Happiness, Subjectivism, and Subjectivity

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Happiness can only be experienced by individuals. While happiness can affect groups of people, its basic quality as a human emotion springs from a person’s engagement with human reality. Like other existential categories, happiness is a vital concern of differentiated persons. In other words, happiness and sadness only occur to individuals. As such, happiness is not an objective event in the material world, such as lightning, for instance.


It is important to distinguish existential subjectivity, which is the most basic reality of human beings, from philosophical subjectivism. Today there is tremendous confusion about the difference between these two topics. Philosophical subjectivism entails a devil-may-care attitude towards all things, oneself, others and the world.

What matters most to a subjectivist is his own emotions. A fine example of subjectivism is the hippie era’s fascination with doing “one’s own thing.” The 1960s was a time that will forever be marked by pretentious superficiality. To do one’s thing boils down to the negation of objective values through the embrace of skepticism and ultimately nihilism. Subjectivism in the 1960s emphasized the cult of me, precisely because this was a time that saw the leveling of objective moral codes. Ironically, by neglecting serious consideration on the nature of the self and transcendence, subjectivism instead places exaggerated emphasis on the annihilation of the self. Because the latter is not the natural thought process of most rational people, self-conscious criticism of the self requires an innovative form of delusional intellectual calisthenics. The desire to annihilate the self is a form of evading free will. In our time, many people who preach the dissolution of the self are essentially threatened by free will. Of course, the self remains. The self is what we encounter first upon awakening and the last thing to go when we go to sleep. One example of the desire to annihilate the self is the high regard that many people from the 1960s generation have for Buddhism and New Age movements.

Subjectivism promotes a manner of viewing human reality that encapsulates the self in a vacuum that refutes reflection on objective values. This is the legacy of relativism. Subjectivism is a flawed philosophy because it stunts the development of the self by not permitting it to respond to external resistance. Subjectivism turns away from any aspect of reality that resists being customized by subjective values. This refusal to accept human reality on its own terms makes subjectivity conspicuously blind to itself. This is one reason why philosophical subjectivism is a form of relativism. As a form of relativism, subjectivism has mustered great popularity in our age because it offers people the illusion of being able to re-invent themselves at will, depending on what is trending at the time. Existentially speaking, this is what is meant by inauthenticity. Undoubtedly, subjectivism seeks safety in numbers. This is part of its appeal. For instance, this is the dominant theme of Jean Paul Sartre’s work; a modish post-modern philosophy that is highly responsible for Western moral, and subsequently cultural upheaval, dating back to the 1960s.

If a subjectivist attains happiness, he does so from an arbitrary condition. Why is this? For subjectivists, happiness has a hit-or-miss quality, which promises to carry people along from high to emotional high. This is based on the idea of happiness as projection, or the idea that progressive values will eventually deliver man to a time of unprecedented liberation. But, liberation from what? Ever-increasing freedom from moral constraints, subjectivists believe, is man’s greatest hope because it liberates us from the burden imposed on us by free will.

Because the subjectivist deemphasizes transcendent values, happiness is valued for its ability to generate momentary pleasure. For the subjectivist, happiness is one among many commodities in the world. This is why in the 1960s situational ethics began to flourish. If meaning and purpose in human existence are fictions, as subjectivists propose, then man is free to pick and choose his values at will. This in keeping with the view that man will be freer and more peaceful once we annihilate the self. However, we ought not to forget that there can be no genuine subjectivity apart from its engagement to free will.

Not surprisingly, when we scratch the surface of subjectivism, we find it to be a form of relativism that promotes a self-centered way of life. This is very convenient for people who place the cultivation of their desires above all else. Yet, as I have already stated, subjectivism tries to vanish all traces of the self by promoting a superficial, non-judgmental policy of “I’m alright, you’re alright.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this all-inclusive, feel-good mood proves to be a contradiction – one of selfishness that veils itself in outward regard for community and the common good.

Like many fashionable ideas and chic popular values of our age, subjectivism in the form of relativism, is packaged and sold as being all things to all people. This is the source of the moral and social/political confusion that the West currently faces. If we were able to develop a computer program that identifies how our vast number of claims, circa 2018, conflict with each other, we would be overwhelmed by the astounding number of self-consuming and destructive contradictions that we cherish. Of course, only then would we realize the effect that these contradictions have on our everyday behavior and choices. Yet contradictions no longer alarm post-modern man. Instead, the rational mechanism that recognizes contradictions to be inherently destructive to cohesion in human existence has been deconstructed in the name of tolerance. Contradictions are now normalized.

It does not take rational people long to figure out that relativism is on a perpetual collision course with the contingencies of objective reality. One possible way out of our current predicament is to understand that subjectivism is another word for opportunism, or what can loosely be called, “me-ism.” Subjectivism is the opposite of reflection on the essence of personhood as a differentiated subject. This is the case because personhood makes great and difficult demands of itself.

It is important to clear up the popular confusion today between subjectivism and subjectivity. Subjectivism does not mean subjectivity. Many people unknowingly collapse subjectivity and personhood into subjectivism. This is a daily occurrence in the popular media. However, the states of being that these words represent are vastly different. It is an unfortunate reality of our age that the media and radical ideologies seek each other for mutual benefit – and protection. One does it for shock value and ratings; the other as a medium to disseminate anti-Western/free market/Christian sentiment. The result of this fusion has proven disastrous for Western values and social/political stability.

Subjectivism is a form of philosophical materialism that treats the self as just another object in the material realm. We must not forget that the self that subjectivism promotes is also alien to itself. That is, a self – if it can be called that – that is not confronted as a vital existential reality, but rather as a vulgar pastiche that originates in groupthink and fashion. Subjectivism is a convenient and lazy philosophy of getting through life by denying the human need for self-reflection. Subjectivism replaces man’s future-oriented lived-experience with a vague appeal for the here-and-now. As such, subjectivism embraces moral minimalism though the practice of customized personal values.


On the other hand, subjectivity recognizes the force of objective reality, given that there exists a self that has a reciprocal relationship with the external world. Subjectivity and objective reality enjoy a mutual relationship. Unlike the self-serving ways of subjectivism, genuine subjectivity embraces difficulty and strife. Subjectivity respects the limitations imposed on human existence by objective reality. This means that subjectivity is framed through its relationship with objective reality. In turn, objective reality enables us to recognize ourselves as being other than matter – like a sculpture in the round. For this reason, objective reality forces man to keep our passions and impulses in check.

Subjectivity – as persons experience this inner, vital reality of being – is the fundamental reality of human existence. As persons, human beings experience the reality of their own life in ways that no other creature can.  For instance, we are aware of the passage of time and what this means to our plans, aspirations and mortality. Far from being a theory, we feel our subjectivity as an existential category that cannot be duplicated in the cosmos. As persons, we experience our lives from the inside out – as reality proper. This means that we encounter ourselves in the totality of being, in the presence of objects, events and other persons and learn to cultivate reflection on the nature of my-self. This existential realization is awe-inspiring, but freighting to people who attempt to dispense with free will.

Genuine subjectivity enables man to participate in being. We discover ourselves in a world that serves as the spatial/temporal ground of our worldly existence. The world is our medium for self-understanding. This may be a common-sense proposition, but it is one that subjectivism fails to recognize, instead making the world a sensual playground, life a battleground.

It is not difficult to see how subjectivism is responsible for our unprecedented moral anarchy. What other values can subjectivists aspire to than those whose purpose is to assuage man from the alleged burden of the self?  Subjectivism is one manner of rebellion against the demands made on us by human freedom. Regrettably, free will acts as a burden, a source of frustration for many post-modern people.

Subjectivists find solace in each other for mutual protection. This is why subjectivism has managed to institutionalize itself in Western culture, by promoting the illusion that its modus operandi – relativism – works for the common good. Relativists relish their push to deconstruct normative values – often only out of spite for objective moral standards. For others, relativism is a strong desire that seeks to destroy objective values merely because these are viewed as authoritative and oppressive. It appears that relativists challenge each other to create the next wave of shock and awe. Today, the effect of subjectivism’s moral/spiritual aberrations have become accepted by many people. Most importantly given its lasting impact to man and society, relativism serves as a laboratory that breeds pathological personality disorders.

The momentum that relativism gathered in the twentieth century can be traced in part to relativism’s destruction of objective values. The major appeal of subjectivism, in all its variegated forms, is that it offers some people the ability to exercise values that they consider timely and fashionable. Relativists believe they can re-make themselves on demand. Adherents of relativism do this with the upmost confidence that judgment will not be tolerated.

Given the exalted appeal of subjectivism in promoting man’s ultimate emancipation from itself, subjectivism now enjoys unprecedented chic appeal. Today some people live under the illusion that there are no objective values. This notion empowers post-modern man to create a personal code of morality. The logical implications of this convenient and opportunistic morality come at a highly destructive cost, though. It is hard to fathom how our technologically complex democracies can successfully incorporate a myriad of contradictory views, without canceling each other out.

Intellectually honest research and study of relativism will perhaps one day reveal how much suffering this dead-end philosophy has wrought in Western societies. Lamentably, the latter may come under duress. To date, we possess an abundance of statistics on suicide, alcoholism, depression, drug use, etc., which address the destructive legacy of relativism. Given the moral/spiritual conditions imposed by subjectivism, the long-term prospects for happiness, much less joy, to flourish do not appear promising.

One of the soundest categories of existence that existentialists have offered us is Martin Heidegger’s notion of care (Sorge). Heidegger argues that man’s great sense of anxiety comes from the heaviness that man feels. To take care of our being places a heavy toll on us. Cultivation of the self is a creative act that engages us for a lifetime. In other words, because we care about our own existential condition, we spend a lifetime caring for our temporal condition. This is a form of keeping the score of our existential condition. Yet care is not something that all people desire to practice. Care, in Heidegger’s sense of the word, entails the embrace of free will, and, as I have already suggested, freedom is viewed as a burden for many people. The opposite of free will is bliss that comes from ignorance.

The Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, argues that mass man is careless about his own self. This makes this type of person a destructive force in the lives of other people and institutions. Ortega argues that it is the noble man, not the subjectivist, who places great demands on himself. The celebration of mediocrity of spirit, the Spanish thinker tells us, is the great achievement of mass man. Noble man, Ortega contends, experiences lived-existence in its totality, including the understanding of life as vexing resistance. Man embraces difficulty, not because we are masochists, but because it forms the basis of earthly existence and often servs to ennoble human existence.

Subjectivists do not burden themselves with difficulty, especially when this requires having to embrace objective values. The predominate belief of subjectivists is that life is too difficult, so why create more problems for ourselves? This condition enables people to vacillate from pleasure to pleasure in pursuit of illusive happiness. Subjectivists are content to live out their earthly life as best as possible, without convictions or commitments that get in the way of their quest for pleasure. This is what they mean by not being judgmental. Thus, we see that sophism is alive and flourishing in post-modernity.

Subjectivists view life as provisional; human life is about the here-and-now. The things that make subjectivists happy are all understood as being temporary. Joy, on the other hand, is not tied to particular forms of temporal happiness given its status as a pervasive state of being.

Pedro blas Gonzalez

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Pedro Blas Gonzalez is a Professor of Philosophy at Barry University. He is author of several books, the latest being Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega Y Gasset's Philosophy of Subjectivity (Paragon, 2005) and Ortega's "The Revolt of the Masses" and the Triumph of the New Man (Algora, 2007).