To possess “the good”

Friday 🏆

0918 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

What is it to have a “connection” with another person?

Scanlon makes an interesting observation here, when he writes:

“Suppose, for example, that I very much admire a certain person, and therefore desire that her struggle and sacrifice will be crowned with success and happiness. This may be a rational desire as well as an informed one; it might, quite properly, be strengthened by fuller knowledge of the person’s life and character. Even if this is so, however, if I have no connection [emphasis added] with her beyond my admiration and this desire, then the quality of my life is not affected one way or the other by her fate.” (p.115)

I think that this sounds about right. It’s a fact that, biologically speaking, we are social creatures. And I can think of many cases in which we do have such connections with people, such that our own quality of life seems to be affected by the fate of these other people. Sometimes the connection is voluntarily made (such as in the case of friends, or deciding to have children), while sometimes the connection seems to be given to us (such as our parents, or our neighbors). Presumably, this is the way that creatures like us “connect” to/with the world. And I think that we not only attach ourselves to other people who are external to ourselves, but we also attach ourselves to things that are external to ourselves — like ideas, countries, religions, sports teams, and even racial categories.

But what sort of connection is the one that would make the other person’s fate affect the quality of my own life? Obviously, it can’t be that I simply know or like someone or something. I think the connection has to be deeper somehow. Perhaps I have to identify myself with the other person or thing to some extent. And the more that I identify with the other person or thing — ie, the more that I think that these other people or things are an essential part of who/what I am — the more that my experiential quality of life is affected by how things go for these other people and things external to me. And if I had in the past substantively given to or received from the other people or things, or am now doing so or planning to do so in the future, then my substantive quality of life is also affected by the fates of these other people or things.

One thing that’s curious to me is why, or how it is that, sometimes even though I give or receive substantively I still don’t feel any connection? I suspect that the answer has to do with consciousness.

And perhaps also, I suspect, something to do with Barbara Herman’s “phenomenon” of the feeling of gratitude in a subject.


1746 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Well, it looks like I didn’t have to be so worried after all. Scanlon says on page 124, that:

“certain experiential states (such as various forms of satisfaction and enjoyment) contribute to well-being, but well-being is not determined solely by the quality of experience.”

I was really getting worried for a moment, that if things got really bad that I would have to seriously reconsider wanting to be at Harvard — eg, for instance if Scanlon was thinking something more like what Martha Nussbaum would have been thinking. I would have to start looking for another university to want to study at, and I wouldn’t even know where to start. And I’m already pretty sure that I like it here, and would like it here. Frances Kamm is here, and Rusty Jones is here, Mark Schiefsky is here, and so is Korsgaard, and Selim Berker is also quite interesting. And of course, Scanlon is still somewhat here. And, needless to say, Thoreau was also here — and he’s been a big influence in my life. So far, I like all of the professors in the Phil and/or Classics departments that I’ve met, each for different reasons, and sometimes even for disagreeing with me on some issues. I even like Richard Moran. Everybody is so interesting, and I’ve grown quite fond of everyone in a certain way.

Perhaps Ned Hall doesn’t really like me, but ever since I learned that he is a Thoreau scholar, I’ve become intrigued and I now have a wish to be able to talk to him and interview him and ask him questions and see what he thinks about Thoreau and also what he thinks on his own.

Oh! I’m suddenly flooded with all sorts of emotions….

When I think of being at Harvard officially and I picture myself doing these things here, I feel so happy and I wish so much that it could be real! (and a tiny bit worried and sad, at the thought of what the future might hold for me if I couldn’t do these things) It’s all I want to do. Just to study and do philosophy, and to follow and be where my heart takes me…


1816 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Amazing. I just thought of something. It’s like, everything clicked together all of a sudden. Scanlon, and the question of the notion of well-being. Socrates’ experience of justice in Republic book 2. An “intuitive” understanding of “happiness.” Barbara Herman’s “gratitude.” A conscious subject. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. To love, and be loved in return. Something in Plato’s Symposium about eros not only wanting to possess “the good” once, but wanting to possess it forever (at 207a).

I just now remembered that in my experience, I sometimes don’t know that I want something until after I’ve already had it, and it’s now gone. But during the time that I have it, I often don’t notice that it’s even there. I only begin to notice it, when it is absent. Perhaps this is what Eros is after: not only to have the object of one’s desire, but to be consciously aware of it in real-time. And this conscious awareness in real-time, is what it is to possess something forever since once the moment is captured into a memory, the moment has the potential to last as long as the mind lasts. This awareness must be what causes the emotion or sentiment which people commonly call “gratitude.” But more importantly, I think that it might also be what genuine “happiness” actually is — to possess “the good,” and to be consciously aware of it while still in possession of it.

I don’t know if I’m wording things quite right this first time around, but I think I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve discovered here!

Well, now I’m stumped again.

Supposing that what I’ve discovered here is also what Scanlon had in mind, why say that a “general theory” of this kind is not very useful for individuals themselves to know? And why is it more important only for the guardians of individuals to possess?

For instance, why isn’t it important for individuals to engage in “philosophical reflection” about their own happiness, if it can be beneficial for the thinker herself as Scanlon suggests here:

“One thing that philosophical reflection can do is to tell us more about particular goals: what is good or bad about them, how they are related to each other, and how their value is to be understood in the sense I described in the previous chapter.”  (p.125)

I mean, isn’t this the important question to ask oneself about all things? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?

And he admits that:

“There is certainly much to be learned in this way even if it does not, for the reasons just stated, amount to a theory, or to a theory of well-being. Conclusions of this kind can be useful to us in deciding how to live our lives.” (p.125-126)

But then, again he turns right around and says the unexpected thing:

“But from a first-person point of view it does not matter very much whether a more general and ambitious theory of well-being is possible or not, since we do not need answers to many of the questions that it would answer. This is true in part because, as I will argue in the next section, the concept of well-being in general and its boundaries in particular are less important from the point of view of the person whose life is in question than is often supposed.” (p.126)

How to make sense of this about-face?

Fortunately, by now (after several days of working on understanding Scanlon’s book and its meaning thus far), I think that I can at least offer a hypothesis about what he might be thinking when he makes this claim. Perhaps he might mean that in order for an individual to be “happy,” she must also be in the context of a certain sort of environment. This environment requires that the individual be thought of and treated a certain way. But it is a fact that the individual is not in a position to determine all of the factors of her environment. And yet, the right environment is just as necessary for substantive happiness as the individual’s conscious awareness of the presence of it is.

So when Scanlon speaks of the “third-person,” he means to say that only we, as the “Other,” and as someone who is part of the environment that contextualizes an individual, are in the position to determine whether the individual is going to be in the right sort of environment or not — because, presumably, it is up to each of us how we will consider and/or treat the individual. In this way, we each are guardians and benefactors of the individual, ie of each person who stands before us.

And this is why…. he wrote what he did? And if it isn’t what he means, then what does he mean? I still don’t understand.


2220 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Reading further, the hypothesis as I put forth earlier doesn’t seem to be at all what Scanlon was thinking.

Based on the evidence of what he says on page 133, I think it’s just something more like this: to have the values isn’t the same as trying to have the values.

On page 133, he says:

“I conclude, therefore, that the concept [emphasis added] of one’s overall well-being does not play as important a role as it is generally thought to do in the practical thinking of a rational individual. Succeeding in one’s main aims, insofar as these are rational, must be a component in any plausible notion of well-being. But this idea serves as an evaluative Trojan horse, bringing within the notion of well-being values that are not grounded in it. From an individual’s own perspective, which takes his or her main goals as given, what matter are these goals and other particular values, not the idea of well-being that they make up. From a more abstract perspective, taking these goals as not yet determined, we can say that a life goes better if the person is more successful in achieving his or her main rational goals (whatever these may turn out to be), but the conception of well-being that can be formulated at this level is too indeterminate, and too abstract, to be of great weight.”

However, I still can’t let go of the feeling that there is something wrong with this. I just can’t put my finger on it now, but I am too tired to work it out. I’m going to sleep on it.