Thursday, September 29, 2016

Self-Help Philosophy

333 days until my first classes and, as promised, a blog post on self-help philosophy.

A couple of posts ago, I distinguished between moral philosophy (How moral-ought I to live my life?) from what I will call here self-help philosophy (How practical-ought I to live my life?).

The distinction rests on whether one is evaluating a life relative to the desires one ought to have (moral-ought) or the desires one does have (practical-ought). For the virtuous person there is no conflict between the two. For everyone else, there is. Yet, even for the virtuous person, moral-ought leaves a lot of room within which one can roam - and decisions to be made about how practical-ought one to live within those moral boundaries.

Recently, I have encountered three examples of philosophies that sought to give advice on how one should practical-ought live one's life.

Two appeared in the more recent episodes of the Philosophy Bites podcast: Graham Priest on Buddhism and Philosophy and William B. Irvine on Living Stoically.

Both of these episodes spent some of their time discussing how to handle disappointment.

Actually, "disappointment" is too mild of a term. One example they both used involved the parent's loss of a young child - in my opinion, one of the most painful events a person may have to endure. Yet it is still only one example among a great many possibilities. At the very least, old age and death bring the promise of forcing us to endure some loss, either of friends and family, or our own faculties.

The Stoics and the Buddhists also have similar ways of addressing these problems - solutions (or, at least, mitigations) that promise to remove some of the emotional pain out of life.

Buddhists, at least according to Graham Priest, state that this distress is caused by wanting that which one cannot have - or that one cannot have reliably. The world is constantly changing such that even if, at the moment, you have that which you want, it will not last. The more tightly one tries to hang on to things in this world, the stronger the sting will be when reality takes it away. Consequently, the wise person does not attach great importance to such things. They enjoy that which they have, but not in a way that they suffer greatly when it is gone.

Stoicism also tells us not to value something to such a degree that we are torn up by its loss.

Desirism would state this as, "Insofar as you have a reason to avoid great emotional pain and suffering, do not cultivate a desire that P that is so strong that one cannot endure a state in which 'P' is false."

William Irvine said that the stoic can, in a sense, immunize himself against the potential death of a child by taking the time each night to consider the fact that the child could be dead tomorrow. One should not dwell on this potential loss - that would be a recipe for misery. However, one should at least face the possibility. This gives the stoic a double blessing of being all the more grateful for having just one more day with that child should the fates allow it, and being psychologically prepared for the state in which the fates did not allow it.

I found the third example of this type of self-help philosophy in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Although Smith talked about the loss of a child, most of his discussion concerned the hypothetical loss of a leg by a cannon in a wartime battle.

Smith's suggested remedy to the problem of suffering some great disappointment or loss was to get out more - to meet people and share their company. Furthermore, the company that one is to seek is the company of strangers or, at least, more distant acquaintances. Friends and close family are going to be too sympathetic and indulgent of the person feeling sorry for himself. More distant acquaintances and strangers, on the other hand, have less of a tendency to be so indulgent.

More generally, Smith argued that the proper measure of the sentiment one should have to some object is that which "everybody" would have who is at such sufficient distance from the object so as to be impartial. Such a hypothetical agent would still carry a common amount of human sympathy, and thus will not be entirely unfeeling towards the person who has suffered such a loss. However, they would not allow their lives to be torn up over the fact. Through them, the agent can learn not to allow such a loss to destroy his own life.

I want to repeat that this is not a suggestion to join the company of people who care nothing about us. Smith argues that sympathy is a powerful and important sentiment - one that grounds all of morality - and one that "everybody" shares. Consequently, his advice to seek the company of others who are somewhat removed from one's loss is still advice to seek the company of people who have some measure of natural sympathy. However, it would be a sympathy that held the loss in its proper context - as one tragedy among many in a universe filled with tragedies and joys. Through their example, and with the benefit of time, one can learn to see their own loss in something near the same way.

Ultimately, the goal here is little different from that which the Buddhist and the stoic suggests - to temper one's 'desire that P' such that one can tolerate living in a world in which 'P' is false. It is to lessen the importance of 'P' being true, in order to lessen the pain that is consequent upon living in a universe in which 'P' may end up being false.

It is a type of advice that desirism, too, can recommend to anybody who has an interest in avoiding such pain.

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