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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Examining life

It was John Stuart Mill who first said it would be preferable to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. He also said it would be better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. His conception of happiness was divided into higher and lower pleasures - the former being the likes of philosophy and art; the latter sex and food. I wonder if his would be a majority view? A life without lower pleasures - say that of an ascetic monk - doesn't appear to attract many; whereas a life with just fun, food and frolics might well appeal to large numbers.


In his 100th Mindscape podcast, Sean Carroll addressed meaning in life. It's well worth a listen. Especially as it aligns pretty closely with my views on the subject and is, thus, correct (!). He says he regards happiness as being a rather thin concept, in that it may relate to pleasure but is less likely to contribute to meaning. He considers exemplary meaningful lives - say those of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. Did they stand out because they were happy? Alan Turing's life was arguably considerably more meaningful than happy. Likewise Mother Theresa's. The pursuit of happiness can only take us so far.


Yet Carroll is loth to restrict meaning to grand projects. A good conversation with people one feels connected to. An hour spent helping a child with her homework. Cooking a nice meal. All of that normal stuff can be meaningful. For me, it's considering ideas, feeling them blend and merge, being inspired; art and nature; literature; my animals being happy and healthy; connections with friends; doing the best I can at work. All of that has great meaning. Yet I would like meaningfulness to ripple out more. It is good to be able to help someone with a problem or let them know they are loved. Yes - and on that level I could do more. But I think what I seek is a path into being a small cog in a wheel of progress. That would be immensely meaningful. Hence the course in Practical Ethics.


On which, I continue to read Peter Singer. The work is challenging, so too some of the ideas, and, in addition, the conclusions that his arguments logically come to. I don't wish to misrepresent it - and intuitively, I think I agree with many of the conclusions, in the way they relate to the value of the lives of non-human animals - so I will not attempt to rehash much here. But the denial of any intrinsic specialness of the category Homo sapiens, while placing value instead on the sliding scale of personhood (self-awareness, ability to have preferences for the future, of seeing oneself as a continuing self) and also placing a value on a level of limited consciousness (enough to struggle against pain and pursue food/pleasure/survival) changes our conception about the rightness or wrongness of killing or causing harm to varies human and non-human creatures. Match that with utilitarianism - especially where it takes into account future generations - and we have a coherent picture of an ethical system which is somewhat different from the one that we act according to instinctively. Particularly in a Christian tradition which, to a greater extent than many other traditions, regards human life as sacred. His thesis relies on our best science to determine levels of consciousness and levels of personhood, which again is often not taken into account when arguments rely on pure intuition, tradition and rule-based morality.


To me, this is interesting and important. If one disagrees with Singer's position, one needs a strong argument to counter it - for his views are, it seems, sound. 'I just don't agree' or 'That's not what I believe' or 'My religion tells me...' do not work in this domain.


But then I wonder if morality, as a representation of widely agreed norms within a given society, can ride roughshod over the feelings of citizens. Perhaps it should, but would that be effective? This is where the practical side comes in for me. Singer calls his book Practical Ethics - and to be sure, it addresses practical issues that matter in the real lives of real people. He's not counting the number of angels on the head of a pin. And yet there is another level of practicality: what can these people here be encouraged to understand and accept? The arguments are difficult - and to reach a position of agreement or of being able to effectively counter them, one has to invest time and concentration. One could argue that people should do that, especially when they are considering matters like killing sentient beings, abortion, euthanasia and so on. I'm inclined to feel they should. Yet that should does not mean they would. And even if they read Singer's book and couldn't argue with it, the strength of feeling based on prior - though not rationally based beliefs - is, in my rather pessimistic view, unlikely to be affected in many cases.


Tradition offers one serious obstacle ('I've always believed this and so I will continue to believe it. It feels right.') Pleasure offers another. Why should one care more about cows than about having a steak? Or why should one forego a foreign holiday to protect the environment? And why shouldn't one spend one's money on trips to the theatre (assuming that's a possibility post-corona) instead of giving it to a recommended, audited charity?


Perhaps if a society's education system focused on the importance of arguments and the development of determining a coherent framework for one's values through reasoned inquiry, then maybe more people would be willing to engage in such a process. That, though, would not guarantee the motivation to act on their new beliefs.


So, in the end, the investigator may be Socrates-lite dissatisfied, whereas one could have been a satisfied fool. Is this really such an improvement?


Me, I think it is because I get pleasure from the investigation. I value understanding. But, of course, that's just my hedonic preference. I'm not really that dissatisfied about my dissatisfaction.


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