On Philosophy

July 30, 2008

Putting Philosophy To Work: A Value Problem

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 2:24 pm

Philosophers, and in fact people in general, spend a lot of time wrestling with values. The nature of values, however, is not much of a problem, unless you want to make it one. A value is something that is motivational for a person; a person that wants to be happy values their own happiness and a person who wants the world to be a fairer place values justice. Understood in this way a number of apparent problems often associated with values often evaporate. It makes little sense, for example, to ask “what values should a person have?” What someone should and shouldn’t do is bound up with what they value, such that they should do whatever promotes their values. Obviously other definitions of “should” and associated ideas of obligation are possible, but this is probably the best of the lot. Simply consider some other definition of what people should do that diverges from the proposed one. In that case there will be, by that standard, things that a person “should” do but which they have no motivation to, since it in no way promotes their values. Isn’t it a bit absurd to say that there are things a person should do but which we can’t provide any reason for doing them that will actually be motivational? If there were such cases it would negate much of the power of “should”. In conversation, “should” seems to stand in for the idea that “there are reasons you would accept to do this thing”. We tell people that they should do something in order to influence their behavior. If “should” could come apart from psychologically motivating power then it would be irrational of us to try to motivate some action by telling them that they should do it (instead we would appeal to things that do motivate them).

Anyway, back to the matter at hand, which was the idea that what a person should do is bound up with the values that they have, and thus that asking what values a person should have or which they should be motivated by is essentially to ask what values they value. Answering that question requires understanding how that person’s values interact, to see whether they conflict or whether there are additional values that are “implied” by their existing explicit values. Such work may be very interesting at an intellectual level, but it also misses, to an extent, why people care about values. People inquire into values, I think, because they are interested in advice and guidance concerning what to value and thus how to live. They are looking, essentially for philosophy that will interact with their existing values and change them. An intellectual inquiry into the nature of values or their interactions will never really satisfy that aim. At best it will reveal that some of their values conflict, but it will never say which value they should change or abandon, nor actually motivate such changes.

Now in one sense that unsatisfactory state of affairs is the best we can do. There is no absolute position from which values follow. At best we can make some guesses about what many people “should” value given assumptions about their situation and existing values that we hope apply to most people. But, as I noted previously, the inquiry into values is often a search for philosophy that will change their values, and this overly intellectual approach will never be satisfying, in part because it aims to describe the nature of values rather than doing anything with them. But how is it possible for philosophy, given that there is no absolute position to dictate values from, to do that? If we accept that then doesn’t it necessarily follow that it is not possible to construct a philosophical position that will change what someone values in one direction or another?

No, such philosophy is possible. But to find it we have to give up the notion that it will follow from these truths about value. Finding an argument or perspective that will change someone’s values has little to do with the facts about values directly. Rather it is more like constructing a tool that will interact with the person’s psychology so as to produce the desired changes. Although we may shape this argument so that it appears to be based on certain “facts” about values that appearance is there only to make the tool effective. This might sound heretical in a way. Am I saying that we should simply abandon the philosophical truths about value for applied psychology? Rest assured, I have nothing of the sort in mind. There are two reasons to understand such a psychological tool as genuine philosophy. The first is that the theory about the nature of values outlined above, while not directly useful, will probably play a role in constructing our tool. Specifically by realizing that values do not follow from some absolute position or principles we will not attempt to construct our tool along those lines (since it is thus vulnerable to certain objections and will become less effective), but will instead fashion it to work by playing one value off of another. The second reason to accept such a tool as philosophy is because, in this case, such a tool will probably take the form of a philosophical perspective; i.e. it will be a position that does not contradict any facts (which, again, would lead to it being rejected), but which will emphasize some facts and some ways of thinking about those facts, over others. Now if our tool was a string of meaningless words that affected an individual’s psychology as if we were programming a computer, then I would concede that it was not properly philosophy.

Perhaps the best way to explain this idea, and to defend it against the claim that it embodies a turn away from philosophy proper, is to illustrate it through an example. Anyone who is looking to philosophy to guide their values clearly thinks that there is some problem with their current values. Naturally there could be a number of reasons for this – let’s consider just one, that they often find themselves to be unhappy because they fall short of being able to live up to one of their values. And, to narrow things down further, let’s consider only the valuing wealth, fame, or praise as the cause of that unhappiness (these values are similar in that they require the participation of other people, and hence aren’t completely under the control of the individual). A person who places a high value on wealth, fame, or praise may often be unhappy because they lack those things, and because there is no simple way to get them. Thus such a person may turn to philosophy, looking for a psychologically motivating reason not to value wealth, fame, or praise.

At this point the overly intellectual approach would point out that which values we have are essentially arbitrary, and thus that nothing stops us from abandoning those problematic values for some other, better, ones. But obviously acknowledging that won’t motivate someone to actually give up a value. Could you give up on valuing your own happiness or you life simply because someone pointed out that you have no real reason to value those things? No, those values are so hard wired in, both by genetics and by our practice at valuing those things, that we cannot simply give them up. Similarly someone who has fallen into a “habit” of valuing wealth, fame, or praise can’t simply choose to give it up.

However, just because the overly intellectual approach fails us doesn’t mean that it is useless. If we take seriously that theory about values it becomes clear that to change someone’s values we need to leverage one value against another. In this case our lever will be their value of themselves. Everyone reading this values their own life, because if they didn’t odds are they would have taken a long walk off a short pier some time ago. Similarly being bothered by unhappiness also implies that you value yourself to some extent, since you take your suffering to be a bad thing. Now consider what valuing yourself means. To value yourself means valuing the person who you are now, not the person you were or the person you might be, since the person you are now is the only thing here to value. (Even valuing your potential is just another way of valuing who you are now.) And suppose you also value wealth, fame, or praise but are unhappy because you lack that thing. Valuing something is a double edged sword, not only does it mean endorsing that thing, but it means taking its absence to indicate some kind of deficiency. For example, if you value ethical goodness that means that you will naturally abhor ethical deficiencies. Consider what that means in the case of valuing wealth, fame, or praise – it means that you are also committed to believing that someone who lacks those things is in someway deficient (and perhaps that leads to your unhappiness). But this is not compatible with valuing who you are now. If you value who you are now then you don’t believe that you are in some way deficient. Valuing who you are now means being ok with not having wealth, fame, or praise, if you don’t have them. Thus the way to stop valuing wealth, fame, or praise is, whenever you find yourself thinking about those things on contemplating how to get them, to tell yourself that you are fine with who you are now, a person who is poor, unknown, and unappreciated.

There are a few logical flaws with that argument (I leave discovering them as an exercise for the reader; one of them is especially boneheaded). And it could equally well be run in reverse, to the conclusion that such a person should give up valuing their own life, although I doubt that version would have any effect. However, it is still effective. I know that from personal experience as I used a version to rid myself of a faulty value, even while fully aware of its deficiencies. And despite its usefulness as a tool to adjust values it still looks like philosophy. Indeed it could be argued that it only works as a tool because it is properly philosophy. On the philosophical level it offers a new perspective on a person’s pre-existing value of their own life and how that value interacts with the problematic value, one that motivates rejecting the problematic value. Of course the version presented here could be rightly criticized as being only a sketch of a full perspective. To embody a proper philosophical perspective more attention probably needs to be given to describing valuing oneself and its consequences. And the perspective needs to be considered in different situations and defended against what may seem to be absurd consequences (should a bad person, for example, really value themselves as they are?). But the point here is not to fill in all the details.

July 18, 2008

1: Happiness Comes From Within

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:32 am

1. Interpretation: Happiness, and unhappiness, is a product our own minds. Therefore the causes of happiness and unhappiness are internal, even though we often project those feelings outwards and cite the world as the source of our emotions. Since the causes of happiness and unhappiness are internal ultimately they are under our control – we can choose whether to be happy or not.

Evaluation: This interpretation does have a grain of truth in it. Undeniably happiness is a product of our own minds, and we can imagine cases of people with brain damage who are always happy or who are unable to feel happiness. However, it is a fallacy to deny that the world causes happiness, or unhappiness, just because its immediate source is our own mind. A better perspective is to recognize that our own mind is simply the last link in the causal chain that leads to our happiness, and that the world may participate earlier in that chain. (Just as the last swing of an axe might be acknowledged as the immediate cause of a tree being cut down while still recognizing that the person wielding the axe and the maker of the axe still contributed to that event.) It is also a fallacy to suppose that just because the immediate cause of happiness is internal that we have control over our own happiness. Only a person who had trained all their life in order to control their own emotions might have a shot at feeling happy while being tortured or unhappy when taking certain drugs. Of course it can’t be denied that we have some control over when we feel happy, but that control is never so perfect that we can simply choose to be happy or unhappy as if we were choosing to turn left or right.

2. Interpretation: Not everyone feels happy as a result of the same events. If misfortune befalls your enemy you may feel happy, but their friends will feel unhappy. Happiness is thus revealed as a product of events filtered through our own values and desires, and this is what it means to say that happiness comes from within. Since we have a degree of control over our own values and desires we thus have a degree of control over our happiness and unhappiness.

Evaluation: This seems to be an accurate description of happiness; it does seem to be highly dependant on what people want to occur and what they value. But how useful is this observation? The interpretation implies that we have a degree of control over our own desires and values, but it is not clear how much control we have. It does not seem possible for me to stop valuing my own life, for example, at least not without a great deal of effort. A second problem is that this interpretation provides no guidance as to how we should alter our desires and values so as to be happier. Some have suggested getting rid of our desires (and values) in order to be immune from unhappiness but, as a flip side of that coin, this would seem to prevent anything from making us happy either. This interpretation thus provides more of a problem to think about (“should I try to adjust my values and desires in order to be happier, and if so how?”) than practical advice.

3. Interpretation: Instead of taking this saying to be an observation about the nature of happiness we can instead take it to be a form of comfort and encouragement designed to be given to the unhappy. Telling them that happiness comes from within leads them to believe that they have some measure of control over their happiness, no matter how bad the situation looks. And that may encourage them to take some action rather than wallowing in their unhappiness. Additionally, the belief that they can choose not to be unhappy may lead them to act as if they weren’t unhappy, which may lead them to take actions that lead them back to happiness.

Evaluation: This interpretation is definitely on to something. When people are unhappy they tend to refrain from taking any actions because they have a hard time seeing how things might get better (if they could see how things might get better they wouldn’t be so unhappy). But not taking action rarely removes the sources of unhappiness, and so misery can promote more misery. Thus giving people the hope that happiness is still possible for them (by telling them that it is internal and under their control) may lead them to take action against the sources of their unhappiness, and thus promote their wellbeing. Unfortunately, realizing how this advice works renders it ineffective, because we realize that strictly speaking it doesn’t appear to be true, and thus are not motivated by it in the same way. However, by understanding how it works we can be better givers of this advice, especially if we choose to elaborate on it along the lines of interpretation 1.

4. Interpretation: Happiness comes from within because the choices and actions that lead to happiness ultimately come from within. For example, a new book arriving in the mail may make you happy, but the cause of that event was a purchase of the book, which was caused by your choice to purchase the book, which was an internal event. And if happiness is the product of our internal choices and actions this implies that happiness can be brought under our control if we learn how to make the right choices.

Evaluation: This interpretation appears to be partially correct. Many of our choices do lead to happiness or unhappiness eventually, and those choices were under our control. However, this interpretation suffers from two defects. First it does not appear that all of our happiness can be traced back to our own choices. For example, if a cancer patient recovers for no apparent reason (specifically because of something other than medical treatment) their recovery will still make them happy, even though it cannot be traced back to some choice they made. Similarly lasting world piece would make me happy even though none of my choices could be construed as leading to that peace. The second problem is that it does not appear that any amount of effort could allow us to always make the choices that lead us to be happy. For example, suppose you use your last dollar to buy a lottery ticket. If that ticket loses then you will be unhappy because you are now completely broke, but if you win you will be extremely happy. No amount of training can lead you to know with absolute certainty whether buying the ticket will be a choice that leads to unhappiness or happiness – you can only make an educated guess based on your knowledge of probability. Thus making better choices may bring our happiness more under our control, but it will never bring it perfectly under our control.

5. Interpretation: It is possible to defend interpretation 1 or 2 by limiting the scope of the saying to true or genuine happiness. Indeed the saying is often expressed in that way. If those interpretations are correct then true happiness or genuine unhappiness must be the kind we have control over, while pseudo happiness and unhappiness must be that which we don’t have control over.

Evaluation: If this interpretation is defendable it is only because it is not clear what the distinction between true happiness and pseudo happiness is. And thus it is not possible to give a definitive counterexample because it is always possible to claim that the happiness in that situation is or is not genuine, as is needed. However, it can be argued that this form of the claim is at least highly implausible. Happiness that is under our control often appears identical to happiness that isn’t, and thus an understanding of genuine happiness that doesn’t reduce the distinction between genuine and pseudo happiness to our ability to control it seems unlikely. And a definition that did reduce the distinction between the two to our ability to exercise control over it would be a disingenuous one, because calling a particular kind of happiness genuine implies that there is reason to prefer it, and there does not appear to be any intrinsic reason to prefer the happiness we can control over that which we have by chance.

6. Interpretation: Although the saying is worded so that it makes a claim about all happiness it is possible to take it to be speaking only about some kinds of happiness. Some kinds of happiness and unhappiness do appear to be under our control, as was suggested by interpretation 1 and 2. For example, there are cases where people amplify their unhappiness or prolong it beyond its normal duration, and in these cases one might choose to stop being unhappy. Similarly, the firm conviction that you have control over your own unhappiness can sometimes help prevent you from becoming unhappy. Often unhappiness is a result of a reaction that is on some level irrational. By focusing on keeping things in perspective, and reminding yourself that some things don’t matter as much as you are instinctively inclined to take them to, many forms of unhappiness can be prevented or reduced. Perhaps this mindset might be extended to unhappiness in general.

Evaluation: This does seem to be an accurate observation about unhappiness, at least for some people (not everyone may be able to adopt the kind of perspective towards their own unhappiness that is required). The biggest weakness of this interpretation is that it diverges so far from the original saying. It is less an interpretation and more a new idea inspired by that saying. It is also not clear how often unhappiness may be avoided in the way suggested. Is it most unhappiness or just the occasional case? The answer will probably vary from person to person depending on their natural reaction to unhappiness (which can be altered with practice) and the situations that usually cause their unhappiness. And so the value of this interpretation is something that everyone must discover for themselves.

7. Interpretation: “Happiness” in the original saying might be taken to mean not a single moment of happiness, but rather a happy life, or even a good life. Under this reading the saying would be expressing the idea that a happy life stems from internal factors, such as traits that lead a person to make decisions that lead to more happiness and less unhappiness in the long run and values that lead them to be satisfied with what they have rather than striving for more. Thus the saying is encouraging us to take care of the internal prerequisites for a happy life before chasing individual pleasurable experiences.

Evaluation: It does seem to be the case that how happy a person’s life is, overall, depends significantly on the kind of person that they are. There are some people who are able to find happiness under almost any conditions, and there are others who will never be happy with what they have. Since this interpretation is working with a long-term view of happiness it avoids some of the criticisms facing interpretation 1 and 2. It is true that adjusting our personality towards one that is conducive to a happy live is probably no easy task, but it is certainly something we can make progress towards in the long run. Like interpretation 2 it also poses a new problem to think about, namely which personality traits and which values affect how happy a life will be. Finally, it should be noted that there are probably some people whose lives will be so fortunate or so unfortunate that they will be happy or unhappy, respectively, no matter what kind of person they are. I imagine that someone who spends their life starving to death would be generally unhappy, no matter who they were.

8. Interpretation: So far “within” has been taken to mean within the individual. However the original saying leaves it open what happiness comes from within. Perhaps it comes from within the family, within the community, or within a culture. Thus under this communitarian interpretation the saying would be encouraging us to ensure that our environment is one that promotes happiness.

Evaluation: Obviously this interpretation is a bit of a stretch. Still, these interpretations are to be judged on their own merits, and not on the basis of how accurately they capture the intent of the original saying. And this interpretation does capture a truth about happiness: some environments provide many things to be happy about while others provide things to be unhappy about. However, this is a trivial truth, one that captures the “common sense” approach to happiness, which attributes it to things that happen to a person and not to any internal factors, and which the other interpretations are illuminating in contrast with. And by not going beyond common sense this interpretation doesn’t provide any new insights about how to be happier or less unhappy. Thus, while this interpretation accurately captures certain facts about happiness, it fails when measured in terms of how useful it is.

December 21, 2007

Seize The Moment (Or Don’t)

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

“Seize the day” is a relatively common motto, and I suppose that seizing the moment is a logical extension of that. The idea behind these slogans is that we should make the most of the here and now rather than putting up with unpleasantness for some imagined future rewards. What people have in mind when they say these slogans is, I suppose, that people have a tendency to become complacent with their current situation, and to not really think about other possibilities. Thus telling someone to seize the moment may be to encourage them to reevaluate their past choices, and to choose again so as to make life good, rather than to be stuck with old mistakes.

But just because the phrase may happen to resonate with us or that we think it might be good advice doesn’t necessarily mean that seizing the moment is a good idea. To decide whether we should seize the moment we must examine why, exactly, doing that might be beneficial to us. The obvious argument for seizing the moment, alluded to above, stems from practicality; we might think that someone who lived by seizing the moment would be better off than someone who didn’t. Now I admit that a side effect of seizing the moment may be to cause someone to reevaluate their past choices and to consider whether they should continue to be bound by them. However this is a side effect, and something that I don’t think should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to really seize the moment, because the same effect could be achieved by advice reminding us to ignore sunk costs or not to assume that we have always made the right choices in the past. If seizing the moment has any genuine merits it must be because living in the present has some advantages over a future-directed outlook. It might be argued then that the future is, for a large part, uncontrollable; that even if we think something is a sure bet that there is always the possibility that unforeseen circumstances may occur. Thus, the argument goes, we should only worry about what we have a real power to control, which is the present. By seizing the moment we give up on the future, which is hard to affect, for benefits in the moment that we can actually grasp. In many ways this reflects a kind of stoicism, which is primarily concerned with avoiding discomfort, rather than seeking pleasure, and so recommends that we give up on the future, at least to some extent, because we can’t be sure that we will get what we want and thus will end up disappointed and unhappy.

Perhaps though we aren’t stoics, and thus aren’t particularly compelled by such an argument from practicality. Still, there is another reason that might be put forward to seize the moment, one that stems from the nature of personal identity. Obviously we grant that there is an entity that we call the person who is temporally extended over large lengths time. And this person is defined by their personality traits, memories, and relationships with the external world. But this person is not identical with an episode of consciousness. Consciousness comes and goes, and I think there is reason to believe that even in the course of a single day that we can identify a number of distinct conscious episodes separated from each other by times when we are awake but not really conscious in the full sense of the word. This raises the question: who are we? Are we the person, or are we to be identified with an episode of consciousness. Naturally we identify ourselves with the person instinctively, but that doesn’t mean that is the correct judgment. Perhaps we are really defined by the unique point of view that constitutes us, and in that case we should identify ourselves with those episodes of consciousness. Unfortunately if that is the case then it means that we are extremely short lived, that we exist only for a brief period of time and are then replaced by another individual who considers themselves the same person. Thus all we really have available to us is the moment, and since it is all we have we should seize it, rather than reaching towards a future that we can never achieve.

Of course there are also arguments against the idea that we should seize the moment, which aim to counter the reasons given for doing just that already presented. But before I get to them let us first consider an argument against seizing the moment that doesn’t work, one that stems from evolution. That argument points out that we are not naturally disposed to seize the moment, we are naturally disposed to take a long-term view of things. This implies that evolution selected for taking the long-term view and against seizing the moment. Thus, the argument goes, there must be normative pressures against seizing the moment, and so we shouldn’t, even if we can’t identify what they are. But this argument is flawed because it presupposes that the normative pressures that might be said to exist in the context of evolution are also normative from our perspective. What is good for the species doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what an individual wants and thus what is good for them, although the two can occasionally overlap. And thus it is generally a bad idea to reason from evolution to what is good for individuals, unless we are dealing with something like survival, where an overlap is much more likely.

Let us turn then first to the argument from practicality. As I see it there are three flaws with this argument. The first is that it supposes that all we want to do is avoid unpleasantness, when really it is probably more accurate to say that we aim at maximizing our satisfaction. And such maximization probably requires long-term thinking and a willingness to accept short-term losses for long-term rewards. Obviously proving that it does is a complicated proposition, but if you aren’t convinced without proof then it can easily be set aside because the two other flaws are at least as damaging. The second flaw then stems from the fact that even if we seize the moment, every moment, it won’t be the case that we can make every moment a happy one. Sometimes, for example, we might be faced with the choice of being unhappy now or unhappy later, so no matter which choice we make we will be unhappy sometimes. And if all we live for is the current moment then any moment that things aren’t going well for us will be a disaster. Normally we are able to shrug off bad luck, knowing that things are usually good, but if we have a mindset that ignores the overall picture obviously we can’t do that. Of course few people who embrace the goal of seizing the moment actually treat bad moments as disasters, but that simply stems from the fact that few people who claim to seize the moment actually do; although they might like to we simply are pre-disposed to take more than our current situation into account. Which leads me to the third flaw with the argument from practicality: living in the moment may simply be incompatible with the things that make us happy. Certainly the goals of some people could be accomplished in a moment, such as those of hedonists, but anyone with farther reaching goals must live in more than the moment if they hope to accomplish them.

Thus on practical terms seizing the moment doesn’t look like such a good idea for most people. But naturally no such considerations address the argument from personal identity. If the argument from personal identity holds water then, despite its problems, living in the moment may simply be the best that we can do. Suppose that we grant the central claims of the argument from personal identity. Even so I don’t think it is the case that we necessarily have to live just in the moment. The fact that we are actually briefly existing individuals that doesn’t change the fact that we may have long-term goals. Obviously we couldn’t hope to personally see them accomplished. However, given that we have such goals, it seems likely that we would be happier trying to accomplish them than ignoring them, even if we can’t personally complete them. Indeed we can apply reasoning usually found in the context of ethics to this situation. Sure each momentarily existing individual could live solely for itself, and act against the best interests of the rest, but the person whom all those momentarily existing individuals make up will end up rather poorly off. On the other hand if those momentarily existing individuals all act with the best interests of the person in mind then the person will do well and thus, on average, they will do well. And so the collection of momentarily existing individuals that act selflessly end up generally better off, individually, than those that cared only about their individual welfare. Which means that the argument from personal identity carries no weight.

Of course none of this rules out the possibility that for some people, with certain collections of goals and desires, living in the moment may be a perfectly sensible thing to do. However, for the most of us, I suspect that, while seizing the moment is nice to do, it’s not something that should be a primary focus.

November 26, 2007

Game Playing

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

For most of us games are a form of relaxation and entertainment, which may make them seem like a complete waste of time, especially in light of what I have said previously about entertainment in general. I pointed out that entertainment was essentially a distraction, and that such distractions could prevent people from ever finding what is really valuable to them. Does that mean that we should never play games? I would say that it depends on the person. Obviously pursuing what is considered good is the most important task, and in some way everything must be in service of that. And finding the right psychological balance between sacrifices made for that long-term goal and feeling good in the present is important. Some people have the kind of will power that allows them to focus only on that one thing without breaking down, and obviously such people are able to lead the best lives, by their own standards (since they can better satisfy their desires than they would be if they were distracted by other things). But others are unable to have such a single minded focus, they need a number of smaller desires to be satisfied to keep them feeling good while they pursue their long term goals. Thus a small number of diversions may actually be appropriate for them, because they will pursue what is considered good better with them than without them.

But games don’t seem to be entertainment for everyone, there are people who play games in a way that might be described as “professional” in the amount of time they devote to them. Of course we must toss out from such considerations professional athletes, because it is clear that most of them are not really interested in the game, but in the money and the lifestyle. Because if the game was really that important to them then there would be no point in them continuing on after they had become too old to play (indeed it is extremely odd to focus your life on something you can only do for a short time). To really see the kind of people I am talking about we must turn our attention to those who don’t become rich or famous off playing their game well, such as professional chess players. Such professional players spend so much effort on playing that game well that they seem to basically ignore everything else, the kind of attitude that is consistent with what a good life is for them as being somehow tied to the game. This might make them seem crazy from our perspective, after all isn’t it just obvious that such games are merely entertainment, that they don’t really have any objective value whatsoever. And so such professional players must be deluded, pursuing some false conception of what is good.

Of course we might point out in their defense that many intellectual activities (which chess and other such games certainly are among) can be thought of as games. Mathematics, for example, might seem to be a game played with symbols with very complicated rules determining how one symbol string can be transformed into another. Of course the winning conditions in mathematics aren’t obvious, so perhaps the game is a kind of solitaire, with the player attempting to arrive at either a certain symbol string or that same string prefaced by a negation by using the allowed transformation rules. And if someone who spends all day playing solitaire with cards is deluded about what is good in life then certainly someone who is playing solitaire with symbol strings is equally deluded, even if they receive more praise and are held up as a great intellectual while the solitaire player is ignored. But it is possible to break this apparent symmetry by pointing out that mathematics, and many other intellectual exercises, can be put to other uses, while skills at playing solitaire cannot. And thus such intellectual exercises can be legitimately thought of as valuable, even if in intrinsic terms they are nothing more than complicated games. Whether the players of such intellectual games actually pursue them with such intensity because of the possible applications is something that I will leave unexamined for them moment, but it seems quite possible to me that most engaged in such activities do them for their own sake. And thus that even though they may have useful applications the people engaging them are as deluded as professional game players, if they are deluded, because they give no thought to the applications and thus would be equally happy were there no applications at all.

Let’s go back to the initial problem for a moment and take another look at it. The idea that professional game playing doesn’t make sense is founded on the assumption that being good at a games isn’t valuable. And that conclusion is supported by the observations that playing games doesn’t have any extrinsic effects that people would generally recognize as valuable, and that for most people playing games is a diversion from the good life rather than an essential part of it. Obviously the first observation doesn’t really support the conclusion, what is a good life has nothing to do with how other people benefit from it, the good life is determined by what the person truly finds valuable. And similarly the second observation isn’t sound basis for the conclusion either; what one person finds essential to their good life is probably a distraction to most other people. While reading philosophy papers is something I must do it is probably not something you have to, and might even be a waste of your valuable time. Thus we can’t pass judgment on professional game players so quickly, just because we find the way they are living bizarre.

Indeed I am tempted to say that our intuitions are almost completely wrong, that rather than being examples of how not to lead the good life the people who devote themselves to chess and its like are rather models of how to lead the good life, for the most part. First we can observe that, while individual games of chess are probably fun for the people who play professionally, the things they do in order to play professionally, such as study chess strategy, are probably not very enjoyable to anyone but a professional player. And that implies that their game playing is really something they desire, rather than a distraction that has consumed their life because of the immediate gratification it brings. Obviously anyone is fully capable of wasting their life on entertainment, but only real desires make things that don’t bring immediate gratification, and which would be by themselves rather boring, enjoyable. A second sign that game playing might really be part of the good life for them is that doing it well doesn’t bring any special benefits for most, most professional players aren’t made rich or famous by their skills. Since many people pursue money and fame tying those things to any activity often clouds whether it is really desired or simply a means to an end.

And game playing also has a number of other advantages that make it seem a suitable goal to pursue. Simply because it is basically an intellectual goal the professional game player is, for the most part, freed from any dependencies on other people. No one can stop them trying to be a better player, nor is it easy possible to frustrate their goal by withholding something from them. Another advantage of game playing is that there is always room to improve, because, assuming that the game is reasonably complex, there is no humanly accessible upper performance bound. And, because games have winners and losers, these improvements are relatively easily measured, which makes it easier for the person who desires to excel at playing the game to keep themselves on the path of constant improvement, in contrast to many other activities where it can be hard to tell if you are really getting any better at them in an objective way. Finally, it also has the advantage of being a creative kind of desire, since the game player is always trying to “create” new victories, new strategies, new solutions to certain problems within the game. Again, this is a sign that it is a desire with enough “depth” not to be exhausted within a person’s lifetime.

Those are the advantages that come simply from the nature of games themselves, but there are also psychological advantages stemming from the way people professionally play games and the attitude of the rest of the population. First of all we might note that, due to competitive pressures, people who want to be good have to devote a lot of time to the game. And this is a good thing because such a single-minded focus is helpful to making the most of life, assuming that one is able to handle it, as mentioned earlier. But, even more importantly, professionally playing games is generally looked down upon or simply not understood by the majority of the population. And that is good for the people who actually do decide to play games professionally, because it means that their choice to do so is actually motivated by their desires, and not by any side effects or the perception of other people that such activities are good. I think people are often diverted from what they really want to do because they allow their judgments about what is worth doing to be influenced by other people. But that is exactly the wrong way to decide what to pursue, because it simply doesn’t matter in this situation what other people find valuable. However, as with all things, nothing is perfect, and desiring to play games professionally also comes with a psychological downside as well, namely that it is intrinsically competitive. And, while it is perfectly acceptable to desire to be good at something, the desire to be best is itself undesirable. There can only be one best, and so most people with such a desire are just setting themselves up to fail in life, not to mention that they may be putting themselves through undue stress.

So, to conclude, while professional game playing may seem valueless to the rest of us it isn’t to the people playing, and that is what really matters. And, because it seems so pointless to the rest of us, those people may actually serve as models of what living the good life might be like.

November 21, 2007

Destructive Desires

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

If we call something a destructive desire it is intuitively clear that we mean a desire whose goal is to tear something down, rather than to build something up. And we might comment in vague terms about when this tearing down is good or bad. But what exactly is a destructive desire? Consider, for example, a demolitions expert who enjoys their job. Some people might see this as a destructive desire, a desire to destroy buildings. But I doubt this is what it really is, because for the expert each demolitions task is a problem, how to set up the explosives so that they collapse the building in a certain way. Thus what the demolitions expert really desires is to create a solution to these problems, not simply to destroy buildings. And clearly this is a better explanation of their desires because if they really wanted to destroy buildings it would be strange if they were able to tolerate living in an undestroyed building. Additionally, not only may “obvious” examples of destructive desires turn out not to be best characterized as such, but there is also the risk that a large number of clearly creative desires could be construed as destructive. For example, consider a philosopher, who in putting forward a point of view must necessarily argue against the alternatives, even if their argument against them is simply the strong reasons they provide to believe the theory that they present. Thus this activity might be construed as a desire to destroy other philosophical positions, or at least containing such a desire. But clearly this is not the philosopher’s actual desire, the philosopher desires to create better philosophy than what currently exists, and destruction is simply a necessary prerequisite for that.

Thus we must get clear about what destructive desires are if we want to say anything about them that isn’t wide open to misinterpretations. But, clearly, directly approaching the problem isn’t getting us much of anywhere, so we might try tackling the opposite instead, and define what creative desires are, and to understand destructive desires as the inverted shadow of them. Creative desires seem relatively easy to understand as a desire to bring something new into the world. And, to free this from the possibility of misinterpretation, we can simply stipulate that if the desire contains a mixture of creation and destruction that it is creative, although we might revise this when we are more sure about what exactly a destructive desire is. We may even interpret what a creative desire is in a loose fashion and allow them to include desires such as the desire to own something. Obviously the desire to possess something doesn’t add anything new to the world, but it does add something new to the person’s world, some new object that wasn’t there before.

But, even so widened, whatever is not a creative desire doesn’t necessarily seem like a destructive one. Consider, for example, the desire to avoid pain. Obviously this is not a creative desire, since we aren’t trying to create something new. We of course might play language games and say that it is a desire to add an absence of pain into one’s life that didn’t exist previously, but let’s not. Not only are such games beneath us, but it grossly misinterprets the psychology of the desire; people do not hold up a life without pain before themselves and decide that that is desirable, rather they hold up painful moments before themselves and decide that they undesirable. On the other hand, when looking at them in this way it may be that the desire to avoid pain isn’t a desire at all, properly speaking. Rather it is something psychologically similar that works on a principle of avoidance rather than attraction. And what we are looking for is desires that embody an attraction to some kind of destruction for its own merits. As such only certain dislikes and hatreds may qualify as properly destructive desires, because only they represent a drive towards a world without something in it. And, as such, they are very different from the desire to avoid something, because avoidance works on a principle of “out of sight, out of mind”. Once you have successfully managed to avoid pain the existence of pain doesn’t bother you. But if you desired to destroy pain that would not be enough. If you were out to destroy pain you would only be satisfied if pain was somehow made impossible. Which is why a desire to destroy pain doesn’t make much sense. But the desire to destroy specific things or kinds of things is quite possible, and not that uncommon. Naturally such hatreds are different in a number of ways from creative desires, most strikingly in their origin. Creative desires may arise in a quite gradual fashion from considering what is valuable or worth doing, and from such considerations a desire may arise to bring about what is deemed best. However, similar processes do not give rise to destructive desires, no one ever comes to a desire to eliminate certain things from the realization that they are bad. Psychologically destructive desires seem to find their origin in specific events that lead people to resent certain things, often cases where those things have harmed them or frustrated their other desires. Thus they seem much less “rational”, although whether that is a problem is something I will consider later.

In general society will obviously frown upon destructive desires, and many of them will be considered unethical. Because, in general, society thrives on creation, and indeed there must be substantially more active creation than destruction if society is even to continue to exist (both because it is easier to destroy, and because things naturally fall apart on their own). Thus clearly no society could successfully encourage destructive desires in general. There are cases, however, where specific destructive desires or forms of destructive desires may be encouraged. For example, if someone desires to destroy something that is bad for society then their destructive desire may be tolerated, so long as it doesn’t bring them outside of the law. (This is the classic problem of law enforcement gone too far, although the police might catch more criminals by going outside the law they shouldn’t because of the other negative social consequences of doing so.) Similarly society may encourage destructive desires toward some external entity, such as another society, although if it does so it is more likely because of the unifying strength those desires can have, and not because they are particularly productive in themselves.

The fact that society as a whole will disapprove of destructive desires isn’t particularly interesting though, because society will disapprove of a number of desires. It is better to ask whether such desires are good or bad for the individual who has them. And, again, obviously anything that goes against ethics and the will of society in general will be bad for a person who lives in society to some extent. So we will set such concerns aside and simply consider destructive desires on their own merits, without any thought to society. One obvious problem with destructive desires is that they require something to destroy in order to satisfy them, in contrast to creative desires where the possibility of creating something new always exists. Thus whether a desire to destroy can be exercised depends on the existence of something to destroy, and this makes such people dependant on the creators of those things. Another problem with these destructive desires is that they tend to be strong and rather specific, which is a bad combination when it comes to desires of any kind. In general it is best to only put a substantial amount of effort into desires that will provide us with sustained satisfaction over a long period of time, rather than those which will provide simply momentary satisfaction, because after that momentary satisfaction is achieved all the work put into getting there is effectively wasted.

Now we might think that both these problems could be solved in the right individual, and are thus no more problematic than creative desires can be in certain combinations. Such an individual would have to have destructive desires that are wide in scope, targeted at a general kind of thing rather than at specific objects. And they would have to possess a matching creative desire so that they can provide themselves with the things they want to destroy, in order not to be at the mercy of creators. But, while logically possible, such an individual is psychologically impossible, because a creative desire and a destructive desire directed at the same things are simply unimaginable in the same individual. How could they both hate and love the same things? More importantly we desire the creation or destruction of things because we think those outcomes are important, but clearly a belief of that sort is incompatible with such a pair of desires, since they counter each other so that nothing is accomplished. Because of such problems I am driven to conclude that we should do all we can to avoid destructive desires, and that if we acquire them that we should resist satisfying them. Not because they are unethical, at least not only for that reason, but because they are the kind of desires where a successful pursuit leads to frustration.

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