idea of freedom. Let people establish their own standards of freedom, or of any other values they wish. The key for us is to figure out ways to make all these different human possibilities "compossible", which is to say, mutually compatible. Trade-offs and tough decisions will have to be made, but if we use as a general guideline the maxim of choice maximization, then we have a political ideal that we can use to evaluate any future policy proposal. We must ask, "Will this allow and encourage individuals to be self-determining?" If yes, we move in the direction of a world of greater diversity and development. If no, then we risk creating new tyrannies to replace the old natural and traditional constraints that we have progressed so far in overcoming.

Omnilibertarianism is an elegant position, one that provides us with a simple measure for assessing progress in the world. Things will be lost in the transition to adulthood. The humans who exists hundreds of years from now may look nothing like us, they may not even be biological. But they will still be us, they will still embody that quality which I would argue is most central to being human, being autonomous, self-determining, free beings. This quality must be preserved, or everything is lost. The reason is that it allows for the possibility of all other values. Creating values is what we do as humans, and the more individuals are pressured by circumstances into recognizing that, the more mature we can be as a species.

There are those who argue that "passivity", "randomness", some force or another beyond human control, is a necessary part of human identity. I for one do not see why we should be defined by our limitations when we could be determined by our positive capacities. There is no need to worry about an end to undergoing and suffering. These will always be with our species, because there are just some limits in nature that cannot be overcome. But this does not mean that we shouldn't try to narrow that realm as much as possible. Not leaving things to nature, but taking control and remaking it to satisfy our demands is precisely what it means to be a responsible moral agent. I'm fine with individuals refusing to take on this responsibility, but as a species, we must allow those of us who want to go beyond, who want to redesign nature (beginning with their own individual nature), to do so. Otherwise, we end up deciding for the rest of humanity that they cannot be free. It is not our right to make such a decision for others.

I now see that it is my purpose in life to show people the superiority of this view, and to try as far as possible to implement it. Radical changes are in our future, but so long as we do not forget the importance of freedom as individual choice, we will never lose the most important aspect of our humanity. We may become more than human, but that is not the same thing as inhuman.

In a sense, I am making a plea to the world. Let me determine my own destiny! Let all people have such power, as far as is possible. It's fine to try to convince people of your ideas (and there are going to have to be some things that we all agree on, namely, the conditions for allowing further possible freedom), but we cannot use the tool of the law to impose one set of values on an entire society. Let as many values flourish simultaneously as can be! This is itself a value, but it is an enabling value, valuable precisely because of what it allows. Value is itself valuable.

In a way, I must admit that I am influenced by Leibniz's idea of the best of all possible worlds. He thinks that such a world has a minimum of principles, but a maximum of diversity of expression of those principles. I disagree with him, because I think such a world is not given, but will have to be a human accomplishment. We are the only intelligent designers in the universe (that we know of). Let's not run from that. Let's make this world the best it can be.



"Everything that can be a choice should be."

And thus, the great idea of my dissertation is born.

I regret that the name has been used on the Internet before (Google gives me something like 3 matches). However, the phrase above is, as far as I can discern, original, as is the more elaborate concept behind it that I will develop.

It's really a very simple idea, but it has radical implications for the way that future life should be lived. If I want to change my physical appearance, my genetic make-up, my personality features, my memories, my desires, I should--someday, with the help of the right technology--be able to do so.

With each new human enhancement technology that enters the market, our power to do this increases. Someday, I may be able to choose my facial features, my hair and skin color, my height and weight, my level of extroversion and openness to experience, or any characteristic of my body or mind. In the longer term, I may even be able to replace my body and brain entirely with new ones.

Choice can become the sole determinant of identity!

(Well, not really, because other people will still make judgments about you that you can't control, and there will always be limits to our physical capacities, and not to mention that there's the thorny question of what determines choice...)

But, in any case, you get the idea. Please, nobody steal it. :-)


I'm thinking of calling the book I eventually write Omnilibertarianism: Human Enhancement and the Future of Freedom.

For future reference, "Eggertian" sounds best when you put the emphasis on the second syllable.