Thursday, 14 January 2010

Had another awesome political philosophy class, although I couldn't believe some of the contributed dialogue that was going on today.

At one point, the class discussion circled around what happiness meant and whether wealth is an important factor to being happy. In the midst of it all, one dude suddenly barged in aggressively insisting that this entire discussion is bollocks because there is no real/universal/objective conception of what happiness means. My happiness, he smugly argues, is different from your happiness. Therefore we shouldn't bother to ponder it at all.

What. A. Complete. Utter. Cop out.

Thankfully, our professor socked it to him (and he did so quite brilliantly I must add, amazingly done in the most calm and humble of ways). Seriously, if one shouldn't bother thinking about something just because it fails to have 'objective' value that can be agreed upon, why bother joining a class on philosophy?


Christine said...

But isn't that the trouble with relativism? In a way, he's right - if a person claims that there isn't any objective "happiness", then the most that he can do is to examine the different ways that people have found what they term as happiness. But he can't actually pursue happiness as itself because he doesn't acknowledge that it objectively exists.

How can your class answer whether wealth is an important factor for happiness unless you are already starting from a definition of happiness? It seems like it would depend entirely on what definition of happiness you have.. otherwise you would just be naming anecdotes and offering empirical data for either side.

Jose said...

Hi Christine, thanks for your comment!

Let me provide more context for the situation I've presented in the post. The discussion began first on the topic of goods (in the sense of 'the good', such as virtues or justice), and the discussion swung in the direction of how goods might be defined. Naturally, some people proposed that a good can be defined by the happiness it provides. In other words, something is a good if it contributes to the net happiness of society, for instance.

That naturally leads to economic or utilitarian arguments as to how goods might be defined, and thus wealth as a measure came into the foray. Arguments for and against this were explored, the more common ones being having money leading to financial security as a support for wealth as an indicator, and money not being able to cover all aspects of a good life as support for wealth not as an indicator.

I hope you're understanding what I'm saying in the above paragraphs, which are very truncated versions of the original situation! Thus, happiness wasn't the main topic for the day but, rather, goods were.

I agree with you - the trouble (for lack of a better word) with people who believe in relativism is indeed that they must insist that there is no objective existence of things like happiness; it is necessitated by the assumptions of their argument for a relativistic point of view. But the point of this post was to highlight my peeve with smug dismissals and perhaps even relativism itself, because it tries to cut off discussion at a rather preliminary stage and limits the chance of exploring and thinking about these issues critically.

I'm not sure if I have to convey further nuances about this particular classmate in order to emphasize my point. But I gladly welcome your input on this matter.

Anonymous said...

i'm sorry for this reply being so late!

i was wondering what you would think of this definition: a "good" as something that is wanted (at least in part) for the sake of itself*. did this come up? (and if not, why?) this definition is basically aristotle.. but it's very intuitive to me, and i find it hard to see what's wrong about it or to understand the alternatives (i don't quite see any other plausible alternatives).

happiness or wealth are odd measures to be using? happiness itself is a good, and so to define goods with happiness would be circular? i don't think aristotle meant "happiness is for the sake of itself" in quite that way. but even more than that, it's fairly common to reduce everything to a common denominator, like pleasure, for instance. the measure of the good of health is the amount of pleasure it gives you to be healthy. the measure of love is the amount of pleasure it gives you to love. but this is clearly wrong, these give pleasure but they are also good in a different way from the good of pleasure. the same argument applies to the good of happiness being different from the good of health, love, etc?

and i'm not getting the argument about wealth, but how would health or friendship be measured by wealth? if it's the amount you're willing to pay for something, or the fact that you're willing to pay, then it's desire, not wealth, that should be the measure. and we might desire "things" that are both good and bad (cigarettes! pleasure, degeneration of health) but we really only desire the good. i guess that would be another way of saying what i said earlier*, haha.

Jose said...

Hey there. :]

I do not recall all the details of the exchange, although what I definitely recall was the point of this post, which was to voice my displeasure with philosophical cop outs from a cynical skeptic's point of view. Nothing wrong with being a cynical skeptic, except that oftentimes such a dismissive approach tends to limit discussions.

So anyway, it is possible that the the useful aristotlean definiteion of goods which you raised might have been mentioned.

The reason why measures such as happiness and wealth were brought up was because the discussion was an open one. The class, conducted as a module on political philosophy, had students from faculties ranging from the social sciences to economics to business. So, when you've got students rigorously versed with economics foundations, you're bound to get reductionist definitions such as 'measurements' for goods.

Well, I do see the value involved in operationalizing a construct so that it can be scientifically analyzed. But when it comes to something like goods, put an economist or business person there and he or she will attempt to butcher it down to the point where it can be quantified but loses whatever it truly stands for.

So I guess that naturally will lead some people to become skeptical with such weak definitions of important terms, such as goods, thus leading them to think that our search for the meanings of these things are inherently futile and, thus, cop out.

To sum up, I think what you're trying to say is that definitions like wealth and happiness are bad definitions or measures for goods. To reiterate, it was never mentioned that this was proposed as the correct definitions. The discussion from multiple perspectives simply brought those into the debate, eventually leading someone to, instead of arguing in a useful direction like you have, choose to be dismissive and cop out.

That, I couldn't tolerate.