Happiness and philosophers

July 10, 2018

Many philosophers have talked about happiness, but none of them seems quite satisfactory to me. Here’s a list:

1. Stoicism talks about living in the “now” and not worrying about things that are beyond your control. There is definitely a lot of truth to this. Worrying makes people needlessly unhappy. But it only says how to avoid a type of unhappiness, not how to gain happiness.

2. Cynicism says to ignore the social protocols that civilization tries to imprison you with, because they’re a source of much unhappiness (e.g. working to have things that look nice to impress people). I definitely agree, and it definitely makes me unhappy when I spend effort to be concerned about what someone thinks, and it’s made a big difference in my happiness to not care about it. But again, this only says how to avoid a type of unhappiness, not how to gain happiness. Also, caring too little might cause you to miss out on things due to being too unpopular.

3. Epicureanism says to live a simple life and withdraw from participation in politics / the workforce / etc, and just live minimally and enjoy simple pleasures. I highly agree that this is way, way happier than living a normal 9-5 office life and trying to accumulate stuff, and as someone who is terrified of the boredom of doing monotonous work, this philosophy has made an enormous difference in my life. But I’m not sure if it’s the whole picture: I still feel a lack of meaning / fulfillment, which is a type of happiness, when I withdraw and only pursue simple pleasures.

4. Aristotle says you need to consider your nature and to find your purpose in order to be happy. This purpose, for him, includes participation in the wider political system and in civilization. I agree that there are higher types of happiness or fulfillment connected with purpose that go beyond immediate pleasure. But I question whether living a purposeful life results in happiness.

The problem, as I see it, is that Aristotle didn’t know about evolution. Our nature, our programming which tells us what to strive for, doesn’t have happiness as its goal. It wants us to survive. Sometimes we get happiness as a side-effect when we obey our programming, but not always – following our nature certainly doesn’t maximize our happiness.

A great example of this is relationships. Our nature gives us a desire to find a special someone or soul mate. But that’s in our nature only because having a close connection with your mate increases the probability of your offspring surviving and thriving. And it would seem that the probability of finding someone you’re really close to is low (based on divorce rate, etc.). So constantly pursuing this unreachable goal actually causes unhappiness while increasing survival value.

At first it may seem like the solution to happiness is to try to break free of our evolutionary programming and ignore it. However, /happiness is itself programming/. We’re mostly programmed to like things that are good for us (if we pay attention to what we really like). If we ignore all our evolutionary impulses, we’ll have nothing on which to base our ideas of what might make us happy.

But is it possible to /reprogram/ ourselves? I propose the following. First, use introspection / reason to figure out what really tends to make you happy (Epicureanism) (which is harder than it seems, if you ignore what other people think makes people happy (Cynicism), and what used to make you happy which you’re now bored of). These things will be evolutionary impulses, but that’s OK. Next, let go of your other desires that don’t make you happy – unprogram them by repeatedly reminding yourself that nothing you can do will cause them to make you happier (Stoicism). Next, increase your freedom / reduce your commitments as much as possible / ethical, so you’ll have more time for the things that make you happy (rather than being bogged down by chores / commitments / computer problems / etc.). Finally, examine your life to try to find a purpose (Aristotle) – perhaps doing good deeds or helping people – but beware of what makes you think of that thing as a purpose. Make sure it’s not just evolution trying to get your group / species to survive – or if it is, make sure you think it through to make sure it’s a valid purpose that will really have a positive impact once you apply reasoning. (For example, having children is in our nature, and it gives many people a sense of purpose. But math says that if everybody had a bunch of children, eventually everybody would die due to an abundance of humans. So consider adopting instead.)


Ethics Requires Freedom

June 27, 2018


7 June, 2018 18:04

June 7, 2018

Early Childhood Centre:
Child A: “There’s already one person done.”
Me: “Who?”
Child A: “No one!”
Child B: “Oh, I remember no one.”

Life goals

May 10, 2018

Is your goal to live a happy life or a good life (or something else)?


April 17, 2018

A common mindset I’ve noticed as a math tutor is the mistaken idea that tutors / teachers are supposed to be considered some kind of authority on math. Students expect us to know things, and they even trust us when we tell them things. Worst of all, I strongly suspect that the majority believe those things are true /because we say so/, and perhaps ultimately because some mathematician said so.

I try to avoid telling people things, instead asking them questions to try to get them to figure things out for themselves. But it can be like swimming up a waterfall. Please, people, realize this: if you want to truly succeed at math, you have to realize that it’s just reasoning, not knowledge that’s been handed down from on high.

World Autism Acceptance Day

April 2, 2018

Apparently today is World Autism Acceptance Day. I don’t usually pay much attention to these sorts of days, and I think most people are aware that autism exists, but I feel strongly about the discrimination that is fairly widespread against people with autism, from people who are well-meaning and probably don’t see it as discrimination. It’s not just the attempt to “cure” autism. It’s the expectation or hope that people with autism will learn to do the same things as other people, whether they want to or not. Yes, there are rules that everybody should follow, and yes, it’s a good deed to help people with autism overcome barriers when they want your help. But it’s OK to like different things than the things other people like, it’s OK to have different mannerisms than other people, and it’s OK to not want to join in an activity that the rest of the group / family / classroom / society is doing. Everybody should have the right to live their own life, rather than having their activities determined by those in the neurological majority.

Again, I don’t think people necessarily realize what they’re doing, but since there are many people in my life with autism it’s something I consider very important. It’s especially unfortunate that in so many of our structures (e.g. schools, the workplace) humans are so insistent that everybody do the same thing, given the advantages of diversity in the rest of the natural world.

Ideal society

March 19, 2018

What’s your idea of an ideal society (utopia)? No magic allowed (only technology that’s known to be available now or soon).


February 19, 2018

It’s not easy being counter-cultural in general, but schools / daycares have the potential to really compound things. The problem is us teachers. What sort of ethics or practices should we teach? Things will necessarily go a lot easier for us if we teach the ethics and practices of our culture, causing a bias towards the practices of the surrounding culture. Worse, the goal of the government is to train citizens to follow the culture of its own country, causing them to create schools and hire teachers who do that.

Parents who want their children raised a different way have a difficult choice to make: do homeschooling or some alternate schooling (if they can afford it) or risk their child being raised according to the culture’s ethics and practices. With homeschooling (something I would have done as a child if I had the choice) this means finding socialization opportunities will be difficult, and the child may feel even more alienated among peers when they’re done. If they go to the regular schools, the child may still feel alienated if they’re counter-cultural (as I felt in school). Some parents turn to religious schools in the hopes of having their children learn better ethics, but many people (including me) believe in neither the ethics of any religious school nor in the ethics of the culture.

Examples of issues that have come up for me: Should children be forced to wash their hands? Should they be allowed to play with toy guns? (Or toy cars? Or toy pets?) How much screen time should they have? Should you talk to them about death? Should you talk to them about meat? Should they be allowed to waste food? To share food? How much risk can they take outside? Should they be allowed to swear?

It’s obviously impractical for a parent to expect a teacher / caregiver to teach the exact same ethics as them. But it’s easier if their ethics happen to be popular /in your culture/. If you go elsewhere in the world, you’ll find people answer those questions totally diffently (something you can see by watching the movie “Babies”), and surely you can’t say that you just happened to be born into the culture which has the right answers to those questions?

Assuming you don’t say that, there are 2 implications:

(1) It’s imperative for teachers to have as few rules (as much freedom) as practical, and whenever they give a rule, they must give the children the reason for it. The idea isn’t to teach that all approaches are equally valid, but that people must have a reason for their choices. Teaching ethical reasoning is much more valuable than teaching particular ethics, and obedience is /not/ an ethical goodness.

(2) We should all re-examine our ethics and practices, because we all went through school, which means we’ve all become biased in favour of a particular culture’s goals.

Gaming disorder

January 22, 2018

“Gaming disorder classified as mental illness by World Health Organization in 2018”

This is troubling. I mostly agree with the article that the language surrounding this “disorder” seems like discrimination against gamers (something I’ve seen a lot in my life) when that sort of addiction can apply to many activities. However, in fairness, there are certain tendencies that I’ve noticed in the gaming /industry/ that are troubling. Namely, a focus on a marketing or manipulating type strategy, where companies produce hype or focus on the outward appearance of the games (flashy graphics or gore) in order to get people to buy the game. Even the content of many games involve things like collecting, unlocking, or even buying junk in order to get players to keep playing / giving money, leaving the games themselves devoid of actual gameplay. Basically developers in big gaming companies tend to be sell outs who sacrifice their artistic talent to get money.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t high quality works of art in the form of video games, of course. There are lots of them, and I know of lots of them, and they’ve drastically improved my life. But it’s been a long process of wading through garbage to find the gems. People who aren’t familiar with gaming culture tend to jump to conclusions about games as a whole based on the poor quality junk that gets advertised in the mainstream.

The fact that TV has similar problems (a few gems in a sea of junk), but board games and books tend not to have these problems to as great an extent, further supports my conclusion: instead of blaming either gamers or the artistic medium, let’s start blaming big companies.


December 18, 2017

Humans seem to have difficulty with the concept of ownership. When does someone start to own something? If you buy something from someone who didn’t rightfully own it, does it become yours, and how many of the things you’ve bought were bought from their rightful owners? Who may rightfully access a scarce resource? I find most conflicts with children are caused over ownership, which is understandable, given that even adults can’t figure it out, and are inconsistent with respect to whether a child really has the rights to something that’s “theirs”.

As a capitalist who believes in ownership, I like Locke’s idea: you start to own something when you produce it from raw materials, and then you may trade things you own. The people that did the work get the benefit. But most capitalists conveniently forget to address ownership of things in common, including the raw materials themselves. Everybody, or nobody, rightly owns nature, and when something is owned in common, a person may not simply take part of it and claim it’s theirs. But that’s how tons of companies get their raw materials. This implies that many things you buy were bought from someone who didn’t rightfully own it.

So how can anything ever rightly get produced? We need a theory of common ownership. Fortunately, environmental ethics already provides one: “leave a place or commonly owned resource in a better state than you found it”. You can take a resource from nature if you do something to improve nature by a greater amount. If a resource, such as wood or stone, is plentiful, then you don’t have to do much to pay back that debt. For scarcer resources, such as the rare metals used in cell phones, you need to do a lot to increase the well-being of everybody before you can rightfully take them. (By the way, this includes the well-being of plants and animals, which might not need to be compensated for some rare materials that mean little to them but a lot to humans, but do indeed need to be compensated for various other taken resources.)

Why do we tend to teach / strongly believe in property rights but not common ownership rights? Why do we punish violations of one but not the other? They’re equally important. Various self-proclaimed conservatives often want the government to protect their property rights but not the rights being violated when companies extract raw materials. But they can’t actually formulate a theory of ownership that makes sense without a common ownership theory – something that’s usually propounded by various self-proclaimed liberals. Locke’s theory alone breaks down when raw materials become scarce. There is no ultimate explanation of how someone gets the right to, for example, drill for oil, or own a piece of land.

This is one reason I’m somewhat uneasy about bitcoin: since it can’t be traced, if you buy a bitcoin, you can’t tell whether the person who sold it to you really owned it, or whether they hacked someone’s account to get it. (As a tangent, this could be solved with a cryptocurrency that has full surveillance, while still being decentralized. With such a currency it would be possible for everybody to see whether a particular coin is truly owned by its holder. I’m not sure if it’s possible to create such a form of currency though.) But perhaps we can’t be any more sure of the legitimacy of any of our possessions than we can of our bitcoins. An ethical person will therefore self-audit themself to determine whether they really deserve (have worked hard enough for) something they think they have a right to, regardless of whether the law says they have a right to it.