On Philosophy

May 20, 2009

The Constitution of Happiness

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 5:08 pm

The problem of human happiness, like so many difficult philosophical problems, has both an obvious answer and, at the same time, is completely obscure. The problem of human happiness is the question “why are people unhappy?” or, if you are more of an optimist – as I try to be – it is the question “how can we become happy?”. The obvious answer is that if we are unhappy it is because we don’t have the things that they want, and that we could become happy if we were simply able to get our hands on them. Class dismissed! But the problem isn’t so easily solved. The obvious answer simply raises more questions. Why do we want the things that we do? Should we desire them? Why are desires connected to happiness? Are they the only source of happiness? What these further questions illustrate is that to successfully grapple with this problem we need an account of the nature of happiness.

So let’s first get clear about what we mean by happiness. I think we all know what the term “happiness” means, but I suppose that there is no harm in making sure that we are all on the same page. Happiness then is a pleasurable feeling, which can be described as an emotion or as a state of mind. Subjectively happiness is a kind of “primary good”, meaning that we enjoy happiness for its own sake. If someone asked us why we liked being happy we couldn’t explain it to them, we like happiness without having a reason for liking it. (Indeed explanations of why we like things, when spelled out in full detail, all rest on the fact that one thing or another makes us happy. Thus we can hardly explain happiness in terms of liking if we explain liking in terms of happiness.) We can also draw a distinction between happiness and a pleasurable experience. A pleasurable experience is momentary while happiness subsists over an extended period of time. Pleasure is fleeting while happiness has a kind of stability. Which is not to deny that there is connection between the two; perhaps repeated pleasurable experiences give rise to happiness.

Now we can return to the naïve answer to the problem of happiness, which was that happiness comes from pleasure, which comes from getting what we want. Or, in other words, from fulfilling our desires. But how are desires connected to pleasurable feelings? We know from experience that they are connected, that is not in question. But we want to know what it is about a desire that produces happiness. Does fulfilling every desires produce pleasure? I don’t think so. Consider some very simple desires, such as the desire to stretch your legs when they are cramping up. Does fulfilling this desire make you happy? Certainly it removes discomfort, which may give it the illusion of producing pleasure, since you are better off afterwards. But not being in discomfort is hardly the same as pleasure. (Historical footnote: Plato once made a similar point in the Republic.)

What this shows is that some desires produce pleasure while others don’t. There must be some feature that is the cause of this division. This mysterious feature, it would seem, is what connects desires to pleasure. Let’s take a look at some desires. The desire to eat when you are hungry. The desire to eat your favorite food. The desire for more money. The desire for a new car. Of these four only the first appears to be the kind that removes discomfort rather than producing pleasure. The difference seems to be that it is a desire away from something rather than towards something. It is a desire to get away from hunger. The other three are desires towards something, good food, money, and a new car, respectively. But what makes the things that desires pull us towards different from those they pull us away from? Why don’t I have a positive desire towards hunger and a negative desire away from what I now consider my favorite food? Is it something in the things themselves? It doesn’t seem likely since someone with an eating disorder may very well have those reversed desires.

What distinguishes the things desires pull us towards from those that they push us away from is the constitution of value. The constitution of value is a way of describing how we create value in the world. Or, in other words, how it comes to be that some things seem better to us and others worse. The constitution of value theory makes us the cause of this, specifically our constituting acts. A constituting act is a mental act or choice which amounts to the association of some significance with an object of experience. For example, words mean what they mean to us because of such constituting acts: through a constituting act we associate a meaning with a sound or with some written symbol. Through such acts meaning is given to otherwise meaningless physical events. The constitution of value operates in essentially the same way, except that, rather than meaning being associated with things, value is. Such constituting acts are the foundation of our judgments concerning what is and isn’t important; we constitute some things as having value, and other things as valueless. And what we constitute as having value is what we desire, and what we constitute as having negative value (as being bad) is what we desire to avoid.

Given this, the solution to the problem of happiness may seem to lie in how we constitute value in the world. Since constituting acts are something we preform they must be under our control. Thus we could, in theory, choose to constitute the world of value differently. To cease to be unhappy all we would have to do is stop constituting things we lack as valuable, reserving value only for the things we currently possess. Thus we would be happy, because all our desires would be fulfilled. But if things were really this easy there would be no problem of happiness, people would have figured it out for themselves already. One problem is that, while the constitution of value is under our control, we cannot change it on a whim. Once we start to constituting something as having value it has a kind of inertia; it requires work to change how we constitute it. Secondly, not all pleasures and pains come from desires; we are simply hard-wired to derive pain from some things and pleasure from others. And it is exceedingly difficult to constitute something as valuable which causes us pain, or to constitute something as valueless which gives us pleasure.

Still, these are not insurmountable difficulties. It is possible to change how we constitute value in the world if we work at it long enough. Obviously since what we possess is constantly in a state of flux we would have to choose very carefully what to constitute as having positive or negative value. You wouldn’t want to work hard to constitute something as valuable that you would then lose. Thus the outcome of this effort is likely to be a person who constitutes little as valuable, and even less as having negative value. This is very close the ascetic ideal, where little is valued and thus where the individual has few or no desires.

But I have my doubts whether this is really a solution either. The problem of happiness was only in part the problem of avoiding unhappiness. The other part was trying to gain happiness. Being free of desires might be a way to avoid unhappiness, but it doesn’t seem likely to produce happiness. But suppose that somehow we managed to constitute the world in some extremely unlikely way, such that we had many desires and they were always being satisfied. This is to be as charitable as possible to the idea that we can be happy by adjusting how we constitute value in the world. Even if this could be achieved I still doubt that it would produce happiness. Previously happiness was distinguished from a mere moment of pleasure by defining happiness as having a kind of stability. A single moment of pleasure, which is the end product of a fulfilled desire, is not stable. It is extremely unstable because it naturally fades away in a short amount of time. A succession of these pleasures, however long it is extended, is not stable either. It is unstable because it is entirely contingent on whatever is behind those moments of pleasure to continue to produce them. In other words: “happiness” is such a scheme is still subject to the whims of fate, no matter how pleasant we posit them to be. But true happiness breeds further happiness, and doesn’t require continual external inputs to persist (although it may require us to avoid pains).

The core problem with these solutions is that they are focused on how we constitute value in the external world. But, no matter how we choose to constitute value in it, those acts are still dependent, to some degree, on what there is out there to constitute as valuable. But the external world is not the only possible target of constituting acts. It is possible to direct these acts at abstractions and ideas, for example, which obviously are independent of what is actually present in the world. More importantly, it is also possible to direct constituting acts at the self. In other words, we can, and do, constitute bits and pieces of our lives, our personalities, our abilities, and our dispositions. The obvious implication is that we can constitute ourselves as valuable. And since we can never be separated from ourselves that this will provide a stable source of happiness, and thus of pleasure. Love thyself, as they say.

As usual the obvious solution is no solution at all. To explain why I must overthrow the simplistic model of desire that we have been using so far, namely the theory that value judgments breed desires, which produce pleasure when satisfied, which in turn have some unspecified causal connection to happiness. This model isn’t necessarily wrong as much as it is overly simplistic, and leaves out important relationships. The first of these stems from the nature of desire. Desire intrinsically involves separation – to desire something you must lack it, and a desire is a drive to negate that separation. Some separations are greater than others and thus require more work to overcome. And this effort is inexorably bound up with the constitution of value: the more work we have done to bridge a separation the more valuable what is on the other side will seem. This is because one of the primary uses of constitution is self-justification; we constitute the world so as to make sense of it, and to make sense of our role in it. This is not the only reason we constitute things as we do, but it certainly is a major one.

Let me illustrate how this model works through an example. To get the ball rolling we must first suppose that we constitute something as valuable for an unspecified reason. Perhaps someone tells us it is valuable. Or perhaps it is just an impulse. Now in most cases we probably would quickly cease to judge this thing to be valuable as quickly as we started (our interest gets caught by some new shiny thing). But in some cases during that short time we do or say something that commits us to it. Perhaps we remark to a friend how nice it is. Or perhaps we do some research about how much it would cost to buy one. Now we have made some effort to annul the separation between us an it, or at least committed ourselves to that effort. To explain these event to ourselves we thus continue to constitute that thing as valuable. Which in turn may eventually lead us to put more effort into acquiring it, which will in turn increase our estimation of its value. Thus for anything which we are not hard-wired to find pleasure in there is a correlation between how much work we have put into getting it and how much pleasure it gives us (because work correlates with value).

This why you can’t derive happiness from constituting something that you already have or are as valuable. Really constituting it as valuable, and not just saying the words, is hard or impossible since you don’t have to work for it. This is why the luster of every new thing wears off; once you have it you no longer have to work for it, and are thus no longer driven to constitute it as valuable to justify your efforts to posses it. For this reason happiness cannot be achieved under this model by constituting some fixed point or points as valuable – once you get there you can derive no further pleasure from them. If the problem of happiness has a solution it must be through constituting some direction of movement as valuable, rather than a fixed point. Allow me to elaborate. If we constitute some process as valuable – ideally one without a terminating point – then we can continue to derive pleasure from it through putting in the work to move one step further along it. The fact that we have to work to move further along it reinforces our constitution of it as valuable. And because it is a process rather than a fixed point there is no danger that we will actually get hold of what we seek and thus tire of it. For example, someone might constitute the process of becoming a better artist as valuable. If they do they can work every day at improving their art and derive happiness from that. They will never become a perfect artist and have no room left for improvement, since perfection can never be realized, only approached.

Given the above this is what we have as a solution to the problem of happiness: constitute what you are doing as valuable and refrain from constituting as valuable anything external to yourself except as it contributes to the first part. Is this solution too cheap? Does it make happiness unrealistically easy to obtain? Hopefully not. Since work is never out of the equation we are never promised free happiness. Additionally, constitution is seen as participating in a kind of feedback loop with some essentially random inputs. In layman’s terms this means that while it is possible to influence how we constitute the world it is never directly under our control in the same way the decision to raise our arm is. Again, this shows that happiness in this model must be both chosen and earned; wishful thinking will not make it fall into our lap.

Perhaps these questions can be better answered if we consider why people are unhappy under this model, and see whether what prevents them from being happy is an actual obstacle. The root of unhappiness, in this model, is being unhappy with what you do. In other words, you may get things that you value – and thus have moments of pleasure – but what you are doing does not seem part of a process that you constitute as valuable. Is this possible? Since I have explained the constitution of value as in part being a process of self-justification it might appear that I am committed to the claim that if you do something you must see it as valuable. But this is not really the case. All I am committed to is that value plays some role in explaining your actions, not necessarily such a direct one. And I think that in the case of unhappy people they explain why they do things they don’t particularly enjoy – often jobs they don’t particularly enjoy – by taking them as having merely instrumental value towards grasping some fixed points that they constitute as intrinsically valuable (i.e. a new car). But since grasping one fixed point of value after another does not produce happiness these people may never be happy, even though they see all their actions as serving their desires.

This then is my sketch of a solution to the problem of happiness. Constitute the process of your life as valuable and you will be happy. Admittedly there is much more that could be said here. The process of our life is not one process towards one destination, but a number of journeys that are interwoven. And it is rarely the case that a person commits to every such process process early in their lives and then stays with it forever. There are some processes that we hope we stick with forever, such as the process of becoming a better companion to one’s life partner. But there are others, such as the process of becoming a better Tetris player, that we fully expect to engage in only for a time. And so more should be said about how we constitute a process as valuable, which processes we should constitute as valuable, and how we can change our constitution of such a process. But I’m not going to say those things here and now.

January 21, 2009

Ownership And Its Paradoxes

Filed under: Society,The Good Life — Peter @ 1:14 pm

Ownership is a strange thing. Unlike possession, ownership is not easily defined in physical terms. Possession we can define as having physical control over something. Thus if I hold a thing in my hand I possess it. But I also possess it if I keep it locked in my safe, since that keeps it under my control, even in my absence. Ownership is not the same as possession. It is quite possible to possess something that you do not own, and to lack possession over something that you do own; if it were impossible there would be no such thing as theft.

Because ownership, unlike possession, cannot be defined in purely physical terms we are faced with three possible strategies for defining it. First, ownership could be a matter of convention, such that to own something is to have ownership of it according to some rules (the conventions), which lay out in more detail what conditions, physical or otherwise, grant and transfer ownership. This is the legal view – that of the courts, which appeal only to the law to decide matters of ownership. Thus if the law changes so does who owns what. Secondly, ownership could be defined in terms of the popular or prevailing attitude, such that you would only own something if it was the consensus that you owned it. Finally, ownership could be defined as a personal attitude: essentially that you own something if and only if you think that you own it.

Let’s consider the first possibility, that ownership is a matter of convention. Suppose this were so. Then the question arises: which convention? There are so many conventions, both existing and possible, that for any object we could find some convention under which I own it and another under which I don’t. For this to be a meaningful definition of ownership we must pin down which conventions, exactly, determine what I own. And to do that there are two natural possibilities: the prevailing conventions or those that I personally choose accept. If it is the first then this option essentially reduces to the second strategy for defining ownership; I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I own it. And if it is the second then this option reduces to the third strategy; I own something only if I think that I own it. And so we are left with only two possibilities to consider.

Now let’s turn to the second possibility, that I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I do. Of course the prevailing opinion is subject to change, people change, and conventions change. Thus whether I own something would change as well, independent of any changes in me, the thing, or my relationship to it. Which is to say that one day I may own the items in my safe because it is generally agreed that this is so, but upon waking up the next day it may not be so because the general agreement had changed while I was sleeping. Such is the nature of things that are socially constructed. This means that, under this definition, my ownership of something is itself determined by, controlled if you will, by the majority opinion. And thus the majority would possesses my ownership, as strange as that may sound. They would possess my ownership of a thing because it is within their power to take it away from me. Can I really own a thing if I don’t possess the ownership itself? Or, in other words, can I maintain that I own something when my ownership of it is so vulnerable? It would appear that under this view it is the majority who really own things, and that they simply let me borrow them for a while. Thus, under this definition there really is no such thing as individual ownership.

If we wish to maintain that personal ownership is possible it looks like we are left with the third possibility: that I own something if I think that I own it. So defined, I do possess my ownership of things, because it is fully under my control, modulo scenarios of mind control, whether I do or don’t conceive of myself as owning a thing. Well, at least it is under my control to a certain extent. I am still free to abdicate that control to the majority or to some convention; I could come to believe that I only owned something when that convention dictated that it was so, or when the majority agreed with me. If I abdicated my choice of what to view as owned in this way I would indeed lack control over my beliefs about ownership. The result would be a contradictory situation where I would both own something because of my belief that I owned it, and lack ownership because I lacked control over my beliefs about what I owned. (This contradiction is merely verbal, though.) However, this still leaves the possibility open for other people to seize their freedom (seize control over their beliefs rather than abdicating them to the majority or to convention), and thus individual ownership may still exist.

The other factor that influences whether I believe that I own something is my ability to exercise my ownership over it. Exercising your ownership over something is to bring it into your possession. For example, suppose that I have loaned one of my books to a friend. I do not possess that book – it is out of my control – but I still think that I own it. Eventually I may want the book back, thus I will attempt to exercise my ownership; I will attempt to make my friend return it to me. If my friend agrees to certain conventions of ownership, or is simply a nice guy, then he will return it to me. And if he doesn’t I may attempt to have society at large recover that book for me (e.g. via the police), which is another way to exercise ownership. But if all those methods fail, and I am unable to regain possession of the book when I want to, i.e. if the exercise of my ownership fails, then I will come to believe that the book is lost to me. In other words, that I no longer own it. Thus what we can own is also limited by a conjunction of external circumstances and situations in which we want to exercise our ownership. We are free to believe that we own whatever we want, but as soon as we try to exercise that ownership we are reduced to being able to own only what the situation, other people, and society in general, will grant possession of to us. Any attempt to exercise our ownership limits our ownership, in cases where we don’t currently possess a thing, to the limits set by convention and the majority opinion.

Two unusual conclusions follow from this analysis of ownership. First, that the more we attempt to exercise our ownership over things the less we will actually own. Many such exercises (where we don’t already possess the thing) grant control over our ownership to society at large, since if they chose they could prevent that exercise from being successful. These exercises of ownership amount to giving up the thing in the hope that it will be given back, which is far from certain. Thus the less we try to exercise our ownership the more we will keep. From this the second unusual conclusion follows: that the man who desires nothing owns everything. Because, desiring nothing, such a man would never be inclined to exercise his ownership. And thus he would be free to own whatever he wanted, since his ownership would be constrained only by his choices about what to believed that he owned, which themselves are completely unconstrained.

October 31, 2008

Guzen and Hitsuzen

Filed under: Free Will,The Good Life — Peter @ 11:35 pm

Let me begin this piece by introducing two technical terms, guzen and hitsuzen. Both are stolen from Japanese, and their translations come out to being something like coincidence or chance and fate or destiny, respectively. While I could simply repurpose the English terms “coincidence” and “fate” I think they are already too loaded with meaning, and thus that our intuitions about them are bound to get in the way. So, as an aid in avoiding confusion with our intuitive conceptual scheme, I introduce guzen and hitsuzen. By guzen I will designate things that happen by chance, not in the sense that occur probabilistically, but in the sense that they occur by happenstance and aren’t part of some larger scheme. Thus events that fall in the domain of guzen are meaningless, in the sense that that they are unconnected to other events and thus signify nothing beyond themselves, certainly not some larger scheme or goal. In contrast hitsuzen is the opposite of guzen. Events that fall under the domain of hitsuzen happen in accordance with some scheme, plan, or design. Thus hitsuzen is meaningful in exactly the way that guzen isn’t. Events that fall under hitsuzen can be understood as connected to other events within that scheme, and thus signify the scheme and its ends as a whole. To speak in philosophical terms for a moment: hitsuzen manifests teleology, i.e. goals or ends, while guzen does not.

Once the categories are defined the next question to consider is how to deploy them. Three possibilities immediately present themselves. First everything, or at least everything important might be hitsuzen, i.e. part of some larger plan. Secondly the world could be a mixture of hitsuzen and guzen. Finally, there may only be guzen; with any appearance of hitsuzen being simply a kind of delusion or illusion.

If everything, or everything significant, is hitsuzen then the natural question to ask is: what is the overarching plan? The obvious religious answer is that the overarching plan is a divine one. In fact a religious perspective would seem to necessitate that everything is hitsuzen. If god is omnipotent and interested in what happens in the world then the idea that some things go against god’s intent contradicts his supposed omnipotence (since omnipotence cannot be opposed). Or, if god falls short of being omnipotent because he is opposed by some equally powerful, but evil, divinity, then it would seem that everything is still hitsuzen, although whose plan an event is in accordance with becomes an open question. I don’t, however, think the implicature in the other direction holds; it is not necessary to have a religious perspective in order to believe that hitsuzen dominates. It is possible to look at the natural laws as a kind of hitsuzen, for example. More plausibly, some see large-scale events as being the work of historical, social, or evolutionary forces that are beyond the control of individuals. These forces can be seen as creating a kind of hitsuzen connecting major events.

Of course not everyone finds the idea of universal, or near universal, hitsuzen plausible. There is something undeniably compelling about seeing the natural world as being devoid of hitsuzen. Sure, there are natural laws that determine which events occur, but those laws are devoid of meaning. They don’t appear to stitch together the events into a plan. Meaning, it would seem, is a purely human construction. But the world is not composed simply of things bumping up against one another in the dark. People do exist, and people can impose meaning on the world. Thus under this view the world is naturally all guzen, but in this world of guzen people create hitsuzen though their choices. Naturally this view sparks further questions. What happens when the domains of hitsuzen generated by individual lives come into contact with each other? Do they come together to form a unified hitsuzen, one that structures society as a whole? Or do they conflict, reducing the areas where they rub up against each other to guzen again? Such questions are beyond the scope of this piece.

Finally, we are brought to the third possibility. Like the previous picture it accepts the idea that fundamentally the natural world is nothing more than guzen. However, it rejects the idea that people can create hitsuzen. After all, there is nothing ultimately supernatural about people, and so, if nature cannot create hitsuzen, neither can individuals. Of course people see themselves as living in a world of hitsuzen, but that hitsuzen is not real, it is all in the mind. And this view may seem vindicated when things don’t go as they should or events escape control. Such occurrences may seem to demonstrate that hitsuzen is really an illusion.

I advocate the idea that philosophical theories, such as the three that were just mentioned, are really philosophical perspectives, and that there isn’t a definitive answer about which is right and which is wrong; they can only be more or less useful. However, under that view I am obligated to say a bit about how they might be useful, to who, and why. But to do that an additional element needs to be introduced: the human element. Because it is not clear, at least under the first and third perspective, how people fit into the picture, and thus it isn’t clear what implications accepting one of them would have, either in terms of how we go about our business or live our lives. The missing human element, I think, is free will or free choice.

But is free human choice a manifestation of guzen or hitsuzen? The answer will depend on which perspective the question is asked in. The “obvious” answer is that hitsuzen excludes free will, that when events fit into a larger picture the individual is no longer free to choose. Certainly that seems like the kind of answer that would have to be given under the first perspective discussed, where most events are attributed to hitsuzen. Exactly what the significance of this is depends on the precise variation. If hitsuzen is essentially god’s plan then being deprived of free choice can be comforting, because it implies that really everything is directed towards some good end and that it is impossible for individuals to make mistakes or interfere with that end. Thus, even if you make a mistake and do something that appears wrong from a human perspective, it was really all part of hitsuzen, and in the long run will turn out to be good. Alternately, if everything is hitsuzen because of two or more competing divine plans, then there may be room for guzen, and thus free choice, where the two plans rub up against each other. Specifically, it could be the case that under one plan some event is supposed to occur but under the other it is supposed to be prevented. Then, the omnipotence of both agents canceling out, which occurs is guzen, and so might be affected by free human choice. Thus under this perspective free choice plays a small but crucial role in deciding between the two divine plans. Finally, if, under the last version of this perspective, the large-scale events are all directed by hitsuzen, then free choice, and guzen, remains only in the small things. This justifies the view that what is really important is the small things, since only over them do we have a measure of control.

Each of these variations will appeal to different people in different circumstances. The first, where there effective is no free human choice, may be appealing to those who feel powerless; the idea of a divine plan directing things may be comforting. Such a perspective may also be necessary for someone who is being destroyed by guilt, since it assures them that, in the long run, everything will turn out all right. Finally, the perspective may be useful to someone who has rejected conventional morality altogether, since it effectively justifies them doing whatever they please (since whatever they do must necessarily be part of the divine plan). The second variation, in contrast to the first, suits those who want to be empowered rather than disempowered. Some believe that for something to be meaningful it has to be meaningful in a grand way, to contribute to some humanity or universe spanning picture. And this perspective gives them just that, in the form of a role in deciding between divine plans. What could be more important than that? The third variation seems aimed at those who have come to realize how little their life means in the grand scheme of things and are depressed by it. Consider Bob the office worker. Bob realizes that he is nothing more than a cog in the machine at his work. He is easily replaceable. And, more distressingly, the company he works for isn’t even doing something really important. For a long time Bob had his own private ambitions to write the great American novel. However, after a series of disappointments, he has come to realize that he doesn’t have the necessary genius. To feel better about himself he tells himself that what becomes the great American novel is determined by social forces and luck; that it is outside of the control of individual people. Thus Bob comes to think of the world as dominated by hitsuzen; social forces, of which his company is part of, guide what happens, and Bob is simply swept along by them. Naturally this makes Bob unhappy. However, Bob comes to realize that not everything is controlled by these social forces. The details of Bob’s life, for example his choice to maintain a small garden out back, are his and his alone. Bob thus comes to believe that this is the most anyone could ask for; everyone is subject to hitsuzen when it comes to the big things, even the great American novelist. We can only control the small things, and thus to us they are what should really matter. And Bob is making the most out of the small things that he can through his garden. So Bob is leading the best life that can be lived, given the prevalence of hitsuzen.

However, under the second perspective the connection between free choice and hitsuzen is reversed. Instead of excluding free choice hitsuzen is most naturally understood as the consequence of free choice. Meaning is essentially tied to people, because only people have the kinds of goals and plans that can produce hitsuzen. And these goals are manifested through their free choices (in contrast to their unfree actions, which they are unable to direct towards their own ends). Thus, logically, through a series of free choices hitsuzen is imposed on the world. Now who would this perspective appeal to? Consider James. Unlike Bob, James is a successful author. James is still employed, in a loose sense, by other people, but he has the ability to decide what he wants to write for himself. Moreover James likes being an author; he finds fulfillment in being an author. Perhaps James seems better off than Bob (although I think that natural assumption is highly questionable), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t faced with his own set of issues. Like Bob, the question of what matters and why presents itself to James. James does not want to surrender his life to an all encompassing hitsuzen, as under the first perspective, because that would diminish what he thinks of as most important (his being an author), by subjugating it to some larger purpose. But yet he still wants to find meaning somewhere, in part to justify his being an author and spending so much effort on being an author. Thus this perspective is a perfect fit for James. It tells him that the things he has devoted much of his life to, his being an author, are a kind of hitsuzen, a personal kind of hitsuzen that is centered around the things that he is most devoted to.

Finally, under the third perspective, which says that everything is guzen, free choice can be associated either with guzen or hitsuzen. To associate free choice with hitsuzen under this perspective is to turn it into a kind of nihilism. Specifically it is to assert, as under the previous perspective discussed, that free choices would be a kind of imposition of hitsuzen on the world. However, this perspective denies that the world can manifest hitsuzen, and thus it denies the possibility of free choice, so conceived. And so, under this version of the perspective, there is nothing we can do but be moved by chance from one meaningless event to another. However, we don’t have to be so negative. Free choice could also be associated with guzen under this perspective. What that amounts to is an assertion of absolute freedom. If there is no hitsuzen, no structure, then the freedom we have is complete freedom; every choice can be made as if it was the first choice, independently of any other choices that we have made or will make. While that won’t appeal to Bob, who sees an obvious, and sometimes oppressive, hitsuzen and wants to be able to live well within it, or to James, whose life is centered around a few important things and wants to understand how they can be meaningful, it may suit John. Unlike Bob and James, John’s life is not strongly ordered. He does not keep one job for years on end. Instead John moves from job to job, and many of his jobs are unconventional. And, unlike James, he does not have a single dominating interest. Many things interest John, and even though he is most interested in playing the trombone now he might be big into painting next year. John has a different problem than Bob and James; John probably thinks that his life should have some meaning, but because of his nature to go from one thing to another it is hard for him to interpret his own life as describing some plan or being part of one. Adopting this third perspective allows John to give up those expectations; it’s not that John’s life is falling short by being meaningless, it’s that everything is meaningless. And, moreover, it also picks out John’s life as something special: under this perspective Bob and James are fooling themselves to an extent, to the extent that they see the world as containing hitsuzen. However, free choice is in the domain of guzen, and so their false belief in the existence of hitsuzen is blinding them to their own freedom. Bob doesn’t realize that he is free to leave his boring job for something else, and James won’t allow himself to see that he is free to give up being an author for something else, at any time, without suffering any loss. John, in contrast to those two, is making full use of his freedom.

Thus I have shown how at least one variation on each of the perspectives on guzen and hitsuzen presented may be attractive. But is that enough? My position on philosophy, discussed previously, is that philosophical perspectives are a kind of conceptual/intellectual tool and should be judged accordingly. And it would seem that we could draw a distinction between being attractive and being useful. If I have shown only how these perspectives may be attractive then I haven’t done enough. But I think I have done more than show that they can be attractive, I think I have shown how they can make life better, or at least more tolerable, and that their attractiveness results from that. The perspectives discussed help Bob, James, and John be satisfied with their own lives. And, since dissatisfaction with ones life is a problem, these perspectives are thus demonstrated to be useful, inasmuch as they help deal with that problem. And with that I rest my case.

September 11, 2008

A Struggle With Stoicism

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 10:46 pm

Stoicism, broadly construed, is a philosophical perspective that encourages the abandonment of outwardly directed desires and expectations. The aim of adopting a stoic perspective is usually assumed to be to lead a better, happier life by avoiding those things that cause unhappiness. But can stoicism really deliver on what it promises? Is the stoic perspective superior?

Stoic: The central attitude of stoicism is non-attachment. Non-attachment means not wanting any particular thing or state of affairs. To be non-attached is to not care about things that are going on in the world around you. Now this may sound like a bad thing, but really non-attachment is the ultimate freedom. Without attachment any action is possible because you are no longer driven by your desires in a single direction to the exclusion of whims or other possibilities. And, most importantly, non-attachment is a way to escape the unhappiness that plagues most lives. Unhappiness is caused by things not going your way; by frustration at not getting what you want. But if you don’t want anything then you can never be frustrated by not having it, and so unhappiness is removed from the picture, leaving only happiness. Thus stoicism leads to a happier, freer, life.

Anti-stoic: The problem with stoicism, so described, is that it simply can’t deliver on what it promises. Stoicism is held up as the key to a happier life. But isn’t happiness caused by getting what we want, as much as unhappiness is caused by not getting that? If we give up on wanting things then it would seem that we give up on happiness as well. Sure, that we may be occasionally unhappy is a bad thing, but isn’t the happiness we experience worth it?

Stoic: Well, admittedly stoicism does involve giving up on happiness from external sources. Still, we could derive happiness from internal sources. We could be happy at being a good stoic for example. And this attachment to internal things is permissible because they are under our control, and hence not potential sources of unhappiness.

Anti-stoic: The idea that we can control who we are or what we think or feel is naïve – we can only work at making changes. For example, Jjst because someone commits to stoicism doesn’t mean that they will simply give up all attachments immediately. Even the best stoic will probably find themselves with the occasional minor attachment that they feel is “safe”. And thus even attachment to internal things, such as being a good stoic, can never be guaranteed to never cause frustration and unhappiness, because whether you are a good stoic is not perfectly under your control.

Stoic: Ok, well perhaps stoicism can’t be motivated by appeal to happiness and unhappiness. Perhaps we must grant that happiness and unhappiness are two sides of the same coin, and that the possibility for one brings with it the possibility for the other. And if that is the case some people may genuinely accept unhappiness so long as it pays for happiness. But there is still something wrong with attachments that stoicism is the cure for. Perhaps it’s not unhappiness but frustration. And not the frustration at not getting what you want, but the frustration of being driven by your attachments into an endless cycle of work, a red queen’s race. As long as you are attached to something you will need that thing to be happy and to avoid unhappiness. And since few things in life are really free that means that you will have to constantly work for that thing, and to work at avoiding unhappiness. If you are attached to a roof over your head you must work to maintain that roof. This process may appear not to be worth its rewards. Do we really want to be engaged in a constant struggle for the possibility of happiness and to ward off unhappiness? The struggle itself may be a source of unhappiness and simple exhaustion with life. It’s like running endlessly in place on a treadmill – and stoicism presents a way off that treadmill.

Anti-stoic: I will grant that the treadmill analogy is a better motivation for stoicism than a simple fear of unhappiness. Perhaps some people may feel that running on the treadmill is worth it, but others won’t, and stoicism may be aimed at them. However, this non-attachment business seems to be a solution that raises more problems than it solves. Doesn’t non-attachment give rise to amoral behavior? Valuing good and abhorring evil is as much a form of attachment as anything else, and so the good stoic should apparently give up on those values. But without those values what motivates the stoic to do good? Additionally, stoicism seems to give rise to a kind of prisoner’s dilemma problem. If someone is motivated to get off the treadmill by stoicism that is good for them. But it is probably bad for society, and thus everyone else, because society is built on getting its members to be productive as possible. If everyone was a stoic society might fall apart. And so stoicism seems to be self-defeating, in a way. It is a perspective that can only be adopted in practice by a minority. Now if stoics truly aren’t attached to society and its products this might not seem like a problem to them, but it certainly looks like a problem to the rest of us who are perhaps entertaining stoicism.

Stoic: Both the problems you have raised for stoicism arise from the same fallacy: that of supposing that when you have given up attachment to something that you also give up on that thing, that you effect changes to rid yourself of it. But if you immediately give up the thing you are just displaying a different kind of attachment: attachment to not having that thing, or possibly even attachment to non-attachment. The idea that adopting a stoic attitude should lead to changes in behavior stems from a misunderstanding of non-attachment. Directed changes only arise from attachment, not non-attachment. And so the stoic will, in all likelihood, stay on the treadmill.

Anti-stoic: I think I see what you are driving at. People may adopt stoicism because they are frustrated with the treadmill of endless work. Stoicism doesn’t promise to motivate them to get off the treadmill and be happy with being off the treadmill, as I initially thought, but rather gives them a perspective from which they don’t care that they are on the treadmill. Since they aren’t trying to get anywhere the fact that they are running in place doesn’t bother them. Is this essentially right?

Stoic: Yes.

Anti-stoic: Then this raises another question: how does one recognize a stoic? Or, in other words, what kind of life does a stoic lead?

Stoic: Since the stoic has given up on attachments the only thing that remains is “going with the flow”. In other words they open themselves up to simply following whatever inclinations they find themselves with; this is part of the freedom of stoicism. And a second part of going with the flow is not fighting the situation you find yourself in, but instead going with that situation in a way that promotes harmony with it and harmony in it. This is why stoics aren’t unethical people. First of all unethical behavior is caused by attachments. Stoics lack attachments and thus lack the desire to act unethically. Secondly, living in harmony with your society means getting along with other people and doing what you can to make sure others can live in harmony with it too.

Anti-stoic: Ok, now you seem to be contradicting yourself. I could see this “harmony” business as being the core of an ethical system. However, what you have described seems very much like an attachment to harmony. Suppose that I was a stoic and that my natural inclinations were to arson. I don’t have an attachment to fire, I just find myself naturally burning things down. Maybe I enjoy it, but that’s ok if I’m not attached to it, I assume. So what’s wrong with the stoic arsonist?

Stoic: Well consider what the stoic arsonist is putting himself through. At every step he must be covert, he must always be on the run from the law, he constantly goes against the accepted dictates of morality and community standards. In doing all that he demonstrates attachment, because what else but attachment could motivate such efforts?

Anti-stoic: That response doesn’t cut it. As you yourself have argued, him being a stoic means that he won’t be bothered by the effort it required to be an arsonist. Secondly, you say that since the arsonist is required to put in all this effort that there must be something wrong with his approach, that he is going against the stoic ideals in some way. But consider what you yourself have recommended. You said that a stoic should go about promoting harmony in the community, which I assume includes things like giving money to the poor, helping those in need, and so on. That seems like it requires a lot of work. Less work would be required if the stoic looked out only after himself and his own needs, and let everyone else fend for themselves.

Stoic: I’m not so sure being selfish is the least work. Consider that the stoic lives in a community, and that community has standards and expectations. A selfish stoic probably violates those expectations. And so, if the stoic is really pursuing the path of least effort, it probably makes sense to put up the appearance of adhering to those standards. And it is easier to just adhere to those standards than to make a show of it and secretly defect from them. Thus a stoic should be a largely ethical person for the same reason that the average stoic should remain on the treadmill: it is easier to remain on the treadmill, and it is easier to remain in harmony with the community, than it is to depart from those standards.

Anti-stoic: I don’t think you can appeal to the standards of the community to defend stoicism as you do. Your defense seems to depend in a key way on the fact that there are existing standards within the community that lead the stoic to be a good person. However, if we had a community composed solely of stoics, starting over on a desert island from scratch, there is no reason to suppose that these standards would emerge. Thus it is not stoicism that promotes ethical behavior, it just doesn’t actively oppose it. In fact stoicism seems to have no necessary connection, only an accidental one at best, to being an ethically upright person.

Stoic: But we don’t find ourselves in such a hypothetical scenario; standards exist in all actual communities, so this supposed failing remains hypothetical, and that’s good enough for me.

Anti-stoic: It isn’t enough for me. I grant that stoicism has some attractive things to offer, not the least of which is a perspective that makes a life of what can seem like pointless work from an objective standard tolerable. However, until proven otherwise there is no reason to think that these same benefits can’t be achieved under some other philosophical system that provides more robust guidance about how to live and which actively promotes ethical behavior.

August 2, 2008

Putting Philosophy To Work: Dealing With Others

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 10:19 pm

It is a mistake to think that other people have hidden inner selves in the same way that we have hidden inner selves. I have a hidden inner self that contains some ideas and attitudes that have never been revealed, and may never be revealed, along with many more ideas and attitudes that have found a reflection in my outer self. There is no such inner self in other people. Well, literally they probably do have such an inner self – it would be irrational to suppose that I am uniquely special in this way. However, there is no point in thinking of other people as having an inner self, and so in that sense we are better off pretending that they simply don’t have one.

The reason that contemplating the inner self of other people is pointless is that there is no way to get access to it. No matter what facet of the person we encounter, whether a snippet of causal conversation or a page from a hidden diary, it is always part of their outer self. We can try to guess at their inner self from these clues, but we will never have access to it. Even in a sci-fi scenario where reading minds is possible we don’t have access to the inner self – in that case technology has demolished the inner self and made all expressions of the person external. The inner self of other people is hidden from us by definition.

Believing that other people have an inner self can lead to a kind of paranoia. You will be led to wonder whether their outer self really reflects their inner self, of whether that inner self contains hidden attitudes and desires that are skillfully masked by the outer self they project. This is like worrying that secretly your wife married you for the money, even if she gives every indication that she didn’t. Such worries are pointless because they can never be confirmed – nor can we find evidence for or against them. Even if that person’s outer self radically changes in a way that apparently reflects all your worst fears about their secret inner self it is still no guarantee that you were right all along. This new outer self could be the false appearance.

Naturally this isn’t the only kind of paranoid musings about other people that we might entertain. We could also worry that someone will have a sudden and radical change in personality for no apparent reason. Our loving wife may suddenly just be interested in the money. But for some reason we tend not to dwell on such possibilities. Sure, they may happen, but we realize that they are unlikely enough that worrying about them simply isn’t productive. But the possibility that someone’s inner self is radically different from the outer self that they have been consistently projecting is equally unlikely. Indeed in most cases it isn’t even possible to tell the difference between someone who has had a radical change in personality versus someone expressing their hidden inner self for the first time. Both cases reveal themselves to us through essentially the same radical changes in the outer self.

If it is irrational to worry about sudden changes in personality then it is equally irrational to worry that someone has a hidden inner self that is unlike their outer self. But somehow we are unable to see things that way; we naturally tend to dwell on the possibility that something is being hidden from us, perhaps because of the aura of mystery it creates. Since that worrying is irrational, and no more or less justified than worrying about sudden changes in personality, it is productive to ignore the existence of the inner self in other people. Which is not to say that we should think of them as robots or automatons, but rather as conscious individuals who are simply unable to hide any aspect of their personality from outer expression. Once we embrace that way of thinking we are left only with worries that are productive or which we are able to rationally evaluate. For example, we could worry that there are aspects of their outer self that we are unaware of. At least with such worries we can put them to rest by finding or not finding those aspects.

Worrying about the unknowable inner selves of other people isn’t the only problem that can arise in our dealings with them. Previously how to avoid placing too much weight on the judgments other people pass on you (in the form of wealth, fame, and praise) was discussed. Just as we often place undue weight on what other people think about us there is a tendency to worry about what those people think about other people or what their opinions are on some matter.

Why we are inclined to care about what one person thinks of another, or what their opinions are, is hard to unravel. It could be a reflection of caring about what people think about us – namely we worry about what they think of other people because we worry about their judging them to be better than us. Or perhaps we are so in the habit of caring about the opinions of other people in relation to us that we unconsciously generalize from that and start caring about their opinions of people in general. Neither really constitutes a good reason for caring.

Of course, like valuing wealth of fame, it isn’t easy to simply stop caring about the opinions of other people once we are in the habit of doing so. Previously it was suggested that some bad habits could be resisted by reminding ourselves that we are ok with the person we are now, and thus were fine with being poor and unappreciated. I think the same remedy can be employed in this case as well. Whenever we find ourselves being bothered by what one person thinks of another, or thinking of how to change their opinions, we should remind ourselves that those opinions have no impact on us. What one person thinks is not going to change who we are in the least. And we are fine with who we are, so we should be fine no matter what opinions they develop.

We might find ourselves resisting that line of thinking. Maybe we worry that if the boss likes Alice so much that we will be passed over for a promotion. Or maybe if we don’t correct some fool’s opinion about what makes a good movie that opinion will propagate, affecting the opinions of other people and eventually what movies are made. In both these cases we are resisting letting go of caring what someone else thinks because we worry that somehow their opinion will affect us. But it isn’t really going to affect us. Wealth, fame, whether the majority of other people agree with us – none of those things change us, they change the world around us. And if we are ok with who we are we won’t stop being ok just because of those changes. (Now if the opinions of other people were going to lead to significant changes, such as genocide, then it is worth being bothered by them. But we have to keep these things in proportion.)

Another reason we might find ourselves caring about the opinions of other people is because of “sympathy” for them. If we think that their beliefs are in error then we may feel that correcting them would do them a favor. Thus our altruistic tendencies may compel us to care about the opinions of other people, inasmuch as we think they are wrong. Again, such tendencies are out of proportion to the real impact of those opinions. If someone is wrong about what makes a movie good they won’t be significantly harmed by that error; at worst they’ll watch more bad movies than they had to. Even substantial errors, such as denying the existence of evolution, often do little harm to the individual. Unless they are a biologist evolution is largely irrelevant to their lives. Now this might seem like bad advice. If we simply let people be wrong about evolution won’t that affect public policy, possibly suppressing valuable scientific research? Yes, it might, and so it is reasonable to worry about the belief of the population, in general, about evolution. But that doesn’t mean that it is reasonable to worry about the beliefs of a single person. If you find yourself trying to correct one single person then you are worrying about their opinion out of proportion. The strategies that are effective at influencing the beliefs of the population in general look nothing like those aimed at a single individual.

Or it might be possible that our opinions are wrong. And thus we should be motivated by self-interest to care about the opinions of other people, inasmuch as we might correct our own by thinking about them. But the same reasoning applied in the previous paragraph applies equally well to ourselves; in most cases it doesn’t matter that much if we turn out to be wrong.

Now if this advice is aimed at keeping our reactions to the opinions of other people in proportion it may seem like bad advice. Isn’t not caring still out of proportion? Yes, not caring may be caring too little. However, it is probably much closer to the amount we should care than the amount we normally tend to dwell on such things. And so I would ague that we are better off simply not caring about most of the opinions of other people, since it brings us significantly closer to where we should be. Furthermore it is much easier to adopt a perspective where those opinions are largely irrelevant than one where they matter in just the right amount. As soon as we acknowledge that they matter even a little bit then our natural tendencies lead us to take them too seriously.

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