Am I Right?

How to live ethically

The Roots of Today's Unhappiness

Putting the individual above social ties is at the root of unhappiness

What everyone wants from life is continuous and genuine happiness," said 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. I believe this is true. While it is possible to imagine people who wish to be unhappy, you would rightly think there was something wrong with them. They can't be rational; they must have a mistaken idea about what life is about, or they may be suffering from a psychological disorder. It is irrational to desire unhappiness.

Long before Spinoza, ever since the tradition of Classical Greek philosophy declared that human flourishing (happiness) is the goal of life, people have been trying to figure out what happiness is and the best ways to achieve it. But if the ancient philosophers were to look at the world today, they might well conclude that we aren't the rational creatures they had in mind, for what we now designate as happiness is an idea that they rejected.

The modern concept of happiness rests upon the philosophical and psychological theories of the supremacy of the individual. I believe that the self-centeredness and individualism that follow from these theories undermine the possibility of achieving happiness at all.

The modern world is irrational because most people act contrary to their human needs and stated wishes. I believe that in order to be really happy it is necessary to retrieve the older notions of what it means to be human and incorporate them into modern life-acknowledging the necessary connections between people and their mutual dependencies. When we stand not alone but with people, when we give and take from each other in grateful reciprocity, we can begin to know what enduring happiness is.

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This isn't an outright rejection of contemporary life. There is much about today's world that is desirable and a great deal about the older world that was unjust. For most people the past was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish and short."

What I am proposing is in some ways traditionalist, for it builds upon the idea that first and foremost humans are social creatures, not independent units. The modern philosophy that places the individual above social ties is at the root of much contemporary unhappiness.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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