On Philosophy

July 9, 2006

The Philosophy of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (2)

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:05 am

Although the comic Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is primary involved with the examination of what could be best described as unethical behavior, it does provide an interesting reason to act ethically. I am referring here specifically to the chapter in which Johnny finds himself in hell. Hell however doesn’t have any flaming pits or torture chambers in Johnny’s world. Instead hell is created by the unrestrained desires of individuals. Let me quote one of the residents “I have to live here with these fools who’ve made this place into their own hell, fussing over stupid details, all while the devil just sits back and laughs.” The idea here is that living simply to satisfy your own desires leads to unhappiness over the long term, even if satisfying your wants gives you pleasure momentarily. One possible reason why the simple satisfaction of desires might lead to long-term misery is that one’s desires might be in conflict. For example you might want to eat chocolate and lose weight. If you only pursue happiness by the fulfillment of your desires then you are destined to be unhappy given these preferences, since you can’t satisfy both at the same time. However it is possible that a person’s desires might not be in conflict. Would such a person still be miserable if they followed only their desires? I would argue that they would, because most of our desires cannot be permanently satisfied. The person who loves to eat delicacies is not finished after one meal. They need good food day after day. This forces them into a situation where they must devote so much energy to the fulfillment of their desires that they become unhappy (a slave of their desires), or they must occasionally be unhappy when their desires cannot be satisfied. Either way they lose in the long run.

If we aren’t going to be ruled by our desires what should motivate us instead? Aristotle suggested that everything should be undertaken in moderation, so as to avoid this problem. However this solution is still missing something; why should we be motivated to act in moderation? Although moderation my help us escape some of the problems I have mentioned above it itself does not provide us with any additional happiness. Another solution, proposed by Kant, is to choose to live by rational rules of action (which, as a result of being rational, must be ethical). According to Kant such rational rules will prevent us from falling into the trap of desires. Additionally, since we select the rules that we live by we will select ones which living under will provide us with some happiness, for example we might adopt a rule of charity, if being charitable makes us happy. Finally, Kant would say that living under such rules makes us free, since they are freely chosen by us, unlike desires, which simply happen.

Johnny doesn’t have anything to say about whether living by a set of rational rules is a good idea. However the comic does have an interesting point about freedom. Once again the idea is best conveyed by a quote: “You were born a feeling creature. There is no unlearning of your nature. Therefore there is no choice. … You’re always a slave to something.” Kant says that we are free by living under a set of self-imposed rules. But are we really free? Have we just exchanged one kind of slavery for another? Perhaps we should revise our ideas about freedom instead.

Part 1

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