Determinism 11 – Ethics as a Means of Living with Determinism

[This post is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first one in the series is here. The most recent one is “Is it Better to Believe That we Have Free Will.”]

Thomas Nagel, one of the greatest living philosophers, approaches the subject of free will with humility. He writes:

“I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be seen as a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.”

He ends his contribution to the discussion of the subject – 28 pages of tightly argued complex philosophical writing – with the remark, “As I have said, it seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has been said on this subject.”

The problem, as Nagel frames it, is one of perspective:

“In acting we occupy the internal perspective, and we can occupy it sympathetically with regard to the actions of others. But when we move away from our individual point of view, and consider our own actions and those of others simply as part of the course of events in a world that contains us among other creatures and things, it begins to look as if we never really contribute anything.

From the inside, when we act, alternative possibilities seem to lie open before us: to turn right or left, to order this dish or that, to vote for one candidate or the other – and one of the possibilities is made actual by what we do. The same applies to our internal consideration of the actions of others. But from an external perspective, things look different. That perspective takes in not only the circumstances of action as they present themselves to the agent, but also the conditions and influences lying behind the action, including the complete nature of the agent himself. While we cannot fully occupy this perspective towards ourselves while acting, it seems possible that many of the alternatives that appear to lie open when viewed from an internal perspective would seem closed from this outer point of view, if we could take it up. And even if some of them are left open, given a complete specification of the condition of the agent and the circumstances of action, it is not clear how this would leave anything further for the agent to contribute to the outcome – anything that he could contribute as source, rather than merely as the scene of the outcome – the person whose act it is.”

As Nagel sees it our problem concerning free will is a “bafflement of our feelings and attitudes – a loss of confidence, conviction or equilibrium.” The problem is that when we take an external view of our actions, we clearly see that our actions are events in a natural order caused by any number of factors outside of our control. Thus we get the “feeling that agents are helpless and not responsible.” And we can’t find ways of making sense of our internal view where we act autonomously. Neither can we get rid of our felt sense of autonomy in action. “We are apparently condemned to want something impossible,” says Nagel.

So if we can’t have the autonomy that we crave, the next best thing, according to Nagel, is to be able to reconcile our internal view with the external perspective. “This does not meet the central problem of free will,” according to Nagel. “But it does reduce the degree to which the objective self must think of itself as an impotent spectator, and to that extent it confers a kind of freedom.” So what we must do, is to learn to act from an objective standpoint as well as to view ourselves from an objective standpoint. Nagel adds, that, since we can’t act in light of everything about ourselves, the best we can do is to try to live in a way that wouldn’t have to be revised in light of anything more that could be known about us.

Nagel proposes an ascent towards this greater reconciliation of internal and external views along four steps:

1.) Self-awareness

“We might try, first, to develop as complete an objective view of ourselves as we can, and include it in the basis of our actions, wherever it is relevant. This would mean consistently looking over our own shoulders at what we are doing and why (though often it will be a mere formality). But this objective self-surveillance will inevitably be incomplete, since some knower must remain behind the lens if anything is to be known.”

This seems like a burdensome procedure, as well as one that might undermine confidence in action and make it hesitant. But this self-surveillance could potentially become a practice that runs in our mind quite routinely. The examples Nagel gives of things we might catch through the look over our shoulder are influences over our actions that we would resist if we became aware of them: prejudice, irrationality and narrow-mindedness. We can avoid acting under their influence by increasing our self-awareness.

Self-awareness, though, can never progress so far towards objectivity that it wouldn’t include a blind spot.

2.) Practical rationality – stepping outside of impulses and desires

Nagel refers to “ordinary practical rationality” as “roughly analogous to the process of forming a coherent set of beliefs out of one’s pre-reflective personal impressions. This involves […] actual endorsement of some motives, suppression or revision of others, and adoption of still others, from a standpoint outside that within which primary impulses, appetites, and aversions arise. When these conflict we can step outside and choose among them.”

3.) Prudential rationality – stepping outside of the present moment

An important subset of practical rationality, is prudence, where we don’t just step outside ourselves to arbitrate between a number of our motives for action, but we step outside of the present moment to consider future considerations that may have a bearing on our actions. (So this is where I judge the present desire to eat the second piece of cake against the future consideration of feeling like I’ve eaten too much.) Nagel warns against over-using the ability to do this: “The dominance of a timeless view of one’s life may be objectively unwise. And compulsiveness or neurotic avoidance based on repressed desires can easily be disguised as rational self-control.”

“But in its normal form,” he concludes, “prudence increases one’s freedom by increasing one’s control over the operation of first-order motives through a kind of objective will.”

4.) Morality – stepping outside oneself

The next step goes even further than just accepting considerations from outside the present, to accepting considerations from outside one’s life:  “More external than the standpoint of temporal neutrality is the standpoint from which one sees oneself as just an individual among others.” This step leads to the formation of impersonal values, and the modification of conduct and motivation in accordance with them.

The Paradox – Morality as Freedom

There is a paradox here: Nagel started us off on this ascent with a promise that it would get us to a more comfortable place with regard to our problem with freedom of the will. But we end the journey under the yoke of moral and ethical considerations. Nagel is fully aware of this paradox: “there is an internal connection between ethics and freedom: subjection to morality expresses the hope of autonomy, even though it is a hope that cannot be realised in its original form. We cannot act on the world from outside, but we can in a sense act from both inside and outside our particular position in it. Ethics increases the range of what it is about ourselves that we can will – extending it from our actions to the motives and character traits and dispositions from which they arise.”

 

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Determinism 10 – Is It Better To Believe That We Have Free Will?

[This is one of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first one is here.]

What then about the suggestion that it is better for people to believe that they have free will, even if we don’t know whether they do or don’t?

One such argument stems from studies that show that people might act in morally better ways if they believe that they are making the choices, and worse if they are made to believe that they don’t. In order to instil in people a greater scepticism about free will, researchers give them a passage from Francis Crick’s (the co-discoverer of DNA) book “The Astonishing Hypothesis” which says:

“‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons… although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.”

Or they ask them to think about sentences such as: “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

Another group of participants is given other ideas to ponder that are meant to be more conducive of re-inforcing beliefs in free will: “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions,” or they are given texts that have nothing to do with free will.

The studies then contain a further element that looks at what happens with people who have been prompted in various ways with regard to free will.

Apparently, those who have been primed to become sceptical about free will are more likely to cheat in maths tests and less likely to help others than those who have been primed to believe in free will or who have had no prompts.

In one study, participants were asked, after reading Crick, to help prepare food for a taste test. Having become less inclined to believe in free will, they turned out to be more inclined to add chilli sauce to a meal for a stranger of whom they knew that he or she has indicated on a questionnaire that he or she doesn’t like hot foods!

Nonetheless I’m not sure that we should conclude that a belief in free will makes you morally better, or that a belief in determinism makes you worse.

The problem is that these people were primed to think in particular ways about free will and responsibility. And the studies did not look at other elements of the belief system that these people had in place. The passage from Crick quoted above for example doesn’t just aim to erode a belief in free will, it also wants to reduce our feelings and our sense of self to illusions based on purely material foundations. The sentences replace the world of human experience to the movement of molecules. They leave little place for the thought that human actions could be predetermined but still lead to responsibility. This is not the only way in which a lack of belief in free will can be construed.

The sentence quoted above that is used to prime people to believe in free will on the other hand is strong on “regrets” over “bad choices” and “responsibility.” In other words, it has a strong moral background built into it. I would say it is more about instilling a view of morality than one about free will.

Leaving to one side the problem about what kind of determinism and free will people are led to consider, the studies don’t look at (or don’t tell us) what the participants believed in addition to the stuff they were primed to. Someone who believes that his life is predetermined within a cold, vast, ultimately meaning- and purposeless universe is likely to act differently from someone who believes that her life is predetermined by a benign divinity who steers creation towards eternal bliss.

The fact that these people feel they can cheat more, be less helpful to others, or make food less palatable for strangers, should potentially lead us more to worry about the background morality of study participants – perhaps unleashed more if they are primed not to take their responsibility too seriously – than their beliefs in free will or determinism.

Determinism 9 – The Real Oedipus Complex: Moral Responsibility Without Free Will

[This post is a part of a series on determinism. The previous one is here. The first one of the series is here.]

If Dr. Freud hadn’t named his particular complex after him, Oedipus might have become famous for the way he exemplified the relationship of human beings with their predetermined lives rather than just for that matter of killing his father and marrying his mother.

For Oedipus the force of determinism is expressed by oracles. Even at the time of his birth, his father Laius receives the prophecy that he will die by the hands of the newborn son. And it is precisely because Laius aims to avoid that fate by having the baby killed that a course of events is set in train that leads to the fulfilment of that prophecy. The baby isn’t killed but abandoned in the mountains and adopted by a couple. He kills his father in a chance meeting, not knowing who he is, in an early example of road rage. And, of course, as presaged, he marries his mother, Jocasta, not knowing that she is his mother either. In the course of events he also becomes king of Thebes. The abandoned baby, Oedipus, grows up and goes through life like a human wrecking ball, or an avalanche wreaking havoc. The people of Thebes are suffering from the plague visited upon the city in punishment for the terrible deeds its king has committed. Jocasta ends up hanging herself and Oedipus, when it all comes to lights, puts his lights out, gouging out his eyes in self-punishment.

It is only then that Oedipus accepts his further oracle that he would die in a place consecrated to the Furies, and finally be a blessing, not a curse, to the land where his life ends.

One of the many points about the myth of Oedipus has been made by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes:

“The story of Oedipus is well known: Abandoned as an infant, he was taken to King Polybos, who raised him. One day when he was grown into a youth, he came upon a dignitary riding along a mountain path. A quarrel arose, and Oedipus killed the dignitary. Later he became the husband of Queen Jocasta and ruler of Thebes. Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilence. When Oedipus realised that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later, it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts wree therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortune (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hand of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe? (…)

But (…) whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? (…)

Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realised what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by ‘not knowing,’ he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.”

The case Kundera makes is that a lack of knowledge concerning one’s actions does not absolve you from responsibility for them. The same case though can also be made about the freedom with which one chooses to perform one’s actions.

If anyone could have argued that he was not free to choose his actions, it was Oedipus. After all, his misdeeds – killing his father and marrying his mother – were predicted by a powerful oracle at birth. And despite actions taken to avoid them, they come to pass. But Oedipus recognises that it is he who has carried out the crimes, even if it was all predetermined and presaged.

Why did Oedipus feel that he needed to take responsibility for his actions even though they were foretold before he knew anything and all steps were taken to avoid them? The point is that it was still he, Oedipus as a person, who had done these acts and so they would be with him until atoned. As the king of Thebes he was in danger of continuing to bring the wrath of the Gods onto innocent citizens due to the person he had become. As the king of Thebes, he felt responsible for the welfare of his subjects. Oedipus’ strict self-punishment leads him to be redeemed, averts the plague from Thebes. Ultimately, having taken responsibility and accepted his predetermined fate, he is sought out as a person who could bring blessing to the land.

We have to make do without oracles, seers and divine punishments. Nonetheless, the things we do are strongly associated with us as individuals. If we harm others by acting on faulty reasons, we are the ones who hadn’t developed sufficient rationality to see the better reasons. We can be criticised for that and it can be hoped that we can correct and better ourselves. Taking responsibility for our actions, owning them, even if they were determined by factors outside ourselves, could be a first step to that kind of improvement and development of greater insight.

We stay responsible for the actions we take, even if we can point to factors that have caused us to take them. We took the actions that had that effect and by doing so set in train an other series of cause and effect. Being the cause of something just gives us responsibility for the impacts. There doesn’t need to be a further concept of moral responsibility that comes from having freely chosen to do it.

 

Determinism 5 – The Split Second of Freedom?

[This is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first post is here.]

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed some experiments relating to the free will. He sat people down in front of a kind of clock face with a dot moving around it very fast. They could stop the dot with a flick of the wrist. Libet asked them to note where the dot was when they formed the intention to move their wrist in order to make the dot stop. He also measured via an electrode on their head when the “specific electrical change in the brain (the ‘readiness potential’)” that “precedes freely voluntary acts” occurred.

He found that the electrical change in the brain occurs more than half a second before the action is taken. And that the human subject becomes aware of the intention to act 350-400 milliseconds after the electrical change but still around 200 milliseconds before the action is taken.

This research was pounced on by those arguing that we have no free will. How can we be said to choose freely to act when the evidence for the action about to be taken is there before we are even consciously aware of it?

But Libet himself wasn’t quite as categorical about his findings. He clearly took the view that we should assume that we have free will. He suggested that his experiment showed that free will might consist in being able to veto actions that the brain proposes to undertake. In the 200 or so milliseconds between our awareness of our intention to act and the action itself, we can stop ourselves from acting. He says that sometimes the electrode showed a readiness potential in some of his experimental subjects and they became aware of an intention to act but didn’t ultimately take the required action to stop the dot moving. His conclusion is:

“The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as ‘bubbling up’ in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing.”

The  ethical conclusion Libet reaches is that guilt and the attribution of moral wrong-doing should relate only to actions taken, not to thoughts about actions. Specifically, he rejects the kind of doctrine expressed in the Sermon of the Mount:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”’ (Matthew, 5.27–8).”

But those who see Libet’s experiments as proof of the absence of free will, have to force themselves to overlook the fact that Libet quotes – at the end of his article published in a scientific journal – the author Isaac Bashevis Singer who said:

“The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself life is worthwhile living.”

But it doesn’t end there. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach discusses the Libet experiment and quotes with approval another Tara (Bennett-Goleman) who calls the milli-seconds between our awareness of an intention forming and the physical movement to implement it, the “magical quarter-second.” Tara Brach concludes that:

“By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we are able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. If our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button. The basic mindfulness tools for working with compulsive thinking are “coming back” and “being here.”

It’s time to disentangle some thoughts. Here’s what I think:

  1. Libet’s experiment is interesting but it doesn’t necessarily show any of the things he or others claimed. It could simply be a case of brain-hand-eye co-ordination takes certain amounts of time. Also, if we believe that we have free will, as Libet does, then how can we tell that the electrical charge in the brain isn’t just something we generate when we exercise our free will?
  2. The ability to say no to things that bubble up in the brain an unconvincing and unsatisfying version of free will. Surely we would want the ability to choose positively what actions to take, rather than just a power of veto.
  3. I don’t think Libet’s moral conclusions would follow from his interpretation of free will as a power of veto. In a later blog I’ll aim to argue for moral responsibility even for predetermined, not just for freely willed actions.
  4. Even if Libet’s and Bennett-Goleman’s magic quarter-second doesn’t follow from the experiments, there is clearly the possibility of a reflective space before any action. I think making use of it, and practising the ability to extend it, can make our actions better, even if not necessarily freer. This is again something I’ll want to discuss in a future blog.

 

Determinism 2 – What is the Problem?

This post is a part of a series. Here’s the first one of the series.

The majority of people who responded to my thought experiment said they would try to forget about the news and just spend their day as they were planning to do anyway. Slightly fewer people saw themselves newly absolved of responsibility for their actions and therefore went for ice cream and telly. There were also a few who were going to spend the day proving that we do have free will, regardless of the panel’s findings, some of them brought issues of ethics or religion into it. One or two just remarked that they would do whatever they were pre-determined to do and one or two others said that of course we have no free will and everything is predetermined.

Of course there is more than one problem surrounding determinism and free will. It’s worth untangling them a bit.

First of all there is a relatively straightforward problem: In the pursuit of our daily lives we appear to exercise our will freely. From minor decisions as to what kind of breakfast cereal to buy, to major life choices such as whom we should marry or whether we should change jobs, careers even, or move to a different country, our life seems somehow to be up to us. Or at least we seem to have a say in the direction it takes. And we would like to think that even with major moral dilemmas, such as – during times of war – whether to join the resistance and fight the forces of oppression, or stay at home to look after a sickly relative, we would be free to make that decision. In such cases, I suspect, many of us would prefer the ability to make our choices freely to the alternative of not choosing at all. That would remain the case even if it ultimately means having an ability to make choices that will turn out to have been bad choices, tragic choices or fatal choices.

On the other hand, we understand the universe we inhabit to be a physical universe in which things follow the laws of physics and other sciences. Bodies move according to laws of physics that we can work out through observation and the other methods of science. In that physical universe every cause has an effect and every effect its cause. Certain things follow each other as night follows day. Even where a divine spirit is assumed to be a part of this picture, this spirit is the provider and enforcer of these laws that govern bodies. And human creatures are undeniably physical beings who – as bodies – are subject to the same laws. What’s more, with the progress of neuroscience, the more we can look into the activities of tiny particles in our brains and the mental processes triggered by these activities, the more scientists conclude that the lives of our minds are as governed by these laws of science as our bodies.

Secondly, there appears to be a kind of psychological problem: In the thought experiment, we have come across an overwhelming reason to believe that we have no free will. And yet, it is not just my perverse construction of the experiment that leads us ask ourselves the question “so what do we do now?” Acquiring the knowledge that we are predetermined creatures doesn’t seem to change our sense of agency. And for the small number of people who answered the thought experiment by saying “I’d do whatever I’m predetermined to do,” the challenge would be to describe how the experience of doing so is qualitatively different from the experience of living life exercising free will. A life where we just surrender to determinism, switching off whatever faculty we think we’re exercising when making choices or decisions for ourselves, doesn’t seem feasible.

Thirdly, there is the question of responsibility for our actions. Some people found the certain knowledge that their actions are a result of determinism, rather than an exercise of their free will, liberating. They chose to sit in front of the telly and eat ice cream. Watching TV and eating ice cream are of course just representative examples for how we might chose to live our lives if we were freed from the responsibility for our actions that we normally place upon ourselves or see ourselves under. There are unlimited other things people might choose to do if they saw responsibility for their actions lifted from them. Again, isn’t it an odd and paradoxical psychological effect that the sudden knowledge that their actions are pre-determined suddenly seems to free people up to do what they always wanted to do?

But aside from the psychological effect, there’s the ethical point that a lot of people see the seeming absence of responsibility for our actions, moral responsibility in particular, as so repugnant, that they would take that as a starting point to argue against determinism. It may also be possible to rescue moral responsibility through into a deterministic picture of life and the universe.

[The next post in this series is here.]

A Cheetah, Sea Creatures and a Spider – Philosophers Looking At Animals

Here are three philosophers looking at animals:

Hursthouse’s Cheetah

“I once saw a nature documentary which followed a cheetah in the wild through her pregnancy and managed to capture in full the extraordinary sight of her trying to bring down a small deer (on her own, of course, because cheetahs are solitary) when very near to her term. Apart from the pregnancy, she was nothing but skin and bone and sinew, and although she started off with the characteristic gravity-defying bounds, she couldn’t keep it up, and collapsed. According to the documentary, she had been, in the last few weeks, a little unlucky in the availability of prey, but only a little; near starvation and exhaustion after attempts at hunting during pregnancy are, it was said, pretty much the female cheetah’s lot.”

Rosalind Hursthouse “On Virtue Ethics”

Wiggins’ Sea Creatures

“Two or three years ago, when I went to see some film at the Academy Cinema, the second feature of the evening was a documentary film about creatures fathoms down on the ocean-bottom. When it was over, I turned to my companion and asked, ‘What is it about these films that make one feel so utterly desolate?’ Her reply was: ‘apart from the fact that so much of the film was about sea monsters eating one another, the unnerving thing was that nothing down there ever seemed to rest.’ As for play, disinterested curiosity, or merely contemplating, she could have added, these seemed inconceivable.”

David Wiggins “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”

Nagel’s Spider

“One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men’s room in 1879 Hall, a building that houses the Philosophy Department. When the urinal wasn’t in use, he would perch on the metal drain at its base, and when it was, he would try to scramble out of the way, sometimes managing to climb inch or two up the porcelain wall at a point that wasn’t too wet. But sometimes he was caught, tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent. He didn’t seem to like it, and always got out of the way if he could. But it was a floor-length urinal with a sunken base and a smooth overhanging lip: he was below floor level and couldn’t get out.

Somehow he survived, presumably feeding on tiny insects attracted to the site, and was still there when the fall term began. The urinal must have been used more than a hundred times a day, and always it was the same desperate scramble to get out of the way. His life seemed miserable and exhausting.

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. None of the other regulars did anything to alter the situation, but as the months wore on and fall turned to winter I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision to liberate him. I reflected that if he didn’t like it on the outside, or didn’t find enough to eat, he could easily get back. So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened. I pushed him an inch or two along the tiles, right next to the urinal, but he still didn’t respond. He seemed to be paralysed. I felt uneasy but thought that if he didn’t want to stay on the tiles when he came to, a few steps would put him back. Meanwhile he was close to the wall and not in danger of being trodden on. I left but when I came back two hours later he hadn’t moved.

Animals – Human and Otherwise

Why do philosopher’s look at animals when they’re considering the big questions about human existence?

Maybe because it makes sense to remind ourselves that we are also animals. And then it helps us think about the ways in which we are different from other animals and the ways we are alike.

Wiggins’ sea creatures for example who don’t rest, play or contemplate, show us that these activities are important to us. In Wiggins’ words:

“If we can project upon a form of life nothing but the pursuit of life itself, if we find there no non-instrumental concerns and no interest in the world considered as lasting longer than the animal in question will need the world to last in order to sustain the animal’s own life; then the form of life must be to some extent alien to us.”

Human animals need to be able to pursue something more than survival itself. The world is – to us – of non-instrumental interest. We can care about it beyond our lifespan. And it is part of who we are, as a species, to look for meaning and purpose. (Wiggins almost looks like he’s arguing that any life form that doesn’t concern itself with philosophical questions is alien to us.)

Hursthouse’s cheetah, reminds us that as animals our lives and what constitutes a good life are to some extent bounded by what is biologically possible for us. In contrast to cheetahs though, we can correct what is “natural” for us through our thinking, our actions and our institutions. Hursthouse writes:

“But in virtue of our rationality – our free will if you like – we are different. Apart from obvious physical constraints and possible psychological constraints, there is no knowing what we can do from what we do do, because we can assess what we do do and at least try to change it.”

While cheetahs are not widely seen to be organising themselves to make pregnancy and childbirth less burdensome and potentially lethal for female cheetahs, human beings have, for example, adopted Millennium Development Goals to improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, promote gender equality, empower women and achieve universal primary education. As a species we have even made some progress towards these over the decades. We can critique our nature from the inside and do something about it in a way that cheetahs can’t.

Nagel’s spider serves as a metaphor for the absurd human existence. With hindsight he sees that he went wrong in “rescuing” the spider. He assumed that this miserable existence in a urinal could not possibly be a worthwhile life for a spider. But it turned out that when the spider was “liberated” from his bleak existence, that was the moment when life was no longer worth living. The point of view of the spider and that of Thomas Nagel were incompatible with each other in a way that turned out to be fatal for the spider. What Nagel takes from the episode is that there are “hazards of combining perspectives that are radically distinct.”

Whereas in that example we have the spider’s perspective and the human being’s, Nagel’s point is that the human mind seems capable of taking up two similarly radically distinct points of view all of its own: a subjective, “inner” point of view within which our projects have supreme value and importance, but also an objective, “outer” view, the view from nowhere, or the point of view from the universe, where everything shrinks into insignificance compared to eternity and where any human being’s interests (even mine) are worth as much as any other’s.

How can we find our lives meaningful when we are aware of the objective perspective? From the point of view of the universe, our lives could look a bit like that of a spider living in a urinal. And yet, we can clearly also experience enjoyment and lead a life worth living in the subjective view. But, though we may try, we can’t ever completely let go of either perspective.

Nagel argues that we can’t reconcile the two perspectives, but we can reduce the jarring between them. We can do this through devices, such as morality, “which seeks a way to live as an individual that affirms the equal worth of other individuals and is therefore externally acceptable.”

Or through a certain form of humility: “the recognition that you are no more important than you are, and that the fact that something is of importance to you, or that it would be good or bad if you did or suffered something, is a fact of purely local significance.” This humility, Nagel says, “falls between nihilistic detachment and blind self-importance.” As he says, with it:

“We can try to avoid the familiar excesses of envy, vanity, conceit, competitiveness, and pride – including pride in our culture, in our nation, and in the achievements of humanity as a species.”

That latter point is interesting. We may even be able to learn something by looking at other species.

 

 

Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.