“It is not their passions I shall appeal to. I ask only for their cool and impartial reason.”– William Wilberforce, Abolition Speech, House of Commons, 1789.
What are our primary goals in life? What is it that we long for and search after the most earnestly? When a conflict of desires occurs, what is it that trumps all others? These are the questions that affect our society to its very core. Society’s opinion on these questions non-negotiably affects every facet of our personal life, as well as how society’s structures are set up for the accommodation of whatever the answer to that question is. What we value is of vital importance. In recent history the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom is one of the most powerful examples of the answering and the application of this question. The United Kingdom changed their whole economic system on the belief that “all humans either black or white were created equally in the image of God.” This primary belief of the abolitionists is the very reason that they were willing to forsake all other interests, such as not setting their economy back 30 years. When faced with the truth and conflicting desires they valued the truth over all. Looking back we can all see the goodness in the truth. Everyone of us has a value that trumps every other value. If that value that trumps all others is not actuaIly the most valuable then we will constantly be neglecting things of primary importance. The searching of truth must be the highest value of all.
The “value ladder” as it is used in this essay refers to the objective value of different things. The purpose of this essay is to analyze a particular value ladder of our age and to propose a value ladder that is more in line with reality and thus better for all of us who happen to be heavily affected by reality, that is “the truth”.
An increasingly common sentiment in mainstream media and social life in general is this idea of personal happiness over all other values. We frequently hear, “Whatever makes someone feel better and does not harm anybody else I don’t think should matter to anybody,” or, “If that’s what makes them happy then it is fine with me.” Both of these sound somewhat nice and frankly quite liberating. Why shouldn’t happiness be our main goal—or, even if you think it shouldn’t be our main goal, why do you care that it is someone else’s?
“Contentment is a dangerous thing.” This phrase seems to hold less prominence in our age. What it means is that when a human being gets a taste of life that they enjoy more than their previous life, they become fearful of engaging in anything that would challenge their newfound, comparatively seemingly better life. However illogical this behavior may be, we all suffer from it one way or another.“Contentment is a wonderful thing,” is probably the phrase that is more compatible with today’s world. Undoubtedly one of the main reasons people are willing to give reason the backseat to contentment is that a lot of people think that the conclusion they will come to with reason is unpleasant and not really worth living. Thus, they embrace whichever lifestyle they want and refrain from any form of critical thinking that would challenge it. Now if it is true that the reality and the truths of this world are so abysmal that living in accord with them is just simply not worth it, that would be one thing (I will comment on this later), but if the opposite is true then we are shortsighted, and we find ourselves in a very dangerous and tricky situation. It is this shift from the content being afraid to engage with the thinker, to the thinker being afraid to engage with the content that is so dangerous.
Critical thinking is in its very core opposed to placid contentment as well as to contentment as our ultimate goal. Critical thinking requires that freedom of thought and expression be granted to all, which in turn requires an ability to endure offense. I say “free thinking” because the taboo of questioning the present norms of contentment is very frequently hushed or canceled. Many people do not even pause to really think or engage in conversation about why they believe many of the things they agree to in daily life. They simply brush it off with a cliche like “Everyone has the right to believe what they want,” while completely ignoring the fact that if any belief is worth anything at all then it deserves to be engaged with and shared, for it would be selfish not to do so, and if it is worthless then what was all the fuss about offending it in the first place?
In practice we do not believe in the same free speech that those before us believed in. Freedom of speech at its beginning was intended so that with the exchange of diverse ideas in an inclusive setting we would be able to refine our views and get closer to the actual “λογοs”(truth, reason). Now free speech, in the areas in which it is tolerated, is done so that people can proclaim whatever they want, but striving after truth is no longer the primary goal. In our daily lives we give values to ideas primarily based on how they make us feel, not whether or not they are true. As a consequence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to freely strive after truth.
Our present-day society is under the illusion of change; it defends this with the statement that freedom is at an all-time high. I would argue that in many ways we do not realize how much work we still have to do and that even, in some ways, we may be worse off than when we started. It seems to me that when Charles Dickens said “Good never comes of such evil, a happier end was not in nature to so unhappy a beginning,” he was right. The rebels of the French Revolution, though fighting against ruthless oppression, became just as ruthless if not more so. We may have changed what we got ruthlessly unforgiving and angry about, but at its heart the same sentiment remains. Charles Dickens caught the never-ending cycle of history that those within history seem to always fail to realize. In the Middle Ages people would be silenced for questioning or calling out the Catholic church; now people are silenced for questioning or calling out mainstream media.
Now, what must be said to someone who thinks that reality is so abysmal that any notion of happiness that is grounded in reality is simply depressing and pointless? Even if reality is bad, is it possible to be happier disconnected from reality? Initially I am tempted to say that this is possible as long as the figment of our imagination is better than reality. But I believe this answer is way too simple and seriously misses some points, and in doing so produces a problem that is impossible to escape. First off, what does it miss?
One of the main causes of depression is a sudden event in life that demands we have a right perception of reality, combined with our thinking being disconnected from reality. This can happen, for instance, when a social media influencer expects perfection in themselves and then suffers an accident that mars them in some way. They are thus left with a false idea that has defined their life and a reality that they can’t reconcile. It is this state of despair and confusion that has been one of the leading reasons for the 56% increase in suicide among adolescents in America. According to Jennifer Weniger, PhD, a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center, the feeling of not belonging in society (or having an idea that does not belong in reality) is one of the primary factors that leads to suicide. Thus, if we are living a life that is disconnected from reality at some point or another, reality slaps us in the face hard enough to put us in a serious existential crisis. And the less we care about truth, the less it takes to put us in that existential crisis.
Secondly, the problem is that anyone who claims that having happiness not grounded in truth as your primary goal can make you happier than truth as your primary goal must claim that it is possible for a human to live their whole life unaware of reality as well as unable to sense reality. This is obscenely preposterous, not to mention far from anything anyone should desire lest they live a completely self-centered life completely devoid of meaning and usefulness.
Happiness is a very narrow goal; it falls short of our basic needs. What are you going to do when you are suffering or dealing with a challenging situation, events which make up a great deal of our lives? Rather, it is far healthier for a society to search after an accurate sense of reality and truth. Such a pursuit feeds our most burning desires and can be undertaken throughout our lives no matter the circumstances in which we inevitably find ourselves. In other words, happiness should be the result of seeking after truth rather than the thing we are primarily seeking.