Happiness is pleasure plus meaning. Therefore, a society that wants to maximize happiness must optimize for pleasure in conjunction with meaning.
Political liberals typically optimize for pleasure. They try to reduce harm and suffering while promoting liberty and the pleasures that come from acting autonomously. But pure hedonism produces soul-dead consumers, and freedom can be empty. Without a strong, fulfilling purpose, maximizing pleasure does not maximize happiness, but diversion at best and depression at worst.
By contrast, a wonderful asset of right-wing conservatives is their reliable intuition about how to conserve meaning in a society. They understand that meaning comes from struggle, social cohesion, and heroic fortitude rather than from total comfort and harm prevention. But when a society optimizes for meaning, the costs can be dreadful. Consider these sources of meaning:
- War gives people meaning, and it causes immense suffering.
- Religion gives people meaning, and it induces ignorance and subjugation.
- Nationalism gives people meaning, and it motivates bigotry and barbarity.
- Traditionalism gives people meaning, and it limits freedom and self-realization.
Do we need warfare, sacred texts, ethnostates, and rigid gender roles to build our characters, to elevate our collective spirit, and to nourish a sense of great purpose?
Instead of dismissing all forms of violence, religiosity, tribalism, and sexualism as primitive and evil, we shall use those primordial sources of meaning as leads to help us create new and better sources!
In fact, we have already built two major institutions that channel primal desires into modern factories of meaning:
- Sports that emulate war battles are sources of meaning. American Football, for example, rewards aggression and competitiveness while creating bonds between men in a team. Similarly, Mixed Martial Arts provides young men with a rite of passage into manhood and a way to engage in violent behavior without causing unnecessary harm. In addition, sports events yield pleasure for spectators as well as secondary sources of meaning like fan loyalty.
- Capitalism can replace ethnic tribalism because companies mimic tribes and selfish interests commonly override ethnic interests. Belonging to a team, pursuing a joint mission, and aiming for a shared goal gives people a sense of purpose and meaningful opportunities to prove themselves; and in business, people benefit from innovation and rationality, not from bigotry. Hierarchical companies also satisfy some people’s wish for power and authority. In addition, products yield pleasure for consumers as well as secondary sources of meaning like brand loyalty.
These examples show that it is possible for inequality, manly virtues, brute vitality, meritocratic excellence, and excess testosterone to be embedded in social systems that mimic meaningful aspects of, say, tribal warfare while causing positive hedonic effects rather than unnecessary suffering. This is how we shall go about creating new sources of meaning for everyone! For if we want moral progress, we must maximize not just pleasure, but full-fledged happiness. And we must play positive-sum games.
Happiness is pleasure plus meaning. Liberals focus on pleasure, conservatives focus on meaning, but progress in well-being needs both. Primordial sources of meaning like war, religion, nationalism, and traditionalism cause unnecessary suffering. Competition in sports and business are two newer sources of meaning, which even increase societal pleasure. Our challenge is to create more such novel sources of meaning that channel primal human instincts and desires (aggression, spirituality, tribalism, sexuality, etc.) into a benefit for society.