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Relevance and the fulfilled life

March 22, 2009

I was reading Ockham’s Beard the other day…that site is like what I would like philosophy to be if I were a philosopher…and anyway, I was reading his review of Clive Hamilton’s Freedom Paradox. Therein begins with bold questions:

Why, after two centuries of unprecedented expansion of wealth and liberty in the Western world, are so many of us left feeling unfulfilled?

And you know, I think that we cannot ignore that somehow, just setting things free does not, in and of itself, make everyone happy. And the article goes into why that might be:

Hamilton puts this down to a misinterpretation of what it means to be free; not all freedoms are created equal, and we’ve been worshiping at the wrong idol all this time. Hamilton draws on American psychologist, Martin Seligman’s, three-fold conception of wellbeing to frame this discussion. These are:

  • The pleasant life – characterised by material and sensual pleasures
  • The good life – characterised by maximising one’s capabilities through endeavour and achievement
  • The meaningful life – characterised by a sense of connectedness to a greater whole

Hamilton posits that the original conception of individual freedom was intended to allow each person to pursue their own ends, thus giving them the opportunity to find their own happiness – ultimately reaching the meaningful life. However, while greater wealth and freedom have certainly allowed us to experience the pleasant life more than ever, it has come at the cost of the good life and the meaningful life. As a result, we’re told we’re free, but we’re living a hollow existence filled with temporary pleasures without satisfying deeper needs.

This is because of a classic pincer movement that has warped liberty. On one hand has been the erosion of an external moral or social compass – such as the church might have been a century ago. This has left it up to each individual to determine their own values and pursue them at their leisure.

The second has been the startling success of consumer culture in appealing to our more base pleasures. So, in lieu of any institution warning us from over indulgence or encouraging us to look beyond transient pleasures, advertising and marketing has stepped in to fill the void. Yet the values that are represented by consumer culture are typically not those that lead to the good or meaningful life.

And I somewhat agree. I’m not going to say I’m a nihilist because I would sound like some edgy teenager who read a few quotes by Nietzsche and completely misunderstood the concept, but I will say that I think modern society has done a splendid job of destroying the “absolute.” We don’t take the church for granted anymore(for better or for worse), and as a result, even some believers may not take things seriously. So, ‘God’ or any similar universal force for massive change is dead (or dying)

And rather than creating new values on new tablets, we’ve tried to content ourself with materialism. And now we’re chasing for the wrong thing — the pleasant life rather than the good or meaningful life.

I don’t know how we create something that is a globally-reaching institution to redefine things, but I don’t necessarily agree with people like Michael Otterson who is sure that this will be religion’s continued role. He alludes to that constant Book of Mormon “pride cycle”: of righteousness followed by pride followed by iniquity followed by calamity…calamity which causes people to either realize that God was who they should’ve focused on the entire time (or perish), and then posits:

…The one unfailingly consistent thing about men and women is their inconsistency in their devotion to God.

Ultimately, however, materialism and self-indulgence prove unfulfilling to the human soul. “The soul has wants that must be satisfied,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America in the 19th century. “And whatever pains be taken to divert it from itself, it soon grows weary, restless and disquieted amid the enjoyments of sense. If ever the faculties of the great majority of mankind were exclusively bent upon the pursuit of material objects, it might be anticipated that an amazing reaction would take place in the souls of some men.”

So, Otterson too recognizes the diversion that the pleasant life serves as. Yet, when he says:

To be relevant means to make a difference in people’s lives – to help change behavior from bad to good and from good to better. Hence, the churches in America today that are growing and prospering are those that ask the most of their members. Family prayer, family churchgoing, family scripture study and teaching of values to children all provide grounding for an individual’s life-long religious commitment.

I have to disagree. While the LDS church (which I’m sure he’s alluding too) has done well to hold in size, it’s not “growing and prospering.” And while it’s doing better than churches that are known to ask little of its members, the numbers don’t really suggest what Otterson wants.

I think Otterson is correct to note that religion still has appeal for many, and it will continue to do so. Belief in God will remain popular.

But what will it mean? Will it really be a massive change agent…causing people to go “from bad to good and from good to better”? For some, I think it will. But when you have to account that Mormons, for example, are only 1.4% of the population, and the most faithful (who would demonstrate that change) are less than that, perhaps the claim that God is a universal change agent is exaggerated. Many people believe in God, yes, but I see too many that do so on their terms. Terms that don’t require too much bending of their will. Terms that turn even a decision of what church to worship at into a fashion statement. The “pleasant life” is too pervasive.

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