I finally get to fit a post in that I have been trying to fit in for a month – a response to Evanescent’s post, The Meaning of Life: It’s Right Here.
A response is appropriate because one of the things that Evanescent claims is:
the only reasonable worthwhile thing to do is live for others; give up what you have; sacrifice for the good of others; create a legacy, make the world a better place; disown yourself.
And here I am, having decided at the age of 16 to "leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been," having spent 12 years in college studying moral philosophy, and spending extraordinary amounts of time each day writing this blog. Apparently, I have "disowned myself."
In fact, the "myself" that Evanescent claims that I have disowned does not exist. The "myself" that Evanescent would have me serve, in place of this project of leaving the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, is as mythical an entity as God – and service done to a mythical entity is a waste of time and effort.
Instead, "myself" is a person who decided at the age of 16 to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. Giving up that would be "disowning myself"
Evanescent was inspired to make this observation in answering the despondent musings of some friends in a pub asking, "Is this all there is to life?" In speaking of his friend, Eanescent wrote:
His point was basically along the lines of: if I die, and I've contributed nothing, and left nothing, does it really make a difference whether I was alive or not?
In answering this question, Evanescent claims to have entered into the realm of 'morality'.
Morality is a branch of philosophy that attempts to deal with the questions: "how should I live my life? What is good for my life and what is harmful?"
This is certainly not how I use the word 'morality' – and I do not think that this is how most native speakers of English use the word 'morality'. Rather, morality is concerned with how one ought to treat other people; It makes no sense to talk about 'morality' when you are talking about a person who is completely isolated from others – even though it still makes sense to ask the question, "How should I live my life?"
[S]ociety in general . . . holds one thing as its standard. What I mean is, the measure by which an action is considered virtuous and noble. That standard is: sacrifice. It is the belief that the more an action is directed towards others, and the less it is directly for personal selfish benefit, the more moral it is.
"Sacrifice" is not my standard. My standard is that value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. A state of affairs is good to the degree that it fulfills desires, and bad to the degree that it thwarts desires. On this standard, the value of a desire is determined by the degree to which it fulfills or thwarts other desires. A desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires, and bad to the degree that it thwarts other desires.
If a person desires to eat chocolate ice cream, then a state of affairs in which he eats chocolate ice cream has value to him. When he picks up a chocolate ice cream and eats it, he is not engaged in any type of "sacrifice". He is acting to as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires.
The person who desires to leave the world a better place stands in the exactly the same relationship to acts of leaving the world a better place. He, too, is acting so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of his desires. The only difference is that, instead of a having a desire to eat chocolate ice cream, he has a desire to leave the world a better place.
There is no difference between the two that warrants calling one a 'sacrifice' and the other not. In both cases, agents are doing what they desire. They simply do not desire the same thing.
Evanescent apparently wants to argue that an act that provides a benefit to the self is ultimately better than an act that provides a benefit to others. He is willing to allow some amount of charity to enter into an agent's action, as long as the primary focus of the agent's actions is self-benefit.
I'm not saying ignore others, and don't better the world, and don’t help people, and don't be kind and generous – the difference is this: one morality tells you to act with OTHERS as the primary beneficiaries of your life. The other tells you to act with YOURSELF as the primary beneficiary of your life, your actions, your choices. (Emphasis in original.)
There is no way to make a direct endorsement of the second option over the first – or to make a direct endorsement of the first option over the second – except to claim that some sort of 'intrinsic value' property exists. It requires a claim that there is some force or primary particle – 'goodons' and 'badons' – that adhere to one option but not the other. These types of statements are false. Intrinsic values do not exist. On this measure, both options have equal value. On this measure, both options have no value.
Value exists. Value is real. Put your hand in a bed of red hot coals and tell me that you do not recognize the badness of that experience. The badness has an effect in the real world. It alters the movement of physical particles through space, namely by keeping people from putting their hands into red hot burning coals. Value is real. It simply does not exist in the form of intrinsic properties. It exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. It exists in the relationship between a charred hand and a set of (very real) signals in the brain.
The value of different desires depends on the relationships that exist between those desires and other desires. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires are desires that we have reason to promote. Desires that tend to thwart other desires are desires that we have reason to inhibit. As an agent, if I act so as to fulfill my desires given my beliefs, and I know that other agents will act to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, then I have reason to cause others to have desires that will fulfill my desires. And they have reason to cause me to have desires that will fulfill their desires.
Evanescent's mistake is in identifying these desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others as 'sacrifice'. An agent who acts so as to fulfill his desire to make the world a better place is no more engaged in 'sacrifice' than the agent who acts so as to fulfill his desire for chocolate ice cream. For such a person, 'leaving the world a better place' is simply his particular flavor of ice cream.
Evanescent closes his post with the following statement.
If you live, pursue happiness. It's your right. In fact, there is no other purpose in life.
And what of the person who pursues happiness by making the world a better place? What of the physician who finds happiness in bringing health to a sick child, or the teacher who enjoys teaching a new generation, or the dancer who enjoys giving the audience something that they value?
And what of the person who finds happiness raping children, or dominating and abusing slaves, or demonstrating his absolute tyranny over others through random and senseless slaughter just to show that he has power of life and death?
Certainly, of the different things that might make a person happy, we can recognize that it is better that people find happiness in some things rather than others. From this, it is a small step to recognize that the difference between 'sources of happiness' that we have reason to encourage, and 'sources of happiness' we have reason to discourage is the effect that those 'sources of happiness' have on others. It clearly makes sense to encourage others to adopt 'sources of happiness' that bring happiness to others, and to discourage 'sources of happiness' that bring pain to others.
Of course, I deny the happiness theory of value. I have shown repeatedly how, where happiness and truth take two different routes, value follows truth rather than happiness. I speak in terms of 'sources of happiness' above only to maintain focus on a key point. 'Sources of happiness' theory itself has additional problems. Those problems, in turn, can be corrected by switching to 'fulfillment of desires' theory. But we do not need to add that complicaiton at this time.