Today, while I was sitting in our other class, I was watching the people across the table from me. And I suddenly realized, “We are all animals!”
And then I had this hallucinatory vision of a bunch of dogs sitting around a table, with books open in front of them, and barking at each other. I don’t really remember what else happened in class.
The fact that we are animals means that our desires and purposes are, in some way, similar to those of the other animals around us. Not quite the same, obviously, but certainly bearing more in common with them than we might think.
Of course it’s not particularly insightful to think of human beings as animals, but it was interesting to think about dogs. Normally, when we think of animals, we think of lives that are wild, violent, and filled with constant struggle. There are two schools of thought about this. One says, “Oh, we are happier than the wild animal because we’ve built a more comfortable life and we’ve found more elevated things to occupy our times.” The other (the Ted Kaczynski school) says, “We are less happy than the wild animal, because, biologically, we are coded to derive satisfaction from the struggle to survive and, now that our lives are so comfortable, we struggle to find any kind of meaning in all the false activity that we surround ourselves with.”
But when we think about the dog, both of these standpoints fall apart.
Dogs have lives that are very easy. There is no struggle to survive.
Dogs also have no meaningful activities to fill their lives. They have no autonomy. They must do what their masters want them to do. And they spend much of their lives inside fairly small habitats that must, over time, lose any ability to excite them.
And yet dogs appear to be fairly happy.
I could be wrong about that, of course, but when a dog is sad, you sort of know. And that’s very different from how they normally act.
What does this mean? From what does the dog derive its happiness? It certainly does nothing to earn it.
In any case, I’m not terribly interested in forming generalized theories of happiness, because it’s long been my opinion that, fundamentally, happiness is no longer a matter of philosophy: it has become a scientific problem. Scientists and doctors need to figure out: a) what it is; b) how to measure it; and c) how to increase it.
It will probably take a very long time to solve that problem. In the mean time, the rest of us will have to muddle through. The thing to do is to figure out what works for each of us. The existentialist would say that you choose where to find meaning. But I don’t think that this is primarily an intellectual activity. The solution isn’t to ratiocinate on it: the solution is to feel our own interiors and to try to understand the particular way in which our animal instinct has gotten its wires crossed with our intellectual life, so we can, in some murky way, figure out which human activities fulfill our base drives.