“Happiness” really does feel good

Sunday

1140 | [On Gavin Lawrence’s essay Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious? ]

I took a break from reading Lawrence’s paper (Is Aristotle’s Function Argument Fallacious?) for a couple days. I had a lot on my mind. Sometimes my heart needs a little “tune-up” because my eyes get leaky every once in a while.

Well, back to Lawrence’s paper.

Just a little thing to note here, but I noticed that Lawrence wants to make it clear that there’s a distinction between being a “good” agent and something being “good-for” the agent. That’s easy enough.

But I wanted to ask him: What about the “good to”?

[A] So, instead of 2, let’s make a distinction between 3 kinds of “good” that pertains to an agent:
(g1) The object of the agent’s desire, choice, becoming (γίνομαι), and/or striving is what seems “good” (ἀγαθός) to her.
(g2) The “good” agent is judged as being (ἔμμεναι) “respectable” or “pleasing” (ἐσθλός).
(g3) Whatever maintains health or provides benefits to an agent is said to be what is “good” for an agent.

[B] To add to the first set of distinctions, I also want to say something else about how I think that the agent is defined in each of these cases:
(a1) The “agent” is defined by the invisible (transcendent?) 1st-person perspective — eg, the implied I.
(a2) The “agent” is defined by one or more highly opinionated 2nd-person perspective(s) — eg, convention.
(a3) The “agent” is defined by an omniscient 3rd-person perspective that isn’t really any particular “person’s” perspective at all — eg, nature.

[C] Some clarificatory notes: In the case of (g1), the “agent” herself ascribes a “desirable-status” or “undesirable-status” upon something in the world, sometimes even reflexively upon her own self. According to (g1) then, what the “agent” herself finds desirable is what is “good” and what is undesirable is what is “bad.” Now, in the case of (g2), the “agent” has herself become the object under scrutiny — ie, the quality of the agent is what is being assessed with the word “good” or “bad.” In the case of (g3), the quality of the agent’s environment is what’s being assessed. More could be said about how the quality of these things are assessed, but I will leave that for another day. [Based on what I’ve already written here, it’s pretty intuitive anyways.]

Okay, now, with these distinctions made, it’s easier to talk about what’s going on in Lawrence’s paper.

◊ Case #1: Lawrence notes that some philosophers — eg, Glassen — suppose that Aristotle is mistaken in presuming that a good man is one who is disposed to reasoning well. Lawrence cites Glassen’s objection: “there can be no doubt that Aristotle did confuse the notion of the goodness of with the notion of the good of man” (1957, p.322).”

Now, I have read the particular paper by Glassen to which Lawrence alludes. And I wonder whether Lawrence has grasped Glassen’s question accurately.

Glassen himself writes: “The good of man [g2], Aristotle has told us, is the final goal of man’s actions [ultimate g1], it is what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else [ie, pleasure]. Granting that the function of a good man [g2] is activity of soul in accordance with excellence, how does it follow that the final goal of man’s actions [ultimate g1] is just this function [g2]? How does it follow that what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else is activity of soul in accordance with excellence? This activity of soul may be the final goal of man’s actions, but that it is so certainly does not follow from Aristotle’s premises.” (A Fallacy in Aristotle’s Argument about the Good, p.320)

[D] Two more terms to keep track of at this point:
• (ultimate-g1) means “the final goal of man’s actions”
• (p) means “what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else”

[E] I think that Glassen’s point is that Aristotle falsely presumes (g1)⊂(g2) — ie, all successful persons are respectable persons, and there is no successful person who is not respectable. And then Glassen suggests a slightly different alternative, namely (g1)→(g2) — ie, that some successful persons may be respectable, but some successful persons may not be respectable. And finally, Glassen questions why/how “activity of soul in accordance with excellence” must necessarily be the “final” (g1) for everyone.

[F] One additional thing to note about Glassen’s challenge: Glassen doesn’t question whether “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is (g2) or not, though he simply grants that it is. But I think this should be questioned as well, if we’re to answer why/how “activity of soul in accordance with excellence” must necessarily be the “final” (g1) for everyone.

Now, there’s actually lots of things going on here. But I’ll just jump right in and sort through the clutter as I go.

[G] The last question that Glassen asks was: why/how “activity of soul in accordance with excellence” is necessarily everybody’s final goal. This is a bit like asking 3 separate questions:
Question #1. How is (p) the (ulimate-g1)?
Question #2. How is “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” a form of (p)?
Question #3. How is this particular form of (p) everybody’s (p)?

[H] Question #1. How is (p) the (ultimate-g1)? Well, the first thing to make clear is that there is an important different between (ultimate-g1) and (g1). The (ultimate-g1) is a special (g1) because it is the “final” (g1). Presumably, the difference between (ultimate-g1) and (g1) is basically that all (g1)’s ultimately conclude in the (ultimate-g1), since that is the “final” (g1). But how are we to determine what the “final” (g1) is? The test that determines whether a (g1) is truly the “final” (g1) or not is to ask whether the (g1) could defer to another (g1) or not. The (g1) in question is considered the “final” (g1) if and only if it cannot defer to yet another (g1). And so this is how (ultimate-g1) “the final goal of man’s actions” comes to be associated with (p) “what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else,” since a goal of man’s actions can only be said to be “final” if there is no further goal beyond it. Therefore, (ultimate-g1) is a form of (p). This is why Glassen wrote: “The good of man, Aristotle has told us, is the final goal of man’s actions, it is what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else.” Later, we’ll tease apart why Aristotle seems to think that (g2) is (ultimate-g1). But for now, it’s enough to make it clear that (ultimate-g1) is a form of (p). I have answered question #1.

[J] Question #2. How is “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” a form of (p)? To answer this, I must first ask what would fill the description for (p)? What sort of thing could be what is always chosen for its own sake and never for the sake of something else? I claim that “pleasure” is the best fit for this description, since pleasure is the only thing that a person could pursue for no other reason since the pleasure is itself the reason for pursuing it whenever a person does pursue it; therefore, “pleasure” is the true name for the definition of (p). As a disclaimer, what I claim here clashes directly with what Aristotle says that (p) is. Aristotle actually concludes that (p) is θεωρέω — ie, “contemplation.” But to prove me wrong, one need only show just a single case in which pleasure is chosen for any other reason. Likewise, to prove Aristotle wrong, one need only show just a single case in which “contemplation” is chosen for any other reason. Fortunately, I do have one such case to prove Aristotle wrong: it is the case when “contemplation” is chosen for the sake of its intrinsic pleasure. And I think that all the bucks stop there, for even “happiness” is pursued for the sake of its intrinsic pleasure.

[K] Next, if we take the conclusion from [H] that (ultimate-g1) is a form of (p), and combine that with the conclusion from [J] that (p) is “pleasure,” then we can say that (ultimate-g1) is a form of “pleasure.”

And so, this seems to me to be one way to begin to answer Glassen’s question concerning what the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” has to do with (ultimate-g1). That is, since (ultimate-g1) is a form of “pleasure,” then there is no sense in asking why Aristotle’s thinks that the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is intrinsically pleasant. It’s just a fact that he just does.

And so this is my answer to question #2: since Aristotle actually does find the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” to be intrinsically pleasant, it’s true that “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is a (p) for someone.

Of course, the phrase “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is ambiguous and I think that the way this is understood will make a critical difference. I will address this in the next section. But for now, let it be sufficient that I have satisfactorily answered question #2.

[L] We now turn to the final question, question #3: why must “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” be everybody’s (p) and not just Aristotle’s or the “good” man’s?

Now, I agree with Glassen that Aristotle makes a mistake somewhere, but perhaps we disagree about where he makes the mistake. Glassen thinks that not everybody needs to be “good” in the (g2) sense of “good.” I agree with him there. In fact, I might go even further than him and argue that nobody needs to be “good” in the (g2) sense, unless they want to be. But where we disagree is that I do think that “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” truly would be intrinsically pleasurable for everyone, and so I think that it would be everyone’s aim and not just a so-called “good man.” But Glassen doesn’t think so. In other words, I do think that “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is indeed everyone’s (ultimate-g1), while Glassen thinks that it could be some people’s (ultimate-g1), but there is no reason to think that it must be everyone’s.

It’s possible that Glassen and I disagree because of what we each take to be the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence.” And so, I think that this is where it helps to unpack some of what this “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” might be about.

As I might have said earlier, Aristotle takes the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” to be θεωρέω (based on what Aristotle himself says in the Nicomachean Ethics), which translates into “contemplation” in English. Presumably, Glassen understands the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” to be the same thing as Aristotle does. Well, this is like saying that my vocation as the Queen of England is the best vocation to have — and not only just for me, but for everyone regardless of their personal interests or talents. Not only is this sort of thinking elitist and hierarchical, but it’s just downright arrogant to think so. So, if this is what is meant by “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence,” then I agree with Glassen in thinking that a life of “contemplation” need not be everybody’s ultimate goal in life. But I don’t think that this is what the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is. And so, I disagree with Glassen.

[M] I take “activity of soul in accordance with excellence” to mean something like: the progression of a life-story (or biography if you will) in the most genuine and authentic way as possible. I understand it this way because I take a “soul” to be a “life-story,” and I take “excellence” in the context of a soul to mean “most-genuine,” and “most-authentic.” (Note: In Republic 357b-c, Socrates talks about the relationship between justice, pleasure, and benefits. And at 353d, Socrates says explicitly that the excellence of a soul is “justice.”)

Understood in this way, I don’t see why “what men always choose for itself and never for the sake of something else” is not necessarily the “activity of soul in accordance with excellence.” That is, I don’t see why there is not necessarily an intrinsic pleasure in every case in which “the progression of one’s own life-story occurs in the most genuine and authentic way possible.” Furthermore, I think that there is actually an intrinsic pain in the progression of a life-story precisely because the life-story wasn’t permitted to proceed in the most genuine and authentic way possible. And one of the things that prevent a life-story to proceed in the most genuine and authentic way possible is self-ignorance. Self-ignorance causes pain to ourselves, but also sometimes to our friends. In our own self-ignorance, we sometimes hinder and prevent our friends from doing what is natural and genuine and authentic for them — and in doing so, we cause them, and ourselves, pain.

What I say is supported by Republic, in Book 9 at 590c-d, where Socrates says that “it is better for everyone to be ruled by a divine and wise ruler — preferably one that is his own and that he has inside himself…” And also in Book 10 at 620d-e, in the Myth of Er, it is said that each soul prior to being reborn chooses a life for itself. And one of the three Fates, Lachesis, assigns to each soul “the daimon it had chosen, as guardian of its life and fulfiller of its choices.”

And so now, I have answered question #3 in some way. I believe that I have shown how it certainly does follow from Socratic/Platonic premises (though, perhaps not Aristotle’s premises) that the “activity of the soul in accordance with excellence” is the “final goal” for all and every agent with a life-story.

[L] I actually have one final concern that I want to address here, regarding Glassen. (I’ll have to continue the other things that I wanted to say about Lawrence’s paper in tomorrow’s post.) It pertains to this particular sentence: “Granting that the function of a good [emphasis added] man is activity of the soul in accordance with excellence, how does it follow that the final goal of man’s actions is just this function?”

If I read Glassen’s in one particular way, he seems to be saying that not everyone is a “good” man in the (g2) sort of sense. He seems to be accusing Aristotle of thinking that everyone needs to be a “good” man in the (g2) sense, and that everyone also wants to be a “good” man in the (g2) sense. Presumably, Glassen thinks that it’s perfectly fine if some folks are (g2) and some folks are not (g2). I agree with Glassen on this one, given what I sort of thing that (g2) is.

Or, perhaps this is because Glassen thinks that not everyone needs to live “excellently.” It’s enough if some may live excellently, and some do not live excellently. But, I wonder if this would be correct…

I don’t know what Aristotle would say, but my hunch is Socratic, and I think that everyone can live in the most genuine and authentic way as possible, and that in fact, everyone does want to live in the most genuine and authentic way as possible, and finally, that it’s realistic to think that we could and should build a world in which all people can and do live in the most genuine and authentic way as possible. Of course, what concrete forms all of this takes is not “set in stone” by Socrates; he only provides the forms in an abstract sense. I’m not as dogmatic about it as Aristotle seems to be. I’m willing to take inspiration from wherever the Muses happen to direct my attention.

[M] What is (g2)? Recall what I said that it was from [A]: “The “good” agent is judged as being (ἔμμεναι) “respectable” or “pleasing” (ἐσθλός).” And recall what sort of agent is “good” in the (g2) way from [B]: “The “agent” is defined by one or more highly opinionated 2nd-person perspective(s) — eg, convention.”

I don’t think that anyone needs to be defined by a convention. I don’t think that a genuine and authentic life-story could require that one be defined by “highly opinionated 2nd-person perspectives” as being “good” or “bad.” Furthermore, I think that Socrates/Plato would say (based on what he says in Protagoras) that “becoming” (g2) is not something “difficult,” but rather something “impossible” — for, one cannot strive to fit into a mold that is a non-existent illusion; one would have to become a non-existent illusion herself. If I were ever to care about what other people thought about me (as distinguished from what other people might do to me), then it would have to be a special sort of person whose opinion mattered to me. But even in that case, if I were to ever care about what someone else thought about me, it’s not because their opinion is what matters to me but because they are someone who matters to me. I know that we don’t always get to choose who we care about; love cannot be commanded. But I should hope that I’d be fortunate and blessed enough to care about someone who respects me and wants me to be just as I am, genuine and authentic.

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