Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Meaning and the Midlife Crisis

In this posting I want to investigate the midlife crisis and use my investigation to examine what is meant by having meaning in life. The starting point for this for investigation is Kieran Setiya’s paper on the midlife crisis .

What do we mean by the midlife crisis? The term midlife crisis was first used by Elliot Jaques in 1965 to describe a period of unstable mental or emotional health occurring in the middle of someone’s life. This period might be triggered by someone becoming aware of her own mortality, the death of someone close or a sense of lack of achievement in life and other factors. In this posting I want to consider the midlife crisis from a philosophical viewpoint. According to Setiya the midlife crisis, is a crisis of meaning, someone suffering from the midlife crisis finds his life lacks meaning. In what follows I will adopt Setiya’s definition.

Adopting this definition has several consequences. Firstly it means that whilst becoming aware of one’s own mortality might well trigger a midlife crisis, this awareness is not an essential element of that crisis. Indeed an immortal might suffer such a crisis as Setiya suggests. Secondly a midlife crisis does not of necessity have to occur in midlife. Setiya considers John Stuart Mill’s nervous breakdown to be a midlife crisis even though this occurred when Mill was only 20. It should be remarked Mill learnt Greek aged 3 and read Plato at 7 so perhaps he was older mentally than his 20 years.  Thirdly it is important to be clear that Setiya does not consider a lack of meaning to mean that someone suffering from a midlife crisis believes everything lacks value. It is perfectly possible to imagine a doctor suffering from a midlife crisis who nonetheless believes her practise of medicine is of value to her patients.

I now want to consider some of the reasons given for this lack of meaning in someone’s life. Mill was a social reformer and believed in remedying society’s ills. It possible to imagine that his midlife crisis depended on the thought that if all these ills were remedied that his life would become meaningless. Accepting the above would mean a world lacking all ills, a semi perfect world, would be one lacking a sense of meaning, such an idea is dealt with in fiction by Matt Haig in his book “The Humans”. It follows that whilst some people might find remedying the ills of society a sufficient condition for a meaningful life it is not a necessary one. Setiya considers that someone might believe her life is “just one dammed thing after another” and that this belief is the cause of her life lacking meaning. If this is the causes a lack of meaning and triggers a midlife crisis it is easy to see an immortal might suffer from such a crisis. It might be suggested that if someone has a sense of narrative about her life that she will not lack a sense of meaning. Setiya is sceptical about of such a suggestion. He believes it is perfectly possible for someone to lead an episodic life lacking narrative and unity and nonetheless have a meaningful life. For instance someone might see herself as a child then a parent followed by being a parent and then a grandparent.

Of course I accept that there are episodes in someone’s life. Nonetheless I believe that a completely episodic life is a meaningless life. Christine Korsgaard believes that by choosing we constitute ourselves (1). It seems to me that someone must choose on the basis of what we ‘cares about’ or loves. If she doesn’t then it further seems to me that she must lead a wanton or meaningless life. According to Harry Frankfurt,
“caring about oneself is essential to being a person. Can something to whom its own condition and activities do not matter in the slightest properly be regarded as a person at all.” (2)
The way I use the term ‘caring about’ here means that if someone ‘cares about’ something she invests in it and identifies herself with what she ‘cares about’ because she makes herself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending on whether what she cares about is harmed or benefitted (3). I regard ‘caring about’ as a basic form of love, see The Structure of Love and Anti-Love Drugs . Let us accept that caring about ‘caring about’ or loving is essential to being a person. I now want to argue that because ‘caring about’ something is constitutive of being a person that someone cannot lead a purely episodic life. Intuitively if someone ‘cares about’ something this ‘caring about’ must have some persistence. Let us assume that people usually ‘care about’ several things and that ‘caring about’ different things has differing persistence. It follows that to be a person someone must have a sense of persistence, of narrative. It further follows that the episodes in someone’s life must be connected or our ‘caring about’ would have no persistence. Perhaps someone who sees herself progressing from being a child to a grandparent might view this progression as a series of connected chapters in her life rather than unconnected episodes.

I now want to return to Setiya’s analysis of the midlife crisis. Setiya starts his analysis by considering our activities. Some of our activities are done for some other end, these are classed as telic activities. I walk from home to the bus stop in order to get to work. Some of our activities a done for no other end, these are classed as atelic activities. I go for a walk simply because it’s a nice day and I fancy being out in the sunshine. It follows the same activity can be telic or atelic. Interestingly an activity might be telic and atelic at the same time. I might walk from home to the bus stop in order to get to work and because it’s a sunny day whilst I usually get a lift to the stop. According to Setiya the midlife happens when someone makes an excessive investment in telic activities, as ends, and not means.

What are the implications of accepting Setiya’s definition of a midlife crisis? Setiya’s definition allows us to see why an immortal might suffer a midlife crisis and why someone suffering from such a crisis can still see value in the world. However does such an understanding allow us to offer advice to someone suffering from a midlife crisis or help her to help herself? It seems clear that we offer advice. You can advise someone to seek more atelic ends in her life. Simple we can resolve the midlife crisis! Unfortunately this isn’t simple because whilst someone may seek more atelic ends her seeking doesn’t mean she can simply acquire atelic ends. For something to become someone’s end she must love or ‘cares about’ it. According to Frankfurt “the will of the lover is rigorously constrained. Love is not a matter of choice.” (3) It follows someone cannot simply decide to love something, acquire atelic ends, in order to acquire meaning in her life and by doing so cure a midlife crisis. In Meaning Love and Happiness I suggested whilst we cannot simply choose to love that we might situate ourselves in situations in which love might grow naturally. It follows the best advice we can give someone in life is to place herself in situations in which love, as defined by ‘caring about’ can grow naturally and hope by doing so she may acquire some atelic ends. In conclusion we might point several things that might lead to more atelic ends such as, friendship, parenthood, the pursuit of knowledge and caring for others.

  1. Christine Korsgaard, 2009, Self-Constitution, Oxford University Press, page 24.
  2. Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. Page 90
  3. Harry Frankfurt, 1988, The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge University Press, page 83.
  4. Frankfurt, 1999, page 135.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Enhancing Soldiers

In this posting I want to consider the enhancement of soldiers. Such enhancement raises some serious ethical concerns. Concerns such as, do enhanced soldiers have to give their consent to enhancement? Can a soldier refuse enhancement based on ethical grounds such as religious beliefs? Must an enhanced soldier disclose his status to unenhanced soldiers and can an enhanced soldier keep his enhancements upon discharge, see David Shunk . These concerns are for the most part personal concerns for the soldiers concerned. The concerns I want to address in this posting are connected to personality changes that might increase a soldier’s effectiveness.

A soldier’s effectiveness might be enhanced by additions such as better weapons, body armour and communications, such enhancements are discussed by Mike LaBossiere in one of his postings. Other enhancements might change a soldier’s physical prowess. For instance his strength might be increased by steroids and his endurance by stimulants. Filippo Santoni de Sio, Nadira Faulmuller and Nicole Vincent question whether in the future some people such as surgeons and airline pilots might not have a duty to enhance their concentration, provided a safe and efficient means of doing so becomes available, see Frontiers in Neuroscience . In the light of Sio, Faulmuller and Vincent’s analysis it might be suggested that governments have an obligation to enhance their soldiers physical prowess. However I will not consider additions to a soldier’s capabilities or his physical prowess here. I want to consider enhancements that change a soldier’s personality. I will argue that if we only enhance some parts of a soldier’s personality solely in order to make him more effective as a soldier that we create an enhancement gap. The soldier becomes enhanced as a soldier but unenhanced as a person. I will proceed to argue that this type of enhancement harms soldiers, harms society in general, contravenes just war theory and as a result should be morally impermissible.

What sort of enhancements am I concerned with here? Enhanced cognition, awareness and endurance are enhancements that would be useful to a soldier. However such enhancements would be useful to most people. It follows such enhancements would not open up an enhancement gap between soldiers and others. A gap will of course open up between an enhanced soldier and an unenhanced person. However this gap is simply due to the nature of enhancement and not to the specific sort of enhancement linked to soldiering. I want to consider two sorts of enhancements connected to someone’s personality. Firstly increased assertiveness might be useful to a soldier, a timid soldier would be a bad soldier. It follows enhancing a soldiers assertiveness might increase his effectiveness. Secondly increasing a soldier’s focus by decreasing distractions might also increase his effectiveness.

I want to consider the second of these potential enhancements first. Intuitively it might be thought that enhancement always means increasing someone’s capacities but this is not so. Earp, Sandberg, Kahane and Savulescu suggest that if an abused spouse took a drug to decrease her love for her abuser that this might be seen as a form of enhancement, see When is diminishment a form of enhancement? It seems it might be possible to decrease a soldier’s empathy and that this decrease might make him more effective as a soldier. He might for instance follow orders better, have a sharper focus and hence be less likely to be distracted from his task. This diminishment might be seen as an enhancement of a soldier. Such an enhancement by diminishing empathy would only apply to a few people. It would be useful to soldiers and battered spouses, but for most people such a diminishment would lead to a reduction in their capabilities. For most people an increase in empathy would be seen as an enhancement rather than such a reduction. It follows such an enhancement would open up gap between those enhanced by a reduction in their capacity to feel empathy and others.

It might be objected that the enhancement of soldiers by decreasing their empathy is fanciful. Unfortunately this is not so. Fighters connected to Islamic State seem to lack all empathy and this lack seems to make them very effective fighters by spreading terror. An objector might respond by saying this is a local issue and such enhancement would be impossible in more advanced parts of the world. In response I would simply point out that in many of our lifetimes German and Japanese soldiers were encouraged to be ruthless. Let us accept that it is conceivable that reducing a soldier’s empathy might enhance him as soldier.

What would be wrong with such an enhancement? First I would suggest any enhancement based on reducing empathy would be bad for soldiers returning from active service. My objector might point out that if this reduction was achieved by pharmacological means that once a soldier left active service these means could be removed and he would return to normal. It follows that upon leaving active service there would be no gap between him and other members of society. I response I would suggest such a gap remains as the soldier’s memories will remain. These memories will remain his even if he is convinced that the authorities who gave him the enhancing drugs were responsible for his actions. Of course it is conceivable that further pharmacological means might be employed to alleviate these painful memories. I have argued doing this would be wrong, see soldiers and beta blockers , because we shouldn’t split our lives into completely unconnected episodes. Secondly I would suggest that such enhancement would be bad for society by making it difficult to reintegrate soldiers enhanced in this way back into society. Thirdly I would suggest that reducing a soldier’s empathy would seem to run counter to just war theory. One of the tenets of just war theory is that the force employed should be commensurate to the evil and that the use of more force than is strictly necessary would constitute a wrong. Opening up gap between a soldier and the rest of society by reducing his capacity for empathy would also reduce his ability to judge if the force he was using was commensurate in this way. Finally I would suggest that whilst increasing a soldier’s effectiveness might be advantageous in the short term it might be disadvantageous to achieving more long term objectives. Usually after a war a peace must be won.

I now want to consider enhancing a soldier’s effectiveness by increasing his assertiveness. It might be possible to increase a soldier’s effectiveness by increasing his aggression as Tess Gerritsen imagines a pharmaceutical company attempting to do in her novel ‘Bloodstream’. It might be objected that increasing aggression is not the same as increasing assertiveness. Personally I am doubtful whether such a distinction could possibly be made on the battlefield. However for the sake of argument let us assume it is possible to increase a soldier’s assertiveness by pharmacological means and that this increase enhances him as a soldier. It seems to me to do so would reintroduce most of the problems associated with enhancing soldiers by reducing their empathy. Firstly I would suggest that increasing a soldier’s assertiveness would be bad for him on his return from active service. An increase in assertiveness that is not balanced by any increase in empathy would open up a gap between soldiers enhanced in this way and other members of society. This gap will make it hard for him to reintegrate back into society. Secondly this gap will be bad for society because soldiers who can’t reintegrate may well resort to violence, alcohol and drug abuse. Lastly more assertive soldiers might be better at achieving battle aims but the way these aims are achieved might be detrimental to a more long term peace.

To conclude it seems there is nothing wrong with governments enhancing a soldier’s physical capacities. Indeed such enhancement might even be required. However it seems it would be morally impermissible to change a soldier’s personality to enhance him as a soldier. Such an enhancement would open an unacceptable gap between soldiers and others. Such enhanced soldiers would of course remain human beings like the rest of us but their humanity might well be damaged.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Tiberius, Well-being, Meaning and Love

There are two main types of philosophical and psychological theories of well-being. Firstly there are subjective theories based on people getting what they want in some way, for instance feeling satisfied or simply experiencing more pleasure than pain. Secondly there are objective theories based on people obtaining certain goods from an objective list. This list might contain such things as having good health, education, friends and perhaps even having children. Valerie Tiberius proposes a compromise theory based on values, see Journal of Practical Ethics . She proposes a value fulfilment theory of well-being, referred to from now on as VFT. This theory proposes that how well someone’s life goes depends on how well she pursues and fulfils her values. Tiberius adds a further condition that these values should be suitable ones. In this posting I want to examine Tiberius’s proposal.

One problem with VFT is Tiberius’s additional requirement that these values should be suitable ones. Good health ought to be something we value yet someone has no reason, based solely on her values, to include good health among the things she values. If we insist that someone’s values must suitable ones then in normal circumstances these values must include elements such as good health. Accepting the above means that VFT differs only slightly from objective list theory. In order to examine the additional requirement of Tiberius I will now examine what it means to value something.

Bennett Helm believes our values are connected to our well-being. In addition Helm believes values are connected to our feelings of pride and shame,

 “for something to have value for one is for it to be the focus of a projectible pattern of felt evaluations. Because what is at stake in one’s values are oneself and one’s own wellbeing as this person, and because values involve an implicit understanding of the kind of life it is worth one’s living, the felt evaluations constitutive of this pattern …. are emotions like pride and shame.” (1)

However it seems to me I have no reason to be either proud or ashamed of my health. It follows if we accept Helm’s position that we need not value good health. It further follows if our well-being is based only on the pursuit and fulfilment of our values that good health does not contribute to our well-being.

Let us now examine what Tiberius means by valuing something?

“To value something is, in part, to be motivated with respect to it; desires and values are similar in this respect. But values have a special status in our planning and evaluation, they have greater stability than mere preferences and they are emotionally entrenched in ways that desires might not be.”

In what follows I will argue that valuing something as defined by Tiberius is akin to loving or ‘caring about’ something and that values so defined need not rely on her additional condition that they must be suitable ones.
What do I mean by ‘caring about’ or loving? I am not talking about romantic love. According to Harry Frankfurt love is roughly defined as follows.

“Roughly speaking, then, when I refer to love I am referring to a concern for the well-being or flourishing of a beloved object – a concern that is more or less volitionally constrained so that it is not a matter of entirely free choice or under full voluntary control, and that is more or less disinterested.” (2

In what follows loving something will mean to ‘care about’ the object loved, the beloved. This means someone is hurt when her beloved is damaged and benefits when her beloved benefits. It means someone identifies with her beloved. Now according to Tiberius values have a special status in our planning and, they have greater stability. According to Frankfurt if someone loves something this means his love,

“has less to do with how things make him feel, or his opinions about them, than the more or less stable motivational structures that shape his preferences and guide his conduct.” (3
Accepting the above means loving something is akin to valuing something because both valuing, as defined by Tiberius and loving as defined by Frankfurt, are concerned with caring about something in a persistent way. If we don’t love something then we don’t value it. However whilst we must love everything we value not everything we love is a value though of course it is of value. We may love our partners, children, wisdom and even buildings as well as being just.

Let us accept that our values are determined by what we love in the sense used above. I now want to argue if values are determined by our love, ‘caring about’ then we must value certain things. I will firstly argue that anyone who loves anything must love himself. It is important to remember I am referring to love as defined above and not to narcissistic or even romantic love. According to Frankfurt,

 “Caring about oneself is essential to being a person. Can something to whom its own condition and activities do not matter in the slightest properly be regarded as a person at all. Perhaps nothing that is entirely indifferent to itself is really a person, regardless of how intelligent or emotional or in other respects similar to persons it may be. There could not be a person of no importance to himself.” (4)
What are the implications of accepting Frankfurt’s position? I would suggest if someone doesn’t value herself she can’t value anything because it is impossible to have values without a valuer.  Of course I accept it is possible for someone to have a love/hate relationship with herself nonetheless it seems to me anyone who values anything must love, ‘care about’, value herself at least to some small degree. In practice this means she must value her health and the things that she believes help her flourish as a human being. It follows if someone has values that these values must include some essential values that there is no need for Tiberius’s additional qualification that these values must be suitable ones. Of course such a person may be weak and follow her values poorly but any associated problems are connected to a lack of motivation rather than a lack of values.

What are the practical consequences for well-being that flow from well-being being based on values and values being dependent on the ability to love? Firstly some people seem to love or care about very little in life, in previous postings I have characterised such people as suffering from the unbearable lightness of simply being . Such people have few values and are likely to lead a life driven mostly by their immediate desires and the situations they find themselves in much the same way as children do. It might be argued because such people find themselves in much the same position as children and because most children thrive that such people should also thrive. I would counter argue that most children have a life structured by their parents’ values and are in the position of acquiring values of their own. Most adults have acquired their own values or accepted their parent’s values as their own. Adults who have acquired few values of their own are likely to lead unstructured chaotic lives. It follows if our well-being depends on our values as proposed by Tiberius that such people will have low well-being. I would further suggest that such people’s lives will lack meaning see meaning love and happiness . Secondly some people will have an inconsistent set of values. For instance it is possible to imagine someone who values being a hands on mum and also values pursuing a full time career.  Such a set of inconsistent values is likely to lead internal conflict which will lower her well-being. Thirdly some people are likely to have a set of inappropriate values. For instance someone might value athletic prowess even though she does not have the requisite physical attributes whilst possessing greater intellectual attributes which would permit her to lead a successful academic career.

In the light of the above it might appear that if we can help some people acquire some values, help other people sort out their inconsistent values and lastly help others to change or lose their inappropriate values that we can increase well-being. Tiberius holds that if we are to do so we must overcome two difficulties. The first difficulty is an epistemic one. How do we know which values someone holds? Of course we might simply ask them. Unfortunately some people might pretend that they hold better values than they do in practice. Even more worrying is that some people might be unware of their own values. Someone may believe she values x but when she comes to act she may find she values y more. Nonetheless it seems to me that provided we are careful to control our epistemic arrogance that we can ascertain some of the values others hold.

Let us assume that we can become aware of other people’s values. Let us further assume we are aware that some people’s values are inconsistent or inappropriate. If someone’s values are inconsistent then we might hope increase her well-being by pointing out this inconsistency. A more consistent set of values would reduce someone’s internal conflict and hence increase her well-being. However if someone’s values are inappropriate then a second difficultly arises according to Tiberius. The difficultly in,

“ascertaining whether it is desirable (in terms of the goal of promoting well-being) to discount, ignore or override a person’s actual current values. let’s call this the interpersonal challenge.”

The question to be answered is this. If we can help someone to change her values can be we be reasonably sure that this change would be beneficial. Clearly if someone’s values are damaging ones we should intervene as Tiberius points out we should do in the case of someone addicted to drugs. Other cases are not so clear cut and if we do intervene we must ensure we are in an epistemic position to do so and that when we do so we respect someone’s autonomy before acting beneficently . It seems to me that in the case of people we love we cannot help but intervene due to the nature of love. According to Frankfurt,

“the nature of a lover’s concern that he is invested in his beloved. That is, he is benefited when his beloved flourishes; and he suffers when it is harmed. Another way of putting it is that the lover identifies himself with what he loves. This consists of accepting the interests of his beloved as his own.” (5)

In this posting loving means ‘caring about’ as outlined above. It follows if friends or family members have inappropriate values which harm them that we will naturally try to change these values for reasons of love. However persons are shaped by their values sometimes we must accept the person for who she is and not attempt to reshape her values.

I accept Tiberius is right in her contention that how well someone’s life goes depends on how well she pursues and fulfils her values. However I now want to argue even if we accept Tiberius proposed VFT, but without her additional condition that someone’s values must be suitable ones, that our scope for intervention is limited. According to VFT well-being is dependent on our values. I have argued that our values depend on what we love. According to Frankfurt the lover,

“is not free. On the contrary, he is in the very nature of the case captivated by his beloved and his love. The will of the lover is rigorously constrained. Love is not a matter of choice.” (6)

It follows we can’t just simply decide to change our values. Indeed if we could do so it would seem our values would become valueless. It follows changing someone’s values to improve her well-being is difficult. The above leads to the rather pessimistic conclusion that if we believe someone has a set of inappropriate values the best we can do is simply to point her to situations that challenge these values.

1.      Bennett Helm, 2010, Love, Friendship and the Self, Oxford, page 109.
2.     Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. Page 165.
3.     Frankfurt, page 129.
4.     Frankfurt, page 90.
5.     Frankfurt, 2006, Taking Ourselves Seriously, Stanford University Press, page 41.

6.     Frankfurt, page 135.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Disgust, the Emotions and Morality

In this posting I want to use disgust to examine the connection between morality and the emotions. Jesse Prinz argues that our emotions determine our moral reactions all by themselves.
“An action has the property of being morally wrong (right) just in the case there is an observer who has a sentiment of disapprobation (approbation) towards it” (1)
Prinz’s position seems to be supported by Isen and Levin’s classic study which showed someone who had just found a dime was more likely to help a passer by (2). In what follows I will accept our emotions are connected to our moral decisions. Prinz argues our emotions determine our moral response and that cognition plays no part in this determination. I will argue that our emotions initiate a moral response. I will also suggest far from validating a moral response that a lack of emotion does so.

Paul Ekman argued there are six universally recognised emotions, anger, fear disgust, joy, sadness and surprise. Not everyone agrees with Ekman’s list but do agree there are basic emotions. Disgust is a basic emotion which evolution evolved to keep us safe. For instance disgust at bodily fluids or rotting food might have protected us against infection. Such disgust has no moral implications. However disgust at certain sexual practices such as homosexuality and incest seem to have moral implications. Carol Hay wonders whether disgust has any-place in moral reasoning. I will now examine how disgust is connected to moral decisions.

Hay in her article uses the example of a pro-life group who display billboard-sized images of aborted foetuses juxtaposed with gory photos of atrocities such as mass graves and lynchings on her university’s campus in a campaign against abortion. It seems to me someone might use disgust in two ways to affect our moral decisions. Firstly someone might point to one thing we find disgusting and then point to another thing we don’t normally feel disgust about and then suggest the two are analogous. This is the tactic of the pro-life group Hay mentions above. This tactic combines reason and disgust. If we find the analogy reasonable then we should accept the person’s position. In the case of abortion I do not find such an analogy convincing. The photos of atrocities, mass graves and lynchings are photographs of persons whilst I would suggest a foetus is just a clump of cells and not yet a person. In other cases people might find such an analogy more persuasive, perhaps this might be true in the case of capital punishment.

Hume famously argued that reason is the slave of the passions and the second way disgust might be used is in a purely non-cognitive way. Perhaps a pro-life group might only display gory images of aborted foetuses hoping simply to use our disgust to enable us to see the wrongness of abortion. Let us accept that our emotions are connected to our moral reactions. Emotions might be connected in two ways. A non-cognitivist such as Prinz would hold that emotions alone decide the way we should act, decide the outcome. She need not deny reason plays some part in our morality but only after a moral decision has been made in a justificatory roles. Someone else might believe that emotions engage us in the need to decide how to act but that they alone do not decide the outcome. In what follows I want to consider the second type of connection that engages us in the need to decide.

According to Michael Brady emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms. If Brady is correct then when we feel an emotion concerning something moral the emotion is sending us a signal that something is wrong. This signal gives us a prima facie reason to act but it also gives us a reason to facilitate our understanding of the situation. Emotions do so by allowing us to assess or reassess the situation through capturing and focussing our attention (4). It follows from Brady’s position that emotions might initiate reasoning to better understand our situation rather than merely justify our already made decision.

Jonathan Haidt would disagree and use the idea of moral dumbfounding to support the case that our emotions are purely non-cognitive (4). Haidt presented participants in a research survey with an imaginary scenario in which a brother and sister, Julie and Mark, were travelling together on holiday from college. One night they decided it would be interesting and fun to make love. Julie was on the pill and Mark used a condom for extra safety. Both enjoyed the experience which they never repeated. Haidt then asked the participants whether Julie and Mark did something wrong. Most participants said they did but couldn’t give a coherent reason for this wrong. They were morally dumbfounded. Haidt’s research seems to suggest that our emotions alone determine how we should act morally without the need for cognition except in a justificatory role. His research seems to suggest that Brady’s position which I have adopted above is unsound.

I now want to defend Brady’s position. Firstly we must be clear what the position involves. Basically Brady holds that our emotions give us a provisional non-cognitive reason to act and focus our attention on how we should act. Sometimes we must act quickly and do not have time to attend to how we should act. If the fire alarm goes off we vacate the building without first checking the fire alarm. It follows in some cases, but not all, that our emotions alone can determine how we should act morally in a non-cognitive way. I now want to consider the problems raised By Haidt’s dumbfounding experiment. I would suggest whether an emotion focuses our attention depends not only on the time the available but also on how important we perceive the decision to be. Perhaps for the participants in Haidt’s survey might have considered the decision as unimportant and as a result decided in a non-cognitive way. However for Julie and Mark the decision was very important and perhaps this importance focussed their attention. It seems to me if we have time when making an important decision and we simply accept our emotional reaction and fail to more fully consider our position that we can be accused of cognitive laziness. Indeed if by deciding we constitute ourselves we might be further accused of being lazy people. Lastly the need for justification for non-cognitive decisions suggests we need reasons for our decisions. If reasons have no bearing on our moral decisions why do we seek justificatory reasons? I fully accept that our search for reasons might be biased by our already made decision but what happens if we can’t find any reasons to support our provisional decision based on our emotions? If we are unable to find reasons to justify our position doesn’t the fact we are searching for reasons mean we must re-examine our position? In the light of the above I would suggest that we make moral decisions based solely on our emotions when we have little time to consider further and when the decision is of little importance. In these situations emotions determine our moral response in a non-cognitive way. However if the decision is an important one or we have time to consider it then we should seek unbiased reasons before deciding. Not to do so would be both intellectually and morally lazy. In situations of this sort our emotions give us a reason to facilitate a better understanding of our situation.

Let us assume we have made a decision and we are content with that decision I will now suggest that a lack of emotion validates our decision. If emotions are indeed analogous to alarms then if we are content with our decision there should be no emotion connected to that decision. This would be the position of Frankfurt who argues that satisfaction with a decision entails an absence of restlessness or resistance to that decision, someone may be willing to change her decision but she has no active interest in bringing about a change (5). Lastly in the light of the above let us reconsider disgust. Disgust of bodily fluids and rotting things is automatic and helped us survive in the past. Disgust at aborted foetuses is such an emotion, such survival disgust is not a moral emotion. Disgust at some sexual practices such as homosexuality or incest might the past may have had evolutionary advantages but once again such disgust is not a moral emotion. In an age of overpopulation and contraception disgust at homosexuality or incest offers few evolutionary advantages. It might be such disgust is a moral alarm but the value of the disgust is instrumental, that of an alarm, and is not of direct moral value.

  1. Jesse Prinz, 2007, THE EMOTIONAL CONSTRUCTION OF MORALS, Oxford University press, page 92.
  2. Isen A and Levin P, 1972, The Effect of Feeling Good on Helping; Cookies and Kindness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21
  3. Michael Brady, 2013, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press
  4. Haidt, J. 2001: The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108.
  5. Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press, page 103.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Meaning, Love and Happiness

In this posting I want to examine the relationship between meaning, love and happiness. Most psychologists seem to believe that there is no relationship between meaning and happiness, see for instance Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker and Garbinsky (1). They often look for such a relationship by asking subjects to complete surveys about how happy they are and how meaningful they find their lives. The subjects are often free to use their own definitions of meaning and happiness. Psychologists usually find there is no relationship between the two. This lack of a relationship leads most psychologists to adopt the separation thesis which holds that meaning and happiness are unconnected. It seems to me that there is a negative relationship which questions this separation thesis. This negative relationship holds that having a life devoid of meaning and being unhappy are correlated.

Before examining this negative relationship we must be clear what concept of meaning we are using. Firstly meaning can be defined in an objective way. This objective sense of meaning holds that certain things on a list give someone’s life meaning. For instance someone’s life might be said to have meaning if he does useful things, has loving relationships and is optimistic. Secondly meaning can be defined in a subjective way. For someone’s life to be meaning is roughly for him to find it meaningful, for her to judge it as meaningful. In what follows I will only be concerned with meaning defined in a subjective way. Whilst I will not pursue the matter further here I believe someone whose life contains certain items from an objective list is more likely to have a happy life than one whose life does not. However let us now consider someone who believes his life to be meaningless. Someone who simply lives from moment to moment. I have suggested in the past such a person would suffer fro the unbearable lightness of simply being, see my posting on riots and the unbearable sense of simply being . I would suggest such a person is a dissatisfied person and as a consequence is not a happy person. It is important to note that I am not suggesting here that satisfaction is linked to happiness, I will do so latter, but I am suggesting dissatisfaction is linked to unhappiness. It might be objected that whilst I have suggested that someone who lives from moment to moment is likely to be unhappy, I have provided no argument to support my suggestion. My objector might now suggest it is perfectly possible for someone to be a ‘happy go lucky person’ who pays no attention to either his past or future. In response I would follow Christine Korsgaard by arguing our nature as human beings means we have a psychic necessity to choose (2). I would further argue that we cannot choose if we don’t care about anything and that we cannot care about anything if we don’t have some sense of meaning in our lives. Someone who is happy go lucky chooses this lifestyle.

Let us accept that someone who has no subjective meaning in life is likely to be a dissatisfied and unhappy person. It follows there is a correlation between meaning and unhappiness. This correlation gives us a reason to at the very least question the separation thesis. Why then should Baumeister and his associates report no correlation between happiness and meaning? Antti Kauppinen argues that this correlation is dependent on the concept of happiness employed. On a purely hedonic account of happiness there is indeed no correlation but with a broader definition there is a correlation. For someone to be happy according to Haybron is
“for one’s emotional condition to be broadly positive – involving stances of attunement, engagement and endorsement – with negative central affective states and mood propensities only to a minor extent.” (3)
Kauppinen offers a slightly different account of happiness which he calls ‘the affective condition account of happiness’. His account is a multidimensional account comprised of predominantly positive affect, mood, emotion, and hedonic quality together with an absence of negative affect, see Meaning and Happiness . Both of these accounts of happiness seem to allow some room for meaning. Let us assume that Haybron is correct in believing that being happy includes someone endorsing his positive emotional condition. Let us also accept that it is impossible to endorse anything without some sense of meaning. If nothing matters, nothing has meaning, then we have no basis on which to endorse it. It follows if we accept accounts of happiness such as those of Haybron and Kauppinen that the separation thesis is false.

Prior to examining the correlation between subjective meaning and non-hedonic accounts of happiness I want to examine further what is meant by subjective meaning. I defined someone’s life to have subjective meaning above as a life the liver of that life finds meaningful or judges it to be meaningful. I now want to differentiate between someone finding and judging a life as meaningful. Consider a glutton who claims that eating as much as he can gives his life meaning. I would not consider such a person as leading a subjectively meaningful life. A subjectively meaningful life is not one that someone judges or even thinks is meaningful. In the rest of this posting a subjectively meaningful life is one that someone finds or experiences as meaningful. To find something meaningful, is to find something as important, and if something is important it must be loved. In order for someone to have a subjectively meaningful life he must love something.

At this point I must make it clear what I mean by love. I do not simply mean romantic love, romantic love is type of love but does not define all types of love. In my postings I often make use of Harry Frankfurt’s concept of love as caring about and identifying with someone or something. This concept means someone who loves is vulnerable to losses if his beloved is harmed and benefits if his beloved flourishes. The lover is satisfied with his beloved and has no desire to change his beloved. He may of course be dissatisfied with his beloved’s condition. If his beloved is unhappy he will share this unhappiness. If his beloved is an institution in decline then this decline will distress him. According to Frankfurt the fact someone is in love, in this meaning of love, shapes his motivational structure and guides his conduct (4). It might be argued such a concept of love is too simplistic. Bennett Helm argues someone doesn’t love every thing he cares about (5). Does someone really love ice cream or is this just mere rhetoric? Helm argues we love the things we feel pride and shame about. Helm would agree with Frankfurt that we identify with the things we love. However according to Helm identification does not simply require a passive satisfaction but a more active feeling of pride and shame. Perhaps as I have argued elsewhere there are different forms of love, see the structure of love . Or perhaps there aren’t different forms of identification, only different degrees of identification. I would suggest even if there are different forms of love that underlying all forms must be basic form of ‘caring about’ in the way Frankfurt uses the term.

I have argued above that if we accept a concept of happiness such as those of Haybron and Kauppinen that the separation thesis is false. I will now suggest that if we accept Haybron’s concept which includes endorsement that we must also accept that it is a necessary condition for happiness that we love in some basic way. It is important to be clear what I am not suggesting here. I am not suggesting that basic loving is a sufficient condition for happiness. According to Haybron’s account of happiness for someone to be happy means his emotional condition is broadly positive, this means even if loving increases his positive emotional state this increase might be outweighed by other factors. Nor am I suggesting that being loved is necessary for happiness. I do however believe being loved usually increases someone’s happiness. However this is not true in all cases, for instance someone might be loved by another who is not his partner and this love may cause him unhappiness. I am simply suggesting that basic loving is a necessary prerequisite for someone to be actually happy. Once again it is important to note what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting a disposition for basic loving is necessary for happiness. A hostage held by terrorists may have a disposition to love, but be far from happy. I am simply suggesting that actual basic loving is necessary for happiness. A disposition for basic loving of course forms part of a disposition to be happy.

If it is accepted that the ability to love is a necessary element of happiness it might be thought that enhancing this element will increase our happiness. I have argued in ‘meaning and happiness’ that this is not so. It is not so because someone cannot simply decide to love someone or something. Love is not a matter of choice. Perhaps the best we can do is to situate ourselves in circumstances in which love might grow naturally.

  1. Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker & Emily Garbinsky, 2013, Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013, volume 8(6)
  2. Christine Korsgaard, 2009, Self-Constitution, Oxford University Press, section 1.1.1.
  3. Daniel Haybron, 2008, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Oxford, page 147.
  4. Bennett Helm, 2010, Love, Friendship & the Self, Oxford.
  5. Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. Page 129.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Existential threats, Enhancement and Enfranchisement

Many of my postings deal with enhancement. Enhancement is important for two reasons. Firstly some people believe being enhanced will benefit them personally. Some people such as Michael Sandel believe these benefits might be illusory. They believe we should simply accept who we are and feel a sense of giftedness for our natural state. I would suggest that part of our natural state is a desire to improve our circumstances. One way of improving our circumstances is to enhance ourselves. It might then be argued that enhancement is natural for human beings even if some of the methods employed might not be. However this posting for the most part will not be concerned with enhancement for personal reasons. Persson and Savulescu suggest that pharmacological moral enhancement might be necessary if we are to combat existential threats such as global warming (1). Clearly decisions made by us now will have an affect on global warming, will have an affect on the interests of future persons. Persson and Savulescu base their suggestion on the fact we always seem to favour our short term interests. In this posting I want to consider a different means of dealing with such existential threats.

Let us accept that Persson and Savulescu are correct in their assertion that we favour our short term interests. Accepting this means that we must also accept that we might fail to adequately consider the interests of future people. Persson and Savulescu believe that pharmacological moral enhancement would mean that those who are so enhanced would be more likely to consider the interests of their successors. In this posting I will suggest that there is an alternative means of making the present generation more likely to consider the interests of their successors. I will suggest that we should enfranchise future generations.

Children don’t have a vote. However our children will have to deal with the results of our short term attitudes to threats such as global warming or pandemics. Perhaps then our short term attitudes might be alleviated if children had a vote. The extension of the franchise to children is usually known as Demeny voting after Paul Demeny (2). The fact that children have a vote would not mean that they could exercise this vote, this would be a proxy vote exercised by their parents. It would be hoped that a parent when casting a proxy vote on behalf his child would consider that child’s long term interests. It might be objected that this is a too complicated task for a parent as it is hard to judge what is in the long term interests of his child. In response I would point out even if not all of a child’s long term interests are apparent to a parent some are. It is in the interests of any child to live in a world without the dangers associated with global warming, the fear of avoidable pandemics and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is possible therefore that a parent could consider some of the long term interests of his child when casting a proxy vote on her behalf. Unfortunately I am doubtful as to whether this would occur in practice. Most people understand what is in their long term interests but do not always act in a way that promotes these interests. For instance most people understand being obese is not in their long term interests but continue to eat junk food. It follows if people disregard their own long term interests that they might also disregard the long term interests of their children. Demeny voting might not combat our short term attitudes.

Perhaps if the enfranchisement of our children by Demeny voting fails to adequately address our short-termism then perhaps a more radical form of enhancement might work. Writing in the magazine Aeon Thomas Wells argues that because future people will have interests that will be affected by our current policies that they should have some affect on our election procedures, see votes for the future . Clearly future people cannot affect our election processes directly as they don’t yet exist and we don’t even know how many of them will exist. Their influence as with Demeny voting must be through a proxy. Who or what would be a suitable proxy? Wells suggests that civic organisations, such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks might cast proxy votes. He further suggests that such a block vote might account for 10% of the electorate. Such a scheme might face difficulties in implementation but for the sake of argument I will assume that these difficulties might be overcome. I will also assume that some of the interests of future people are clearly discernible, interests such as living in a world without the dangers associated with global warming, the fear of avoidable pandemics and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It seems to me that such organisations would not be deterred by short term interests from pursuing the interests of future people.

Let us assume we have a duty to consider the interests of future people and that we would be failing in our duty if we left these people a ravished planet as our legacy. The question I now wish to address would pharmacological moral enhancement as suggested by Persson and Savulescu or the radical change to the franchise as suggested by Wells best fulfil this duty? At this juncture I will point out that at the moment there is no safe guaranteed means of pharmacological moral enhancement. Indeed there may never be such a means. It might therefore be assumed that we should be prepared to accept a radical change to the franchise as suggested by Wells to help us fulfil our duty. However it seems to me there are two reasons why moral enhancement might be preferable. Firstly at the beginning of this posting I suggested that our nature causes us to seek to enhance ourselves even if some of the means adopted might be regarded as unnatural by some people. It follows if seeking pharmacological moral enhancement is going to happen anyway that there is no reason to radically change the franchise. Secondly radically changing the franchise to allow the interests of future people are taken into account seems to limit our autonomy. If we freely choose to enhance our morals by pharmacological means then a decision to consider the interests of future people would be an autonomous one. It might be objected that we might only have a natural desire to enhance our cognition and longevity. Perhaps, but it seems to me that we are naturally moral creatures, I may of course be mistaken.

  1. Ingmar Persson & Julian Savulesu, 2012, Unfit for the Future, Oxford University Press.
  2. Paul Demeny, 1986, Pronatalist Policies in Low-Fertility Countries: Patterns, Performance and Prospects, Population and Development Review, vol. 12

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Justified Anger

A posting in peasoup by Antti Kauppinen suggests that rage might be a moral emotion. I will consider his suggestion at the end of my posting. The largest part of this posting however will be concerned with anger. I will argue that anger, whilst dangerous, is nonetheless both a justifiable and useful emotion.

To the Stoics anger was a harmful emotion. Seneca describes the mischief anger does as follows,

“no plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame. See the foundations of the most celebrated cities hardly now to be discerned; they were ruined by anger. See deserts extending for many miles without an inhabitant: they have been desolated.” Sophia-project, Anger book 1.

Perhaps we no longer sell princes into slavery but let us accept that anger remains a dangerous emotion. A more modern example might be provided by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan some of whom experience anger management problems.

Let us accept that anger has evolutionary roots. It might be argued that because of these roots it must retain some purpose. However such an argument would be unconvincing. Evolution has given us a taste for sweet and fatty things. Such a taste might be an advantage to a hunter gatherer but is a disadvantage to someone living in an affluent city. Similarly anger might of advantage to a hunter gatherer but might be a disadvantage to a city dweller. Human progress may now be too rapid for evolution to keep pace with. Let it be accepted that emotions are useful to us. Hume argued that reason is slave of the passions. Nonetheless as suggested above the specific emotion of anger might no longer be useful to us. However in practice it might be argued that we cannot simply eliminate a single emotion which has ceased to be useful to us, such as anger, without damaging our capacity to feel emotions which remain useful to us. If we eliminate all anger then perhaps we will damage our capacity to feel empathy, see anger and empathy. I will now use an example to show anger remains a useful emotion in some circumstances. In my posting on anger and empathy I considered the anger of Hugh Thompson in response to the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War. Thompson’s anger helped him to courageously save others from being massacred. Clearly Thompson’s anger was justified. Was his anger also useful in helping stop the massacre? Might not a calm rational moral person also have helped to stop the massacre? I believe not. Prima facie it seems Thompson’s anger was both justifiable and useful.

If I argue that anger can be both justified and useful it might appear there is a vast gap between my position and that of the Stoics. However this appearance might not be as large as it first appears. The stoics argued that the emotions are irrational and that we should seek to control them. My position is slightly different. I believe we should primarily pay attention to our emotions, perhaps then this attention is also a form of control. In order to make my argument I must examine the nature of the emotions. Let us accept that at some level emotions are non-cognitive somatic signals. Stoics seem to believe that this is all there is to emotions and that we should use our reason to control or eliminate our emotions. Plato famously used the example of a charioteer controlling unruly horses as a metaphor for reason controlling the emotions. However if emotions are signals then perhaps instead of using our cognitive powers to control our emotions then perhaps we should use these powers to pay attention to them.

What sort of signal is an emotion sending? It is sending a signal that something needs attending to. Emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms.
According to Michael Brady emotions facilitate understanding. They do so by facilitating,

“reassessment through the capture and consumption of attention; emotions enable us to gain a “true and Stable” evaluative judgement. (1)

Let us accept that emotions allow us to gain a better understanding of something by capturing and focussing of our attention. Let us assume that someone is angry because she has been bypassed for promotion. Let us further assume she simply dampens her anger in a stoic way. It seems to me that by simply dampening her anger she deprives herself of a better understanding of the situation. Perhaps if she attends to the circumstances of her being bypassed for promotion she finds that the person selected really was better qualified for the position. In this scenario her anger might be judged to be inappropriate and calmed down rather than simply switched off as a stoic might do. Perhaps however she finds the candidate was selected purely because he was a man. In this case her energies might be directed at righting the injustice. Such a redirection of energies would not be readily available to a stoic who simply switches off her anger; in this scenario provided anger is used to capture and focus attention it will be useful. Anger, in this scenario, is both justified and leads to a better understanding of the situation.

I have argued that anger is a useful emotion. However there are dangers associated with the use of anger. It has been suggested that emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms. Alarms are meant to be attended to and switched off. Anger should lead someone to reassess her situation by focussing her attention. If she simply remains angry and does not reassess her situation then her anger serves no purpose and is damaging. Secondly I would suggest there is some mean to the emotions in much the same way as Aristotle suggested there was a mean to the virtues. Someone might be excessively prone to anger causing her to focus her attention on trivial matters. She might also be very slow to anger and this slowness might deprive her of a better understanding her situation.

Lastly I want to consider Kauppinen’s suggestion that rage might be a moral emotion. Kauppinen suggests rage is a negative feeling that is a cousin of anger and hate. He argues rage motivates you to destroy, to get physical. Preferably destroy what you see as the obstacle to justice. I am quite happy to agree with Kauppinen that rage might be justified. Those who lived in apartheid South Africa and were unjustly disenfranchised would be justified in their rage against the system. However I am not so happy to believe rage is a useful emotion. According to the Cambridge Dictionary rage is a period of extreme or violent anger. According to the Oxford Dictionary rage is violent anger, fury, usually manifested in looks, words, or action. It seems to me rage is not a cousin of anger but a prolonged form of anger. I have argued above that prolonged anger is unproductive. Anger helps someone reassess her situation and take action. If rage is simply prolonged anger then whilst rage may be justified it is not a useful emotion. Indeed rage may be counterproductive because the enraged simply rages and fails to reassess her situation.

  1. Michael Brady, 2013, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press, page147.