Monthly Archives: March 2014

What is Love?

In my last post, I put forth the idea that the most ethical decision is often to prioritize our own happiness over that of anyone else’s. This idea creates interesting implications for relationships, and polyamory in particular, especially given my position that polyamory isn’t all about you.

Most relationships have built in the idea that partners’ are inherently at odds with one another. As I’ve said many times before, rules only make sense if you anticipate that one or more partners will want to break the rule at some point in the future, and almost no relationships avoid having rules. Monogamy is one of the most common, but by no means most harmful, rules.

I try to have relationships where everyone wants the same thing. That way, everyone can do what they want as much of the time as possible. This doesn’t happen by accident. Generally, people don’t just randomly want the same things (though, it’s probably best to start relationships with people whose desires are similar to your own). The way you make up the difference is by loving each other.

I define love as the mental state by which another person’s happiness becomes linked to your own such that changes in their happiness cause corresponding changes in your happiness. I make no distinction between romantic love and any other type of love. A person can love a romantic partner, a family member, a dog, or all of humanity (though I wouldn’t recommend it). When you love someone, their happiness makes you happy. It’s in your self-interest to help them be happy in any way that you can.

Love comes in degrees, measured by how strong the changes in your own happiness correspond to the changes in your loved one’s happiness. It’s possible to love someone so much that your and their happiness become synonymous.

It’s through love that we are able to focus on making ourselves happy while simultaneously doing everything we can to help our partners to be happy. It’s through love that we are able to feel compersion, even though we’re frightened. It’s through love that we can do things for our partners that, to outside parties, look like sacrifices, but actually make us happier than we were before.

Ethics and Philosophy – The Most Ethical Choice is Often The Selfish One

I’ve just started reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I’ve only gotten up to Plato so far (edit: I’m now to Epicurus, who is awesome!), but I find it fascinating. My goal in reading about philosophy is to potentially improve and/or refine my own philosophies, particularly in the field of ethics. To that end, I’d like to sketch out a brief overview of my current take on ethics. I’ll call this the “before,” and hopefully I’ll make another one after I’ve gotten a good overview of the various ethical philosophies which have influenced Western though through the past few millennia. And then hopefully a few more as I continue reading, but we’ll see. Here is my current stance on the question of ethics, in brief:

UPDATE (Jan. 2015): Russell provided little guidance in the field of ethics. After reviewing some of the contemporary writing in the field, I find my thought on this unchanged. Further writing on ethics can be found here.

tl;dr: (1) happiness is all that matters; (2) we are vastly more in control of our own happiness than anyone else’s; therefore (3) the most ethical actions that individuals can take are usually those that make themselves happy.

1. Happiness is All That Matters

There is no higher ideal than the happiness of conscious creatures, or what Sam Harris calls “well-being.” There is no objective morality. Other ideas taken from Sam Harris with which I agree:

  •  The only goal of an ethical system should be to increase the well-being of conscious creatures as much as possible. Nothing else matters.
  •  Well-being (what I call “happiness”) consists of positive mental states. Feeling good = good. Feeling bad = bad. There are no objective criteria to measure well-being. It is entirely dependent upon the perceptions of the creature experiencing it.

These are my premises, and they are largely uncontroversial among skeptics. My goal is not to defend these premises, only to list them. If you are interested in a comprehensive defense of them, I would direct you to Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, linked above. Note: this is not intended as an endorsement of the entire book, just those ideas which I’ve noted above.

2. We are vastly more in control of our own happiness than anyone else’s

My next premise is this: the capacity of human beings to control any person’s happiness other than our own is extremely limited. We cannot “make” anyone but ourselves happy (and sometimes we can’t even do that). Most (though not all) actions we take that are designed to increase another person’s happiness are ineffective at best, and often harmful.

This belief is probably the most vulnerable of mine. The science of happiness is very underdeveloped. I have not encountered any reliable studies which cast doubt on this belief, however I also have very little objective evidence of it. It is mostly something I believe because it has been my experience. I find it largely impossible to force anyone to be happier. The best I have ever accomplished is to assist other people in making themselves happy. To the best of my memory, any time anyone has ever tried to force me to be happy (rather than assist me in making myself happy), it has backfired.

I have, however, had success in making myself happy, and I have witnessed other succeed in making themselves happy. Often, this takes the form of exercising control over my environment to surround myself with things that boost my happiness. Sometimes, it involves doing mental work. Sometimes, it involves taking medication (though it could be argued that this one, at least, can be forced on people, and sometimes is).

3. The most ethical actions that individuals can take are usually those that make themselves happy.

Once the first premise is accepted, it necessarily follows that sacrificing one’s own happiness, unless it results in a commensurate increase in someone else’s happiness (or in one’s own future happiness), is an unethical act.

Once the second premise is accepted, it becomes clear that most of the time, the most ethical action to take is the one that makes yourself happy, as that is where most of your control lies.

However, the conclusion is qualified the way it is because there are many situations where one can assists others in making themselves happy and/or increase the likelihood of another person’s happiness at little or no cost to our own happiness. Such situations include (but are not limited to):

  • collective action, which costs little to each individual but results in broad increases in happiness/well-being, such as raising money for disaster victims
  • situations in which we enjoy the act of helping another person to be happy, often called “love.” Many activists enjoy the work they do advocating on behalf of others, and thus their actions are ethical regardless of whether their efforts are successful
  • situations in which we can increase our own happiness by increasing the general well-being. A functional political system would serve this goal, and this is generally the reason why I support the social justice movements that I do.
  • situations where there is a massive resource imbalance, where a minor sacrifice on the part of the privileged can result in large gains by the underprivileged. An example would be an American who donates money to indigent citizens of Burundi.
  • where a person whose judgment you trust indicates to you that your actions will increase their happiness.
  • situations where what we desire is nearly certain to be harmful to others in proportion to the joy we receive from it (either because it is obvious or because they have told us).

My main rule is that when balancing competing interests, one should weight one’s own happiness as significantly more important than anyone else’s. A sacrifice of one’s own happiness is only ethical where the gains in someone else’s happiness are either (1) very certain AND proportional to the sacrifice required, or (2) exponentially greater than the sacrifice required.

It is, of course, impossible to measure happiness/well-being with any precision, so there is wide latitude for argument about what individual actions are ethical and which are not. As will all coherent ethical reasoning, this system requires us to employ assumptions and estimation about things which are ultimate unknowable to us as individuals. However, I feel that such valid criticisms only mean that we must remain open-minded and ready to change our moral calculus when new information is presented. However, I believe the main idea is solid. What do you think?

Hello and Welcome!

Hi there! Welcome to Living Within Reason! This is a blog about living the most reasonable lives that we can. The primary writers will be me and my wife, Gina. We both formerly wrote for, and are now launching our own blog.

Gina and I live in Collingswood, New Jersey with my fiancee Jessie (who may pop in now and then with a guest post). We practice polyamory, which is the practice of having multiple romantic/sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved. A lot of my writing deals with polyamory and its practice. I’m a lawyer and a skeptic, so I have a lot of opinions. Gina tends to write more personal entries, so you can look forward to getting to know her on a more personal level. Our former blog, Polyskeptic, dealt with the intersection of atheism and polyamory, and a lot of our writing here is likely to reflect those themes.

Come back soon for more substantive entries! I’m looking forward to some great conversation.