Aristotle’s concept of happiness

In the Nicomachaean Ethics, Aristotle writes that happiness “is not a disposition” and “we must rather class happiness as an activity.” This doubtless sounds odd to many people, but the word has many meanings, and we’re looking at a translation (in this case, by W. D. Ross) from the Greek. The original word was probably “eudaemonia,” for which “happiness” is only a rough equivalent. “Good living” might be more accurate. Further on he writes that “the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life is therefore also the happiest.”

He is careful to distinguish happiness from pleasure and amusement. “The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.” Specifically, it’s the exertion of the mind, because our reasoning capacity is the most important thing about us. It’s desirable in itself, not for the sake of some further goal.

This is an attractive thought, that the process understanding is the best thing. At the same time, there’s something passive about it. The best thing for Aristotle is the contemplative life, the life of the philosopher. He thought he had the best job in the world, and that’s not a bad thing. But it lacks something in engagement with the world. Reason may be our most distinctive characteristic, but we’re beings of both body and mind.

Aristotle lived in a time when people hadn’t fully developed the idea of reason as a means to improving the human condition. Archimedes lived about a century later and was one of the people who advanced the use of reason for practical purposes. The important point which Aristotle made is that happiness (or the good life) comes from thinking, not from pursuing physical pleasures, and that it’s active, not passive. It’s necessary to understand this much before discovering all its practical applications.

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Saying thank you

Libertarians, myself included, are much better at pointing out wrongs than expressing appreciation for rights. There have been a lot of occasions when I’ve felt sad about lack of encouraging feedback for things I’ve done, and doubtless others often feel the same.

This summer I got a box of greeting cards with art featuring cats from the Museum of Fine Arts. Since I rarely send personal communications on paper these days, it had just been sitting there. On my way home from vacation, I passed through Lebanon, NH, reminding me of the Kilton Library’s decision to stand up to Homeland Security intimidation and set up a Tor Network node. I wrote a short note on one of the cards, simply thanking them for their decision.

Yesterday I learned that author James Sallis was forced to resign from Phoenix College rather than take a state-required loyalty oath. This reminded me of my own experience with Harvard, where I was put under pressure to agree to a “confidentiality policy” that included a blanket prohibition on reporting illegal activity. In my case my job wasn’t endangered, but I was told other employees were required to agree to it. I sent Sallis an e-mail thanking him for the integrity of his choice and got an appreciative reply.

When people get encouragement for making the right choices they’re more likely to do it again, and that benefits me too.

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Tolerance is unpopular with some people. We hear institutions bragging that they have “zero tolerance” policies, which means that they punish even the most trivial infractions with full force. People say you shouldn’t “tolerate the intolerant.” (Then should you tolerate people who are intolerant of intolerance?) Threats of violence seem to have become common currency on the Internet.

A lot of people measure their own tolerance by how civil they are to people whom others don’t like, but this misses the point. The measure of your tolerance is how you treat people you don’t like. If you say you’re tolerant of people whose skin color is different from yours, that’s a pretty poor thing. It says you aren’t really happy with their appearance, but you’re willing to put up with it. If you’ve grown up in a culture where it’s a reflex to dislike people who look different, you might have to go through a period of tolerating differences before you’re comfortable with them, but it’s better still to get past the dislike and reach the point where mere tolerance isn’t necessary.

Poster for D. W. Griffith's movie 'Intolerance'When a friend went trans almost two decades ago, it made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t think the worse of her/him for it, but I had to work my way through understanding it. You might say I had to be tolerant of what he was going through (not of him). I was able to work past the discomfort, so it no longer makes sense to say I “tolerate” trans people. On the other hand, Mike Huckabee’s remarks about wanting to pretend to be transgender to get into girls’ locker rooms really sicken me, so I have to exercise tolerance if the occasion arises; I shouldn’t tear up his campaign signs (not even inexpensive ones) or spit on his campaign volunteers. It’s better to ask pointed questions, such as whether he thinks that people who falsely call in sick invalidate concern for people who are actually ill.

Being tolerant doesn’t mean being uncritical. If people hold views that you think are wrong, tolerance says you shouldn’t abuse or intimidate them. It doesn’t say you shouldn’t point out that they’re wrong, even in forceful terms, provided your criticism is reasoned and based on the facts.

The value of tolerance is that it lets people with different views live together in peace. It doesn’t mean that they have to compromise with ideas that they consider seriously wrong, but that they should favor debate over denunciation and intimidation.

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What we can learn from Phil Robertson

Let’s make a few things clear at the start. I don’t want Phil Robertson censored. I don’t want him to lose his job. If someone acts on his claims and kills people, it’s the murderer’s fault, not Robertson. In fact, I think we can learn something from his words, in a perverse way. Here’s what he said:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say ‘something about this just ain’t right.’

Phil Robertson (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Well, yes, something about that would not be right. The same thing would not be right if fanatics broke into Robertson’s home, claimed that Christians say there’s no right or wrong, and raped and murdered his family. But the clear implication is that the atheist would be wrong, that in fact there is no right or wrong if the target of violence doesn’t believe a deity exists.

I wanted to make sure I was understanding Robertson correctly, knowing how distorted media accounts can get. It was conceivable his next words were, “Of course something about this ain’t right. People don’t stop being human just because they don’t belong to your religion.” However, I haven’t found any claims that his words were ripped out of context. I did find a defense of Robertson by someone named John Nolte. This piece calls the denunciations of Robertson “ignorant” and “bigoted.” Nolte says Robertson was making “a perfectly valid point about a Godless world in which there is no Ten Commandments and by extension no basis to judge right from wrong.” This clarifies an important point: the scenario applies not just to atheists but to anyone who doesn’t have a belief system that includes Moses. He could equally well have talked about raping and killing a “little Hindu wife” or “little Buddhist daughters.”

I don’t think he’d act on that principle and murder unbelievers, but there are people who do just that, for the reasons he gave. They kidnap, torture, and kill on the principle that anyone who doesn’t recognize their form of religious authority falls outside all moral consideration. Robertson points to the Bible as his revealed moral authority, and Islamic State and Boko Haram point to the Quran, but there’s no way to decide which is the “true” one.

Robertson and IS believe that humans are incapable of moral knowledge on their own and that anyone who doesn’t follow divine authority doesn’t count as a human being. For Muslim fanatics, this applies even to people who don’t hold their exact interpretation of the Quran; they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims. There’s no need to feel moral doubt while committing mass murder, since apart from God’s orders there is no right or wrong.

It’s an escape from personal responsibility. The people who accept this view don’t have to bear the burden of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. By accepting that they’re incapable of independent moral judgment and have to follow divine orders, they escape the need to think and the risk of doubt. The ones who take up violence literally would rather die than think.

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Requests vs. demands

When people in the filk community need help, I sometimes try to help out, by assisting personally, providing money, or publicizing the situation. The community and the people in it are important to me, and I believe in voluntary assistance as a matter of good will. Once in a great while, though, I’ll see a request containing a statement that amounts to: “I shouldn’t really have to ask for this. I should get it from the government as a matter of entitlement.” When it’s put in those terms, it becomes a demand, and I ignore it.

Offering help is a transaction, but the price I ask isn’t high; it’s simply the recognition that I acted freely out of good will and out of recognition of the recipient’s value. Or to put it more simply, gratitude and respect for my autonomy. Anyone who claims to be entitled to my money is saying I’m just a cash source to tap.

It isn’t a deal-killer if you just think you’re entitled to my money. I might enjoy shocking you by showing that people are willing to help without a gun pointed at their heads. But if I think you’ll interpret my help as recognition of your claim upon me, forget it. I’m not the Bishop of Digne.

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Bad Cupid!

A recent statement on OKCupid’s blog unapologetically shows its contempt for its users. According to their own statement, “we took pairs of bad matches (actual 30% match) and told them they were exceptionally good for each other (displaying a 90% match.) Not surprisingly, the users sent more first messages when we said they were compatible.” They intentionally misinformed users, they observed that users acted on the misinformation, and rather than apologizing, OKCupid founder Christian Rudder is bragging:

We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook “experimented” with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.

For Rudder, dishonesty is the norm. It’s “how websites work.” Annoying and intrusive as Facebook’s manipulation of its feeds may have been, it’s unlikely to have inflicted real harm on anyone. OKCupid, on the other hand, subverted its primary purpose just to see what would happen.

On Salon’s website, Andrew Leonard points out why OKCupid’s “experiment” is contemptible:

There’s a big different between straightforward A/B testing — presenting two different versions of a site to different groups of users in order to see what works better — and consciously presenting false information or otherwise skewing emotionally laden data. One is completely acceptable tinkering designed to improve usability, while the other is irresponsible behavior that treats human beings like lab rats and their emotions as play toys.

Not that I’d expect anything better from the company that led the witch hunt against Brendan Eich. Maybe that started out as just an “experiment” too?

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Be virtuous, or else

The reasons people support power and coercion can be easy to understand. They want something somebody else has. They’re looking for the favor of the powerful. They can pursue their violent inclinations. They feel safer from real or imagined dangers. But when they feel virtuous about it, it can be harder for libertarians to understand. Why do some people want to kill those who disagree with their notion of God? Why do others want to take away people’s freedom to decide whom they’ll do business with? And why do they feel they’re better people for pushing these things?

There are lots of contributing factors. One which comes to my mind right now is the belief that you can force people to be virtuous. If you can make people be good, that’s a good thing, right? It’s possible, of course, to make people do things, if the alternative is going to jail or worse. But can doing this really them better? (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, what “better” really means.) Can force and threats make people believe in somebody’s ideal and live by it? The answer isn’t a clear “no.”

There’s something in many minds that equates power with moral authority. Signs in stores say “It’s not just wrong, it’s illegal,” presenting penalties as a higher standard than mere rightness. Punishment can induce a sense of guilt, not just fear. It’s as if people equate the humiliation of being overpowered with the humiliation of wrongdoing. In the extreme case there’s “Stockholm syndrome,” in which people take the side of those who hold power over them.

This has to be related to social pressure and tribalism. In an earlier post, I wrote about social pressure as a substitute for argument. Being afraid of disapproval, people pretend to themselves to accept what they think is the dominant view. Fear of punishment works much the same way, and if people imagine they believe something, then eventually they’ll start really believing it.

It makes a difference whether people see authority as part of their own group or not. Prisoners of war don’t often feel guilty of being on the wrong side, unless their captors are expert at brainwashing. Clever authorities play the good cop-bad cop game, acting as if they could be friends instead of punishing you. These tricks let authority seem less like an enemy and more like a “big brother.”

The exercise of power really can change people’s standards. The problem is that it can promote any standard, whether it’s good or horrible. Boko Haram uses brutal power to spread the idea that education is evil and rape is good. In a “debate” based on force, it’s the side with better armaments, not better arguments, that wins.

But when people decide they’re right anyway and don’t need reasons, force looks like an attractive option. They forget that the only way they can know they’re right is to use the best reasoning possible, or perhaps they never knew it. If a bludgeon can beat sense into people, they think, why not use it?

Jefferson and slavery

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, on the Smithsonian Magazine website, is a really depressing piece. It documents convincingly that in the years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson changed from an opponent of slavery to an upholder of the system.

Some people will use this article to attack the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, but nothing he did can detract from that document. The history raises troubling questions, though, about how someone can proclaim an ideal so eloquently and then betray it. I’m reminded of these lines from Atlas Shrugged:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you choose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else — that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

It’s particularly dangerous when people’s actions conflict with their principles — or perhaps better put, when the principles they act on conflict with the ones they declare. People don’t like to be hypocrites, so they have to change either their ideas or their actions. Nothing says a priori that it’s their ideas they should stick to; lots of people have horrible political or religious ideas but are quite decent in daily life (at least within their tribe). Either way, though, the contradictions people hold weaken and may corrupt them. They may resolve them for the better or the worse. Too often, they compromise their principles one small step at a time in order to excuse what they’re doing.

Where does this leave us as admirers of Jefferson? We can still greatly honor the Jefferson of 1776, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the eloquent defender of freedom. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that his later actions betrayed his earlier ideals and not excuse them. Complete integrity in people is sadly rare.

A moral puzzle, and a solution

On Saturday I went to the Hannaford supermarket with a coupon giving me $7 off a purchase of $75 or more. Among the items I got were two boxes of cat litter. At the register, the clerk started out by putting those two boxes in the bottom basket of my cart. I started to say it would be inconvenient for me to lift them from down there to my car, but he interrupted me to explain that he’d be able to scan them from there. It was a tiny issue, so I didn’t press the point.

The total came to $75 and a little change. Though I hadn’t been totaling my purchases, I’d made a rough estimate of a higher amount, and expressed my surprise to the clerk that I’d qualified for the coupon by such a tight margin.

On the way home I started wondering if he’d actually scanned the kitty litter, so I looked over the receipt. He hadn’t, which explained why the total was lower than I expected. So now the question was whether I should go back to the store and make up the shortfall.

Initially I was inclined not to. First, I’d be creating a lot of fuss for a small item. Either I’d have to haul the two 20-pound boxes back, or I’d have to get someone to go to the shelf and re-scan the item. This would create an inconvenience for the employees dealing with it, or to put it another way, a labor cost for the store, since they probably don’t deal with such a situation often. Second, the clerk’s name was on the receipt, and the mistake would look bad on his record, so I’d likely generate more resentment than appreciation. Third, I wasn’t at fault; I reacted to the clerk’s odd procedure and mentioned that the total was surprisingly low.

Still, these seemed like inadequate excuses. Besides, there was a way to avoid the problems! On Sunday I drove back, put the two boxes into a shopping cart, and went into the store. No one was going to pay attention to someone sneaking merchandise into the place. I picked up a couple of other items while I was there and went to the checkout, where I paid for everything. The books are balanced and no one got annoyed.

What would you call that, shopdropping? Anyway, I’m rather pleased with how the strategy worked out.

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Evil, sociopathic and sociable

This is a response to Cat Faber’s song “Sociopaths,” on her new album The King’s Lute. I recommend the album, especially the title song, the very funny “All Your Songs Are Belong to Us” with Mary Crowell’s unmistakable touch on the piano, the 3-against-2 counterpoint of “Common Ground,” and the calm affirmation of “Atheist’s Anthem.”

It’s not that I dislike “Sociopaths,” but it’s an excellent springboard for discussion, and I hope there will be some. The song (which can be found in full in the PDF lead sheet songbook) begins:

Emotions are catching, I’m sad when you cry,
You’re cheered by the joy in a sparkling eye.
Sympathy sways us like music so clear,
That four in a hundred can’t hear.

So they no more can share in your pain or your glee
Than a deaf child can hear or a blind child can see.
Human their seeming, their speaking, their stride,
But they’re not really human inside.

The song goes on to compare such people to the Fae, the version of the “fair folk” who live by their glamour and have no sympathy for humans. There are certainly people who by the makeup of their brains are much less empathetic than most of us, perhaps not at all. But such people are nonetheless human and can’t be exempted from moral responsibility.

Conversely, destructive behavior isn’t proof of that condition any more than illiteracy is proof of a reading disorder. The last lines give these three signs of a sociopath: “Duty neglected, however it cries — Promises broken, and lies.” These, though, usually are just the signs of someone who’s trying to live by getting away with deception. It’s a learned approach to life, born of a desire for the unearned, emulation of bad examples, or refusal to acknowledge the consequences of one’s actions.

Few people are born as inhuman monsters. Many learn to ignore the reality of what they’re doing. Many populations in history, not just the “four in a hundred,” have learned to accept huge evils without blinking. Even if Hitler was a sociopath, he would have been just another beer hall bully without the support of millions of “normal” people. The contagious of emotions also applies to hostile ones, and if people follow them without thinking, they can become a destroying mob. When evil becomes socially acceptable, it may be the person who is less swayed by others’ emotions who recognizes what’s wrong.

The positive side of this is that people can make others better by the examples they set; doing good is also contagious. Every example of integrity and honesty can encourage the people who see it to do the same. When a bit of nonsense is repeated over and over, one person saying “no” to it can have an impact. If you assume that the people who do bad things are inherently not human, then there’s no redeeming them, but people always have a choice, even if it’s harder for some than for others to recognize what they’re doing.