Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How Practical-Ought/Moral-Ought I to Live My Life?

The first day of class is now 335 days away.

The final episodes of Philosophy Bites exposed me to a pair of interviews that brought up the idea of "Self Help Philosophy". This is the idea that philosophy exists to improve the quality of one's life - to make life go better for those who engage in its practices.

I am going to divide this discussion into two parts.

First, I want to look at the idea that philosophy is supposed to answer the question of how we should live. Second, in the next post, I will look at how Buddhism and Stoicism attempt to answer one interpretation of this question.

I specify, "one interpretation of this question" because the phrase, "how one should live" contains an important ambiguity. The term "should" has two related meanings - "moral ought" and "practical ought". In other words, the question, "How morally-should we live" is distinct from "How practical-should we live."

Desirism distinguishes between these two uses of the word "should" by asking how the object of evaluation (possible lives) stands in relation to what an agent does desire (practical ought" versus what he should desire (moral ought). "Should desire" in this case looks at the desires and aversions people generally have reason to promote, not at the desires and aversions the agent actually has.

There is no inherent irrationality in immorality. In fact, the true villain is somebody for whom it is rational to do the immoral. Given his desires, the practical thing for him to do is that which fulfills his own desires in ways that thwart (harm) the interests of others. You cannot argue a person out of immorality. You can only threaten him, and try to change his desires so that immorality no longer tempts him.

Some do not see a distinction here. Plato and Aristotle, for example, seemed determined to show that living as one practical-ought is the same as living as one moral-ought. Immanuel Kant also sought to show that immorality is irrational.

G.E. Moore objected to John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism that it fails to distinguish between what we desire and what we ought to desire - which is exactly where I place the distinction between practical and moral ought. This is not true. Mill wrote, for example, that the love of virtue does not come naturally. It must be taught, and we have reason to teach it that is grounded on its good consequence. Insofar as one acquires a love of virtue, practical ought comes into alignment with moral ought.

There is only one type of person where the answer to the question, "How practical-ought I to live?" and "How moral-ought I to live?" are in harmony, and that is in the case of a person with perfect virtue. It is the person for whom what she desires and what she ought to desire are the same.

Yet, the boundaries of morality encompass a large territory where morality says nothing about what an agent should do in any sense of the term. The choice of career, of friends, of a mate, of what to eat and what to wear, within limits, are not determined by morality. The agent is free to make choices, and to find separate answers to the question, "What practical-ought I to desire?"

Even if one lives a life entirely within the boundaries of morality, one is bound to suffer hardship. Personal injury or illness, the loss of livelihood or property, the suffering of cold, thirst, hunger, and the want of good company, becoming the victim of wrongdoing or injustice, or even receiving just punishment, can threaten to knock an agent off of her feet. At the very least, age guarantees some upset.

This is where self-help philosophy comes in. This is where the question, "How practical-ought I to live?" takes on a measure of importance. I will address that in a future post.

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