On Philosophy

April 10, 2007

Using The Good Life As Justification

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I argued that the good life (a valuable life, one worth living) is a life that is spent in pursuit of the things that are most important to the person living it, that is spent striving towards that person’s goals. Which obviously means that the good life varies from person to person. Some might worry that such a definition of the good life would allow people to justify to themselves every behavior, every whim, since they are all in the service of their desires, and thus that following such a definition of the good life would lead to unethical behavior.

Specifically this concern may arise from considering a person whose goals in life are hedonistic, who simply wants to experience the most pleasure possible. And thus such a person might decide simply to do whatever seems enjoyable at the moment, even if it has negative consequences for other people, simply because they want to. And furthermore it might seem like such a person could simply appeal to the good life, and to the fact that their only goal is to experience as much pleasure as possible, as justifying to themselves the actions they choose to take. By allowing such a person to justify their unethical choices it might seem like we are then encouraging them to act unethically.

But this problem is a problem in name only, for three reasons. The first is that it confuses pleasure with satisfaction and happiness with desire. Let’s start with the connection between happiness and desire. Suppose you buy a car, and that purchasing the car makes you happy. Why did you buy the car? The teleological explanation is that you bought the car so that you would be happy, and the efficient explanation is that you bought the car because you had a desire to do so. It is reasonable to assume that only one of these explains why we bought the car (they both may be valid descriptions, but only one is what is really going on). To decide which must go we can ask why buying the car makes us happy and why we desired to buy the car. Why we desired the car could in theory be given a psychological explanation, in terms of our experiences, other desires, ect, so explaining our purchase of the car in terms of desire seems sound in this respect, because the desire itself is not an unexplained phenomena. Explaining why buying the car makes us happy is not as simple; it would seem that it too would require us to appeal to some psychological facts that result in us being happy after we buy the car. But what could these psychological facts be? Well, since buying the car doesn’t involuntarily trigger our pleasure center it seems reasonable to say that buying the car makes us happy because we desired to buy the car. And thus the explanation in terms of desire is the better explanation, because an explanation in terms of the fact that buying the car makes us happy must itself reduce to an explanation in terms of desire. To complete this account of course I do need to say something about the cases in which something, like eating good food, does directly trigger the pleasure center. In such cases the reason that we pursue such an activity may very well because it makes us happy. It is true that we do have some immediate desire for that activity that psychologically prompts us to act, but that desire may itself be explained in terms of past experiences, in which that activity brought us pleasure. So really happiness can be divided into two categories: pleasure, which comes from activities that are hard-wired to stimulate our pleasure center, and satisfaction, which comes from doing something that we desire (satisfying our desire). And this reveals a problem with our hypothetical individual who pursues happiness with no regard for the ethical nature of their actions. The problem does not arise from their pursuit of pleasure, but pursuing pleasure isn’t incompatible with ethical behavior; there are only a few activities that we are hard-wired for, and none of them require unethical behavior to satisfy. It is their pursuit of satisfaction that seems likely to give rise to unethical behavior, since what satisfies an individual can be nearly anything. But desiring or pursuing satisfaction by itself is paradoxical, even if you wanted to you couldn’t, because satisfaction can only be arrived at by fulfilling some desire, making other desires necessary. And once you admit other desires it is simply redundant to say that they are pursuing satisfaction, they are simply pursuing their desires, which results in satisfaction.

So, we may admit, the naïve conception of the hedonist put forward here as someone who would abuse our definition of the good life is flawed. But this may not resolve all our concerns. Let us just do away with our conception of this person as a hedonist and instead characterize them as someone who doesn’t prioritize their desires, and simply attempts to satisfy them all. In our thoughts about the good life we treated people as having only a handful of important desires, with their other desires subjugated to these. So it may seem like the person who doesn’t follow a smaller number of these desires exclusively may still be able to use their pursuit of the good life to justify their every whim. But there was a reason that we considered people who had only a few central desires, because simply treating every desire as equal was inconsistent. Desires pull us in different ways, and so to attempt to satisfy every desire would be impossible, and we would end up satisfying very few of them. And that is an excellent way to fail to lead the good life. So there was a reason we only considered people with a few central desires; people who don’t structure their desires in this way simply can’t lead the good life.

So perhaps the “hedonist” was simply a bad example. But surely there are people who have only a few central desires, who are led by those desires to do unethical things. Should we worry that the pursuit good life may give them a justification for their acts? Let us divide these people into three exhaustive categories. The first is people whose desires simply don’t involve other people in any way; their desires aren’t about other people, nor do they need the products of other people to help satisfy their desires. Such people aren’t really a problem because it is probably easier for them to pursue their desires in complete solitude, so we don’t have to worry about them using the good life to justify unethical behavior. Then we have people whose desires may or may not involve other people, but who definitely require other people or the products of other people in order to fulfill their desires. For such a person unethical behavior is contradictory. Ethical behavior is for the benefit of the group, and because they benefit from the group ethical behavior thus benefits them indirectly. In addition since they need the group they have a strong incentive not to act unethically, because the group will do their best to punish them if they do act unethically. And, finally, by acting unethically they encourage others to act unethically, again to the detriment of their desires. So for such a person to act unethically is for them to act against their own desires, and so to prevent themselves from leading the good life. Finally, we come to the most problematic case, the people whose desires require harm to come to other people (their desires are inherently unethical) and whose desires don’t require the aid of other people or the products of other people to fulfill. I must admit that for such people to act unethically may be to lead the good life. But I hesitate to call such human beings people, they are more like wild animals who may try to eat us. And we do not have any ethical obligations toward such people. Like animals if we can render them harmless we may let them live, or we may try to fix them, like a pet that has gone mad. But if we can do neither of these we are free to destroy them without remorse. Thankfully such people are rare, we usually lock them up as violently insane, because we recognize that in some ways their mentality is alien to us, and perhaps not really able to be judged by our standards. Thankfully we don’t have to worry about notions of the good life aggravating the behavior of such people; they have cut themselves off from society, and hence have no need to justify their behavior to themselves (we only feel the need to justify our behavior because at some level we care about other people, and need to reassure ourselves that we are right; someone who has really cut themselves off from society feels no such need).

From these considerations I think it follows that we can dispel any worries we might have that somehow pursuing the good life will lead to unethical behavior by giving people a way to justify unethical acts in terms of their own desires. Of course people might do so anyways, but all that demonstrates is that certain people will always find a way to justify their behavior to themselves and to convince themselves that they have a good reason for acting that way.

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