Sunday, November 16, 2008

BB3: Owen Flanagan: Eudemonia and Existentialism

This is the fifth 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.

Our third presenter at the Beyond Belief 3 conference was Owen Flanagan, the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University.

At the start of his presentation, Flanagan presents what he calls "third wave existentialism".

First wave existentialism concerns the question of how to justify goodness (or the good life) without a god.

Second wave existentialism concerns the fact that a modern democratic society could give rise to something like Hitler.

Third wave existentialism, then, concerns the unsettling view that humans are animals - different from other animals but not better.

Each of these existentialisms identifies an important truth, according to Flanagan.

The first important truth is that, "[T]here are superstitious ways to run your life and there are non-superstitious ways to run your life, and if you undermine the superstitious ways to run your life you are left with the problem of trying to figure out why you are doing what you are doing."

Desire utilitarianism holds that desires provide our reasons for action - we do what we do because it fulfills the most and strongest of our own desires. This may generate some sort of 'existential angst' on the part of people who think, "That is it?" However, this angst is generated because people have been taught to desire something they cannot have - some other sort of reason. Indeed, this is it - and we are foolish to teach ourselves and others to have an aversion to a universe in which this is true.

The second important truth, according to Flanagan, is that, "[Y]ou can't trust humans to their own devices." We are capable of evil on a huge scale. Anybody who thinks that we have nothing to worry about because a human society will not deteriorate to such a level simply has not looked at history.

This is a challenge that those who hold that morality is a genetic or basic biological function has trouble handling. Some people, when asked where morality comes from, explain morality in terms of evolved dispositions. Those evolved dispositions are also capable of creating millennia of slavery, genocide, crusades, jihads, and similar atrocities. It is absurd to argue that morality is built into our nature, when, it is clear, that immorality is just as firmly built into that same nature.

The third important truth, the important truth of Flanagan's "third wave" existentialism, concerns how we harness the truth of the fact that we are merely sophisticated animals.

One of the aspects of desire utilitarianism is that it fits animal behavior as well as human behavior. Animals mold the behavior of other members of the group by rewarding behavior that tends to fulfill other desires and punishing behavior that tends to thwart other desires. They lack the ability to understand in detail the good or bad that a particular desire will produce. However, this puts their use of morality on the same level as their use of tools. They cannot use morality as well as we can, but they can use it on some level.

Learned vs. Innate Values

When I hear about concerns such as these, one question that always comes to mind is whether these concerns are a part of our basic human nature, or if they are learned.

For example, some people are averse to a state in which value emerges from the material world, as opposed to the idea that value is put into the world by a benevolent deity. The person who values value with a divine source sees the materialist option as being worthless – it does not fulfill their desire for states of affairs where value has a divine source.

If this is a basic value that is deeply engrained into our nature, then this is a very unfortunate fact to discover about ourselves. It means that we cannot be truly happy in the world as it exists. We are left with a choice. We can admit to the unpleasant truth that value in the universe is emergent and does not have a divine source, or we can pretend that the universe has divine sources so that we can obtain the false happiness that this would allow us.

This latter option is like that of the mother who refuses to admit that her child is dead. She still acts as if her child is alive – to the point of writing him letters, having conversations with him, and maintaining a room in the house for the child.

The life of the person who lives with the false belief that the world has divine value lives exactly the same type of emptiness.

On the other hand, if this dislike for a universe in which value is an emergent natural property is learned instead of natural, then we can rid ourselves of it.

Given that it is more difficult to change the minds of adults than of children, an important part of this plan would be to quit teaching children to value a universe that does not and will not exist. To the degree that we can teach children not to grow up with a dislike for a world that has natural, emergent value, to that degree we teach children to find value in the real world, and reduce the need to embrace a lie. This "existential angst" that Flanagan is concerned about need not exist.

Where to Find Eudemonia

The next point that Flanagan makes in his presentation is that there is room for experts on the question of what counts as flourishing or eudaimonia. There is a fact of the matter. A person on the street can be wrong on the issue of what eudemonia (flourishing) consists of.

Flanagan's own theory of happiness has to do with platonic hedonism.

I think that we should seek eudemonia . . . at the intersection of what is true, good, and beautiful.

Even though I argue against the claim that eudemonia is 'the point' in any significant sense, Flanagan's theory still has some value. So long as eudemonia is one of the ends of human action, one of the things we pursue and have reason to pursue, then it makes some sense to determine what it is and how to find it.

However, in this case, Flanagan does not give me anything particularly useful in that regard. It does not answer any of my questions about eudemonia, because of all of the questions that exist about beauty and goodness. Indeed, 'beauty' itself is a value-laden term (unlike 'truth'). That beauty is good in some sense is true as a matter of definition, in the same way that circles are round. So, we cannot have a theory of beauty without having a theory of goodness, and we cannot have a theory of goodness without having a theory of goodness. Flanagan has not offered us a theory of goodness – or, at least, not one that is not viciously circular.

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