A loved one who cherishes his lover


1810 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Continuing on with this issue that I’ve been grappling with for the past several days, Scanlon is finally getting to the meat of his argument. He says on page 134 that when the individual does things for the sake of her own happiness, that the projects that she takes on are based on a “distorting self-centeredness.” And that this is why the idea of happiness is unimportant for the first-person perspective. On the other hand, the third-person perspective is not self-centered. The third-person acts for the sake of the individual’s benefit.

And now we come to the critical key that unlocks the barrier to my understanding of Scanlon: he takes “self-centeredness” to be a bad thing.

It’s fairly explicit that he thinks so, based on what he says on page 134-135:

“If my benefactor saves my child or my parents, or restores some buildings in my city, and does this qua benefactor, that is to say, for me, he is doing it because he sees this as benefiting me in some way, or at least because I want it. In my own case, by contrast, I would hope not to be moved by such reasons: I see myself as acting for the sake of others.”

So it is now quite clear what the confusion was all about. Scanlon considers “self-centeredness” to be a bad thing, while I have no particular moral judgement about it without context. If you asked me suddenly, my off the cuff answer would be that it actually is not a bad thing, and is more likely to be a good thing in and of itself. I would say that self-centeredness itself need not be a bad thing. And so here is where Scanlon’s intuitions and mine differ. And it seems that it was this value-assessment that has been at the center of the labyrinthine maze this whole time. I wonder if his arguments are somewhat built around this value.

But what happens in a world in which “self-centeredness” is not taboo? Would that change the structure of Scanlon’s argument, or even his view that the definition of happiness is not useful or necessary for the individual? I think that his bifurcation of the person into a “first-person” perspective and a “third-person” perspective are useful and correct. However, a taboo against “self-centeredness” is not necessary for this bifurcation to happen. Furthermore, I disagree that the first-person perspective need not be aware of the definition of happiness.

My intuition still stands. The individual is in need of possessing this definition.

If the “idea of well-being” is what Scanlon says to mean “definition of happiness” (and not what sorts of things make a person happy), then I still don’t see why the individual has no need of this concept. A complete happiness — ie, a true happiness — requires consciousness of one’s happy state. In Plato’s Symposium, the conclusion of Phaedrus’ speech goes like this:

“In truth, the gods honor virtue most highly when it belongs to Love. They are more impressed and delighted, however, and are more generous with a loved one who cherishes his lover, than with a lover who cherishes the boy he loves. A lover is more godlike than his boy, you see, since he is inspired by a god.” (Symposium 180b)

And just like the loved one who cherishes his lover, the happy one must be conscious of her happiness for the happiness to be true and complete.

Well, that would be my argument, in any case.


1919 |  One thing I want to note here, concerns simple “hedonism” and its champion theory, “utilitarianism.”

In simple hedonism, the aim is simply to promote pleasure. But this kind of simple hedonism is wrong, because it misses the mark of what is the true aim. Pleasure is not an aim to promote — regardless of whether the pleasure is derived from intellectual activities or physical activities, self-centered activities or altruistic activities. Pleasure is an incentive, and the inclination towards it is instinctive and “built-in.” And the reverse can be said for pain. Pain is an inhibitor, and the instinct is to recoil from it and avoid it. But these physiological facts about our neuro-chemicals and biological structure do not make pleasures aims.

The fact of our biological mechanism is evidence enough to tell us that the proper aim of there being pleasures and pains is to promote correct judgment. And then, it is this properly developed correct judgment that is the “science of measurement” which Socrates was talking about in Protagoras. While it may not be what determines ultimate aims, its proper function is to ensure that the best method/means are utilized in order to attain the ultimate aim. If it were not the case that this is so, then there would be no need for such a thing as pain at all, and it would slowly cease to exist; nature is maximally efficient, and effective.

On the other hand, a theory that would acknowledge pain as much as pleasure is one which gives pain as much a purpose as pleasure; these oppositions exist for us, so that through our sensitivity to opposites our correct judgment may be cultivated and developed.

I can see how people can make the mistake that pleasures are aims; but pleasure is an indicator and not an aim. And this simple hedonism is basically what “utilitarianism” is founded upon. But I think that it is an immature and childish notion. It is a moral-theory that panders to the bourgeois greed for never-ending “more.” One need not always have the poor; but those who are now rich will not let them go away, because it is the poor who make them rich.