Metaphysics and happiness: What you think you know can hurt you and others

In his On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says (paraphrasing) that the root of all evil is not money or anything else. The root of all evil is simply desiring after things over which you have no control.

Augustine was obviously influenced by Stoicism.

Of course, he ends up arguing that true happiness can only be found through faith in the eternal and unchanging, which is God.

But a more consistent avoidance of things over which you don’t have any control would include freedom from the desire to know things that are beyond our grasp — things like the nature/existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of free will (to pull a list from Kant).

What is appealing to me about Pyrrhonian Skepticism (the best articulation of which is probably found in Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism) is that it represents a more consistent version of Stoicism. If happiness is to be found in the avoidance of desire for things over which we have no control, and certainty is a form of control, then we should refrain from believing in things about which we are uncertain.

The reason that strongly affirming claims about the nature of reality is that you expose yourself to sources of doubt. For any claim (the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, for example), it is possible to make an equally compelling case both for and against. Given the impossibility of certainty, choosing to believe either that there is a God, or that there is not a God means exposing your believe to constant threat. It also results in all manner of pernicious behaviors as you strive to continually affirm your belief to yourself and others despite the fact that you could quite easily be wrong.

Think about the damage caused most recently by believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

For the ancient Skeptics, the goal was ataraxia, or freedom from mental disturbance. The greatest tool for them was reason, which makes it possible to rigorously evaluate any and all truth claims. If a claim was found certain (i.e. irrational to believe otherwise), then believe would be affirmed. Inevitably, however, the result is a suspension of belief because it would be impossible to be certain either about a particular claim or it’s opposite.

With belief suspended, the Skeptics could return to ‘common life’ (borrowing an expression from Hume) of family, friends, institutions, etc in a way that could be fully enjoyed and appreciated without the burden of metaphysical commitments and the toxic relationships that clinging to uncertain sets of belief would otherwise have.

You don’t deserve to be happy

I feel like the language of deserving is fraught.

To deserve something implies that you have earned that thing, and that the thing that has been earned is still not yours.

It’s kind of like viewing the world as a series of IOUs, except there is no contract or agreement to document what is owed, and under what conditions.

When you deserve something, you feel like you are owed, but the one who owes (a person, an organization, the universe) is unaware of that fact.

The one who deserves is one who desires. Which means they don’t have the thing they want. They also don’t have any control over the thing they desire. By claiming to deserve a thing, there is a sense in which you are making a case, but that the ultimate decision about whether you receive the thing is not up to you. But when someone says they ‘deserve’ something, they are preparing a case that is never made. No judge ever receives their appeal.

Deserving is often just another word for resentment.

I hear a lot of people say they ‘deserve to be happy.’ But when we think carefully about the language of deserving, the idea of deserving happiness quickly stops making any sense.

Is happiness a thing that you can lack? Is it our responsibility to make a case to someone and pray that they agree with us?

No. Happiness is not a thing that one has. Happiness is a thing that one IS. You don’t deserve to be happy because there is no one to whom you can make an appeal. No one is holding out on you. As a state, whether you are happy or not is something that is entirely within your control.

To say you deserve to be happy is to say that the decision isn’t ultimately up to you. It puts you at the mercy of the universe.

To say that you deserve to be happy is simply to refuse responsibility for yourself. You don’t deserve to be happy, because it’s a choice — to be or not to be — that only you can make.