The Ethic of Happiness Kills the Conscience

In Romans 3: 12-16, the function of the conscience is to hold us accountable to the ethic of fidelity. But in its dark opposite, the ethic of happiness, the conscience has no purpose.

The evangelists of the happiness ethic like to tell themselves, in the quiet of the night, that their pursuit of happiness is constrained by respect for others. Pursue your inner meaning, sure, but do no harm. So they would say that the function of your conscience in the happiness ethic remains wholly traditional; it should register guilt when you hurt someone.

But this is sophistry. On the page it reads well, but in real life it soon is meaningless, because the definition of harm has been stripped down. In real life the pursuit of personal happiness leads to absence from the lives of people we owe. Absence, when presence is owed, is betrayal. In real life betrayal is violence. In real life, for the self-actualizers, hell is other people.

The art of the modern ethic of happiness is the output of the movie and television industry in America. The protagonist in movies and television is constantly rationalizing — and being rationalized by his god, the writer — as he betrays or neglects loved ones. (Indeed, someone has said that the essence of modern drama is the rationalization of promiscuity.)

We are supposed to like this protagonist as he follows his dreams; after all, he doesn’t kill or maim. But the camera simply passes over absence. The camera easily glosses matters such as infidelity to his spouse and neglect of children. What is owed these loved ones is large, large enough to occupy everyone for their lifetimes of indirect happiness. But in pursuing direct happiness you can feel good that you didn’t assault them or stealing their money while still ravaging their souls by your absence.

The camera won’t see what you SHOULD have been doing. You can consume your attention for decades with rich and difficult work that might even win you a Pulitzer, while your child grows up certain that her father hates her. And you could make it to your deathbed within this ethical universe with a silent conscience.

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