The Human Will
Humans want to survive and flourish, to live and live well, to be and be well:
- Well-being is a combination of pleasure and meaning in life. Humans want to feel good and fulfilled. They want hedonic and eudaemonic happiness; some more of the pleasure part, others more of the meaning aspect.
- A good life is a positive well-being balance over a lifetime. If, on your deathbed, you were to look back at every moment you have lived, summing up all your pleasures and pains, all your moments of joy and suffering, and all your experiences of purpose and emptiness, you could create a happiness balance sheet that weighs your positive experiences against your negative experiences. A positive final balance signifies a good life.
People who thoughtlessly do what they want—in a state of passion, led by emotions—maximize short-term well-being, whereas those who wisely do what they truly want—in a state of mindcoolness, led by reason—maximize long-term well-being. The latter are more likely to live a good life. And as humans, our ultimate goal is to have lived a good life. That is our True Will.
Good is whatever helps us do what we truly want, which is to improve well-being in the long term. But how can we know for sure what will ultimately make us happy? Until we have perfect self-knowledge and a complete science of happiness, all we can do is rely on the pieces of evidence we do have and on the wisdom of moral heuristics:
- Objective evidence comes from the fields of psychology and cognitive science. Clinical psychologists tell us how to preserve mental health (minimize suffering), positive psychologists tell us what makes life most worth living (maximize fulfillment), and cognitive scientists tell us how irrational impulses make us not do our True Will. Yet what these experts say is often impractical and still far, far away from a complete picture.
- Moral heuristics come from the fields of religion and philosophy. The wisdom traditions give us rules of thumb for how to live a good life, usually focusing on concrete virtues. They teach us, for example, that the best long-term outcomes are achieved through courage not cowardice, prudence not ignorance, moderation not gluttony, humility not hubris, generosity not greed, kindness not animosity, and so forth.
Now, what are we to do if we want a good life not just for ourselves, but also for those around us? Since we do not have a reliable science of morality, we must again rely on moral heuristics, namely, on value systems and moral principles. These are not good per se, but good only insofar as they allow people to live good lives. The good life qua long-term well-being is the only intrinsic value. All other values are instrumental.
For example, the moral principles known as human rights are not good per se. They are good only insofar as they prove to be useful heuristics for improving human flourishing. Will humans live better lives if they are free from brutal torture and free to express their thoughts? Not necessarily, but very probably. This probability is what makes human rights ethically good.
Similarly, human life is not sacred. There is no such thing as “dignity” in the natural world. But even though humans are not objectively endowed with dignity, it is probably good to act as if they were. Like money, dignity is a useful fiction. However, its usefulness is limited.
Consider people who use the myth of human dignity to argue for economic equality, free health care, free education, and free housing. “Free,” of course, means “tax-funded,” so others will counter with different moral heuristics, say, the values of fairness and liberty. None of these values can settle the controversies of egalitarianism and social spending. When values clash, our common moral heuristics fail.
To move ahead, we must sometimes abandon the heuristic approach to morality. We must quit arguing in terms of rights, values, and principles and find back to our common moral ground: the will to live and live well. Although evidence-based utilitarian probabilities might be difficult to calculate, they are our only possible way forward.
But people are rarely willing to let go of their values and principles. Many take pride in being “principled” and believe that staying true to their values is what makes them “good people.” Sure, a “man of principle” may have well-developed moral heuristics, but he may also have a dogmatic, bigoted devotion to them. In extreme cases, he might kill for a principle or die for a value, even though a value is essentially just a word, a useful myth—a myth, however, that, if dogmatized, transforms from a means to achieve a good outcome into an end in itself.
Who wouldn’t want to have easy solutions for difficult life problems? Who wouldn’t want a simple recipe for being a good person? Core values and cultural norms simplify life, and they do so with such effectiveness that most people don’t recognize how their own deepest values are essentially just instrumental heuristics. Hence, they cling on to them as if they were the be-all and end-all of moral goodness. Even worse, people like to define the good life in terms of their personal values and say stupid things like, “A good life is a life lived in freedom with joy and integrity.” This is utter moral confusion: freedom is a vague heuristic to increase well-being, joy is an aspect of well-being, and integrity is behavioral consistency with personal principles.
Let’s take a closer look at freedom, a core value that everybody loves and pretty much everybody defines differently. Libertarians uphold freedom as the primary moral principle. Freedom is indeed vitally important,1 but on its own, it is empty, and it is not the end of the story of ethics. The true primary moral principle is to live a good life by maximizing well-being in the long-term. Setting freedom as the primary principle would absolutize an instrumental value, would dogmatize a moral heuristic. Most people do this: libertarians dogmatize liberty, liberals dogmatize equality, and conservatives dogmatize order. It sure is good to be free, just, and loyal, but only to the extent that it promotes well-being in the long-term, which is the gold standard of ethics.
Unfortunately, that is not what people are brought up to believe. Since the promotion of long-term well-being is unfathomably complex, all we can do is rely on moral heuristics. Consequently, moral heuristics in the form of value systems and moral rules are what cultures transmit, what societies teach, and what people become passionate about. But our moral education fails to present these values and principles as heuristics.
Instead, we learn that they are absolutely and intrinsically good. We learn that embodying and fighting for our values makes us good people. Because of such education, we become ideological, become dogmatic about words like justice, liberty, equality, loyalty, identity, etc.,2 even though these values solely have instrumental worth.
The Dogma of Well-Being
Well-being alone has intrinsic worth. It is the superior dogma, the ultimate value. Well-being is the only moral dogma we should hold on to because it is, if we are clear about what we truly want, the factual end of all human volition. Saints and villains, hedonists and ascetics, fascists and liberals, tribalists and cosmopolitans—they all, despite their radical value differences, desire well-being in some form or another. Anybody who claims that he doesn’t want to be well in the long term is wrong, categorically wrong. This is because the notion of well-being is so broad that it incorporates everything that can make a person feel good. It even includes a person’s desire to feel bad if he somehow gains meaning from suffering.
A critic could argue that the dogma of all-encompassing well-being is so abstract that it is practically irrelevant, and he would be right to an extent. After all, that is precisely why we need moral heuristics to navigate the moral landscape. Without the guidance of virtue traditions, value systems, and international rights, we would be commonly lost in the complex potentiality of human experience. But we do need the dogma of abstract well-being, particularly when our moral heuristics clash, if only to remind us that no special rights and no specific values are the ultimate moral truth.
We need the dogma of human flourishing to stop fighting for values and to start finding solutions—solutions we all want. Sure, humans are selfish and want solutions that primarily promote their own flourishing. But we must not forget that humans are also social creatures who rely on others for cooperation, and nobody will cooperate with assholes who refuse to care about other people’s well-being, too. Therefore, rather than a blind devotion to a set of values, we want win-win solutions that allow everybody to live a better life.
- For starters, a lack of personal liberty can only lead to long-term well-being if the oppressing entity knows better than the person himself what the person truly wants; or, with a lack of communal liberty, what the community truly wants. Generally, though, a volitional system knows its own True Will better than any political force that has power over it.
- Masculinity is another value that has taken on a life of its own, especially in the red pill community where ‘being alpha’ is the gold standard for morality and ‘good’ defined as whatever sparks impulsive female sexual attraction, no matter what the long-term outcomes are (I’m not saying that these outcomes are bad, just that they are not as obvious as people make them out to be).