Reflection on Theory of Life Plan Proposed by John Kekes in Happiness
In this essay, I wish to show that the theory of life plan proposed by John Kekes in Happiness is problematic because the two prominent features of Kekes’ theory of life-plan, stability and singularity, are impractical. Furthermore, I would argue that the achievement of one’s life plan is not only insufficient but unnecessary for one’s happiness.
Agreeing with life satisfaction theory that one’s happiness amounts to being satisfied with life as a whole, Kekes argues that happiness features two aspects: “one is an attitude, the other is a collection of episodes contributing to forming the attitude” (153). Kekes approaches the connection between those two aspects of happiness through the notion of importance. He defines the desire to do or have something as a first-order want to represent the episodic aspect and the desire to have important first-order wants satisfied as a second-order want to represent the attitudinal aspect; thus, he proposes the conception of life plan as a hierarchical system of first-order wants. By doing so, Kekes claims the idea that the pursuit of happiness requires the construction of one’s life plan. In other words, people are happy when they have a rational view of what kind of life they want and they are on the way to achieve it.
Kekes holds that a person satisfied with his/her life as a whole would like to keep it stable and “[want] it to go on without radical changes” (166). I argue that stability of one’s life plan is not a valid judgement of one’s life satisfaction. First, it’s reasonable for one to change or, more precisely, revise his/her life plan. Teenagers’ life plans are generally changeful and unstable because they are going through physical and psychological change and growth. Second, radical changes for one’s life-plan can be consistent with happiness. For example, I’m an undergraduate student studying in a rural city and I’m comfortable with my present life. But I may desire to leave regular college life to travel around the world without destination, or move to a metropolitan district to live a fancy city life. I believe I would be happy with those changes. As Kekes writes, “one should plan [his/her] life for the attainment of an end” (157). Nevertheless, people’s understanding of this end varies from person to person, keeping updating with the change in age, knowledge, personality and so on.
Kekes claims the singularity of one’s life-plan by saying that “[people have] many first-order wants and satisfactions but only one second-order want and satisfaction” (155). This view is harmful to one’s happiness because the pursuit of the fulfillment of a singular life plan may increase the possibility of one’s frustrations and set restrictions of the diversity on one’s life. Kekes may respond that a life plan with those challenges is faulty, illustrating his statement with the example of rich misers that whose souls, after achieving such single-minded, “shrivel.” However, does there really exist a clear judgement about whether a life plan is exclusive or not? What’s the difference between an avenger and an Olympic athlete? Furthermore, the singularity of one’s life plan eliminates any explanations of the evitable existence of crucial desires that are incompatible with the claimed life plan. The reason I would be happy about moving to a big city could be that I have different life plans than the only one I’ve ever claimed. Thus, I believe that people could have many life plans.
Regardless of those flaws within Kekes’ life plan theory itself, his theory as a whole is unfeasible because the relationship built by Kekes between episodic and attitudinal happiness is not solid, and one’s happiness is not guaranteed by and does not require the fulfillment of any concisely acknowledged desires or wants.
Kekes holds that “each satisfied want is an episode contributing to the formation of [an individual’s] attitude to his life as a whole” (158). However, since it’s reasonable that the achievement of one’s life plan requires certain first-order wants that do not necessarily produce episodic happiness, he or she may derive no episodic happiness from fulfillments of some first-order wants. Although Kekes admits that doing all that one really wants may not lead to happiness, he presents a superficial explanation to this concern that “because a man may want to do something with the full realization that it will not make him happy ” (154). The real problem is that even if a person satisfies many important first-order wants during certain range of time, he or she may be unhappy due to miserable happenings, for example, the death of this person’s relatives.
Although Kekes forms a conception that the satisfaction of one’s life plan is necessary to being happy, I believe that people can be satisfied with their life when they fail to achieve their life plan. Suppose Kerria explicitly surveys and evaluates her desires and then formulates a life-plan that she will be a lawyer and live in New York. She chooses a college with high law school enrollment rate and plans her academic career-oriented towards qualities for a good lawyer. But unexpected things happen: She meets a gorgeous whale during her summer trip and becomes obsessed with this kind of magic creature. She doesn’t go to law school but pursues her master’s degree in oceanography somewhere far from New York and the courtroom. She finds she has failed in her plan, but she is genuinely happy with her current life. It is the case that one gains attitudinal happiness without the achievement of her life plan. Because life is filled with surprises and unplanned happenings, satisfaction always stems from various conditions and may come by surprise.
Furthermore, I refute Kekes’ view that “[a person] is extremely unlikely to have a happy life without having a more or less clearly formed view about what his life should be (155).” Toddlers’ desires are normally transitory and unpredictable. It’s common for toddlers to have a sudden whim to want or do anything and they want their desires, though are generally fleeting, to be fulfilled immediately without any patience. Their first-order desires are too comprehensive and transient to form a certain life plan, while they are always happy. The other example is that those people who are simply lucky can live a happy life spontaneously with no consideration about how well his/her is going. In our daily life, some people have their life plan, and others do not. It’s not a big problem when we evaluate their happiness-It’s ridiculous to say a college student who has no plan concerning his/her future cannot be happy.
In conclusion, I disagree with Kekes’ picture of life plan because he doesn’t take the dynamics and diversity of human lives into account. I propose that one can formulate desirable life based on multiple life plans and one can be happy without an explicit view of life or with several life plans. Besides, rather than attempting to extrude happiness through a certain mold, I hope we can dive in ourselves to find out what does happiness look like for each of us.