On Philosophy

February 28, 2007

The Real Good Life

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:05 am

Previously I have attempted to define what makes a life good, not in the ethical sense, but in the sense of a life that is valuable or noble. (see here and here) But when attempting to define what the good life was I didn’t get far. It was easy to point out what it wasn’t, for example it isn’t the pursuit of happiness, but not to point out what it was. Recently I addressed the meaning of life, and when thinking about that topic I realized that it didn’t make sense to pick out a single “meaning of life” for everyone, that the meaning of life might simply be different for different people. So perhaps it was hard to define what the good life was because there really was no one definition that was suitable for everyone (in the sense of a recipe of what to do in order to make a life good).

So let me propose the following: a good life is one that satisfies that person’s Ends given that their Ends are consistent. (A person’s Ends are what motivates them fundamentally. For example, wealth might be an End for a greedy person, knowledge might be and End for a scientist.) Such a definition does not simply label every life as the good life (one of the criteria for a successful definition of the good life), as there are two ways a life might fail to be good. One is to not pursue the person’s Ends. For example, if one of my Ends is to collect stamps then if I never collect stamps (because I am lazy) then my life isn’t good; or if I get caught up in trying to make a lot of money to pursue my stamp collecting hobby, but never get around to it, then again my life isn’t good. And the other way a life can fail to be good is if it is lived in the pursuit of conflicting Ends (for example if I want to be a movie star but want to avoid acting in any movies). It also requires effort (another criteria for a successful definition of the good life), because it is entirely possible for someone to have Ends and yet fail to pursue them, or to pursue them only haphazardly. And because it is defined as the pursuit of consistent Ends it is guaranteed not to be self-defeating.

The only possible problem here is the requirement that the good life be different from the ethical life, but not in direct conflict with it. Obviously a life lived in the pursuit of one’s Ends is not the same as the ethical life, but it might seem possible for these goals to come into conflict. What if my desire to collect stamps leads me to steal them from other collectors? There are two ways around this problem. The first is simply to realize that the pursuit of one’s Ends can be done without taking the shortest path to the goal. Obviously a serious pursuit of ones Ends means that you will do your best to satisfy them in a timely manner, but it doesn’t force you to commit crimes in order to lead the good life. Perhaps it is harder to earn money to buy stamps within the bounds of ethics, but staying within those bounds doesn’t mean that you aren’t pursuing your Ends. The second reason that this is less of a problem that it initially seems is that adopting ethical behavior as an End is usually motivated by any set of other Ends a person has anyways. If their Ends motivate them to be part of society then it is because society helps them further their Ends. And thus it is beneficial to that person to remain part of society, which means at least appearing to be ethical, and to contribute to society to some degree, because it indirectly aids their own Ends. Since these considerations motivate adopting ethical behavior as an End to lead the good life they would have to act ethically, at least most of the time.

Of course the real worry about such an analysis of the good life is that it devalues the good life in some way, perhaps by failing to rule out some unsatisfactory kinds of lives, or simply cheapening it by offering so many alternative. However, I can’t think of any kind of life that obviously fails to be a good life and that satisfies the definition I have proposed here. For example, the person who seeks only happiness obviously cannot live the good life. Obviously seeking happiness directly is often self-defeating, so already that is a problem. And, more seriously, happiness is not really the kind of thing you can seek independently of other considerations. People are made happy because they are satisfying their Ends, usually. For example, I want to write this post, because it contributes to one of my Ends, and so doing a job I am satisfied with makes me happy. But what if happiness itself was my only End instead? Well then writing this post wouldn’t make me happy, because it didn’t satisfy any of my desires. If someone really had no Ends besides happiness then the only thing that would make them happy would be those Ends that we have as a biological necessity, like eating. (Although drug use might also be able to make one happy without meeting any End.) In any case, it simply doesn’t make sense to lead a life that strives for happiness, instead it seems like a better idea to lead a life that strives for other things, and thus is full of happiness as an unintended consequence.

But, in addition to simply showing that certain “shallow” lives don’t satisfy our requirements let me give a positive defense of the definition I have given here. The good life, independent of any definition, is usually thought of as a valuable life. Obviously what counts as valuable is something that seems different from different perspectives. Under our definition of the good life the good life is one that is valuable* to the person who is living it (note: not that the act of staying alive is valuable, that is valuable to almost everyone, but that the contents of that life are valuable). Of course there are other perspectives. For example someone else’s life might not be valuable to me, by my standards, or their life may not be valuable to society as a whole, by its standards. But at a certain point we must admit that an individual’s life is his or her own, and thus that what matters most is if it is valuable to them. Whether society’s opinion, or the opinion of other people, matters depends on whether it matters to the person living that life.

* Obviously I am using a restricted sense of what it means for something to be valuable to an individual. I don’t mean that it simply seems valuable or desirable to them, but that it really is desirable, meaning that it is really satisfying their Ends. If someone focused all their energy on making money because their only End was to have money then I would have to concede that their life was good to them. But if they focused all their energy on making money because they thought it would make them happy then I would not say that their life is valuable (or certainly not as valuable as it could be) to them. Instead they should try to meet their real Ends, which will make then happy, unlike money, which can only lead to happiness if it is actually used to further your Ends; simply having it does nothing.

February 27, 2007

Revealed Knowledge

Filed under: Epistemology,Mind — Peter @ 12:09 am

There are basically three ways in which we can support the claim that the know something. One, the most common, is that the things we know are the best and simplest explanation of observations. This is why we believe that an independently existing external world exists, it the best and simplest explanation for the consistency of the world, the fact that the world can surprise us, and the fact that the world doesn’t directly respond to our will. A second way in which we might know things is if is impossible for things to be otherwise, given our understanding of truth. It is this reason that motivates us to conclude that we exist, because in order to doubt that we exist something must exist, at the very least the doubt itself. And finally there is “revealed knowledge”, facts that are simply apparent to people and can’t be denied, as they see it. Revealed knowledge is the basis for qualia/phenomenal properties, as well as the belief in god. The first two are uncontroversial ways to support a claim of knowledge, but the third is not.

It is my claim that revealed knowledge is knowledge only in name, because the facts we “know” in this way are no more or less likely to be true because they were revealed. I would say that all we need to do is explain why such facts are felt to revealed and undeniable, and we have explained all there is that needs explaining. Now the explanation may be that the facts are as they seem, but it might also be just a reflection of the structure of our psychological constitution, and thus the supposed facts revealed to us by it might indeed be false.

Of course as I have described it reveled knowledge seems obviously ridiculous. We are subject to all sorts of cognitive illusions, for example the fact that in certain drawings one line may seem to be longer than another even though they are actually the same length. And it may be that even when we know that it is an illusion we may still feel that one line is longer. Although we may admit to being fooled this admission is a second-order judgment. Our first-order judgment keeps telling us that one line is longer, and nothing we can do or think will change this judgment, but because of our capacity for reason our second-order judgment overrides this, and so we don’t allow that first-order judgment to influence our thinking about the matter. Thus this is a case of revealed knowledge being inaccurate (and accepted as inaccurate), although we know better one line is still presented to us as longer; we cannot deny that judgment, only overrule it.

But the defenders of qualia do not believe that qualia are such revealed knowledge. They agree that revealed knowledge is bad, and that it can’t be relied upon without independent confirmation, and that it might indeed be false. But, they say, qualia are not something that can be simply explained away, like god or optical illusions. Unlike god, they claim, they are not invented to explain some observations, they are an object of study that needs explaining. This, in my opinion, is at best a verbal trick, because it does not address the problem that revealed knowledge is often bad. Instead it addresses how certain kinds of “best explanations”, the first type of knowledge mentioned, may turn out to be false, when we have some kind of psychological bias that motivates us to pick a less than optimum explanation all the while thinking of it as the best explanation. It is true that some people do think they have knowledge of god, and UFOs, in the “best explanation” kind of way, and it is true that we often explain why their conclusions are wrong by appealing to a psychological bias that interferes with their ability to find the best explanation. But this is not the kind of knowledge that we were comparing qualia to. We were comparing qualia to the kind of knowledge of god people have when they claim that they can simply feel god’s presence (or some other feature of god, like his love), without backing that assertion up with a reason, they simply feel it. Just like almost everyone simply sees one line as longer than the other in the illusion. And just as we simply feel that consciousness has certain phenomenal, qualitative, properties. If we say that qualia must be explained, without being explained away, because of this kind of immediacy then we can make the same claim for god and optical illusions. If we can’t explain qualia by explaining how our psychological constitution would lead us to think that qualia exist then we can’t explain our judgment that one line in the illusion is longer than the other by appealing to the psychological facts either. Instead we would argue that the line must be longer because it appears in an immediate way to be so, and that the only satisfactory explanation of this fact is one that does not deny that the line is indeed longer. Clearly this is ridiculous. It is perfectly acceptable to explain the illusion by explaining why we see one line as longer by appealing to psychological facts about the way we process images. And thus it should be perfectly acceptable to explain qualia by explaining why we think that experiences have a characteristic feel by appealing to psychological facts about the way we have access to our own experience.

Thus if we are to believe the claim that qualia or god exist they must be justified by one of the other two possibilities. Since there is no contradiction in denying that they don’t exist only the first option is a real possibility. But if we are to justify them as the best explanation of certain observed facts then they must play some causal role in events, either by directly being causes, or by being descriptions of certain kinds of situations that can act as causes. Which in turn means that one must accept either the thesis that the physical world is not casually closed, or that qualia, or god, are really something physical, and hence not as special as we first supposed.

February 26, 2007

For The People

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:18 am

When discussing justice and its role in society I illustrated some ways in which a representative democracy (a system of government in which people elect representatives) could fail to be responsive to the concerns of the people who make it up, if they are a minority. I am a big fan of government for the people, meaning a government that is responsive to needs of the people it governs, but I am not a big fan of government by the people. The people, or at least the majority of them, can be unjust, intolerant, and as a whole not necessarily the force you would rationally want behind decisions. But in order to prevent the government from becoming corrupt, and ceasing to listen to the people at all, some measure of government by the people is often seen as needed. Obviously representative democracy is less a government by the people than direct democracy (a system of government where the people vote directly on all issues) is, and thus is some ways a representative democracy is a superior system.

But even representative democracy is imperfect. One problem is that representatives are elected by region, but people with a common interest may be spread out evenly about the nation. In such a case these people would only be able to insure that their issues were addressed by moving so that they become a majority, or at least a large enough percentage of the population so that addressing the issues they care about would be worthwhile. But people shouldn’t have to move to be represented. Thus it would probably be beneficial to remove the geographical boundaries that are usually in place to decide who a representative represents. One way of doing this would be to allow people to vote for any representative they wished at election time. Representatives that got a certain minimal level of votes would be allowed to serve in the government. Getting more votes then is necessary could bestow other privileges, such as being able to secure desired committee appointments, ect. But, on the downside, this would result in a real headache for voters, since there would be so many potential representatives to choose between. If the nation had a healthy multi-party system this could be fixed by allowing voters to instead vote for a political party, and then each party would be able to put forward a number of representatives proportional to the votes they received.

Another possibility is to give the people additional ways to influence the government, in addition to voting for representatives. It is true that people can already challenge the constitutionality of laws, but to do that is a long and involved process. Instead people should be able to directly challenge the justice of a law, meaning that they can attempt to get the law repealed if it is unjust, even if that law isn’t strictly unconstitutional, because the constitution does not forbid every form of injustice. In addition to this it would make sense to give people the opportunity to vote on some laws directly. For example, anti-corruption laws always have a hard time making headway in the US congress because too many members of that body benefit from the very corruption they are trying to outlaw. On the other hand if the people were allowed to vote on such a law I am sure that it would pass by a wide margin, which would probably be for the best. But, although this arrangement might be an improvement in some situations, it isn’t a perfect solution. An injustice might be allowed to stand simply because the courts don’t see it as such, or because the courts are themselves unjust.

So perhaps putting people into place by voting for them is just the wrong solution to government accountability. After all, it is a rather indirect way of holding the government responsible for its actions, as they can do basically whatever they want once they are in office, and only listen to their voters around election years. There are other ways of doing things. For example, government officials could receive their positions based on an impartial merit system (such as some kind of test), and could move up based on seniority. To keep the government in line we could have a body of ordinary citizens, chosen randomly each year, who are given investigatory powers and the ability to remove officials from their posts if the majority agree that they aren’t acting in the best interests of the people. I don’t know, however, if a group of randomly selected citizens is sufficiently competent to do this job, which makes me sad. But if they were it would certainly motivate the government to keep its citizens happy. I’m not sure if it would be more just than a standard democracy, however, because even if the government was acting unjustly the majority of citizens supervising the government would have to agree that they deserved to be removed because of it. So perhaps it would be better then if a minority of them were able to remove members of the government, given sufficient cause, but I will leave things as they stand, since it is not my intention to go into every possible detail here.

My point in raising these possibilities is not to endorse one or the other of them. My point is that all of them may be superior to our current way of doing things. So why do we keep trying to run our government in the same way? Is it because we are too traditional, or is it because the people who have the power to change it like it the way that it is? Neither is a good reason to avoid trying new things. Now it is true that there is always the possibility that alternative systems might be worse than our current one, but that is simply a good reason to try things on a smaller scale first and then work up to nationwide, not a reason to turn our backs on the possibility of change altogether.

February 25, 2007

The Meaning Of Life

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Worrying about the meaning of life seems like a popular activity. People wonder what the meaning of life is, and if their lives have meaning. And some cling to their religion because they think that their lives will be meaningless without it. Of course as it is phrased the whole issue is nonsensical. Meaning has to do with language, with how a word represents something or communicates something. And a life is not the kind of thing that can represent or communicate, and so it doesn’t make sense to inquire about its meaning. So by these questions people must mean something else, if they mean anything at all.

One way of understanding worries about the meaning of life is as worries about the purpose of life. And one way of understanding what it can mean for a life to have a purpose is to see a life with purpose as one that has a goal towards which it is working. For the religious this usually means a place in the good afterlife instead of the bad afterlife. But this isn’t the only possible goal. A life could be lived with the purpose of doing the most good possible, or of collecting the most stamps possible. As I see it, if a life has a goal it is self-assigned. It is true that external agencies may try to influence people towards living their life with one goal or another (society wants you to contribute, your boss wants you to work, ect), but I don’t think it makes those goals more real or more valid unless the individual chooses to accept them. And of course there is no obstacle to individuals deciding their own life’s goal; we can decide on smaller goals validly, such as to go to the store, to get a job, ect, so there seems to be no barrier in deciding to have a goal that requires an entire life to complete.

Another way of understanding what it can mean for a life to have a purpose is to see a life with purpose as one that is part of some greater process. Obviously the religious interpret this as god’s plan, but again there are many other possibilities. For example, we could see a life as being part of cultural or intellectual progress. And of course there are a number of human designed plans that a life could be part of; you could dedicate your life to serving some organization, which surely has far reaching plans of its own. And again there isn’t a factor that makes any one of these larger schemes more or less valid than another. Obviously personal preference will determine which an individual chooses to be part of, if any, but the fact that individuals choose differently doesn’t make their choices invalid.

A final way of understanding what it can mean for a life to have meaning, going back to the original form of the question, is as one that is important. Of course if something is important it is important for a reason, because it is valuable to someone or something, or because it serves a purpose. Since we have already investigated what it can mean for a life to have a purpose let us instead turn to the idea that it is valuable. Now in my previous discussion of what was valuable I pointed out that value was always relative to someone or some system that can be said to have interests. Again, the religious will say that it is god to whom we are valuable. And again that is not the only possibility. Our lives can be valuable to ourselves, to others, to society, ect. And, as with the previous two possibilities, individuals may decide differently on which viewpoint they want their life to be value to, and there is no reason to say that one of these choices is less valid than any other.

But some may be unhappy with the number of possibilities in each of these ways of understanding what it can mean for a life to have a purpose. It may seem like the number of possibilities devalues them all, making then essentially arbitrary, and thus unfulfilling in some way. I think this is because we may all instinctively want an understanding of the “meaning of life” to be something that makes our lives easier. If there was one simple answer then we could just follow it, and our worries about whether we were living the right way, or if our lives were important, could be set aside. But just because a single answer may be desirable doesn’t mean that there actually is one. However, even though there isn’t a single answer of the kind we may have been looking for it doesn’t mean that there is no answer either. Instead we simply have to make a choice, instead of having that choice made for us. And obviously we will make that choice based on our interests, based on what is important to us, and so the choice made will be different for different people, but that doesn’t invalidate it. Essentially then the meaning of life is what you make of it. You can choose to live in a life that has no meaning, but you can also choose to live one that does, based on the standards that seem important to you; the fact that not everyone else will agree with you has no bearing on the issue.

February 24, 2007

Justice And Societal Health

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

Previously I have appealed to the notion that society, in a loose sense, can have interests, which is to say that things can go better or worse for it (and that we usually have a reason to act in the best interests of society, although this is an additional claim). More precisely, it is better for a society to be healthy than unhealthy. The health of a society is measured by two factors: how long it survives and how well it does in comparison to other societies (which is directly related to how long the society survives, because a society that can’t compete with its neighbors won’t survive very long).

Obviously a society whose citizens are unhappy with its government won’t survive in its current form for very long, unless the government has a way of correcting its problems without being completely replaced. There are many reasons why citizens may be unhappy with their government, but here I am just going to consider one of them, the one that is most detrimental to societal health: systematic injustice. Injustice almost always makes people angry at the cause of that injustice, if they are disadvantaged by it, and so unlike people who are unhappy in general, those that suffer from injustice will almost always be angry with their government. For example, a group of poor people who are poor because of their bad choices or bad luck may be unhappy, but they are unlikely to all blame the government as the exclusive source of their problems, or to act against it. However, if the government makes a group of people poor by unjustly depriving them of their money then they will resent the government, and will be united in a desire to take action against it. And furthermore they will be able to motive others to join them, because there are people who are opposed to injustice, even if they aren’t personally affected by it.

Obviously the larger the injustice the larger the problem will be for society. But even cases of injustice in which small numbers of people are affected can’t be ignored. For example, consider a completely inflexible government, which can only be changed by overthrowing it. Now any uprising has a chance of success, although smaller uprisings are naturally less likely to succeed. But this doesn’t matter in the long run, because if there really is injustice the people affected by it will rise up over and over again, until eventually they succeed. Of course this means that major injustices will result in a change of government in a shorter period of time then less significant injustices, but all this means is that the major injustices impact societal health more then the lesser ones, which is to be expected.

Of course it is unlikely for a society to begin its existence as perfectly just. Even with the best intentions mistakes can be made. Thus a truly healthy society must be flexible and responsive to its citizens. And at this point everyone assumes that I have shown democracy to be the best possible system of government. But that is the wrong conclusion to draw. It is true that a democracy is often more flexible than a monarchy (although it really depends on the monarch), but that doesn’t mean democracy is perfectly suited for dealing with injustice. For example, in a direct democracy, if only a small percentage of people were affected by the injustice then it is unlikely that the injustice would be fixed (if it benefited everyone else) unless they took matters in their own hands, and either changed the democracy by force, or scared the majority of voters into changing it from within the system, and neither outcome is desirable.

Representative democracy is slightly better. If the people who suffer from injustice can secure a few representatives then they have a good chance of being able have their problems addressed. For example, they can filibuster and disrupt the proceedings of government in other ways until they are heard, or in a parliamentary system other parties may need to form a coalition with them. But there is no guarantee that the people who are suffering from injustice will be able to secure representation in a representative democracy. They may be spread out over the nation, so that they don’t make up a majority in any region, or they may be underrepresented because of laws that prevent them from voting (maybe that is the very injustice which needs to be addressed). A case in point is the civil rights movement in the USA. In a representative democracy a group of people suffered from injustice, even though they could vote in principle. And they were only able to secure justice by protesting, mostly peacefully, until the rest of society realized that they had to address the problem (because the protests wouldn’t remain peaceful forever if the problems weren’t addressed). This situation should never happen, if the government is truly flexible and responsive to the needs of the people, and the fact that people had to take to the streets to get things changed in a democracy, which is supposed to be a government by the people for the people, shows there is something lacking in democracy.

But I’m not going to make a suggestion as to what could be better, because I have gone on long enough. And anyways I have said what I needed to drive home what I think is the important point here, that justice is vital to a healthy society. And thus that if you think that you are ethically required to strive for the best outcome, and you think the best outcome is that which is best for society, then you will do your best to insure that justice is done. And thus that the kind of consequentialist ethics that I advocate entails that we should act justly, and establish just systems, as a logical consequence, a result that reflects well on the system as a whole.

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