Chapter 3:  Optimizing and Adapting




If ever I recline, calmed, on a bed of sloth,

You may destroy me then and there.

If ever flattering you should wile me

That in myself I find delight,

If with enjoyment you beguile me,

Then break on me, eternal night!

This bet I offer.


            I accept it.



If to the moment I should say:

Abide, you are so fair--

Put me in fetters on that day,

I wish to perish then, I swear.

--Goethe, Faust[1]


In the last chapter I discussed what happiness is.   In this chapter my topic is how felicity, the extreme form of happiness, may be attained.  My focus will be on the advisability of securing felicity through the strategy which in Chapter 1 I called 'adapting.'  Later in this book I mean to bring out the drawbacks of adapting.  First I want to reveal its virtues, and indicate that adapting is a possible pathway to felicity and, on the face of it, a promising route to lesser forms of happiness. 

            I will bring out the reasonableness of adapting by comparing it to the more common way people commonly go about their pursuit of happiness.  As we will see, adapting has many advantages.  I will then distinguish two main forms of adapting and clarify what each might involve. 


Optimizing and Adapting

The common strategy for pursuing happiness is just that of taking our fundamental desires for granted and attempting to satisfy them efficiently, giving priority to our most important desires.  We are to identify what we want most, and satisfy each of our desires using the most efficient means possible, thus leaving ourselves resources to draw on when satisfying our other desires.  Rational choice theorists have developed this approach with some precision, and given the literature they have generated it seems appropriate to call the strategy optimizing.  To be sure, qualifications must accompany the claim that theorists equate rational choice with efficient desire satisfaction, but with two such qualifications, the equation is accurate enough.

The first qualification is this:  several theorists have suggested that the fundamental desires that optimizers simply take for granted themselves are subject to rational assessment and revision.  For example, Richard Brandt and John Rawls would say that basic desires may be called irrational if those desires would not survive certain sorts of psychotherapy, as when we make vivid to ourselves that a desire has resulted from an accidental association.  Such therapy might dislodge the desire, but if it does not then the desire was rational all along.[2] 

            A second qualification:  I intend the term 'optimize' to include an approach called 'satisficing.'  Satisficing is sometimes contrasted with the kind of rational maximizing that often goes by the name 'optimizing.'  Let us say that maximizers are optimizers who try to satisfy their desires as completely as possible.  Satisficers, by contrast, are optimizers who try to satisfy their desires to a reasonable, acceptable, or sufficient degree, but not necessarily as completely as possible.  Thus maximizers as well as satisficers are optimizers in the sense that both take their desires for granted and choose alternatives that are efficient, the one choosing alternatives that are maximally efficient, and the other alternatives that are sufficiently efficient.  Proponents of satisficing argue, convincingly, that rational choice cannot be equated with maximizing, since satisficing is a rational approach as well.  Proponents of the adapting of desire would likewise argue that rational choice cannot be equated with either form of optimizing, for adjusting even our most fundamental desires and preference rankings in light of what is feasible can be rational as well.[3]  The best known contemporary advocate of this position is Jon Elster (1983), though his historical precedents are numerous, as we will see. 

How good is optimizing as an approach to felicity?  The ideal means to felicity would ensure the availability of felicity.  It would allow us to be completely happy no matter what our circumstances are and no matter how they change.  (Compare the sort of knowledge Descartes sought:  mere accurate belief was not good enough; nothing less that belief whose truth was certain would do.[4])  However, ensuring the availability of felicity through optimizing would require that we gain so much power over the world that no matter how our environment shifts, we could force the world to conform to our will.  How much power would be required would depend, of course, on our ambitions, and on the possible dangers we might have to overcome with our power.  But even very unambitious aspirations can be extremely difficult to attain.  Any goals which one can hope to achieve will inspire one to live a while longer, yet even to ensure that one will live on requires that one have far more power than anyone does have.  Therefore optimizers will have to settle for less than a guarantee of felicity.  They might look for a means of achieving complete happiness given reasonably favorable circumstances, and settle for just enough power to get what they do and will want assuming that terrible misfortune does not come their way. 

Instead of optimizing, and living with all of its limitations, however, perhaps we should adapt.  Recall the way that adapting differs from optimizing:  the latter is an effort to transform the world so that it gives us what we demand.  It involves us in an attempt to subdue the world.  Adapting, by contrast, would have us modify something that may be more tractable:  ourselves.  More specifically, adapting would  involve modifying our desires.  The idea behind the adapting of desire is to modify our desires in light of the way the world is.  Adapters differ from optimizers primarily because adapters can drop fundamental goals because they are unattainable and add fundamental goals because they are attainable.[5]

Unlike optimizing, adapting appears to offer us the guarantee that felicity will be achievable.  In the extreme case we would modify the demands we make if we are to be completely happy so that they are satisfiable no matter what happens to us.  We would limit ourselves to desires we can certainly satisfy, ones we can satisfy come what may.  (It is one thing for a desire to be satisfiable come what may and another for a desire to be certainly satisfiable.  One formulation is metaphysical is and the other epistemic.  But either will do for our purposes.)  But we could also consider modifying them with a less ambitious aim in mind, namely, the guarantee that we can attain and retain felicity, or even mere happiness, given reasonably favorable circumstances.  This latter guarantee would be wonderful, but it is not without its shortcomings.  For all it ensures, we will be quite unhappy if we become prematurely senile, or if we acquire other features that, as organisms, we cannot completely control.  Our happiness will also be reduced if unlikely accidents occur, such as mudslides that engulf our homes.  Moreover, the very fact that we are subject to (admittedly unlikely) dangers such as these may cause us to suffer from doubt or anxiety, which further reduces our happiness.

To be sure of the availability of felicity come what may therefore would be a far more desirable position to be in.  Nothing outside ourselves would be able to hinder us in our pursuit of happiness, and knowing this would give us complete confidence about our future.  We could accommodate the world and remain entirely happy no matter what it threw at us.  Under such conditions, we (or our happiness) would be invulnerable.  This lofty ideal is precisely what the proponents of adapting recommend.  To become invulnerable through adapting, we need only limit ourselves to desires we can certainly satisfy (though possibly only after a great deal of work).  If we had a choice between the all-purpose form of adapting and the less ambitious one, it would be prudent to select the former, since it guarantees that complete happiness will be within our grasp.  (Note that invulnerability is not the same thing as immutability.   A changing scheme of desires might be invulnerable.) 

Clearly, then, there is a range of things we might hope to accomplish by some form of adapting.  However, for the most part I will be evaluating the more ambitious way of adapting desire.  My main reason for devoting most space to a discussion of the all-purpose sort of adapting is that it is what the ancient proponents of adapting had in mind.  Gautama, Lao Tzu, Epicurus and Epictetus all lived in harsh circumstances.  The intensity of the suffering around them must have made it evident to them that a form of adapting that makes felicity possible only in a benevolent world was useless.


Adapting  Belief

Up to this point I have spoken of adapting our desires en route to some degree of happiness.  But adapting our beliefs rather than our desires is another possible approach to happiness.  At least in theory, we can increase our happiness by wishful thinking, by subverting our usual techniques for checking whether our beliefs are correct and simply changing our views about whether our desires are satisfied until we believe that our desires are satisfied (or are eventually to be satisfied).  Ordinarily the term 'wishful thinking' is restricted to changes in view accomplished by mental processes unaided by artificial means such as drug therapy.  I will use the term more liberally, so that no matter what subversive method we use to believe that our desires are satisfied, we are engaged in wishful thinking. 

            Of course, wishful thinking will not help those who seek objective happiness, and so it will not help people who want the combination of objective and subjective happiness that is crucial to true happiness (as I argued in the last chapter).  Objective happiness is not attained by convincing ourselves that our desires are fulfilled.  It requires that our desires be satisfied, and so wishful thinking is completely useless to objectivists.  Subjectivists are less demanding.  Once convinced that their desires are satisfied, they skim off the emotional reward that they call happiness. 

As a strategy for increasing our (subjective) happiness, wishful thinking is unsavory in a way that adapting our desires is not.  The main point is, of course, the fact that wishful thinking involves self-deception:  we are to believe something that we know is probably false and we are to ignore any counterevidence that comes along.[6]  Adopting a new desire is not like that.  It is a decision to care about something about which we did not care before.  But there is another strike against wishful thinking:  The wishful thinking strategy forces us to take a duplicitous attitude toward our desires.  Even subjectivists must care quite a bit about the actual satisfaction of their desires or else their main source of happiness would not be the conviction that their desires were satisfied.  Yet as wishful thinkers they are simply to rivet into place the belief that their desires are satisfied (granting for the sake of argument that people’s beliefs are malleable in this way), a policy which is available only to those with a cavalier attitude about whether their desires actually are satisfied.  In fact, using the policy will require ignoring any evidence against what we are out to believe.  It is not clear that people who judge it important to satisfy their slate of desires could give up an interest in finding out whether they really have satisfied them and opt instead to achieve happiness by intentionally pulling the wool over their eyes.  (As an aid to pulling the wool over their eyes, wishful thinkers might be drawn to strong forms of skepticism:  if we decide that there is no basis for thinking one thing rather than another, it is easy for us to just believe what we want to.)

(One particular instance of wishful thinking that is easily confused with desire adaptation is the policy of deliberately increasing our happiness by convincing ourselves that something has objective value.  Like others, the application of wishful thinking to our beliefs about objective value requires a kind of duplicity which adapting our desires does not.  We are to will into place the conviction that something has a kind of value that is completely independent of anyone's attitude about that thing, a kind of value no one could possibly bestow upon it by favoring it with any sort of positive attitude.  The self-deception required here is evident.)

Nonetheless, in theory wishful thinking can make our subjective happiness completely invulnerable.  If we are in complete control of our beliefs, then no matter what happens we can sustain the conviction that our desires are satisfied.  In turn, that conviction produces the pleasure that subjectivists seek.  (If my desires are bizarre enough the method might fail:  to convince myself that I have satisfied the desire to be nonexistent, or the desire to believe nothing, I seem forced to believe that I do not exist, or that I believe nothing, but those beliefs are self-defeating.)


Reinventing Happiness

Adapting desire consists in the modification of our desires while adapting belief consists in the modification of our beliefs.  But there may be a problem:  Are our desires and beliefs sufficiently under our control that we can give up the ones we wish, perhaps replacing them with more desirable ones?  If not, obviously adapting would have no practical value no matter what its value in theory.  It would be a strategy we could not use, and the issue of whether we should use it moot.

            Now of course we have some beliefs and interests that we cannot modify no matter how badly we might want to.  I cannot imagine giving up the belief that I exist, for example.  Nor could anyone give up the desire to avoid pure pain, not even masochists.  They seek the pleasure which accompanies otherwise painful experiences such as passing needles through their nipples.  Like the aversion to pain, a fondness for pleasures such as gastronomic and orgasmic ones is also something we all have by virtue of our very nature; we are built that way.  Nor are all of our involuntary desires visceral.  Some of them are manifestations in our conscious life of underlying needs.  It is human nature, for example, to need the association of other people; that is why solitary confinement is such an effective punishment.  Even if we never form the conscious desire for ties with others--indeed, even if we think we prefer a life of complete solitude--we need them all the same.  Because of our human nature, we would be miserable without others.[7]

            But not all desires are so deeply rooted as those which stem from underlying needs, and these shallower ambitions tend to be more malleable.  Similarly, some beliefs are more revisable than others.  I doubt that anyone can eliminate or add a desire or belief simply by brute will, and desires and beliefs that are to some extent malleable cannot be changed under just any circumstances.  Changing them is not like changing our clothes; we can doff or don a hat at whim, but we cannot desire or believe at whim.[8]  (Try believing that you are a very smart sea cucumber.)  Nonetheless, it is quite common to coax ourselves into dropping or adding desires by thinking about the merits of their objects, and to adjust our beliefs by assessing the evidence for their objects.  My desire to acquire a cat, for example, is easily abandoned.  To drop it, it may be sufficient for me to discover that I am violently allergic to fur or repulsed by litter.  Whether I should change desires and beliefs that are subject to this sort of voluntary manipulation is, therefore, an open question.

In speaking about modifications which we can or cannot make in our desires and beliefs, it is tempting to assume that we will not resort to measures involving brainwashing, the chemical or surgical manipulation of our brains, or even genetic engineering.  We have already noted that such techniques as applied to the manipulation of our beliefs requires a certain sort of duplicitousness.  However, the altering of desires is a different story.  I see no reason why in principle we should not make desirable changes in our scheme of desires using hypnosis, chemicals, or other sorts of artificial methods.  In fact, such artificial methods are constantly invoked already.  People who wish to give up smoking are well served by hypnotists who help them conquer their urge for cigarettes, for example.  To countenance artificial methods is not to advocate forced manipulations of people's desires, of course, any more than to recommend hypnotism to reluctant smokers is to kidnap and brainwash them.  Few are sympathetic to the brainwashing techniques to which many religious groups resort in order to achieve conversions.  The suggestion is simply that if individuals decide that it really would be desirable to revise their aspirations, they may as well use artificial means of doing so, rather than limiting themselves to what they can achieve with their native faculties.

            So it makes sense to ask whether we should redesign our conception of a happy life:  some desires and beliefs certainly are subject to conscious manipulation, even if others are not, and many that are not may be subject to artificial manipulation.  I do not know how completely we can take charge of our desire schemes through such methods, and that issue is yet another of those I would rather avoid.  If it turns out that there are desires and beliefs that we cannot rid ourselves of, then the project of making ourselves invulnerable through adapting may be doomed.  It will be doomed if we are stuck with a desire for something we may be unable to have no matter what we think or do.  By wishful thinking it still may be possible to achieve subjective happiness by convincing ourselves that the tenacious desire is fulfilled, but wishful thinking is useless for aspirants to objective happiness.  It may be possible to achieve complete happiness even if we are vulnerable to disappointment, of course.  That depends on whether we ever come to satisfy the recalcitrant desire.  It may be one that we cannot satisfy no matter what we do, or simply one we might have satisfied but did not.

For now I am simply going to stipulate that all of our attitudes are completely under our control.  Included as attitudes are our beliefs, desires and values.  It is clear that this stipulation is false.  We cannot even ensure beyond doubt that attitudes we have and want to retain will be there tomorrow (we may not live until then).  Nevertheless, how thoroughly manipulable our attitudes are is an extremely controversial issue, whether the manipulation is simply that of using reasoning and will-power over a period of time to urge ourselves to fashion a new, more desirable attitude, or electrochemical manipulation of the brain or genetic engineering or some thoroughly black-box (or Skinner box) treatment that directly changes our attitudes in ways we want.  I cannot settle the matter, and I want to bend over backwards to give the proponents of adaptation their best defense of their strategy.  That is, for the time being I want to take the following approach:  Let us suppose that there were no limits to how thoroughly we could adapt ourselves.  Would it be a good idea to adapt, and if so would it be a good idea to go so far as to become invulnerable? 

It is worth noting that while autonomy or the capacity to revise our desires is valuable, in one way it is a very good thing that we are able to feel pushed around by our desires:  it can be a relief to drop the burden of making ourselves interested in things and to simply find ourselves interested.  In fact, in large measure our impression that an activity is intrinsically desirable derives from the fact that we find desiring it at least largely irresistible.  The sex drive gives us this kind of motivation.  For a time, it lets us lose ourselves, rather than question what we are doing.  Of course, complete autonomy is inconsistent with having irresistible desires.  However, autonomy is not inconsistent with having desires that are almost that powerful.  Fully autonomous people might have the capacity to put themselves into, or take themselves out of, the grip of desires that can be removed only by a great effort.


Problems with Optimizing

 Let us re-examine optimizing, whereby we reach for happiness by satisfying the fundamental desires that we have now or will have later, and point out some of the advantages of adapting, especially in its extreme form, as aimed at making our happiness invulnerable.  If optimizing turns out to be less than promising as a means to felicity or even plain happiness, then we will have reason to hope that adapting provides a suitable alternative.

            Optimizing is especially unpromising as a strategy for achieving security, or a guarantee of happiness or felicity.  We can satisfy many of our desires when we enjoy reasonably favorable circumstances, but there is no guarantee that our circumstances will remain favorable.  Optimizers who are out to protect their level of happiness quickly find that it is extremely difficult to gain enough power over the world to secure the satisfaction of even their modest desires.  The optimizing strategy is then responsible for a disposition to feel driven that was well described by Thomas Hobbes (1962) in his Leviathan: 

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.  And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power:  but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. (Chapter 11)

A million million things must go right if we are to achieve our desires.  Even modest successes require either the smiling face of fortune or else a good deal of power.  To reach a state of security about satisfying our desires requires even more power. 

            Nor is optimizing problematic only for those who want security.  What Hobbes did not emphasize (or deny) is that many of our goals are not modest.  Most of us want huge amounts of prestige or recognition or security or possessions, far more than we have the power to achieve. 

Plato, Epicurus, Gautama, Schopenhauer and many others went further than Hobbes.  They urged that human beings are typically so insatiable, so demanding, that their attempts to satisfy their desires are largely fruitless, and they end up suffering intensely.  One of the most powerful depictions of the insatiable human being is Faustus, whose pact with the devil is quoted at the beginning of this chapter.  Faust is so confident that nothing could ever satisfy him that he is willing to risk his soul in a bet that the devil cannot satiate him for a single instant.  Goethe’s suggestion is that people will outstrip even a supernatural power’s ability to give them a moment’s tranquillity.  In the Gorgias Plato likens the attempt to satisfy our desires as they are to an attempt to fill a leaky jar (493c).  And (to give one final example) in his Vatican Sayings Epicurus writes:

The soul neither rids itself of confusion nor gains a joy worthy of the name through the possession of greatest wealth and of the honor and admiration bestowed by the common crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire.  (Saying 81)

            But the claim that people are insatiable can mean more than one thing, and whether we should or can avoid insatiability depends on what is meant.  It might mean that some of our desires are unlimited.  It might also mean that we have an overabundance of desires, and of course there is the possibility that both are true.

            Consider the first possibility.  Some of our desires are open-ended, so that it is not clear what finally satisfying them would come to.   We do not want five minutes worth of minor pleasures per week.  We do not want a definite amount.  We want an indefinite amount of pleasure.  We are never done wanting pleasure, and we feel the same way about many other things.  Love is another example.  We do not just want the love of one person for four minutes per day.  We want more. 

            Schopenhauer would base the charge of insatiability on the second possibility, the claim that we have an overabundance of desires, and this claim, in turn, on his distinctive view of human motivation.  The mechanism responsible for motivating us works to produce a set of desires that, as a collection, is demanding enough to keep us expending a fixed amount of energy on the attempt to get what we want.  The mechanism works on the unconscious level, and the amount of energy it works to keep us expending varies from person to person, but remains roughly constant over an individual's life.  Moreover, when the mechanism seizes upon particular desires to keep us busy, its selection is largely arbitrary, though, in the style described by Abraham Maslow (1954), the desires may be stacked in layers. 

            This desire-generating mechanism does not stop with one set of desires.  If we actually satisfy the set that is gripping us, we will yearn to put our full effort into satisfying others.  The upshot is that we have an undiminishable hunger for desire satisfaction.  Satisfying desires simply gives rise to the need to find replacements.  If suddenly we satisfy several desires and are left without something to do, the desire-generating mechanism temporarily will be frustrated, and we will experience the frustration as intense boredom, which remains until finally we are given a new batch of desires to pursue, even desires as mundane as the urge for a card game. 

            So far Schopenhauer's argument is quite plausible.  It can even suggest a way to help clarify the positive objectivist's notion (in Chapter 2) that happiness requires satisfying at least some desires.  Schopenhauer's claim that each of us is set up to put a fixed amount of energy into desire satisfaction suggests that happiness for each of us (during some period of time) will require having enough desires to use up the energy of which we need to dispose (during that time).  It also drives home the fact that we cannot equate complete happiness with the satisfaction of our present desires, since our happiness is affected by the desires we may or may not come to have after we have satisfied our present ones.  Equating complete happiness with the satisfaction of all of the fundamental desires we will ever have (except ones we drop as unworthwhile) is far better, but (as Aristotle said) complete happiness will then be a property that may be attributed to us if at all only after our lives are over.  (Accordingly, employing a magic lamp to gain complete happiness immediately would put us in the unfortunate position of having our (happy) lives over!  It would be far better to request that we be in the way of having a completely happy life, that the present stretch of our life be part of a felicitous life.)  However, we cannot satisfy all of the desires we will ever have given Schopenhauer's picture of the mechanism behind their generation.  If he is right, the strategy of optimizing cannot make us completely happy given that complete happiness consists in the satisfaction of all of the desires we will have.

            Schopenhauer did not merely want to say that we cannot achieve felicity by optimizing.  He wanted to say that we cannot achieve any sort of happiness whatever through optimizing.  But this conclusion does not follow from the charge of insatiability, since we could have a marvelous life breathlessly achieving ambitions and accumulating exhilarating experiences without ever reaching a point where we want nothing more.  So what exactly is the relationship between our insatiability and the suffering Schopenhauer thought inevitable?

            One link is that since we cannot directly detect the mechanism behind the formation of our desires, it leads us to form false expectations.  In particular, since we feel ourselves gripped only by our current slate of desires, we get the impression that those desires express everything we (will ever) want, so that satisfying them will leave us completely content.  We do not realize that if we satisfy our current slate of desires we will be hit with a new wave of them. 

Every immoderate joy. . .always rests on the delusion that we have found something in life that is not to be met with at all, namely permanent satisfaction of the tormenting desires or cares that constantly breed new ones.  (Section 57)

Hence every time we satisfy a desire, we expect to be substantially closer to contentment, and when we are not, we are disappointed.  Satisfying our desires never brings us what we expect and so always disappoints us.  Instead of looking inward for the source of our unhappiness, however, we "are constantly looking for a particular external cause, as it were a pretext for the pain that never leaves us."  (Section 57).

            Of course, Schopenhauer must (and does) admit that this type of suffering can be eliminated.  We have only to educate ourselves about our true motivation to forestall generating the false expectations that make us suffer in the way Schopenhauer describes.  However, Schopenhauer provides an additional reason for linking our insatiability to suffering.  He adds a negative analysis of desire satisfaction (Section 58), claiming that being in the grip of a desire always manifests itself as an absence or lack or urge that is more or less unpleasant phenomenologically, so that having an unsatisfied desire is a state of substantial discontent.  Combined with our insatiability, the unpleasantness of desiring puts us into the following dilemma:  to the extent that we remain in the grip of unsatisfied desires we are unhappy because they give us grief.  To the extent we are not in the grip of unsatisfied desires we are unhappy since then we are insufferably bored.  His point put another way:  desires contribute to our unhappiness until they are satisfied, but once they are satisfied they give way to the lack of desires which, in turn, contributes to our unhappiness.  We spend our lives getting past misfortune yet never accumulating good times.

            This part of Schopenhauer's argument, his negative analysis of desire satisfaction, is less plausible than his depiction of people as insatiable.  His view that desires always manifest themselves as unpleasant lacks is in part due to a failure to make a couple of distinctions.

            The first is the distinction between a desire we have not (as yet) satisfied and a thwarted one.  Having a desire thwarted is almost always unpleasant, but being in the grip of a desire which has not been satisfied is unpleasant only in certain sorts of case.  As I write this, I am on a scuba diving trip in Honduras, anticipating a dive I want to do later today.  I have not satisfied this desire, and find being in its grip anything but unpleasant.  However, if for one reason or another it turns out that I am unable to do the dive--if my desire is thwarted--I will suffer. 

            A second distinction is also crucial.  Apparently, Schopenhauer modeled his notion of desire satisfaction on such unpleasant conditions as thirst, hunger and fear (see Section 57).  Truly, feeling hungry or unsafe is unpleasant, and eliminating those feelings is little more than escaping the prodding stabs of unpleasant drives.  Every moment we are in the grip of such (as yet unthwarted) desires as the wish to escape from a dangerous foe, we are bombarded with unpleasant sensations.  Satisfying the desires brings an undesirable condition to an end at last.  But other desires are not longings for deliverance from a bad situation.  Schopenhauer tends to ignore longings for deliverance into good situations.  Think of game playing, having a love affair, and being intoxicated.  These activities are enjoyable, and the (as yet unsatisfied) desire to engage in them manifests itself in part as a pleasant anticipation of the enjoyment they will offer us.  The desires to (continue to) play, love and to be intoxicated cannot be collapsed into the urge to eliminate lack, or the urge to bring some undesirable situation to an end (except in the trivial sense that they are urges to eliminate the lacks of rewarding activities).

            It is important that desires are available whose grip is not unpleasant and whose satisfaction gives us pleasure rather than bringing some trauma to an end, for even if we are so constituted as always to be putting energy into desire satisfaction, it does not follow that we will suffer, since the desires into which we put our energy may well be ones whose pursuit is a positive experience.  So long as we can continue to supply ourselves with a steady supply of rewarding projects, insatiability will be a good experience. 

Should we agree that human beings are insatiable in the way Schopenhauer describes?  And are we to say that this insatiability is an ineliminable feature of the human psyche?  The emphasis by Epicurus, Gautama and Schopenhauer on the limitlessness of human craving tends to undermine their advice that we achieve happiness by willing away desires we have found unsatisfiable:  unlike passing or weakly felt whims, which are easily dropped but which cannot be responsible for great suffering, urgent, overwhelming cravings could cause great suffering, but what are our chances of willing them away?  If our insatiability is ineliminable, we must resign ourselves to achieving whatever happiness we can manage largely by optimizing, by an attempt to satisfy our (intractable) desires.  But I am simply going to assume that we can cease to be insatiable.  It may be extremely difficult to alter our natural inclination to expend a certain amount of effort on desire satisfaction, but we can do so.  Schopenhauer would agree, I think, that overcoming our natural inclination is possible, though very difficult.  He thinks that the people who are most likely to manage the transition are those who are so thoroughly broken by life that they have lost all interest in going on: 

. . .in most cases the will must be broken by the greatest personal suffering before its self-denial appears.  We then see the man suddenly retire into himself, after he is brought to the verge of despair through all the stages of increasing affliction with the most violent resistance.  We see him know himself and the world, change his whole nature, rise above himself and above all suffering, as if purified and sanctified by it, in inviolable peace, bliss, and sublimity, willingly renounce everything he formerly desired with the greatest vehemence, and gladly welcome death.  It is the gleam of silver that suddenly appears from the purifying flame of suffering, the gleam of the denial of the will-to-live, of salvation.  (Section 58)

Roughly, Schopenhauer's idea must be that the reason people tend to generate sufficient desires to keep themselves busy is that they have an unconscious desire or need to do so.  The unconscious desire can be eliminated, however, either by overwhelming personal suffering, or by realizing how much suffering it is causing in the world.

I have been discussing human insatiability as a problem confronting anyone who may wish to adopt the strategy of optimizing.  Another problem with taking our desires for granted and trying to become happy by satisfying them is that people almost always have competitive desires.  They want to be smarter, more skillful, or attractive than average.  If they satisfy those desires, then they move on to a new slate:  they want to be excellent guitarists, philosophers, poets, athletes, scientists or card players.  If they do excel, they want to be the best novelist, shot-putter, Hemingway scholar, physicist or bridge player.  When they love others, they want those others to love them only.  Comparative desires, such as the desires to be tall, thin, beautiful, normal, poor, or unique in at least one respect, are desires for features such that where along a dimension an item is required to fall in order to possess those features depends on where other items of the same sort fall.  Some such desires can be met by everyone.  For example, everyone could be unique in at least one respect, and everyone could be average.  Other comparative desires are not  universalizable.  If you are brilliant, beautiful, rich, or famous, or if you are unique, above average or exceptional in some given respect, then other people are not.  Such comparative desires--desires that call for our possessing features that cannot be possessed by everyone--can be called competitive desires since they tend to lead us to regard others as threats.  No competitive desire can be satisfied by everyone, so when a group of us is driven to satisfy the same competitive desire, the progress each of us makes constitutes a setback for another.  The more we want to satisfy the desire, the harder it is for any one of us to do so.  What chance do we have of attaining something others are doing their best to take for themselves?[9]  And do we really want our basic comportment toward others to be confrontational?

Consider a final difficulty optimizers face when they attempt to satisfy the unrevised demands of their conception of happiness:  people often have goals that are inconsistent either in a logical or in a practical sense.  The former sort of inconsistency would occur, for example, if one wants to be a famous thespian but also and at the same time to be a completely unknown school teacher.  One who wants to be a marathon runner but also wants to be a sailor faces a practical inconsistency.  When conflicting goals are fundamental, the result can be tragic.  Through optimizing, the best we can do is to balance the goals as well as we can and pursue them to the greatest extent possible.  But the clash in our requirements for happiness remains.


Advantages of Adapting

With good fortune and moderate desires we may be able to achieve happiness through optimizing.  But it is difficult to imagine that people could secure their happiness or achieve complete happiness through optimizing.  A typical set of human desires is going to be extremely difficult to satisfy, and almost all of us will want to spruce up our raw desires in various ways before we design an efficient plan for pursuing them.  Instead of looking for clever strategies by which we can accomplish our existing goals, however, and seeking happiness in that attempt, why not opt to achieve the highest form of happiness through making ourselves invulnerable?  Why not so completely transform our aspirations that the world not only probably will not, but even could not stop us from becoming and remaining happy? 

            If we adapt ourselves to the world rather than vice versa, we can simply drop the types of desire that call for power over an obstinate world.  Immodest goals that concern us with matters beyond our control and competitive desires may simply be eliminated.  Indefinite goals either can be replaced with clarified versions or abandoned, and when a conflict among our fundamental goals introduces tragedy into our lives, one of the goals that is essential to the conflict can be jettisoned. 

            Adapting can also help some of us to deal with the ultimate arbitrariness of our aims in life and the sense of absurdity that their arbitrariness can give us.  I do not want to exaggerate the superiority of adapting over optimizing in this area, however.  The reason some people feel threatened by the thought that their ultimate aims are arbitrary is their belief that arbitrary aims should not be taken seriously.  The anxiety these people feel would be dissipated if they were presented with a convincing argument that the arbitrariness of an interest, commitment, or what have you is not a reason to drop or devalue it, and such an argument could be given to adapters and optimizers alike.  Shortly I will argue that arbitrary commitments are acceptable, but let me add that the threat might not be prompted by any false beliefs.  It may result from an undefended but deeply lying desire that our basic aims in life not be arbitrary.  People who wish to avoid arbitrariness completely will find it helpful to drop that desire if they can.  In their case, adapting is called for.

            What is it about arbitrariness that its presence should be so undesirable?  People who are threatened by the arbitrariness of their concerns probably have one or the other of two worries in mind, depending on what is meant by the term 'arbitrary.'  'Arbitrary' might mean not objective; accordingly, one worry is that our ultimate commitments are not objective values.  'Arbitrary' might also mean 'undefended,' and then the concern is that our basic commitments are not based on anything.  I do not see why we should be troubled by either sort of arbitrariness.

            The notion of an objective value is notoriously vague, but most would agree that one of the points of calling a value or goal objective is to suggest that it is not invented by anyone, so that it has the weight it has regardless of what anyone wants.  Why want such values?  People who want there to be values that just do apply most likely have in mind the fear that if there are no objective values, then, as Dostoevsky said, "all is permitted."  Murderers and thieves get to murder and steal, and their lifestyle is in no important sense worse than that of a schoolmarm.  Objective values help us deal with such people.  We want there to be objective values that apply to others and that limit what they may do to us so that it is clear when they have harmed us in an intolerable way, and so that on a mutually agreeable basis we may join with others to condemn and prevent harmful actions. 

            Perhaps it is true that the only mutually agreeable basis for condemning and dealing with harmful conduct is objective values.[10])  But I am not suggesting that we can dispense with all sorts of objective values.  Since my topic is happiness, it is enough to note that the concern about handling murderers and thieves motivates only the desire for objective values governing morally permissible conduct.  Most people who theorize about moral values will also say that these values do not govern every area of our lives.  That is, they will say that once we settle what is morally required of people, there remain a great many choices about what to do with our lives.  The choice of permissible lives is left to the individual.  Perhaps there is some objective sense of 'goodness' by which we may rank permissible lives, and scorn some of them, but murder and theft already will be ruled out as impermissible; why hope for some objective basis for assessing the permissible lifestyles that remain?  Why hope that living well is a matter of conforming to values that one has no role in creating?  Why be pleased at the thought that built into the structure of reality is a set of values over whose applicability to our lives we have little or no control?  What would be deplorable about finding oneself free to invent the very terms under which one's life is good?

            I do not think that we should be concerned about the ultimate arbitrariness of our basic commitments any more than we ought to worry about their lack of objectivity.  The claim that we have no (noncircular) reason to choose one scheme of goals or values rather than another or none, or for attributing value to one action rather than another or none, is the central tenet of a view we may call value skepticism.  Value skepticism is much like fact skepticism, whose central tenet is the claim that at best we have circular reasons for choosing one set of beliefs rather than another or none.  Both forms of skepticism, along with their implication that our values, goals and beliefs ultimately are arbitrary, seem irresistible once we notice that justification runs out.  We can defend one value, goal or belief if we assume another, but some of them, often the most basic ones, themselves can be given only circular defenses, and circular defenses do not eliminate arbitrariness. 

            There are some standard responses to fact skepticism as I just described it, and versions of these responses may be extended to value skepticism.  The two main responses are foundationalism and coherentism.  According to the former, some beliefs, called basic beliefs, are self-justified, and others may be justified by resting them on a foundation of basic beliefs.[11]  It is notoriously difficult to make sense of the notion of a belief reaching around and holding itself up by the seat of its pants, however.  But if we could, then we could probably make sense of self-justified claims about values, on which could rest our scheme of value.  Coherentism does not attempt to make sense of basic beliefs about fact or value.  Instead, it says that an entire package of beliefs may be justified when each belief inside the package is supported by other ones.[12]  The result is a circular justification, but the circle is considered benign by coherentists.  Perhaps coherentist justifications would work for value claims as well as for claims about fact.

            Nonstandard responses to value skepticism are possible as well.  It can be tempting to argue that focusing on certain values or desires is not arbitrary by suggesting that they are central to our personalities and thus definitive of our self-interest, so that revising them would be a betrayal of our selves.  But of course to do so is to overlook the fact that our personalities themselves embody commitments that are arbitrary in the sense that they are undefended.  How we shall sculpt and revise our personalities--who we are to make ourselves--is itself as much an issue as what our fundamental values shall be.  We cannot decide what our fundamental values shall be by appealing to our own self-interest since our self-interest is precisely what we are attempting to define.  Gautama may have been the first major thinker to realize that the nature of our personalities and, insofar as a self is determined by a personality, our selves, are matters we must settle.[13]

            It remains a matter of great controversy whether any adequate response can be given to value (and fact) skepticism.[14]  I do not want to attempt to settle the matter here.  What I want to do instead is to assume that value skepticism is correct and see what we can do about the situation in which our values and goals are arbitrary, undefended.  It is a more congenial situation than at first it might appear, for value skepticism does not entail that it would be irrational to value anything.  If we had overwhelming reason to think nothing mattered it would be irrational, as well as absurd (ridiculous, pointless, and senseless), to take things seriously.  It would mean straining toward goals we knew were not worth achieving.  However, skeptics are in no position to defend a stance about what has value.  They insist that we have no reason to think anything matters, yet equally we do not have reason to believe that nothing matters, they must admit.  They would say that we have no reason to value anything, but they must add that we have no reason not to value anything. 

            So the central tenet of value skepticism does not imply that we should stop valuing things.  We will think otherwise only if we supplement the skeptic's central claim that we have no ultimate justification for valuing with the additional claim that we should never value things if we lack positive justification for doing so.  But why should we endorse that policy?[15]  Why not continue to value things without pretending that our grounds for doing so never run out?  Doing so is neither irrational nor absurd.  Where is the absurdity in finding ourselves with certain strong desires that we take for granted without defense and building a life around fulfill­ing them? 

            Indeed, why not go beyond the desires we already have?  I see nothing absurd about creating values, simply decidingto value various things (without initial grounds for our choice), then building a life in conformity with those values.  But this creativity is available to us as adapters, not as optimizers.  Optimizers may work with any arbitrary final aims that they may already have, but adapters may put arbitrary aims into place.   Only they are in a position to add to and subtract from their slate of fundamental values.

            But mustn't a life built around undefended goals be senseless, pointless or futile?  I do not see that such goals are especially prone to these forms of absurdity.  Futility will not be a problem so long as we really can reach our goals.  Nor will senselessness and pointlessness be a problem on the assumption that sense can be created through the very structuring of a life around undefended goals, so that the activities subservient to the goals make sense and have a point through having those goals as their point, and the latter make sense by being the point of the former.  That our final goals are points does not entail that they have a point, but why not exercise our freedom as adapters and take their point to be their serving as final ends around which we organize our lives?[16]

            But can we really take undefended goals seriously?  And if not, won't there be a discrepancy between our attitudes to our fi­nal, undefended goals and the seriousness with which we devote ourselves to the lives we build around satisfying those goals?[17]  It appears that if there is a range of ways to lead my life, and initially I regard the choice among them as totally arbitrary, as adapting prompts me to do, then any time I encounter trouble in pursuing one I could shift to another that is easier to achieve; yet taking such a shifty attitude toward my life-directing goals is inconsistent with taking them seriously.  Indeed, we might even conclude that truly having commitments is not possible for people who seek happiness through adapting.

            Here the reply must be that after we construct our lives around some central endeavors, and completely internalize the valuations dic­tated thereby, we cannot maintain the attitude that an entirely dif­ferent life would do just as well, so that in the face of adversity we can casually slip into new values that dissolve the adversity or make it look like success.  Commitment is inconsistent with such malleability.  It makes no sense to say that I have committed myself to curing cancer (for example) if I maintain an attitude of indifference between:  (1) attaining my goal, or (2) failing, but accomplishing some other goal.  In committing myself to living my life one way, I give up the initial flexibility I had before I made the commitment.  I can still see that I might have committed myself to very different values, but that certainly does not support the contention that I should now be indifferent about whether I retain the values I did adopt.  Once I have adapted my way into a commitment, I have a motive not to adapt out of the commitment, and the strength of the motive is as great as the commitment I have made.  Adapting my way out of a commitment will have a high psychic price.

            Adapters need not consider anything to be important.  If they decide to invest things with importance, they can be cautious, and carefully select which things they want to commit themselves to (if any), and when.  Adapting is therefore more flexible than optimizing.  But if adapters let aspirations take root, they will come to resemble optimizers in certain respects.  They must always regard dropping commitments as a serious matter, for the logic of commitments prevents them from treating a  genuine commitment as trivial. 



The most common and direct method of achieving happiness, optimizing, is unlikely to yield complete happiness, much less to secure it, and it will not even secure incomplete happiness.  Optimizing faces several problems:  Given typical human desires, it takes more power than is available to achieve felicity or to secure happiness.  It can be quite difficult to become happy even in favorable circumstances, given the nature of the desires themselves.  They may be open-ended and indefinite, so that nothing would count as fully satisfying them.  Or our basic desires might include ones that conflict in the sense that they cannot be satisfied simultaneously.  Or we might have competitive desires, the pursuit of which by a group of people makes it impossible for everyone to satisfy the desires and extremely difficult for anyone to do so. 

            Given such worries, it might be wise to change our strategy for achieving happiness.  Instead of seeking happiness by changing the world, we might seek it by accommodating ourselves to the world, and go so far as to make our complete happiness entirely invulnerable in the sense that we can become and remain happy no matter what.  Adapting might take either of two main forms, depending on whether it is beliefs or desires that we mean to change.  Adapting belief through a policy of wishful thinking would allow us to make only our subjective happiness fully invulnerable.  Wishful thinking is changing our views so that we believe that we are in the way of satisfying our desires.  However, wishful thinking requires an unsavory form of duplicity.  Adapting our desires is more promising, since it avoids duplicity and presents us with the means to render both our objective and our subjective happiness fully invulnerable.  But it does require a substantial amount of control over our desires and beliefs, and rather than open the issue of how much control we have over ourselves, I have simply assumed for now that our attitudes (and only our attitudes) are completely malleable.


[1]Goethe (1963), pp. 183-4.

[2]Brandt (1979), Chapter 6, and Rawls (1971), Section 64.

[3]Some of the people who defend satisficing are Simon (1955), Harman (1986), and Slote (1989). 

[4]See his Meditations. 

[5]Interestingly, only creatures that are persons in Frankfurt's (1971) sense may adapt, while both persons and "wantons" may optimize.

[6]The best book about the nature (not causes) of self-deception is still Fingarette (1969).

[7]This is not to deny that there are people whose need to associate with others is minimal.  Storr (1988) argues that people who need little interaction with others may achieve a worthwhile life, but is careful to say that everyone needs some interaction with others..

[8]Some philosophers, such as Hilary Putnam (1975) in "The Meaning of 'Meaning'," and Burge (1979), argue that the contents of our attitudes depend not just on what goes on in the brain but also on what happens in our environment, so that if we were placed in a sufficiently different environment we might have different attitudes even though what goes on in the brain is exactly the same.  If they are right then we have all the more reason to think that our attitudes are not fully in our control.  For a useful explanation of why beliefs are not the sort of thing we decide to have, see Williams (1970).

[9]For further worries about competitive desires, see Luper-Foy (1986) and (1990a), Hirsch (1976), and Frank (1985).

[10]For counterevidence, see Rawls' (1987) pragmatic approach to settling moral issues through reaching what he calls an "overlapping consensus," an approach that explicitly avoids making assumptions about the metaphysical status of values.

[11]For more on foundationalism, see Foley (1987) and his references.

[12]For more on coherentism, see BonJour (1985) and his references.

[13]Gautama’s position was extremely radical; he called for a global revision of our desires, leading ultimately to a state of indifference about our continued existence.

[14]I completely agree with Barry Stroud's (1989) claim that considerable self-deception is involved in much of the philosophical writing against skepticism.

[15]For further discussion of the skeptic's commitments, see Luper-Foy (1990b), Shatz (1991), Stroud (1984) and references.  A useful essay discussing whether skepticism can be lived is Burnyeat (1980).

[16]I discuss absurdity at greater length in Luper-Foy (1992).

[17]This is the sort of discrepancy that led Thomas Nagel (1986) to pronounce life absurd.