Happiness Studies

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 31st, 2008

I was reading an interesting article in Prospect magazine by Adam Phillips on the issue of teaching happiness in schools (subscription only). When I talk to people, I am normally met with the assumption that the pursuit of happiness is beyond doubt. Epicurus appears to have been more pursuasive than his reputation. An amusing quote that was cited by the article:

A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy. Marshall Sahlins

One good point was made that to instruct happiness is difficult since it varies between people and may be counter to the other objectives of education.

“Be happy” might be a paradoxical injunction like “Be spontaneous”; if you do it you are not doing it, and if you are not doing it you are doing it.

Anti Citizen One

Subconscious Learning

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 28th, 2008

Interesting news from the New Scientist which tells of a demonstration of unconscious learning and therefore knowledge that cannot be linguistically expressed.

Also of interest is a piece in Scientific American on the honesty of people being compromised after being told there is no such thing as free will. But strictly speaking this doesn’t mean free will is true – it is just certain ideas might cause good or bad behavior.

The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often![…] Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses. Scientific American

As FN said:

[…] delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation […] Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. The Gay Science, 107.

Guess what book I am reading?

Anti Citizen One

Floods of News Items

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 14th, 2008

Several very interesting news items:

“A federal judge says the University of California can deny course credit to applicants from Christian high schools whose textbooks declare the Bible infallible and reject evolution.” Interesting state and religion issue. SFGATE

UK Government proposes wide reaching surveillance powers to investigate … well anything. I expect we will soon be given a helpful reminder by an anonymous camera operator when I forget to turn the oven off. I am now thinking the balance of power to the government from the individual is getting extreme. Individual rights are fraying at the edges and are almost torn apart. PCPRO

China: where an application to hold a protest is met with arrest for “disturbing social order”. BBC

Interesting piece on atheism in the US – The Guardian

And a subscription only news item, the New Scientist had a issue exploring the boundaries of reason. I have not finished reading all of it yet!


BBC: Call to adopt UK Bill of Rights

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 11th, 2008

The government should adopt a Bill of Rights for the UK, a cross-party committee of MPs and peers has urged. BBC

I cautiously welcome this idea but I hold many reservations. If the present UK government has such a feeble grasp of human rights, how can they hope to advance this cause?

Building on existing protections is a noble aspiration which will be difficult to fulfil as long as so many other politicians denigrate our existing Bill of Rights – the Human Rights Act – in thought, word and deed. Shami Chakrabarti

Review: Hume’s Principles of Morals

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 11th, 2008

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume

After reading his work “Concerning Human Understanding”, I was eager to see if Hume had any insight into morality. He previously pointed out the is-ought problem and I did wonder how Hume could overcome this limitation to say anything useful on morality. His primary argument is to avoid the question of the basis of morality and describe everyday morality and how might might have arisen. Hume argues people judge morality based on public utility (utilitarianism as far as I can tell) and sentiment.

Usefulness is agreeable, and engages our approbation. This is a matter of fact, confirmed by daily observation. But, USEFUL? For what? For somebody’s interest, surely. Whose interest then? Not our own only: For our approbation frequently extends farther. It must, therefore, be the interest of those, who are served by the character or action approved of… (Par 177)

This descriptive ethical approach is partly true but also partly false. To some extent, people held in high regard have provided some service to the public. Typical is the award of titles to those providing public service. But other public figures are rewarded for being a social parasite – this applies to celebrity culture. Also not all people who make moral judgments fit into Hume’s model. One man is called a freedom fighter and also a terrorist. Hume does not seem to address diversity of opinion.

Hume observes the praise given to acts of public benefit, both for their intended outcome and also for their actual outcome.

For a like reason, the tendencies of actions and characters, not their real accidental consequences, are alone regarded in our more determinations or general judgements; though in our real feeling or sentiment, we cannot help paying greater regard to one whose station, joined to virtue, renders him really useful to society […] In morals too, is not the tree known by the fruit? (Par 185 Footnote)

But any great enterprise requires a degree of risk. It is said “the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success”. So an unsuccessful pioneer is bad, a successful pioneer is good? It seems so arbitrary – but Hume is attempting to describe how morality works in the majority of people.

This point on the majority of people’s morality is not far from the truth. Epicurus claimed the purpose of life was the pursuit of happiness. Nietzsche also claimed most people made moral judgments by condemning threatening forces (ressentiment).

Hume repeatedly claims his argument is true because it is a “reasonable presumption”. His assumptions and over-generalisations did begin to wear me down. A key example is this:

All men, it is allowed, are equally desirous of happiness; but few are successful in the pursuit… (Par 196)

How can he, of all people, claim that all a group have a particular property without observing them ALL? The statement is also untrue. Many humans seem to want unhappiness by their choices that will tend to bring them pain and misery.

All men are equally liable to pain and disease and sickness; and may again recover health and ease. (Par 200 Footnote 3)

Again, we only have to look around us to see not all men are equally liable to sickness. Someone who is at death’s door cannot be said to be equally liable to recover than someone who merely stubs his toe!

Although Hume resists making statements on what ought to be good and evil, he finally succumbs in the conclusion.

And though the philosophical truth of any proposition by no means depends on its tendency to promote the interests of society; yet a man has but a bad grace, who delivers a theory, however true, which, he must confess, leads to a practice dangerous and pernicious. Why rake into those corners of nature which spread a nuisance all around? Why dig up the pestilence from the pit in which it is buried? (Par 228)

He admits himself that a theory – even a “true” theory – should be disregarded if it is “dangerous and pernicious”! And, even though he denies it on the first line, he implies that a theory is good if it promotes the interests of society…

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. But at least Hume is direct in his arguments.

It is trivial to observe that to condemn an act because it is “pernicious”, he is saying either “you should do X because Y is true” (and violate his own is-ought principle) or even the tautological “you should not do X because X is evil (i.e. X is something you should not do)”!

Amusingly, he goes on to say anyone who disagrees with him is obviously a bit weird.

I must confess that, if a man think that this reasoning much requires an answer, it would be a little difficult to find any which will to him appear satisfactory and convincing. If his heart rebel not against such pernicious maxims, if he feel no reluctance to the thoughts of villainy or baseness, he has indeed lost a considerable motive to virtue; and we may expect that this practice will be answerable to his speculation. (Par 233)

He here condemns someone’s disagreement because it is “villainy or baseness” BUT what “villainy” and “baseness” are is currently the subject under discussion!

This book predates existentialism by about a century. I think Hume would have been a great existential philosopher but he did not make the conceptual leap. To that branch of philosophy, this book does not qualify as philosophy at all. I think it is more a work of anthropology since, as a description, it has some merits.

I can think of several more objections but it is almost too depressing for me to attack Hume. I will just leave it to the debunker-king Nietzsche to spell out his objection:

The most general formula on which every religion and morality is founded is: “Do this and that, refrain from this and that — and then you will be happy! And if you don’t…” Every morality, every religion, is based on this imperative; I call it the original sin of reason, the immortal unreason. In my mouth, this formula is changed into its opposite — the first example of my “revaluation of all values.” An admirable human being, a “happy one,” instinctively must perform certain actions and avoid other actions… (Twilight of the Idols)

I needed this as an antidote after that book!

Anti Citizen One

Alexander Solzhenitsyn RIP

Posted by on August 5th, 2008

The Russian literary giant (and Nobel Prize Laureate) Alexander Solzhenitsyn passed away this week at the age of 89. Famed for being a dissident in the Soviet Union his star shone so brightly across the world that the authorities dared not harm him but forced him into western exile. An idealistic communist his criticisms of western capitalist decadence shocked many of his supporters, and on his eventual return to post-soviet Russia he once again regained the mantle of being the spokesperson for the russian national conscience.

Much has been written about him and many eulogies are available on the internet, so I will add no more. I shall simply quote from his seminal and epic work “The Gulag Archipelego” this short existential meditation on good and evil – a conundrum that he insists we all face – and a conundrum which many posts on this blog explores.

‘If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner? …

‘If only it was so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.

But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?’

Owen Matthews has written an excellent article on Solzhenitsyn for todays Daily Mail, which is well worth a read (particularly for the uninitiated). As well as the philosophical quote from above he reminds us of a more political point made by Solzhenitsyn – and one that I think transcends nations, eras and ideologies and is applicable to all governments and peoples.

He saw himself as a prophet not just for Russia but for all mankind, and in his later years turned to denouncing the corruptions of Russia’s chaotic brand of freedom and the dangers of liberalism.

But for all his unfashionable conservatism, he believed adamantly in the value of human dignity – and that a state abdicated all moral authority to order society if it abused its citizens.