On Philosophy

October 28, 2007

Lives Lived Without Reflection

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

Entertainment is a large part of modern culture, the proximate cause being simply that modern people have more free time than those who came before us did. But is entertainment the right way to be using this new abundance of free time? A life devoted entirely to labor is, to a certain extent, a meaningless life. Certainly that life served a purpose for society, and thus for other people, but the individual living it didn’t get much out of it. So in an ideal world people would have used their new free time for themselves, on things that are important to them, in order to make themselves more than a cog in the machine of society. Now it may be that entertainment is simply the best thing for most people, and I won’t deny that it certainly does seem to make people happy. Thus we clearly can’t reject it out of hand without making some presuppositions about what is valuable. But certainly entertainment seems like an escape, a diversion, not something that makes a life good.

But first, what is entertainment? Obviously entertainment is a source of some pleasure, but so are many things. I think what distinguishes entertainment from other activities is that nothing is produced as a result of it. Some activities we engage in change us. For example, studying a subject or practicing some skill improves our abilities. Other activities, perhaps most activities, result in some finished product. Building a house produces a house, and my thinking about philosophy produces these posts. But entertainment does neither of these; although it engages the mind it does not improve us, and it certainly being entertained doesn’t produce something. The primary function of entertainment thus seems to be to distract, when we are being entertained our consciousness is busy with the entertainment itself, and has no room for other concerns. And indeed that is true when we are engaged in any activity that requires attention, when we are active, our consciousness is caught up with what we are doing. And thus I characterize a life that has all its potentially free time filled with entertainment of some form as a life lived without reflection, because the person living it is constantly caught up with what they are doing, and thus has no time to contemplate larger issues.

The larger issues I have in mind specifically are thoughts about what is valuable and whether their own life is valuable in any objective sense. Obviously it is quite possible to avoid ever thinking about these issues if we simply distract ourselves from them, and this is the value of entertainment. If you are always busy with something else these issues need never arise. But just because such questions are left unconsidered doesn’t mean that the person is necessarily living poorly, there is nothing special about these issues that somehow grant a life some special meaning when considered that is missing otherwise. The reason I bring them up is simply because how the person deals with them determines whether their life is meaningful or not. A life is well lived only if it meets the person’s standards for being valuable, whatever those standards are. Naturally in a life lived without reflection the person never directly considers this question, but whether their life is well lived is determined in the same way, we simply have to consider how they might evaluate their lives were they to consider them.

And it is not impossible that they might think that being entertained is valuable in its own right, and thus that their lives are good ones. But I doubt many would reason in that way. To believe that your own life is valuable requires thinking that some things are valuable and thus concluding that your life is valuable because of its relationship to those things (often as a producer of those things). And to consider something to be valuable requires standards, such that some things in a kind are valuable and some aren’t based on some of their features. If there are no standards involved then nothing is really valuable, the word simply isn’t designating anything of value as value essentially involves a relationship of being better. A way to see what this is so is to note that everything which has value has some amount of value, such that things can be more or less valuable than each other (the ark problem, which I discussed some time ago, leads us to concede that if things are valuable then they aren’t all equally valuable). And if that is the case then clearly by valuable we can’t mean the whole spectrum, everything that has some value, we must mean the upper part, those things that have the most value rather than the least value. I bring this up simply because some people erroneously believe themselves to have judged their own lives to be valuable in reflection when they have considered these matters, when what they have actually done is dodged the issue by deciding that all lives are valuable, or something to that effect, which is really not to make a judgment about value at all, and hence which doesn’t imply that their lives are really valuable.

In fact, because it neither improves us nor produces anything, relying on entertainment to fill your free time is thus often a sign that a life is not actually a good one, by the analysis provided above. If the person had actually made judgments about what is and isn’t valuable then we would expect them to spend at least some time devoted to those things, because believing something is valuable entails almost as a matter of necessity that you will make every effort to devote some of your time to those things or deem your own life as a poor one by failing in that pursuit. And thus a life with free time devoted to entertainment strongly implies that it is a life lived by someone who hasn’t really made any judgments about what is valuable, and thus whose own life cannot be valuable.

Suppose we want to escape this, that we desire lives that are valuable by our own standards. What is required to have such a life? I would say that there are two equally necessary components. The first is having standards about what is and isn’t valuable. Now we may simply introspect and find ourselves with pre-existing standards, but not everyone has an inner reserve of such opinions. Usually we have to develop standards by an engagement of some kind with the world at large. Suppose that we are exposed to a class of things. Initially we may have no opinion about these things, or perhaps we like some and dislike others. But at this point we don’t have standards, just some vague opinions. By investigating this class of things more thoroughly we come to categorize them, to understand both their differences from each other and their relationships to the world at large. It is on the basis of this understanding that standards about value are developed. Of course in some way such judgments are still opinions, and indeed we can never quite get beyond opinion in these matters. Still, our value judgments are more than simply feelings that we have, they are motivated principles and reasons. So while they may be opinions they are opinions that we can explain and defend, both to ourselves and others.

But making value judgments is only half the problem. It is not enough simply to decide that some things are more valuable than others in order for our lives to be valuable in our own honest opinion. No, we need to actually act on these value judgments, to pursue what is valuable. And that requires a certain amount of will power and dedication. Because having standards means that we can’t simply pursue what is valuable haphazardly. We have to devote time both to improving ourselves, in order to be able to pursue what is valuable, and to the pursuit itself. And often these activities aren’t immediately pleasurable. Which means that in order to lead a good life we must have the ability to devote ourselves to tasks because of their eventual rewards, and not because they are immediately fun or because there is some threat of punishment hanging over our heads.

Thus to lead a good life by more than accident (which I won’t claim is impossible) requires a certain kind of character. It requires the ability to reflect on things and make reasoned judgments about which are good and which are bad and why. And it requires a certain amount of self-discipline, both to honestly consider what is valuable and to actually pursue it. Do we as a society encourage these traits or do we discourage them? Are we failing ourselves?

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