Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Steven Pinker and the Concept of "Flourishing"

According to Steven Pinker, we should abandon morality and attach our sentiments to that which promotes human flourishing and minimizing harm.

This invites me to ask three questions:

(1) What is value?

(2) What is “human flourishing”?

(3) What is it about “human flourishing” that makes it the case that it is the only thing that has value?

I am going to ignore the idea that only "human" flourishing has moral worth - though it does indicate that Pinker has not given a lot of deep thought to his own moral theory.

Technically, I find little that I disagree with in Pinker’s main work. While many evolutionary psychologists seem to claim that morality is in our genes, Pinker claims that violence and domination is in our genes and, through several thousand years of social learning, we have slowly tamed that nature and given us a better life.

As I have pointed out in past post, nature itself invented "predators" and "parasites". It is not the case that evolution leads invariably to altruism and virtue.

All of this is consistent with the thesis of desirism that I have defended in this blog. Morality concerns the use of social forces to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Over time we have gotten better at identifying desires that tend to thwart other desires and combatting them.

Part of the problem with Pinker’s proposal is that he uses a vague, ambiguous, and sometimes conflicting terminology. In this, he has substantially ignored 300 years of moral philosophy that has refined many of these terms and explored – sometimes in great detail – some of the problems that can be found in the formulations that Pinker offers.

Pinker writes in many cases as if “flourishing” is the only good worthy of promoting, and “harm” is the only bad worthy of avoiding. Yet, he offers no definition of “flourishing”, he offers no account of the metaphysics of “being worthy of promoting”, and he offers no argument to show that only “human flourishing” can or does possess this property of “being worthy of promoting”.

"Flourishing" is a rhetorically useful word in that it is a nearly empty vessel into which each listener or reader can put their own ideas of moral goodness. One person can hold that “flourishing” consists of living a simple life free of material concerns, while another may hold that no human living such a deprived life can sensibly be said to be flourishing. Yet, both can agree with the idea that flourishing is all that matters.

I am going to offer an account of value and an account of flourishing. However, these accounts will not support the conclusion that “flourishing” will not be one into which everybody can place their ill-formed opinions. Nor will it support the thesis that flourishing is the only good. Flourishing will be shown to be a subset of that which can have value. It is a large subset, but a subset nonetheless. It is not the only thing that people have reason to promote, and not legitimately made the measure of all things.


Much of this repeats ideas I have presented often in this blog. I will be brief.

When a person says, “You ought to do X," this invites the party being addressed to ask, “Why?” The only sensible answer to this “Why?” question is, ultimately, an end-reason for intentional action that exists.

Desires are the only end-reasons for intentional actions that actually exist. They are the only end-reasons for intentional action that actually play a role in explaining and predicting phenomena in the observable universe - the behavior of intentional agents. Divine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, committees sitting behind a veil of ignorance, natural moral laws, and the like do not exist.

Consequently, a true answer to the question, “Why ought I to do X” will relate “doing X” to some desire or set of desires. Specifically, he answer must relate "doing X" to creating or maintaining a state of affairs S where P is true of S, and there is a desire that P. The desire that P provides the end-reason for realizing states in which P is true.

There are many senses of the term "ought" or "should". Depending on the context it could relate doing X to a single desire, to an agent's current desires, to all of an agent's desires, to all desires of all agents, and the like.

To claim “X is good” is to say either that P is true in X (X is “good in itself”), or P is true in Y and X is useful in bringing about Y (X is “instrumental good”). The first type of goodness is often called “intrinsic good”. However, I try to avoid that term since it invites the idea that goodness is a desire-independent intrinsic property rather than a desire-dependent relational property.


“Flourishing” is a value-laden term. That is to say, “flourishing” is good by definition. "Flourishing" is a term used in evaluating a state of being for a living creature. Furthermore, is an end-good. No matter how useful a particular state may be, that state is not counted as one of “flourishing” in virtue of its usefulness, but in terms of being desired as an end. Finally, it is a strong good - a state for which we can find many and strong end-reasons to intentionally create or maintain.

When we add these elements to the proposition that desires are the only end-reasons for intentional action that exist, we get the following:

“Flourishing” is a state of existence in which several propositions P1, P2, P3, . . . Pn are true where the entity whose existence is being evaluated has many and strong "desires that P1, P2, P3, . . . Pn". This makes it true by definition that “flourishing” is something the agent has many and strong reason to pursue, and that a state has value as an end and not merely as a means.

This account rules out any account of "flourishing" that references intrinsic values, divine commands, the "natural/unnatural" distinction, natural moral aw, and the like. These are reasons for intentional action that do not exist.


This concept of "Flourishing" has a number of implications.

First, it explains how two different people can find “flourishing” in two different states. They each have different “desires that P” such that a state that objectively satisfies the desires of on agent will not satisfy the desires of another. The attempt to define flourishing as a state that is the same for all entities will fail.

In fact, the same person can have desires that conflict with each other. On one scale a desire for drugs or alcohol, for sex, or for food can interfere with other desires. Fears, which are desires to avoid certain states, may prevent an agent from realizing states that would fulfill other desires - prevent them from getting a job. Pain itself, though generally useful in motivating people to avoid things that conflict with flourishing, is sometimes not only useless but counter-productive; preventing an agent from doing that which fulfills other interests.

Second, there are situations in which one agent's flourishing will conflict with another agent's flourishing. One agent may require a state in which P is true, while another person’s flourishing requires a state in which P is false. Our efforts to promote flourishing must address the question of whether the first person’s flourishing will take priority over the second person’s, or vice versa. How are we going to weigh the conflicting flourishings of different people?

Our answer must be consistent with the fact that desires are the only end-reasons for intentional action that exists. We cannot answer this question by bringing in end-reasons for intentional action that do not exist.

Third, there is no reason to hold that it is the case that all desires are desires for personal states of being. More specifically, a desire is an attitude towards a proposition P; such as "I desire that I am having sex with Julie". However, there is no reason to limit the set of propositions P that can be an object of a desire to those concerned with the agent's states. A person can desire that something be the case after he dies (e.g., that the human race survive), or that something be true in another part of the world even if they do not know it is true (e.g., that the person I met on vacation last year and never talked to since got into college like she wanted). A researcher can desire to discover a fact of nature that overrides her personal interests, sacrificing health and relationships in the pursuit of that knowledge.

A person's interest in not being truthful or aversion to taking property without consent may make the person worse off than she would have otherwise been.


This post is meant to provide an admittedly quick account of what is required for an "ought" statement to be true (it must relate the object of evaluation to an end-reason for intentional action that exists; and desires are the only reasons that exist), what "flourishing" is (it relates states of being to the desires of the agent whose state is being evaluated), and why "flourishing" fails to account for all value.

Pinker's thesis that "morality" can be replaced with "attaching sentiments to that which promotes human flourishing" is, at best, an underdeveloped moral theory.

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