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Pepperdine University School of Law

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life's Secret: Love People, Not Pleasure

New York Times op-ed:  Love People, Not Pleasure, by Arthur C. Brooks (President, American Enterprise Institute):

For decades, psychologists have been compiling a vast literature on the relationships between different aspirations and well-being. Whether they examine young adults or people of all ages, the bulk of the studies point toward the same important conclusion: People who rate materialistic goals like wealth as top personal priorities are significantly likelier to be more anxious, more depressed and more frequent drug users, and even to have more physical ailments than those who set their sights on more intrinsic values.

No one sums up the moral snares of materialism more famously than St. Paul in his First Letter to Timothy: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Or as the Dalai Lama pithily suggests, it is better to want what you have than to have what you want. ...

[W]e are unambiguously driven to accumulate material goods, to seek fame, to look for pleasure. How can it be that these very things can give us unhappiness instead of happiness? There are two explanations, one biological and the other philosophical.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.

But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. ... This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly:

Love things, use people.

... It is the worldly snake oil peddled by the culture makers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. But you know in your heart that it is morally disordered and a likely road to misery. You want to be free of the sticky cravings of unhappiness and find a formula for happiness instead. How? Simply invert the deadly formula and render it virtuous:

Love people, use things.

Easier said than done, I realize. It requires the courage to repudiate pride and the strength to love others — family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies. Only deny love to things that actually are objects. The practice that achieves this is charity. Few things are as liberating as giving away to others that which we hold dear.

This also requires a condemnation of materialism. This is manifestly not an argument for any specific economic system. Anyone who has spent time in a socialist country must concede that materialism and selfishness are as bad under collectivism, or worse, as when markets are free. No political ideology is immune to materialism.

Finally, it requires a deep skepticism of our own basic desires. Of course you are driven to seek admiration, splendor and physical license. But giving in to these impulses will bring unhappiness. You have a responsibility to yourself to stay in the battle. The day you declare a truce is the day you become unhappier. Declaring war on these destructive impulses is not about asceticism or Puritanism. It is about being a prudent person who seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering.

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2014/07/lifes-secret-.html

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Comments

Excellent post, Paul. It seems that this counter-cultural message is actually the only culturally sustainable message. Civilizations are doomed when the pursuit of pleasure and the exploitation of people for pleasure becomes normative. Thanks.

Posted by: Rich Little | Jul 22, 2014 12:04:37 PM

Arthur Brooks is a gem. I wish more folks read his studies and learned from his insights.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Jul 22, 2014 12:58:26 PM

Wise advice. This is an important ethical precept in Christian teaching, even if we sometimes honor it in the breach.

Posted by: TS | Jul 22, 2014 8:28:30 PM

Right on!

Posted by: Mark P. Yablon | Jul 23, 2014 10:04:56 AM