Sunday, October 26, 2014

Commentary on Waking Up by Sam Harris, part 2

On pages 12 and 13, Harris makes some good points about happiness and the variability of existence (points that are standard fare in classical philosophy) but are well-made nonetheless:

We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?... is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one's desires are gratified, in spite of life's difficulties, in the very midst of physical pin, old age, disease and death?

This is well-said, and Harris goes on to draw out the logic of the situation:

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one's desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations.

The first thing to note is that Harris is looking for merely psychological well-being. But what of well-being simpliciter? We are more than merely our psychology, and the question may be asked if psychological well-being is a good when our overall human well-being is not. Tony Soprano, for example, sought help from a psychologist to overcome his panic attacks. It turned out that treating the panic attacks involved a more comprehensive psychological analysis of Soprano's life - the life of a mafia boss and killer. Can a mob killer be "psychologically healthy" yet remain, and be comfortable with, his life of crime? This was the question that bedeviled Soprano's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and raises the question of the relationship of the psychological sciences to an evaluation of human character.

In the book Artificial Happiness, physician Ronald Dworkin discusses the widespread use of psychotropic drugs to give people a feeling of well-being they don't really deserve. While such drugs are appropriate in some cases of genuine psychological illness, they are increasingly administered to people who are simply unhappy, and often for very good reasons. They are unhappy because they have messed up their lives through poor choices, alcohol, simple irresponsibility or unfortunate circumstances (e.g. a woman staying with an abusive husband.) Their feelings of unhappiness could be a spur to a reconsideration of their lives. Instead, they seek and are sometimes granted drugs that merely make them feel better, derailing any motivation they had to change themselves or their situations. The man who can't keep a job because he's too lazy to consistently get to work on time feels just cool with that; the woman with the abusive husband abandons any plans she had to leave him and thinks things are fine because she feels content with what is going on.

Psychological well-being is not a good thing if it doesn't reflect genuine well-being. Why does Harris focus on it? It is because he is captured by the scientistic mindset that does not permit a deep philosophical analysis of human nature. Such an analysis presupposes that some views of human well-being are better than others and, even more significantly, that they can be objectively ranked through philosophical investigation. And that implies that the truth about human nature, including its end or purpose, is also a philosophically available truth. The Enlightenment tradition of which Harris is a modern exemplar holds that such truth simply isn't available to us. We can pursue "happiness", but of what happiness consists - in terms of desires and their fulfillment - isn't something that can be objectively determined. We cannot say precisely in what absolute human well-being consists; but we can at least say in what psychological well-being consists.

The classical philosopher, as exemplified by Aristotle, is not afraid to rank desires or to insist that the truth concerning human nature, including its end, is a philosophically available truth.  That truth is that man is by nature a rational animal, and that fulfillment for him involves ordering his being to reason. Psychological well-being is not the primary goal here, it is merely a by-product of a deeper transformation, a transformation of character. Well-being for man means well-being in terms of virtue. The good man (the man who is truly "well") is courageous, temperate, just and wise, all virtues conditioned by reason. Man will experience pleasure at the result - psychological well-being - but that well-being is simply delight in the true good he possesses. Pursuing psychological well-being as an end in itself is, on this view,  to mistake the by-product for the product.

Modern thinkers are wary of speaking of human nature classically understood - that is, in terms that go beyond the restrictions of science to a philosophical consideration of man as such. Psychological well-being has the advantage that it sidesteps questions of the nature of man in terms of man's end or purpose, but for that very reason, will not turn out to be what an unsatisfied man is really looking for.

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