Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Henry Sidgwick and the Problem of Finding Happiness

In 256 days, I will be sitting in my first class.

Progress this week includes finishing Book II of Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics.

This part of the book had to do with answering the question - given that our goal is to maximize our own happiness or pleasure-minus-pain, how are we supposed to do this?

Sidgwick examines the practice of using introspection to determine how best to maximize pleasure, but laments our dispositions for error on introspection, the fact that our remembering of past pleasures is likely to be flawed, and our anticipations of future pleasures are often mistaken. Furthermore, we cannot make inferences from past pleasures to future pleasures because, in the meantime, we undergo change.

Nor can we draw reasonable inferences from the experiences of others, since different people have different pleasures which change impact the amount of pleasure (or pain) they will get from similar other people are different from us inability to correctly imagine past pleasures, or future pleasures, or to draw inferences from past pleasure to future pleasures, makes this difficult.

Nor is "common sense" of much use either since it also ignores the differences among individuals and ignores the fact that our situations change.

He rejects the idea that a life of virtue is a life of pleasure since there are two many instances in which vicious acts can bring great rewards. He points out that punishment as a source of unhappiness can often be avoided or outweighed, as can public approval. Public approval and disapproval may not be a useful guide since a person with an enlightened morality might have discovered a virtue that less informed people are still discrediting. He looks at the idea that humans are "imitative creatures" and, as such, virtuous activity should produce virtuous activity in others from which one would benefit. However, it is often the case that virtuous people are not always the most useful, and useful people are not always the most virtuous.

All things considered, having a reliable guide as to how to obtain the most pleasure and the least pain seems problematic. We have to trust to experience and to expect error.

This is not an objection against hedonism, Sidgwick argues, it is just a fact we must live with.

Of course, this is of little use to me since I deny the original assumption that our one and only goal is the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Instead, I hold that each desire - expressed in the form of a propositional attitude - creates its own end, that being a state of affairs within which the proposition that is the object of that desire is true.

It is an all-too-common mistake to misunderstand this as a claim that we have only one goal - the maximum fulfillment of our desires. Understood in this way, one can run through the same set of problems as Sidgwick described above for hedonism. There are practical problems in discovering what will fulfill our desires.

However, our end is not "the maximum fulfillment of desires". If an agent has a desire that P, then what matters is the realization of a state of affairs in which 'P' is true. The relevant question that an agent will be asking in this case is not, "What will maximize the fulfillment of my desires" but "What will realize a state of affairs in which 'P' is true." The truth of 'P' is the end or the goal, not the fulfillment of the agent's desire.

Those who argue that happiness is our goal have long discussed the observation that the best road to happiness is to not focus on happiness but to focus on other things, and let the happiness come as a side effect. This actually makes sense if what matters are states of affairs in which 'P' is true, and happiness is a side effect of (coming to believe) that one has created a state of affairs in which 'P' is true.

What comes next is Book III of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics.

I have done some google searches and found a syllabus for Philosophy 5100: Proseminar in Ethics - which beginning PhD students must take their first year - and which (as an MA) I will still sign up for. It has tended to include readings from Sidgwick, with a paper due at the end of the third week of class. I wish to finish my readings and, perhaps, write such a paper. Then go on to read G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica - another set of readings recommended for that class.

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