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A painting of trees and rolling hills by Egon Schiele

Don't Chase Happiness (a Tip From Immanuel Kant)


Within his ethics, the German philosopher touched on the persisting theme of the search for happiness, which has little to do with the average advice in the 21st century.

There is no metaphysical authority that tells us how to be happy. In fact, until relatively recently, happiness was accepted as something that comes and goes throughout life, and not as a possible perpetual state under the microscope of academics, scientists and self-help books, and neither as something that can be conjured up with a formula and achieved by design.

But it is always enjoyable to read about happiness, to consider what neuroscience or spiritual leaders, writers or philosophers have to say about it. We need to clear the modern desk however and make space for the old, rediscover those philosophical tracts that have little to do with the average 21st century advice and which have survived, due to their strength, the passage of time.

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the great 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a notable epistemological irony regarding happiness, which played a role in his ethics. In a non-technical way (unlike the general context today), the philosopher defies happiness as obtaining what one wants. Not as pleasure, but simply as a state in which everything is in accordance with our will and desire. However, according to Kant, happiness has an inherent problem; that it is a concept that is too indeterminate: while “every human being wishes to attain it, he can never say, determinately and in a way that is harmonious with himself, what he really wishes and wills.”

That of course completes the enigma that human beings “are not capable of determining with complete certainty, in accordance with any principle, what will make him truly happy, because omniscience would be required for that.”

As finite beings, we cannot know what actions will result in happiness because we do not know the future, because we don’t know us in the future. Kant offers some simple examples, such as the case of someone who thinks he will be happy if he is rich, and when he becomes rich he realizes there is anxiety, envy and intrigue in wealth. Straight to the point, Kant says: “The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote the happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble.” This is the case because “happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination”.

His advice, translated into the vernacular, is not to pursue happiness. Our inability to choose the actions that will make us happy lead Kant to deduce the following: “The more a cultivated reason purposely occupies himself with the enjoyment of life and with happiness, so much the further does one get away from true satisfaction.”

It is a terrible irony, but there are so many things that confirm his theory.

One version of his moral imperative is the formula: “humanity as a means to an end.” According to Kant, we should always act in such a way that we can recognize our humanity and that of those around us. If we are merely seeking happiness we will begin to treat others as mere tools for our benefit. Kant writes that the principle of happiness tells virtue “to her face that it is not her beauty but only our advantage that attaches us to her.” And that, he thinks, is clearly wrong.

The implications of his morality go from the everyday (treat the people that we meet from day to day well) to a global policy: human rights. For Kant, we should all cultivate good will with the rest of the world, and that is not a measure of happiness but real well-being. If we advance toward our own happiness it will not be easy to get there. And there is where we should really be.

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