Without Guilt & Justice – Are Autonomy & Happiness Compatible?

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HUMANITY craves but dreads autonomy. My reflections on decidophobia, alienation, and the new integrity suggest that those who choose autonomy, refusing the comforts of conformity, must pay a heavy price. In some ways, autonomy is an austere ideal. Could it be that one cannot hope to be happy if he elects autonomy – and that one is bound to feel unhappy without it? Anyone trying to develop an autonomous ethic must face up to this question. The answer obviously depends on what is meant by happiness.

Many dictionaries distinguish three meanings of “happiness,” which the most comprehensive dictionary of our language, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines as follows:

1. Good fortune, luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity.
2. The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good.
3. Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness; felicity.

The third definition is clearly marginal and irrelevant here. It refers to such extended and almost metaphorical uses of the word as “happiness of language” or “happiness of expression.” That leaves two concepts of happiness, but the dictionary definitions tell us more about the civilization that produced them than about happiness or the legitimate uses of that word.

It is not only in the Oxford English Dictionary that pride of place is given to prosperity. Yet one can be prosperous and unhappy, or a model of happiness although far from prosperity. Even if we ignore the primary, economic meaning of prosperity and think of it as “the condition of being successful or thriving,” this is still a far cry from happiness. Many people are successful and thriving without having found happiness, while others have found happiness although they are neither thriving nor successful. Precisely the same considerations apply to “good fortune” and “luck in life or in a particular affair.” This emphasis on prosperity and success reflects the outlook of one culture, and valuations against which millions are in revolt.

The second definition is based on the same error. When we ascribe happiness to a person we are far from committing ourselves to the view that his state of mind results from success or attainment. The cause is left open. It could be alcohol or a drug. Nor is there anything at all unusual about speaking of the happiness of a child at play; yet none of the Oxford English Dictionary’s three definitions covers this important usage. Or imagine someone skiing down a dangerous slope at breakneck speed, or perhaps climbing a difficult peak.

There are two different concepts of happiness, but the Oxford English Dictionary has got both of them wrong by mistaking special cases for the whole. In the first sense, (1a) happiness is a state, not necessarily conscious, that is desired. This definition makes the best sense of “the pursuit of happiness.” Quite possibly, some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence meant to assert the right to pursue prosperity and success, but it is more interesting and fruitful to reflect on the pursuit of that state which one desires, and to remember that this need not be prosperity or pleasure.

It may be objected that desire has no place in the definition of happiness because what is desired may not actually bring contentment when it is attained. This happens so frequently that it may be said to be typical, but it does not invalidate my definition. Consider the phrase “not necessarily conscious”: if the desired state should not be conscious, it cannot be accompanied by contentment or a sense of happiness. If we defined happiness as a state desired in the having of it, it would follow that Nirvana – the cessation of desire – could not be happiness. But the states I wish to discuss include Nirvana, and it makes good sense to say that millions desire the cessation of desire and that this is what happiness means to them. No doubt, one could define happiness in this first sense somewhat differently, but I hope that my definition will turn out to be interesting and fruitful. Let us call it formal, for short, because no particular content is specified, or inclusive, because it allows for so many different conceptions of happiness.

In the second sense, (2a) happiness is a state of mind that is marked by pleasure and the absence of all pain and discomfort. This conception is material and might also be called the narrow sense of happiness. It might be objected that this definition goes too far in excluding all pain and discomfort. Might it not suffice if the balance of pleasure over pain and discomfort was very great? It is tempting to retort: How great? But it is clear in any case that happiness permits degrees, and it seems reasonable to define happiness in terms of the extreme that can be approximated more or less. Again, I cheerfully concede that slightly different definitions are possible, but I hope that mine will be seen to be interesting and fruitful.

A great deal of confusion is due to the fact that so many people, including some writers on this subject, fail to distinguish clearly between the formal and material senses and then come to assume that happiness must consist in a state of mind that is marked by pleasure and the absence of all pain and discomfort, and that this is the only state that man can possibly desire. This is clearly wrong and shows an appalling lack of imagination as well as an astounding failure to consult literature, psychology, and history. The happiness of mountain climbers and explorers, Alexander, Caesar, crusaders, empire builders, captains of industry, and politicians who desire to be President of the United States is clearly not a state devoid of all discomfort. Nor is the happiness of lovers or of parenthood.

With this basic distinction in mind, let us see whether autonomy and happiness are compatible, and begin with the narrow, material conception of happiness.

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If the question is whether brief spans of happiness in the narrow sense are compatible with autonomy, the answer is obviously yes. No matter how high a person’s standards may be, there is no reason to doubt that he can relax occasionally, if only briefly, without feeling any pain or discomfort. He may see scenery of such extraordinary beauty that he temporarily feels nothing but intense delight. Love, although over a period of time anything but a good prescription for those who are in search of freedom from all suffering, also offers short spans of such happiness. And there are many less intense examples – an early morning walk, seeing a flower or a fine tree, a drink of cold water, or biting into a crisp apple.

The question of whether always being happy in this way is compatible with autonomy is no harder to answer. Not only have I shown in the last two chapters that the answer is no, but it should be obvious that always being happy in this way is not compatible with being human. A frontal lobotomy might bring one closer to this goal by relieving stress and sensitivity along with intelligence, but in order never to feel any pain or discomfort one would have to be drugged permanently and dehumanized completely.

Moreover, there would presumably be no pleasure left in such a state of nonmind. Pleasure depends upon some contrast. The sudden ebbing away of intense pain after a shot of morphine or Demerol is experienced as extreme bliss. If the pain that preceded the injection lasted very long and was very severe, the relief may be enjoyed immensely for some time, but it lasts no longer than the live perception of the contrast. Pleasure resembles the experience of warm and cold; even as the same temperature may be experienced as warm or cold, depending on the temperature experienced directly before, the same sensations may be experienced as pleasant or unpleasant, depending on what went before. Hence a state of mind that is marked by pleasure and the absence of all pain and discomfort cannot last.

Consider what is probably our first experience of pleasure: being fed. The pleasure depends on the discomfort, if not pain, that preceded it. When the infant is hungry, the nipple spells pleasure. When the infant is sated, it pushes the nipple away angrily. This primary experience of pleasure is paradigmatic: what is pleasant by way of contrast becomes boring and unpleasant when there is no contrast. Every theory of pleasure should take into account the phenomenon of boredom.

The third interpretation of the question as to whether autonomy and happiness are compatible is more reasonable than the first two and makes the problem a little more difficult to solve. Is a life dedicated to the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain and discomfort compatible with autonomy? (We now no longer depend on the very stringent definition of happiness as excluding all pain and discomfort.) The question could also be put this way: Are liberty and the pursuit of happiness (in this sense) compatible?

Most Americans and probably also most Europeans take it for granted that they are, and not a few fail to distinguish between our two concepts of happiness. But the pursuit of happiness in the narrow sense is incompatible with freedom and autonomy.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor faced this question squarely. He argued that the freedom to make fateful decisions breeds anxiety and makes for a great deal of worry and discomfort; he valued happiness above autonomy; and he therefore argued in favor of what I call benevolent totalitarianism.

Those who associate totalitarianism primarily with Stalin’s and Hitler’s malevolent totalitarianism may consider this coinage a contradiction in terms. But it makes far better sense to use the term neutrally for governments that insist on their right to regulate the people’s lives totally, and this is what the Inquisitor’s argument is all about. My coinage also cuts through many confused arguments about Plato. Some authors see him as a totalitarian, while others insist that he was a decent man and therefore could not have been a totalitarian. Men in the latter camp have even argued that since Plato was a decent man he must really have been a democrat. But he was the first great proponent of benevolent totalitarianism and believed that the only way to make the greatest possible number, if not actually everybody, as content and virtuous as they were capable of being was to regulate men’s lives totally.

Plato believed that men were radically unequal, that there were three very different types, and that all three could attain contentment and virtue in his ideal state. The Grand Inquisitor, on the other hand, insists that all men are basically equal, although some are more gifted than others, and he suggests that the few who are more gifted should sacrifice their happiness for the happiness of the greatest possible number. All men are so constituted, he argues, that freedom brings them unhappiness, but some have to make decisions and renounce happiness for the good of their fellow men.

Plato does not face the problem of the happiness or unhappiness of the decision-makers as squarely and explicitly as the Grand Inquisitor does. In the Republic the philosopher-guardians are not really decision-makers in the Grand Inquisitor’s sense. They themselves are deceived in the annual sex lottery, thinking that the selection of partners is random and left to chance when in fact it is fixed and carefully planned to bring about the best breeding results. Those who do the fixing are never discussed, but it is clear that they do not live with frightening decisions. At this point Plato’s moral rationalism is crucial. Those at the top do not really have to make decisions; it is all a matter of seeing what is right, and the decisions about breeding follow from mathematical – really, astrological – calculations.

While rejecting Plato’s moral rationalism, one might tell the Grand Inquisitor’s elite: There is really no need for you to sacrifice your happiness; we have learned in the twentieth century how decision-making can be assigned to committees in such a way that no individual has much responsibility. Not only can matters be so arranged that nobody has much freedom to make momentous decisions, but in politics and business: in bureaucracies and schools we have come very close to attaining such a state, and where it has not been reached as yet we are coming closer to it by the day.

Ironically, the “radical” demand for “participation” accelerates this movement. When heeded, it results either in a proliferation of ever-larger committees or in decision-making by huge crowds who have been harangued by several orators. Neither way is any individual called upon to make momentous decisions. His options are reduced to voting with the majority or the minority, or more rarely to voting for one of as many as perhaps half a dozen proposals. He is safe from any frightening responsibility for what is done. Dread has been reduced drastically if it has not been removed altogether. Hardly anyone is weighed down by a heavy sense of responsibility. Indeed, the larger the crowd is, the more one is usually struck by the exuberant sense of irresponsibility.

The canon is sacrificed to a sense of community. Anxiety, alienation, and the new integrity vanish. Pain ebbs away, and euphoria sets in.

At this point it may seem that the Grand Inquisitor, even though right that autonomy and happiness in the narrow sense are incompatible, was wrong in supposing that the most gifted must sacrifice their own happiness to ensure the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number. Fateful decisions could be made without pain and discomfort. But to prove the Inquisitor wrong, we should have to assume that decisions made this way over a period of time would result in the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number. This assumption, however, is clearly false. (See page 192).

Decisions can be made painlessly, without discomfort, worry, or exertion. But who would want to entrust his sick child to a doctor who was known for making decisions in that fashion? Or who would take his best friend who had come down with a strange disease that defied easy diagnosis to a gathering of thousands of whom the great majority had no knowledge of medicine, and let them vote on the diagnosis and the best procedure without even going to the trouble of examining the patient and performing various tests? These two examples concern the welfare of a single person, and yet we should not dream of settling for such methods. Oddly, when the issues at stake affect the welfare and quite literally the lives, the liberties, and the pursuit of happiness of very large numbers of people, millions find no fault with such procedures.

The comparison with the physician goes back all the way to Plato, but as put here it does not entail authoritarianism or benevolent totalitarianism. I do not share Plato’s moral rationalism; I do not believe that a few men and women have the gift of seeing what is right, and it is the whole thrust of my analysis to show how difficult it is to make fateful decisions in a responsible manner.

Those who wish to escape as far as possible from pain and discomfort will try to avoid alienation and seek membership in a community that makes it unnecessary to face fateful and terrifying decisions all alone; they will opt for some of the strategies of decidophobia rather than the new integrity. Thus the pursuit of happiness in the narrow sense is incompatible with autonomy.

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This is not all that needs to be said against the pursuit of happiness in the narrow sense. Consider Nietzsche’s “last men” in the Prologue to Zarathustra: “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men. . . One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth . . . . No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse” – or at least to a psychiatrist.

Nietzsche does not stand alone in his contempt for such contentment. Millions, including some who admire Nietzsche, some who have never heard of him, and some who lived long before Zarathustra was written, share this contempt. In this they are at one with men as different as Socrates and Caesar, Beethoven and Goethe, and most of the famous generals, statesmen, philosophers, artists, poets, novelists, explorers, and discoverers whose lives continue to fascinate more ordinary men. This fascination suggests that the differences among people are less radical than some writers suppose.

Insofar as there are two kinds of people, there are those who have given up, who have thrown in the sponge ‘and now live vicariously, by proxy, the lives they really desired to live in the first place; and there are those who have not abandoned hope. But it would be false to suppose that the first type lived in despair, the second in hope. There may actually be more hope in the first camp, particularly if we include hope deferred – hope for some radical change after death, for example. Despair is to be found in both camps; among ordinary people it is chronic but covered by a thin crust of contentment; among the others it flares up occasionally with immense power, alternating with eruptions of no less intense joy. By contrasting drab existences, devoid of passion, with the lives of those who live dangerously, one can gain the false impression that there are two types of people and almost two breeds. But in fact there is a continuum, and millions live far from both extremes.

The contentment of the conformists is mixed liberally with frustration and resentment and the sense that one has failed to get what one desired most. Having settled for second best – or more nearly tenth best – one can admire from a distance some of those who have lived freer lives, while one detests nonconformists near at hand. Socrates was a great man – as long as more than twenty centuries lie between him and us. At that safe distance one can even speak well of the prophets.

The resentment people feel against nonconformists gives expression to a deep frustration, a profound resentment of one’s own existence, and a cancerous discontent. Basically, the attitude is that of the woman who said to King Solomon, “Cut the child in half.” If I can’t have a live child, why should she? If I had to settle for conformity, why shouldn’t they?

It does not follow that the nonconformist has a free and open nature and is generous. On the contrary, most nonconformists bristle with resentment, and more often than not today’s nonconformist is tomorrow’s conformist and comes to feel that if he did not make it there is no good reason why somebody else should. For that matter, the great majority of so-called nonconformists are in fact conformists who have merely cast their lot with a smaller group.

Even the joys of a truly free life that is not mired in conformity are usually mixed with a great deal of frustration and frequent self-doubt – and occasionally with resentment of conformists who seem so damnably content.

The dualists who would divide humanity into two camps are wrong. As usual, we are confronted with a continuum. For certain purposes it may be useful to contrast two types, but we should keep in mind that there are many types, and that people have a great deal in common.

Cloudless contentment is not open to man, and if he trades his freedom and integrity for it, the time will come when he feels cheated. This does not mean that he will openly regret the bargain. Most people have failed to cultivate their critical perception of their own present position and of the alternatives they might have chosen; precisely this is the trade they made; this is what they gave up for comfort and contentment. Now they feel cheated without knowing how and when and why. What they feel is a diffuse and free-floating resentment in search of an object.

Having given up autonomy for happiness, they have missed out on both. This strategy does not work. Merely renouncing freedom does not spell the end of all frustration and all discontent; to achieve that aim one must also deprive people of much of their human potential. Hence the strategy considered here is often supplemented with alcohol, tranquilizers, or other drugs; but what people find is merely relief, not lasting happiness.

It will be noted that my critique did not depend on the stringent definition of happiness in the narrow sense as excluding all discomfort and pain: I have also dealt with the concern to minimize pain and discomfort. But as we now turn to consider happiness in the formal or inclusive sense – as a state, not necessarily conscious, that is desired – we must recall once more the paradox that it is possible to say, “This is what happiness means to me,” and then not to be happy when we are in that state. Not only is this possible, but it is a very common experience.

It may therefore seem that a state that is desired and that is thought to be happiness need not really be happiness. If so, my definition (la) would be faulty. But what does it mean to say that it is not really happiness? If it merely means that on being attained it is no longer desired, I have already answered that objection by pointing out that if it were sustained, then the cessation of desire as well as unconscious states would be disqualified. But what I want is a wide enough definition of happiness to include Nirvana, which strikes me as one of the most interesting conceptions of happiness.

Next, it might be claimed that what is thought to be happiness is not really happiness if, once the state is attained, one still feels discomfort and pain. But anyone who would argue that way would have slipped back into the narrow definition of happiness – as if pain and discomfort could not be ingredients of happiness. My answer to the first objection shows why we should not make satisfaction a necessary condition of happiness, and my answer to the second objection shows why we must not make the absence of dissatisfaction a necessary condition of happiness.

What, then, is the meaning of these final reflections on happiness in the narrow sense? I have tried to show how those who renounce autonomy for happiness miss out on both. In what sense can they be said to miss out on happiness? Did they not obtain the state that they desired? If they did, then they attained happiness in the inclusive sense. But it was the whole point of those final reflections that they did not. The state they attained was not the state they desired but was riddled with pain and discomfort. Thus a life dedicated to the pursuit of happiness in the narrow, hedonistic sense is open not only to external criticism but also to internal criticism.

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What about happiness in the formal or inclusive sense? Is that compatible with autonomy? It all depends on how happiness is conceived. One could even say: The state I desire is autonomy; for me happiness consists of being that kind of a person, or perhaps, for me happiness is the pursuit of the new integrity. While this is right as far as it goes, it is worthwhile to consider, in conclusion, two or three other conceptions of happiness that are also compatible with autonomy and the new integrity.

The autonomous life is demanding and requires one to stand alone at crucial moments, but this does not mean that one’s life has to be miserable. Not only might one seek one’s happiness in a strenuous life, but autonomy is compatible with ways of life that large numbers of admirable people have desired in the past and still desire.

Realizing that the narrow, hedonistic conception of happiness is flawed, that those who pursue it do not find it, and that the states people desire are so often disappointing when they are attained, some of the greatest sages have preached Nirvana. Even before the Buddha, Nirvana was taught by Hindu and Jain teachers. Both the word and the idea come from India but have spread to Ceylon and the East from there, and since the time of Schopenhauer and romanticism they have gradually entered the consciousness of Europe and America, as well. What seemed a specifically Asian ideal at one time came to appeal to millions of Europeans after World War I and to a great many Americans since World War II. Even if one has no wish to catalogue and analyze large numbers of different conceptions of happiness, Nirvana needs to be considered.

The word is Sanskrit and means extinction. What is meant is extinction of consciousness, but some teachers have said that Nirvana is bliss unspeakable. Hence there are two schools of thought, one defining Nirvana in the first way, the other in the second, and it is widely believed that the two interpretations are mutually incompatible. This unempirical approach comes nowhere near understanding what Nirvana is all about. Both definitions are correct and quite compatible. To see this, one must reflect on concrete experiences and not merely on rival definitions.

Imagine yourself in terrible pain. After two days of excruciating torment, a physician gives you a shot of morphine. Gradually the pains diminish, consciousness ebbs away, and the approaching extinction of consciousness is felt to be bliss unspeakable.

Plato argued in The Republic that in such cases we encounter only an illusion of pleasure or bliss. He had heard of “men afflicted with severe pain saying that there is no greater pleasure than the cessation of this suffering,” but he argued that the quietude that is free from both positive delight and painful sensations may be experienced as pleasurable when it is preceded by great pain and as painful when it is preceded by great pleasure. This is a variant of a point I have made earlier in trying to show how the experience of pleasure depends on some contrast. But neither Plato’s point nor my own invalidates my argument about Nirvana. Obviously, the extinction of consciousness precludes any sensation of pleasure and it rules out the interpretation of “bliss unspeakable” in terms of the narrow, hedonistic conception of happiness, which we left behind some time ago. Our concern now is with the extinction of consciousness as a state that is desired or, in Hamlet’s words, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”

Plato might still object that in the midst of keen pleasure the extinction of consciousness will not be seen as “bliss unspeakable” or as “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.” But that is surely elementary, and apart from that point one simply cannot begin to understand Nirvana. One must first of all experience life as wretchedness and misery and suffering. As long as pain is seen as an untoward accident, and suffering as an inconvenient and infrequent interruption – and this is still the rule among Americans and Europeans – one is not ready for the teaching of Nirvana. Hence it was the Buddha’s first concern to teach what he called the first of the four Noble Truths: the universality of suffering. Old age, sickness, and death are not accidents but define the character of human life. It is pleasure that is an occasional interruption; what lasts is suffering. And the only’ enduring happiness is Nirvana – the unspeakable bliss of the’ extinction of consciousness.

The cause of suffering is, in the last analysis, desire or attachment. The death of others need not grieve us if we are not attached to them; the prospect of our own death need not grieve us if we are not attached to life; ingratitude need not grieve us if we do not desire gratitude; loss of possessions need not cause suffering to those who are not attached to possessions; and loss of one’s youth and health need not grieve those who are not attached to youth and health. Hence those who learn detachment and extinction of desire will experience the cessation of suffering. According to the Buddha, this noble goal was not to be reached in an instant through an act of grace; it could be reached only by following the noble eightfold path: right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Neither the life style of hedonism nor the rigors of strict asceticism would do; what was called for was this noble “middle” path: a careful regimen of self-control, a life oriented entirely toward the extinction of desire, diligent cultivation of detachment.

Still, this pursuit of happiness is not devoid of all emotion. Approaching bliss unspeakable by virtue of one’s own exertions is no mean feat. One has engaged in combat against all the terrors of the world and now, by dint of one’s indomitable self-discipline, one prevails. This sense of triumph has found classical expression in the ancient story of the Buddha’s temptation. When Mara, the tempter, sought to dissuade him from entering Nirvana and offered him rule over all the continents and their attending isles, the Buddha spurned the offer, saying that he was about to make the ten thousand worlds tremble as he attained enlightenment. What a petty thing is worldly power, even if it encompassed all the continents, compared to this triumph over ten thousand worlds!

This truly noble idea of happiness is compatible with the new integrity. It need not involve any self-deception; it is compatible with the canon, and it does not commit one to any of the strategies of decidophobia. This last point requires some elaboration. Does it not commit one to religion, to joining a movement, to belonging to a school of thought, and perhaps even to exegetical thinking? Clearly, the quest for Nirvana is no warrant of integrity.

Some join a religion or a movement for the sake of fellowship, to escape from intolerable isolation, and pay the price of not applying the canon to the basic tenets of the group. Some go into a Zen monastery and submit completely to the master’s authority, hoping to find enlightenment that way. Not only do they fail to question the master’s words, they cultivate mistrust of reason and make a virtue of uncritical obedience. Obviously, many who are looking for Nirvana have given up the quest for the new integrity. But the conception of happiness as Nirvana does not require one to do that.

The Buddha himself resisted nine of the ten strategies of decidophobia, but not moral rationalism. He taught that rational reflection showed clearly that his goal and his path to it were right. But the quest for Nirvana does not entail moral rationalism; this quest is compatible with autonomy.

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The great alternative to Nirvana is the creative life. Nirvana is negative freedom, freedom from; the creative life is positive freedom, freedom to.

The creative life involves alienation from others and from society. This alienation will sometimes be experienced as acutely painful, but when one is creative that price does not seem too steep. When one’s creative powers flag and one is dissatisfied with one’s own work, it may not seem worth it. At such times, when one is not creative, one may actually envy those who live a very different kind of life, endow them with a bliss they do not feel, and thus deceive oneself. But when one is creative, one would not change places with anyone – except possibly one who is more creative.

The creative life is obviously compatible with a lack of integrity. There is no striking correlation between creativity and a keen intellectual conscience. Creative men and women are not necessarily particularly partial to the canon. But any notion that creative artists and writers must be lacking in the new integrity is false. It is a romantic prejudice that a highly developed reason and a critical intelligence are not compatible with the creation of great art. Among the ancients Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides give the lie to this legend; among the modems it may suffice to recall Leonardo and Goethe.

Each of these men was endowed with extraordinary intellectual powers and put them to use in his creative work. Indeed, the three tragic poets of Athens contributed as much to the rise of Western philosophy as did the so-called pre-Socratics. More than anyone before him, Aeschylus reflected critically on moral problems, considering at length what spoke for and against opposing views, and Euripides took another large step in the direction of the canon.

Such great names may suggest that the creative life is open only to a few. If so, most people would have to settle for another kind of happiness. This Manichaean assumption that there are two kinds of people – a small creative elite and a vast uncreative majority – does incalculable harm. It leads millions either to settle for the kind of life in which eventually they feel frustrated, cheated, and resentful, or to long for Nirvana.

There are degrees of creativity. Being no Michelangelo or Mozart does not condemn one to be uncreative. I shall try to show that all people really desire to be creative, but that is an ambitious claim, and if I should not succeed in establishing that, this conception of happiness would still rate inclusion here. It has to be discussed to round out my account of decidophobia, liberation from guilt, and alienation.

Any claim that something is “really desired” raises serious problems, but I can define that phrase. A child that is naughty while his mother entertains guests can be said to “really desire” her attention even if, on being asked, the child rejects the mere suggestion with the utmost scorn and says: I hate my mother. What is meant is that he would not have been so naughty if he had had his mother’s attention; that the naughtiness was prompted by frustration; and that, while it may be too late now, the mother might be able to verify the suggestion when a similar occasion arises in the future.

The point about the creative life is precisely the same. Insofar as people do not lead creative lives, they feel frustrated, and one typical reaction is resentment that may issue in aggressive behavior (naughtiness). Once that point is reached, it may be too late to suggest that what is really wanted is a creative life; this claim may be met with scorn and hatred. But it has to be tested not against what people say once they feel frustrated but against people’s behavior when they do and when they do not lead creative lives.

The creative life is no panacea. Neither is a mother’s attention. The thesis that all people desire something does not imply that this is all they desire. A child that has his mother’s attention but no opportunity to engage in creative activities will feel frustrated and miserable. So will a creative child who lives with a mother who gives him no attention. And a child who is creative and has his mother’s attention may still be miserable in spite of that if he does not have enough to eat, or if he cannot keep warm in the winter, or if he has a sadistic father or a cruel older sister.

It is naïve to suppose that only one thing is needfuL Men desire and need many things, and creativity is merely one of these, but “the creative life” is a phrase that covers more than one thing. To live a creative life one needs a great many things, including food and some security and, depending on one’s talents, usually also some utensils. The question remains whether all people really desire such a life.

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The most important single piece of evidence is play. All over the world children play. And while it is difficult to define play (see Johan Huizinga’s splendid book Homo Ludens), it is of the essence of play that it is creative.

As children grow older, they play games that, more often than not, involve a ritual with rules, but within these rules there is room for originality. Chess is a fine example. But the most remarkable evidence for the creativity of all people comes much earlier in life and involves less structured play.

A little girl playing with dolls is a playwright, stage designer, and director, an actress who may playas many roles as she pleases, improvising to her heart’s content, and she can begin and end performances whenever she feels like it. She can invent new characters at any point – indeed, create them out of nothing, along with any props that strike her fancy. The promise of the serpent has come true for her: she is “as gods.”

The dolls are incidental. Children create a world ex nihilo and after a few minutes, when they have grown tired of it, they consign it back to nothingness. They people these worlds with real and imaginary persons, beasts, and props, mixing reality and fantasy according to their whims. That is how grandly we start out in life!

It has been said that memory yields to pride, and we forget the shameful things that we have done. It has also been suggested that children are often ashamed of their lowly origins and invent noble parents for themselves. But here we witness almost the opposite of both claims. It is so humiliating that we have fallen so low from such noble beginnings that pride makes us forget how we were once omnipotent creators. For centuries this whole period of life was almost totally forgotten. Nobody gave any thought to it, even if he wrote the story of his own life, which scarcely anybody ever did. But even now each one of us tends to forget how creative he was as a small child. It would be too embarrassing to realize how uncreative our lives have become since.

If memory supported my description, and that were all the evidence I had, my case would be weaker than it is in fact, for the reliability of memory might then be questioned. But the evidence is available here and now, every day. We only need to observe children.

What children create usually does not last. But that is immaterial. Creativity is not tied to monuments that defy centuries. Certainly, people do not need to be creative in such a grand manner. The creativity of which I speak is much closer to children’s play. Yet there is a continuum between the little girl with her dolls and Shakespeare.

Shakespeare took no care to see that his plays would last. He took some trouble over the printing of two long poems, but none over the printing of his plays. In his day, plays were not considered literature, and when his friend Ben Jonson, just a little later, published his own plays as “Works” this was considered odd. Yet Shakespeare put far more into his tragedies than even people with rare powers of understanding could get out of seeing a performance or two. Moreover, his plays were often too long to be staged uncut. He made his living writing plays, but more importantly he wrote to please himself.

Similar examples abound: paintings in tombs that were sealed when the job was done; sculptures in inaccessible high places. Performing artists who lived before the invention of phonographs, tape recorders, and motion pictures furnish an even more obvious example. They were creative, but even the most famous artists among them did not create anything that endured. The continuum between the child and Shakespeare is crucial for my thesis. Once again I am rejecting a bifurcation of mankind. But for all I have shown so far, the possibility remains that the need to be creative is a childish need that most people manage to outgrow without regrets. The time has come to focus on another form of alienation: how exactly do people lose their creativity?

The most popular answer is that there must be a villain who takes it away – say, “the corporate state” or “advanced industrial society.” If that were true, those living before this blight, and those who still live outside it, should retain their creativity. This being false on both counts, the answers clearly are false, too. The problem is universal.

Spontaneity and originality involve nonconformity and make for social problems. Societies socialize their children, teach them discipline, inhibit their spontaneity, and make them do things the way they are supposed to be done. In Western societies this is done quite systematically in school. Originality is curbed, and the way is substituted for a multitude of different ways.

If every child developed its own way of writing, ranging from pictographs and hieroglyphs to characters with a vaguely Chinese look and all sorts of diverse alphabets, writing would not serve its purpose of communication, and society would break down. Everybody who learns to write must learn the same script and must learn to read it, too, and the obvious way to accomplish that is to teach many children at the same time. But that means that the child who feels like drawing at that moment, or feels like painting, or like playing with dolls, digging in the dirt, running around, climbing a tree, or chasing butterflies is told to stop it and sit down with all the rest.

This is only the beginning. The more one learns, the more is one subjected to all kinds of discipline. But the essence of discipline is that spontaneity and originality are inhibited. A dialectical, non-Manichaean thinker will not jump to the conclusion that discipline is therefore bad, and that we should be better off without it. Communication and social life depend on it, and so does the development of traditions. Without communication, social life, and traditions, we should remain on the level of the brutes. We should remain incapable of those activities that the word “creative” brings to mind first of all. Composers and playwrights, painters and sculptors, poets and architects, as well as the dance depend on communication, social life, and traditions. It always requires training to master a discipline. One has to renounce originality at one level in order to get it back with interest at a higher level.

Romantic opponents of all alienation may not believe this, even if they ay lip service to dialectic. Some people still dream of noble savages living in paradise without paying any price for their bliss. But in preindustrial societies, even on lush tropical islands, one encounters a fantastic amount of discipline and scarcely any possibility of nonconformity. Creativity is channeled rigorously into ritual. Those who share Marx’s dream of rearing cattle in the evening before dinner are struck by the way in which lovely dances are woven into life and ignore the fact that these dances are meticulously prescribed by tradition and require years of training.

If every child learned in the end to be as original with a mere three actors or four instruments as Sophocles and Beethoven were, our problem would not arise. But most children are squelched, by no means only in advanced industrial societies. As they grow up, more and more of their time is spent doing what “one” does. And then they live by proxy in the evening – reading, watching, listening. What they watch depends on their society. It may be dances or rituals, cockfights or spectator sports, motion pictures or television.

Even then they do not cease to be “as gods” – at night. In their dreams they still create worlds out of nothing, people them with real and imaginary persons, resurrect the dead, and fashion plots that put to shame most novelists and playwrights. But as soon as they awake, pride makes them forget how recently they were omnipotent creators.

One does not paint the pictures of one’s dreams; one does not put on paper the stories one created in one’s sleep: one is convinced that one lacks the creative genius to do any such thing, and one quickly forgets one’s dreams. But if you keep a person from dreaming by always awakening him when he is about to dream – and this is possible and has been done – he has a breakdown. No doubt, this is so in part because dreaming is a way of coping with all sorts of difficult experiences. But my hypothesis takes this point into account without stopping there: all people need to be creative.

The other two conceptions of happiness considered here are not what people really desire most; they are substitutes, goals one settles for faute de mieux. What people really desire most is to live creative lives. This, in spite of all the pain and discomfort involved in such a life, is preferred to both of the other goals. It is only when people come to feel that a creative life is beyond their means, that they have not got what it takes, or that the cards are stacked against them or perhaps against all men that they give up and settle for the life of Nietzsche’s “last men” or for Nirvana.

I realize that I have not proved that everyone really wants to live a creative life, nor do I see how this could be proved. But it should at least be clear that this kind of life is very widely and deeply desired and that it is compatible with the new integrity.

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Unfortunately, the picture painted here is a little too bright. The creative writer or artist may be a voyeur who contemplates imaginary scenes, without the courage to act in real life. He may be a decidophobe who consoles himself with his freedom of invention and his power to choose words. He may have discovered a game in which his autonomy is untrammeled; now he devotes as much of his time as he can to that; but whenever the game stops, he is – uncreative.

He finds his happiness in his creative life, but would be happier if he were more creative – if he had the courage and the skill to bring some spontaneity and some originality into his daily life and his relationships to others. For creativity is not encountered in the arts only but also in the dimension of human relationships and in the practice of the new integrity. We have noted how the new integrity involves autonomy: making decisions for oneself – especially those decisions that mold our character and future. Thus the autonomous human being makes himself and gives shape to his life. He not only considers alternatives that others present to him, but he uses his imagination like a novelist or dramatist to think up possibilities.

It is wrong to suppose that there are two types of people, the creative and the uncreative. Even the suggestion that we should thin in terms of degrees is too crude because it may be taken to imply that people can be ranked on a single scale. The example of ay, and perhaps also that of dreams, may help to remind us that we are all born with a creative capacity, and that few indeed manage to maintain and develop it both in their lives and in some of the arts, like Goethe. Some people are squelched in real life and are creative only as writers; others infuse some spontaneity and some originality into their lives. Large numbers, of course, lead rather uncreative lives, have routine jobs, and spend their spare time passively.

Play is also a helpful example because the life of the little girl who, when playing, is “as gods,” is anything but autonomous. Others decide for her where she is to live, with whom, and even what to wear and what to eat, and when to go to bed. She is autonomous only at play.

Parents, teachers, and societies find children much easier to live with if they can be made predictable and less spontaneous and original. Society nurtures decidophobia and makes people more, not less, afraid of autonomy. Obtuse disciplinarians squelch creativity. But those who therefore inveigh against discipline overlook the fact that without it no sustained creativity is possible and no one can find satisfaction in his work.

Those who deplore all alienation or all discipline and over-praise community and spontaneity erode the ethos on which creativity depends. Originality consists of being different and alienates the creative person from his fellow men. But creativity also provides a way of coping with this alienation.

It is by no means only at the elementary levels of education that creativity is squelched. The same process continues through adult life – even in colleges and universities, which would seem to be more hospitable to a creative life than most institutions. Among scholars we find some creativity, but on the whole disappointingly little. Most professors are inhibited by Weber’s Fallacy. This fallacy is encountered among legions who have never read Max Weber, but it seems fair to name it after the man who offered the best formulation of it instead of merely committing it in silence like millions of others. (In fact, his practice was better than his preachment.)

Max Weber, the greatest sociologist of our century, not only wrote about the Protestant ethic but also perpetuated it in his immensely influential lecture, “Scholarship as a Profession.” He put the point succinctly:

It is only through severe specialization that a scholar can really obtain once, and perhaps never again in his life, the climactic feeling: Here I have achieved something that will endure. A really definitive and solid achievement today is always a specialist’s achievement. And whoever, therefore, lacks the capacity to put on blinders, as it were, and to transport himself into the notion that the destiny of his soul depends on whether he is correct in making precisely this conjecture at this place in this manuscript should certainly stay away from scholarship.

Weber had a commendable sense for the misery of life. His appeal here is plainly to autosuggestion: scholarship as the opiate of the intellectuals, or how to transport yourself into self-deception. Only a few pages after “endure” and “definitive” we are told: “Everyone of us who is engaged in scholarship knows that the results of his’ labors are dated within ten, twenty, fifty years.” In between these two contradictory passages, Weber inveighed against the twin “idols” of personality and experience of life, insisted that in scholarly life there is no room for either – and that even in art there is no room for personality. It would be difficult to push further what Weber himself, in his analysis of the Protestant ethic, called “innerworldly asceticism.” Here self-denial is carried to the absurd.

The works of Thucydides and Gibbon were not dated “within ten, twenty, fifty years.” For they did not abide by the modern academic ethos of merely making “contributions.” Any facts they might have been the first to notice or infer could be, and have been, incorporated in more up-to-date accounts, and yet these men do survive not only in some scattered footnote credits. Their works reflect the authors’ personalities and experience of life, and do not carefully avoid all normative judgments. They are models of creative scholarship.

The great philosophers also did not commit Weber’s Fallacy. Their works had style and approached the condition of art. Nor can a perceptive reader fail to find in them the record of a highly individual experience of life. But philosophers, historians, and other scholars are not either totally creative or totally uncreative. There are all sorts of gradations and varieties. What matters is that the new integrity is quite compatible with the creative life. Indeed, it involves some creativity.

I have argued that all people really desire a creative life and that it is only when they come to feel that this is beyond their reach that they settle for Nirvana or for the hedonistic life. Suppose that this ambitious thesis did not stand up. I have conceded from the start that creativity is only one of the things people want. Now suppose that it were a fact that some people need very little of it – hardly more than comes to the fore in their dreams. What if that were so?

It would be a great pity, I think, but it would not affect any of the arguments in this book, except for this one bold thesis that would then be wrong. The following claims would still stand: Those who opt for the new integrity must countenance alienation; they have to master the fear of freedom; but they need not live wretched lives, devoid of happiness. They can live creative lives and find solace in their work.

If they have all four of the cardinal virtues, they will need such solace, for not only honesty entails some suffering; the other three virtues also entail discomfort and pain. In the case of courage, “entail” may be too strong a word, inasmuch as a bold person may be very lucky. But the odds are, of course, that anyone who keeps taking great risks will sometimes get hurt badly. Humbition precludes self-satisfaction, smugness, and complacency, which means in practice that one is always self-critical. Even when one feels that something one has done is good, an inner voice speaks up: So what? Love, finally, involves sharing the plights of others. Thus the lives of those who are morally admirable are hard, and they need some solace.

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Now suppose that some men and women do not find solace in creative work. Or rather, they do find happiness while they are creative, but they cannot sustain their creativity. It comes in spurts, not in a steady stream, and between the peaks there are vast valleys of despair. What then?

There seems to be another, less romantic road to happiness. It can be found through work of which one can honestly believe that doing it well stands some chance of making the world a little better – work that is worth doing well because it benefits humanity. Does this life of service constitute a fourth conception of happiness – an alternative to hedonism, Nirvana, and the creative life? I prefer to think of it in conjunction with the creative life. For an uncreative life of service would not be autonomous but self-destructive or at best a drug. But work of this kind can be creative, and moreover it can be combined with a life that is creative in the more ordinary sense of that word: one can serve others between creative spurts.

The most obvious way of combining creativity and service is by also teaching. That is what painters and sculptors did in the past, and what many scholars, as well as artists and writers, are doing today at colleges and universities. It is not true, as has sometimes been claimed, that those who are free must, by some logical necessity, work for the freedom of their fellow men. One can be autonomous and lack love. But neither autonomy alone nor love alone is likely to bring happiness. The four cardinal virtues form an organic unity, and the life in which all four are developed will be a rich and full life. It will not be free of moral conflicts, dull, bland, or monotone, but rather the kind one likes to read about: not easy, but enviable.
Of course, the case for the life of service does not depend solely on this a peal to the agent’s happiness. The life of service is love in action But love is by no means wholly extraneous to the other cardinal virtues. Even the seemingly individualistic part of my ethic provides reasons for not hating or detesting any human being and for always being mindful that even those who have grievous faults are, in the words of Moses, “as yourself.”

First, it is difficult to find our own faults; they are much easier to find in others. If we always make excuses and end up by not considering them faults, we become lax with ourselves. But if we hate or detest as inhuman those who have these faults, then we are almost bound to overlook the same faults in ourselves because we fail to see the continuity between “us” and “them.” Hence it is essential for our moral health to see those who offend us in their full humanity while at the same time judging their faults clearly. Humbition says: Judge others and remember that they are “as yourself.”

Second, our ideas and “truths” – especially in faith, morals, and politics – have an inveterate tendency to be onesided. Even a staunch commitment to the new integrity cannot remedy this fault entirely unless we go out of our way to consider – with an effort at sympathy – the views of those whom we feel tempted to detest. Without suspending our critical faculties, we must keep asking ourselves how human beings not essentially unlike ourselves have come to see things so differently.

The new integrity rules out blind love and admiration, but also blind hatred. It often keeps us from agreeing with those we love and admire – and from loving or admiring those with whom we agree. But it precludes not only Manichaeism but also a self-centered attitude.

I have shown how the new integrity spells alienation. Yet it is not compatible with indifference to our fellow men. There is no better way to discover objections and alternatives than exposure to the views of others, including people of the opposite sex and of radically different backgrounds.

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One cannot specify how much service “justice requires.” But it would be foolish to think of service to others as a price one has to pay or as an interruption in creative work. Some kinds of service, of course, are felt to be radically uncongenial, and an autonomous individual will want to choose his own way. But in order to choose wisely he should put aside the notion that the path to creative autonomy is straight. Solzhenitsyn spent three and a half years in the Russian army, during World War II, followed by eight years in concentration camps – and then exile, interrupted by two spells in a cancer ward. No doubt, books can help liberate people: Solzhenitsyn’s novels, for example; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Goethe and Euripides; and even some philosophers. But I doubt that books and study alone suffice.

Some existentialists have suggested that the mark of authenticity is the ability to face up to one’s own dread of death. But all their tedious talk of dread and death has not made them authentic. I have argued in The Faith of a Heretic that the dread of death is not universal and, in effect, that an autonomous individual will not fear death. Nor need the road to autonomy lead through such fear. What makes people inauthentic (and what makes their talk of food and clothes and petty failures and successes so utterly pathetic) is not that they have forgotten that they must die before long. It is that they have forgotten that they are survivors.

Thinking only of oneself can never generate an ethic; nor will it ever lead to autonomy. Neither dread nor courage in the face of death need keep anyone from seeking trivial satisfactions in his final days or years. What makes such pursuits seem inappropriate, if not outrageous, is a vivid sense that one is a survivor. What is needed is some sense of solidarity with others – not necessarily or even usually all others, but some. My reflections on the case of the survivor will be found at the center of this book, but this theme is introduced on the dedication page. Solzhenitsyn’s unique moral force is inseparable from the fact that he has never forgotten that he is a survivor. In his novels he has given voice to the experiences of those who did not survive, and in his public statements, most obviously in his Nobel Lecture, he has spoken quite explicitly s a survivor.

Of course, it is possible to be creative without having had this kind of experience. Tolstoy had it and described in Anna Karenina how his brother’s death became a turning point in his life. I have shown earlier how most of the major modern philosophers lost one or both parents in childhood. We are all survivors, but it is possible to be creative without ever taking in this fact.

Autonomy is different. One cannot become autonomous and make with open eyes the decisions that mold one’s character and future while shutting one’s eyes to the fact that one is a survivor. If the alternatives were laid out before us like so many distributive shares, being a survivor would be totally irrelevant. But fateful choices are not like that. Life does not lead us into a bakery shop as if we were children, telling us to choose one piece of cake. As long as you confine your choices to the alternatives that are presented to you in a given framework and do not think of questioning the framework itself, considering alternatives to that, you are not liberated.

The fateful choice is not simply between marrying X or Y, it being understood that you have to marry one of them. It includes the possibility of not getting married at all, or not yet, or perhaps to Z. The fateful decision is not limited to going to this school or that. There are countless other schools and ways of life. And there is always the option of ending one’s life. One can make lists, and that may help, especially when the choice is not a fateful one. But autonomy faces up not merely to bloodless, disembodied alternatives that one thinks up. Some of the most haunting alternatives have human shapes, and not all of these come out of books. Some we have known in the flesh, and not all of them are living any more. It is usually the dead that are most persistent. And typically it is only the death of someone very close to us that liberates us from the framework that we had taken for granted, exploding the status quo and leading us to see radical alternatives.

Caring for others, then, is far from being totally extraneous to autonomy, and the life of service must not be thought of as interrupting what matters most. The implications for education should be obvious. As long as study is artificially isolated from service and from the work with which one earns a living, work and service will also be severed from study – and when the years of study are over, one’s education will come to an end. But if work and study, creativity and service intertwine during the formative years of education, then study and creativity will not come to an end when a person leaves school. Some types of education favor the development of integrity and creativity more than others. But creative autonomy is not acquired through study alone. It is forged in hell.

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Liberation involves a bitter knowledge of solitude, failure, and despair, but also the sense of triumph that one feels when standing, unsupported, on forbidding peaks, seeing the unseen. Those who try to ease the boredom of their sheltered lives by reading tales or seeing films that tell of men and women who lived richer lives may still seek comfort in the thought that the price of liberation is too high. One used to tell one’s children that autonomy was wicked; now it is considered much too risky.

The image of the two ways in the Sermon on the Mount is suggestive. I cannot accept the Manichaean and inhuman idea that the many who follow the easy way are going to eternal torment while the few are saved; nor can I admire those who, believing this, see to their own salvation, unconcerned about the many, if not actually looking forward to beholding the torments of the damned. But what of these words? “Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and few find it.” Those who have found autonomy have been few indeed, but for an intelligent and well-read person today there are fewer excuses than there have ever been.

Some social conditions facilitate the development of autonomy, others inhibit it. Solzhenitsyn, to be sure, attained it under Stalin’s regime, in the camps, but the odds are overwhelmingly against such triumphs, for they require not only extraordinary strength of character but also a great deal of luck. After all, every attempt was made t root out signs of budding autonomy and to kill those who gave promise of attaining it. To cite Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture: “Those who fell into that abyss who already had made a name in literature are at least known to us – but how many whom we do not know, never once were published! And so very few, almost no one, managed to survive and return. A whole national literature remained behind . . .”

Autonomy involves reflection on alternatives. It requires a sustained effort to liberate oneself from the cultural determination that sticks to youth as eggshell does to a young bird. In this fight for liberation nothing helps more than reading and discussion. What is needed is exposure to different views – not merely to one “devil’s advocate” but to a genuine variety of points of view and of ways of experiencing the world. What is needed is not only a free flow of ideas but also some feeling for the less fortunate, some feeling for those who did not and those who still do not enjoy the privileges that we tend to take for granted. What is needed is not only comparative religion and philosophy but also history and, above all, world literature.

An ethic that includes love, but not justice, among the cardinal virtues is apt to be considered Christian. Mine is not. In the first place, the notion that Christianity transcended justice is simply false: witness the belief in retribution after death. Then, what is distinctive in my ethic is humbition and the new integrity, as well as the detailed critique of justice. Finally, the concept of autonomy is anti-Christian, and in Christian morality, from the Sermon on the Mount to Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and beyond, guilt and fear have always been central. My autonomous morality is above guilt and fear.

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Another comparison may help to sum up my views. “The just man” of Plato and the prophets was essentially an obedient man. He might disobey a wicked despot, but only in obedience to a higher law that was not of his making. Decidedly, he was not autonomous. Nor did creativity have a place in this ancient ideal. We do not usually think of justice as being on the same plane or in possible conflict with either creativity or autonomy; but we should. Creativity and autonomy belong together and represent an orientation that is at odds with the preoccupation with justice. The myth of Prometheus shows this beautifully. And Karl Marx’s Prometheus complex was of a piece with his dedication to human autonomy and his scorn for those preoccupied with social justice. Conversely, Plato’s central concern with justice was accompanied, typically, by an excessive regard for mathematics and the strong conviction that in a just society there could not be any place for creative artists.

Although the great philosophers were creative, they have generally shown little understanding of creativity. Even in aesthetics they have dealt with art from the spectator’s point of view. In ethics, the concern with justice has been associated with passivity, too: the question was what people should receive. In discussions of distributive justice, it is generally assumed that whatever is worthwhile is given, and the problem is how much each member of a group is to receive. But a creative person is one who finds most worthwhile what is not given, and his primary concern is not with receiving. Nor will he concentrate on distribution, seeing that he does not yet know what there will be. That depends on his creative work – and on what others will create.

If he were told that other people are quite different from him, interested in having rather than doing, “grabby” rather than creative, he might well feel that the greatest service one could do them would not be to help them calculate how each of them might receive as much as possible. Surely, he might say, they would be better off if one could change their orientation and make them creative. Suppose, he might add, we could choose between two societies. The one with fewer social inequalities would not necessarily be better: it might be stagnant, uncreative, afflicted with boredom and despair. A more creative society might well be preferable even if it were more inegalitarian. It is better to create than to receive, and autonomy surpasses possessions.

This is not a defense of the status quo. That our society needs changing is clear and no less true because other societies need to be changed, too. Karl Marx said: “The philosophers have merely interpreted the odd differently, but what matters is to change it.” One hundred and twenty-five years later, there is no dearth of people who want to change the world. The time has come to insist: We can agree that society needs to be changed, but what matters is how – not only the means but also – and above all – the new goal.

The old goals of justice and equality, and the fight against injustice and inequality, are congruent with the modem trend toward ever greater regulation, homogeneity, and conformity. As long as the prime concern is with the redistribution of what we have, none of the tediously conformist protests against conformity and regulation will prevent the steady erosion of liberty. What is needed is a different order of priorities. What is also needed is an attempt to develop in some detail what is wrong with the old concepts and to show the price of autonomy.

The autonomous life does not involve a lack of concern for others. The question is what one desires for others. Some elitists might say: What I want for myself is autonomy, but what the masses need is bread and circuses or, in other words, the proper distribution of possessions and amusements. It is less inegalitarian to say: I desire autonomy – for myself and for others. Moreover, if we concentrate on justice and equality or, in one word, distribution, we shall find before long that, however we distribute goods, there will not be enough to go around. We must assign a higher priority to creativity, realizing that creation and discovery render distributive schemes obsolete.

Guilt is mired in the past, as is retributive justice. Distributive justice is stuck in the present, but by the time it has figured out how to cope with that, it is dated. We must move beyond guilt and justice. We must give up the pleasant notion that we can have all good things at once. What is best is not things at all but creative autonomy.

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