Define Success Wisely
Success is achieving a definite goal.
Relief is success in stopping, minimizing, or forgetting about pain.
Pleasure is success in achieving a positive sensation and/or emotion. (Relief always accompanies pleasure.)
Fulfillment is success in actualizing one’s highest material and biological potential. (Pleasure always accompanies fulfillment.)
Goodness is success in actualizing one’s highest moral or spiritual potential. (Pleasure always accompanies goodness.)
Happiness is success in achieving both goodness and fulfillment. (Pleasure always accompanies happiness.)
“Success” is value-neutral. It merely means “achieving a goal,” regardless of whether or not that goal is wise or good.
For example, the Nazis were very successful at exterminating Jews, and Jeffrey Dahmer was very successful at sexual cannibalism.
So that tells you how much “success” is worth in and of itself. The question is not, “Are you trying to achieve something?” The question is, “What are you trying to achieve?
Most people want to achieve pleasure. This usually involves things like eating, drinking, partying, and fornicating. While these things are obviously good and worthwhile in themselves, they last for a very short time, and they usually lead to pain. This means that those who start off seeking pleasure usually end up seeking mere relief.
For example, heroin addiction starts as pleasure, but ends up as nothing more than a desperate hope for relief. Another example: Fornication is pleasant in itself, but it very often leads to emotional turmoil, loss of reputation, disease, or even unwanted parenthood and financial ruin. Thus, those who make fornication the center of their lives will soon be chasing relief in hopes of merely breaking even from the pain they heaped upon themselves.
Taken as a goal in its own right, pleasure is ironic, because it usually leads directly to its opposite.
Therefore, the wise discard the idea of pursuing pleasure in-itself.
Fulfillment is the second most common life goal. Fulfillment is certainly more promising than pleasure, but it is highly contingent upon material circumstances. For most people, at least some degree of fulfillment is possible, but it is never guaranteed merely because of an act of imagination or will.
Fulfillment is easy for few, challenging for most, and impossible for some. Imagine a person who is born into abject poverty, with a debilitating deformity, as part of a hated minority that suffers under an oppressive political regime. Can we honestly say that such a person has much chance of fulfillment?
Please. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Therefore, fulfillment is a worthwhile adjunct goal for most — but it cannot be suitable as an ultimate goal for living.
Next, we move on to goodness. Goodness means “success in actualizing one’s moral or spiritual potential.” In other words, goodness is moral excellence in accordance with one’s free will.
Free will is the only limitation on goodness, which is the same as saying it has no limitations at all. Anybody who wants to be good can be good. Also, despite what some may say, there is wide consensus about what goodness looks like on an interpersonal level. I say “what goodness looks like on an interpersonal level,” because that is precisely what I mean.
People may disagree wildly over how “goodness” is defined, or how it should be applied at the level of policy or politics — but nobody has any trouble recognizing goodness and its opposite when presented with real-time, real-life examples. For instance, the moral status of war may be a topic of debate, but jumping in front of a bullet to save a child’s life is not.
As a practical matter, goodness is always within reach, even for psychopaths. If you can derive a feeling of power from hurting people, you can also derive a feeling of power from helping them. Why not?
Goodness is the only absolute choice. It is absolute because it is not contingent upon anything other than one’s will. If one’s will aims for the good, then one can speak and act according to that will without external interference.
One may object that one’s will is not under one’s control, because of genetics, brain chemistry, or factors in one’s upbringing — but this is absurd. It’s like saying that a person’s control is not under his control. What does that even mean?
A person and his will are identical. There is no person without a human will, and there is no human will without a person. To say that a person does not control his own will is to say that he does not control the part of him that controls himself. This is inconceivable.
Outside influences can influence how a person chooses to use their free will, but they can never influence free will itself. A person controls his will even more than he controls his own hands. After all, hands can malfunction (as in the case of a disorder of the nervous system), but wherever there is a person, there is a free will. To say otherwise, you may as well assert that a circle can exist absent a curve.
Anybody can choose to be good, and anybody who chooses to be good will thereby experience the pleasure of being good.
Therefore, the wise regard goodness as the penultimate goal of life. Finally, we move on to happiness.
Happiness is unassailably the greatest goal of life. The wise regard happiness as life’s only end in-itself. Happiness — defined here as “success in achieving both fulfillment and goodness” — includes all other equities as part of its definition.
While fulfillment is not entirely up to us, goodness is — and both lead to directly to happiness, and therefore pleasure, and therefore the minimization of pain, and therefore the grandest success achievable in this life.
Aim first for goodness, and then for fulfillment — and only then aim for pleasure and relief — and you cannot fail to achieve as much happiness as this life allows.