This evening I had a fine discussion with my friends where we considered the question, what should be our most valuable life priority? We covered many of aspects of that question, several times returning to Jeremy Bentham and his ideas about maximizing happiness. It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.
We worked that idea back and forth, more or less to everyone’s approval, until I brought up an event that happened to me back when I had a business in downtown San Francisco. It was late at night in the summer of 1969 when I heard some laughing guys walking down the alley named Belden Place (37.7915 -122.4039). They seemed quite happy and I looked out my second-story window to see what was making these raucous guys so happy. They were four of them and they were rolling a VW beetle over on its back. Having succeeded with that feat they walked happily on down the alley. My point in telling that story was that all happy people are not necessarily doing socially beneficial things. Four guys were happy and one VW owner was unhappy, so it was a good thing by Bentham’s mathematical calculation, although I’m sure he would disagree with my example because it was a hurtful action. That was obviously a destructive act, but there are many actions that have socially beneficial qualities to the detriment of other individuals.
We went off on a new tack of finding a more satisfying priority. Basing one’s life on quality facts was brought up as an ultimate value but that moved quickly to assembling the good facts into a working base of reliable knowledge that would function well in our real world. That was expanded to using our wisdom as being an even higher value to strive for, and wisdom was defined as using our knowledge and experience to predict future actions of our environment and then to apply our wisdom to achieve our desired goals. By the time we got to that idea it was time to go home and I wonder where we would have gone forward from our discussion of wisdom.
Another group of seemingly successful people would totally disagree with our analysis of a good priority. This other group insists that we must live in the moment. That now is all we have, that our world is always made up of momentary nows. We must seek happiness and pleasure right now because we can never know if the next second will come into existence. Spending time thinking about future events and planning to make those events as productive as possible interferes with experiencing the pleasure of now and therefore is to be avoided. By these people’s understanding, we should always follow our gut instincts and avoid overthinking everything.
Should our priority be to live well in the temporary now or to invest our time in the much longer tomorrow?