Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Eudaimonia or bust

I know, I know, I'm beating a dead horse.

But I'm wary of suffering-focused ethics, those in which the elimination/prevention of suffering is the only acceptable course of action and intention. According to negative utilitarians, for example, it would be better to avoid a pinprick than to allow this tragedy alongside an unfathomably large amount of pleasure.

Suffering-focused ethicists might accuse me of being empty of compassion or any number of things, but I find that suffering-focused ethics is far too narrow-minded to be even reasonable. It is clear, to me at least, that there are legitimately good things that are not simply the absence of suffering - in fact I'm rather skeptical that the absence of suffering can be a good thing simpliciter.

Eudaimonia, or flourishing, can only occur when someone is not suffering. Since, intuitively, it seems as though it would be a legitimately good thing for there to be people who experience eudaimonia (pro tanto), it follows that we should make it so that there are people who experience eudaimonia. At this particular point, I don't care about the attached strings, hence the pro tanto epithet. Therefore, in order to make people who experience eudaimonia, we would need to make sure they do not experience suffering.

In other words: the focus of our choices should be guided by an analysis of which situation is the best, and the best situation is that in which the requirements for eudaimonia are fully met.

This severely narrows the landscape of what constitutes a "good" state of affairs, however does not limit quite so much the landscape of what constitutes a "good" or "right" action. This is because pleasure by itself is not enough to call a state of affairs good, however pleasure can be a feature that makes state of affairs better than another. Again, the best choice of action need not result in a genuinely good state of affairs, only the best possible state of affairs.

For example, if you had the choice between two states of affairs (SoA for now on), SoAa and SoAb, such that SoAa has one person suffering and SoAb has one person barely above manageable levels, the best choice of action would be to choose SoAb. However, if you had a choice between SoAb and SoAc, such that SoAc has nobody existing, the best choice of action would be to choose SoAc, because SoAb is not a good state of affairs in-itself (since it has no eudaimonia), and therefore worse than the neutral state of affairs of SoAc.

This means that a good state of affairs can only be so if it is a perfect state of affairs, and a perfect state of affairs is one that has eudaimonic persons, or no persons at all.

Now, within this narrow category of perfection, eudaimonic persons hold precedence over nothing, since the existence of persons means that agential value exists. Therefore, the only good state of affairs is that in which eudaimonic persons exist and nothing else.

This reasoning can be captured by the following diagrams:

Notice in the second diagram how, as eudaimonia decreases, the more likely it becomes that the best course of action to take is that which results in nothing.

I think this captures our intuitions fairly well. If it isn't perfect, it's not worth it. Mediocrity doesn't cut it, especially not in ethics. It also explains why brute hedonism is not worthy enough for the entire picture.

Furthermore, I think it also helps explain something that I've been struggling to explain for a while now: why we place more emphasis on suffering than pleasure, or why we prioritize suffering. I think that if you are not currently in a eudaimonic state (or unconscious - a state of nothing-ness), you are suffering. You might be in the middle of an orgasm, but this orgasm will ultimately be unfulfilling. A eudaimonic person is not going to be eudaimonic because of basic sensual pleasures (like orgasms or sweets). It is a more complex psychological state.

So just giving people free chocolate on the street, or a surprise back massage, is not really a good thing unless it relieves them of a pain (which is oftentimes does) - because the only good is eudaimonia. And that's also why we prioritize suffering over pleasure: because the absence of suffering is a requirement for pleasure, and pleasure is a requirement for eudaimonia. A eudaimonic person is in no need of assistance - they are self-sufficient. 

It stands, then, that the requirements for eudaimonia are the presence of certain (desired) pleasures and the absence of any and all suffering. Or, in other words, eudaimonia requires the satisfaction of basic needs in some way.

If these basic needs cannot be met, or there is reasonable doubt that they can be met, then the best possible course of action is to abstain from attempting to bestow eudaimonia.

What defines suffering? A key component of suffering would seem to be pain, of some sort. We can describe pain as a kind of intrusion  - indeed all experiences seem to be intrusive in some sense. What makes pain, pain, is that it is motivating quality that results in the subject experiencing varying levels of discomfort and an inability to relax. Therefore, suffering could be described as any sort of unsolicited motivational intrusion - an enslavement.

What defines eudaimonia? Eudaimonia would be the result when the needs of an individual are met and are continuing to be met by the subject itself by its own conceived free will. Once again, the eudaimonic person is self-sufficient. The eudaimonic person is not motivated to meet these needs by anxiety or fear of pain but because they have the desire to independently of pain. The needs are present, and they are happy to oblige. The eudaimonic person is also one who derives a non-negligible amount of legitimate pleasure from the satisfaction of these needs, instead of mere relief. Therefore, the eudaimonic person must have parallel desire-orientation to their needs.

To summarize: to exist as a conscious person means to have concerns (needs and desires), and eudaimonia requires the satisfaction of these concerns. Eudaimonia is the only good, because eudaimonia is the only experience that is perfect in nature. By establishing the satisfaction of these concerns, you are removing all possibility of suffering. Therefore, establishing eudaimonia necessitates the elimination/prevention of suffering. Therefore, the priority of ethics should be the establishment of eudaimonic persons by the process of eliminating/preventing suffering (by satisfying concerns).

Note again how if eudaimonia is an unlikely or impossible state to achieve for an individual (or the costs of such a feat are too high), then alternative routes should be taken, namely: nothing-ness. Personally I do believe that eudaimonia is a highly reactive and transitory experience, one that pops up here and there within a sea of suffering. In my view, at least, the perfect good (eudaimonia) is either unattainable or highly unlikely. Please also note that this is focused primarily on the eudaimonia of an individual - the affects of this eudaimonia on other people are not addressed here.

8 comments:

  1. D,

    Sort of an off-topic question.

    What's the point of life if one has a low IQ?

    I'm just not seeing the purpose, unless of course you believe in the theory of multiple intelligence, which I feel was devised as a crutch to make people feel better about themselves. It just seems to me that I have a much harder time processing information than others and have to work extremely hard to excel in areas where others are naturally gifted. People at my job and many of my peers in day to day life see me as 'slow' and at times a 'moron' and the thing is, I don't disagree with that statement.

    Knowing that most people I meet on a day to day basis are much more intelligent than I am is just an extremely daunting thought and holds me back from pursuing anything anymore. I'm also a High School dropout which doesn't help my case.

    Genetics is just a very hard pill to swallow for me. It really almost seems unfair that some people are born more gifted than others but I guess without that diversity, life would be boring. I've taken the standard WAIS IQ test and it turns out that I'm just of an average / lower average intellect which pains me.

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    1. "What's the point of life if one has a low IQ?"

      Clarendinea, first off, I think if you are worried about having a low IQ you probably don't actually have that low of an IQ. Either way, IQ is a poor indicator of competence. Just look at the members of Mensa who are, on average, highly eccentric and egotistical individuals.

      But regardless of this, I don't think having a certain IQ value changes anything regarding the "point" of life. Certainly having a higher ability to think may make it easier to bear the burdens of existence - but then again, there seems to also be a general trend of depression related to intelligence. Altogether though I don't think there is any "point" to life - we do to do to until we die. Some of us manage to tumble our way through a bit easier and with less scratches, but I think all of us have to deal with this issue.

      It is very unfortunate that people continue to have children, especially those who live in impoverished regions of the earth. I, in particular, don't understand why we seem to continue to support the rearing of children with severe medical disorders - the "miracle babies".

      If you can try to graduate from high school you'll greatly increase your chances of leading a more comfortable life.

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  2. Not sure how any of this undermines suffering-focused ethics.

    "According to negative utilitarians, for example, it would be better to avoid a pinprick than to allow this tragedy alongside an unfathomably large amount of pleasure"

    Negative Threshold Utilitarians don't care about pinpricks / miscellaneous mild discomforts, and their views still count as "suffering focused". In fact, I'd say their views are more suffering focused than those of the garden variety NU. I also think threshold-NUs outnumber borg-NUs at this point, but don't quote me on that just yet as I need to revisit whatever paper it was that left me with that impression in the first place, a couple of years ago. Anyway, the plain NU who aggregates every step we take and every breath of air we inhale as an elimination of a negative mini-deprivation can reach outlandish conclusions, at times even justifying torture to prevent some long-term aggregation of commonplace nuisances. I wouldn't even attribute "suffering" to the little things.

    This eudaimonia business though, it reminds me of sufficientarianism: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egalitarianism/#Suf

    Of course, a eudaimonic life must be far better than the "good enough" line in the sand drawn by the sufficiency principle, but I think both markings ultimately run into the same problem... if applied as a post-natal axiology through which to determine who gets what. I think you were only talking about pre-natal conditions as opposed to trade-offs, so this is somewhat off-topic:

    1. You have an opportunity to bring 1 individual to a eudaimonic state, who is currently just a smidgen below eudaimonia. This is only made possible by harming 10 other individuals who are already experiencing eudaimonia, but harming them just below the level which would've placed them outside the bounds of eudaimonia (or by harming 10 or more individuals who are below eudaimonia and who would've never reached it anyway, regardless of what you do).

    2. No one reaches eudaimonia, but a bunch of people are benefitted immensely and soon find their quality of life not too far from eudaimonic qualities. This is made possible by taking one individual who had barely reached eudaimonia, and tugging him down a just a bit to make him fall outside the glory.

    I'd vote 'no' one 1 and 'yes' on 2, just as I would if the sufficiency principle had been on the line instead of eudaimonia.

    I think these experiential lines in the sand, whether sufficientarian/non-sufficientarian or eudaimonic/non-eudaimonic, are ultimately arbitrary.

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    1. "I wouldn't even attribute "suffering" to the little things."

      Agreed. I don't mind breathing, despite it requiring effort.

      I had originally meant to title this post "On a suffering-prioritizing ethics", which would have been more inclusive by recognizing the existence of genuine positive states (eudaimonic states), but prioritizing ethical efforts towards the reduction of suffering. Oftentimes you will see deprivationalists or anti-frustrationists who think the only good is the resolution of bad or the satisfaction of a preference paired with negative utilitarianism, which I think is untenable.

      In my opinion, if you are not suffering, you are eudaimonic. Which of course puts a bit of a restriction on what constitutes a good state, and greatly expands the territory of what constitutes suffering. Chances are, you are not in a eudaimonic state and are therefore suffering. So although breathing might not constitute suffering, having to clean your gutter might. Who knows.

      "I think you were only talking about pre-natal conditions as opposed to trade-offs"

      Indeed I was focused on pre-natal conditions, as usual :)

      However I think it might be able to be applied to everyday life as well. Although I suppose you might be able to argue that since we are all suffering, and eudaimonia is unlikely or impossible, we ought to kill ourselves and each other. Which is obviously a bit extreme. I mean life ain't great, and this mediocrity is what would make birth wrong, but can this mediocrity justify the continuation of life? hmm

      "I'd vote 'no' one 1 and 'yes' on 2, just as I would if the sufficiency principle had been on the line instead of eudaimonia."

      As would I, but I think for different reasons. In scenario 1, no matter who is experiencing eudaimonia, there is at least one person who is not, so the state of affairs taken as a whole is not perfect. Additionally, if we HAD to choose between the two options, then the moral choice would be to choose the better option, or the one that has less bad (closer to perfection). The same reasoning applies to scenario 2.


      "I think these experiential lines in the sand, whether sufficientarian/non-sufficientarian or eudaimonic/non-eudaimonic, are ultimately arbitrary."

      Can you explain more? In my opinion, eudaimonic states are the only states that, upon introspective reflection, the subject can honestly believe without a doubt that they are experiencing a positive and fulfilling state. All other states seem to entail some level of doubt or unfulfillment, because they are a mixture of pleasures and pains with a disoriented preference system. Whereas in a eudaimonic state, the preference system is perfectly oriented to everything that is happening.

      Now personally I have my doubts about the possibility of eudaimonia on a prolonged scale, but also because it seems that to be able to experience eudaimonia requires one to limit their consciousness somewhat. This adds an additional aesthetic element that, once seen, is difficult to un-see.

      Is a eudaimonic state still perfectly good if it has been achieved inauthentically?

      In regards to the sufficiency principle, sufficiency is not equivalent to eudaimonia and would then, I think, contribute to a repugnant conclusion.

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    2. "So although breathing might not constitute suffering, having to clean your gutter might. Who knows"

      I think this task is way closer to a nuisance or inconvenience than it is to suffering. Let's not cheapen the weight of suffering.

      "but can this mediocrity justify the continuation of life?"

      Intrapersonal mediocrity? No catchall answer there as far as I'm concerned, just boring appeals to individual judgment under personhood. As for non-persons (infants, irreversibly comatose humans, non-human animals), mediocrity would be the cherry on top in terms of justifying their premature deaths. The main arguments would rest on the absence of informed consent to continue living.

      "they are a mixture of pleasures and pains with a disoriented preference system"

      Objectively distorted? I'm more for idiosyncratic versions of preferentism, built atop lexical preferences: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexicographic_preferences

      "For example, if for a given bundle (X;Y;Z) an agent orders his preferences according to the rule X>>Y>>Z, then the bundles {(5;3;3), (5;1;6), (3,5,3)} would be ordered, from most to least preferred:

      1.5;3;3

      2.5;1;6

      3.3;5;3

      - Even though the first option contains fewer total goods than the second option, it is preferred because it has more Y. Note that the number of X's is the same, and so the agent is comparing Y's.

      - Even though the third option has the same total goods as the first option, the first option is still preferred.

      - Even though the third option has far more Y than the second option, the second option is still preferred because it has slightly more X."

      So yeah, I don't see any room for distortions over what's worth what, assuming the agent is not deluded about some non-trivial empirical fact that would've significantly altered the acceptability/unacceptability of his packaged preferences.

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    3. "I think this task is way closer to a nuisance or inconvenience than it is to suffering. Let's not cheapen the weight of suffering."

      At the same time, let's not ignore someone's personal emotional state just because they aren't as bad off as someone else. Comparing the predicament of ourselves or others to those who are worse off is a common psychological tactic to reassure the individual that everything is okay when it's factually not. Mediocrity may not be as pressing as extreme pain, but it nevertheless isn't good either.

      "So yeah, I don't see any room for distortions over what's worth what, assuming the agent is not deluded about some non-trivial empirical fact that would've significantly altered the acceptability/unacceptability of his packaged preferences."

      I think that there are actually some non-trivial empirical facts that would alter this, psychological and existential facts that, once the agent knows them, finds it difficult to enjoy the same things she had previously been able to under the spell of ignorance and delusion/illusion.

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  3. darthbarracuda is a trash. The father of darthbarracuda is a trash. The mother of darthbarracuda is a trash. Therefore, there are trashes. This is a valid argument. What do you think???

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