Friday, November 07, 2008

BB3: AC Grayling: Happiness, Flourishing, and Fulfillment

This is the second in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Since the election is over, I can afford to get back to the project of discussing the presentations given at the third Beyond Belief conference held in La Jolla, CA.

Our first speaker was AC Grayling, who rose to speak on the subject of human flourishing. Ultimately, I found three major points in his presentation, each of which deserves a bit of our time.

(1) Human flourishing makes a better candidate for 'the point' is than happiness.

(2) Human flourishing requires freedom to choose.

(3) Neuroscience can give us some idea on what it means to be human which, in turn, will give us insight into what human flourishing requires.

I am going to discuss the first of these points today, and leave the second and third point until tomorrow.

The Problem with Happiness

When I covered Beyond Belief 1 and Beyond Belief 2, both times I found it necessary to bring up objections to the idea that happiness was the one and sole ultimate value and that everything else can be measured by its contribution to happiness. Against this view, I argued that there are a lot of people who would choose a less happy life connected to the real world than a happy life imagining herself a heroine in some fantasy story.

This year, Grayling saved me the trouble by making the argument for me. He started his speech by saying that even though happiness is clearly valuable, it is not 'the point'. If it were the point, then, in his version of the argument, we can fill the population with happy pills who live perfectly happy lives while the world crumbles around them, and we would have the best of all possible worlds.

I want to point out that this same argument works against all theories that try to reduce 'the point' purely to the brain being in a particular kind of state. Regardless of what state we choose – happiness, pleasure over pain, satisfaction, contentment, inner peace – it is possible to divorce that state from the condition in the outside world. All of these theories argue that it is at least theoretically possible to create a perfect world in which brains have been put into this particular state and are kept there, and where the situation outside of the brain is totally irrelevant.

These 'brain state' theories of value suffer from another problem as well. Why is it the case that the brain, being in a particular state, has this value? What is this value made of? How do we discover whether it is there or not? The claim that "the brain in a particular state has value" does not mean any much without some type of conception of what value is, and how a brain in that particular state could have such a property.


Grayling argued that, instead of happiness, a better conception of what 'the point' of a good life is human flourishing. This is a life that, according to Graying, is perceived as good and satisfying by the person living it. There are a wide variety of humans, according to Grayling, and, as a result, there is a wide variety of what can be called 'good lives'. We cannot come up with a single conception and apply it to everybody. For each person, we need to find the ‘good life’ in what that person would perceive as good and satisfying.

This raises a lot of questions.

(1) If we define a good life in terms of flourishing, and then describe flourishing in terms of good, it seems as if we have entered a very tight circle that is not getting us very far in terms of understanding either goodness or human flourishing. Can either of these be defined without reference to the other?

(2) Grayling describes a good life as a life that is 'perceived as good' by the person living it. One of the implications of this is that one way for a person to improve the quality of his life – regardless of what is true about his life – is to simply change his perceptions (or, more colloquially, to change his mind). The homeless drug addict wasting away in the back alleys of a city slum can be given a better life simply by causing him (through drugs, surgery, or some other technique) to perceive such a life to be good and satisfying.

(3) This conception of flourishing is subject to the same problem that happiness theories have. Value depends entirely on putting the brain in a particular state. Once the brain is in that state, the rest of the world can change significantly, and no value would have been lost. If, at time T, I am satisfied with my life, and I am frozen somehow in that state, then my life will be forever satisfying, and my life from that point on will continue to be good.

One could argue that this is not the case because I would not choose to be frozen – so that is not a state that I perceive to be good or satisfying. However, since I do not perceive myself as being in such a state, I do not perceive myself as being in a state that is not good and satisfying. So, I am flourishing – at least unless and until we divorce flourishing from perceptions and make it more objective.

So, I do not know what 'flourishing' is. Grayling's account seems to allow us unlimited possibilities to change the quality of a life without changing the life at all, and it still allows for a good life to be a life hooked up to an experience machine or drugs that simply alter one’s perceptions.

A Desire Utilitarian "Good Life"

Let me compare Grayling’s thesis to another definition of a good life.

Desire utilitarianism holds that value exists as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires, in turn, are propositional attitudes – that is, they can be expressed in the form A desires that P where P is a proposition. A person with a desire that P has a reason for action to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. A state of affairs S is good, at least in relation to this desire, if and only if P is true in S.

I use the term 'fulfillment' here. However, unlike with terms like 'happiness', 'satisfaction', or 'pleasure', there is no feeling associated with desire fulfillment. It is not an affective state. A desire that P is fulfilled if and only if there is a state S and P is true in S. That’s it.

This is a description of generic goodness. It is not a description of moral goodness which, of course, is a species of generic goodness with a few specific traits. Briefly, moral goodness has to do with good malleable desires. Good malleable desires are desires that can be influenced by social forces, and that tend to fulfill other desires (create states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of other desires tend to be made or kept true). So, they are desires that people with those other desires generally have reason to promote.

On this account, a good life is a life in which the propositions {P1, P2, P3 . . . Pn} are true that are the objects of the relevant desires.

We can speak meaningfully of the value of a life relative to the desires of the person living it. That life would be the life in which the propositions that are the objects of the agent’s desires were true.

However, we can also speak of a morally good life – which is something completely different. A morally good life is a life in which those propositions are true that are the objects of good desires - desires that people generally have reason to promote. A person can have a life perceived as good and satisfying and still not have a morally good life. A person can also live a morally good life while being miserable and unsatisfied.

This conception handles the experience machine or 'happiness drug' problem because what is important is that the proposition that is the object of a desire is made or kept true. It isn’t good enough that the agent believes that it is true. It must actually be true. Its truth, then, depends on the state of the world. You cannot take a person whose brain is in a particular state and freeze it in that state, then change the world, and hold value the same. Changing the world will make some of those propositions false, and that will destroy the value.

It is still the case, on this model, that any life can be made better simply by changing desires. If a person desires those qualities that are in his life, then he is living a 'good live' relative to those desires. Somebody else with different desires would not value the same life – he wants something else. That is fine. This does not disprove the idea that the first person is still living the life he wants to live.

However, there is an important set of limitations. There are desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Drug addictions (or any type of addiction), ignorance, handicaps, limitations in autonomy and ability generally, all tend to be inherently desire-thwarting. They prevent people from performing those actions that will realize states in which the propositions that are the objects of their desires are true. They are things that all people have reason to avoid.

There are other desires that tend to fulfill other desires; kindness, curiosity, diligence, industriousness. These are desires that people have reason to promote in themselves and others.

These facts cannot be changed simply by changing what people desire. Slavery and genocide will always be wrong – because they are always inherently desire-thwarting. To the degree that we are surrounded by people who are averse to these states, to that degree those we and those we care about are safer.

The Limited Value of a Good Life

Another relevant point is that, on this model, even though a good life has value, it is one value among many.

To say that a life has value is to say that the propositions that are the objects of relevant desires are true of that life. However, lives are not the only things that can have value. Any state of affairs can have value. The set of propositions P that can be the objects of desires is limited. There is no reason to confine the set solely to propositions that are true of a life.

So, a dedicated researcher can sacrifice family, notoriety, and even health in the pursuit of knowledge. He may even know that he will not ever acquire that knowledge himself, but he can only lay the groundwork for others to find it. Yet, this pursuit can have value to him. That value is not because this knowledge will enable him to acquire a better life. He values the knowledge for its own sake, more so than he values a good life.

The dedicated parent can genuinely sacrifice the quality of his life for his child, and the dedicated artist can give up a good life so that he can make the masterpiece he so desperately wants to make.

Certainly, lives have value. We are all seeking to make true a set of desires, some of them being desires for P where P is some proposition describing the agent’s life.

However, the propositions that are true of a life are one set of propositions in an infinitely large set. They are not the only propositions that can find themselves as the objects of an agent’s desires. Nor should they be. There is a whole universe full of things that any given agent can find value in.


Hume's Ghost said...

If you haven't read any Grayling I highly recommend his books - his collections of essay are all exquisite but I particularly like What is Good?.

Ted Lemon said...

Wouldn't a dedicated researcher who values his research above what people normally think of as a good life in fact be leading a good life if he did what he valued? Wouldn't he be failing to lead a good life if he instead pursued those things that others find good, at the expense of the thing that truly mattered to him?

I think you were right at the beginning of your article to say that "good life" is a value judgment--that is, specific to the individual, and not something that can be defined objectively.

In fact, the objective definition of "good life" is pernicious, because it can never make more than a small portion of the populace (the ones that hit that point on the hypothetical bell curve) happy. To even speak in terms of an objective "good life" is therefore a mistake.

Anonymous said...

I am continually disappointed by appeals to "flourishing". Firstly, flourishing implies a "golden mean" either for individuals or communities. It is not that evaluations are not possible; it is that there is no ideal endpoint, and if there were, it would be well nigh impossible to know. Owen Flanagan makes the same mistake at the end of his book. That is a problem of all notions of progress as opposed to more modest improvement.


Mark Twain:

The perfection of wisdom, and the end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities, we will then be a happy and a virtuous people.Nice Comment!