Sunday, June 12, 2011

Defining Good

Life as a Standard of Value

"Cogito ergo sum" translates to "I think therefore I am." This is the basic philosophical premise that Descartes started off with nearly 400 years ago, and remains the foundation for all philosophy. It posits that the mere fact that I am thinking right now is proof that my mind exists. That I am alive. This is the only certainty in the universe. Since life is the only thing that we can be certain of, it follows naturally that things that keep us alive are good and things that kill us are bad. Human life is the standard of value.

In a 1973 essay, Theodosius Dobzhansky said that "nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." What this means is that since evolution is the preeminent theory through which all empirical data in biology is to be evaluated, biology is essentially completely random and arbitrary  without it. Since morality is a subset of the study of how the mind works, it falls into the large umbrella of biology. Thus we can accept the theory of evolution as a basic premise of morality.

The human body has evolved to keep us alive and proliferate our DNA, and our brain represents our primary tool of survival. Over thousands of generations, our brain has developed a very complex system of heuristics in order to keep us alive. Generally speaking, those things that are pleasurable are perceived that way in the brain because they are helpful to our chances of surviving and reproducing; on the flip side, those things that are painful are perceived that way because they hurt our chances of survival and replication. That which makes us happy has evolved that way to improve our chances of survival. These are imperfect mechanisms however, and in order to be adaptable in the variety of environments that humans can live; from the arctic tundra where the Inuit reside to the Amazon rain forest where the Ache live and everywhere in between; humans have developed a rational mind that can determine when things that feel good are actually detrimental to survival and when things that feel bad may be beneficial.

With me so far? Good. So since the rational mind is an individual's primary means of survival, reason must be held as the tool with which all things in this world are to be evaluated. Our perception of happiness and fulfillment has evolved to keep us alive, so a rational application of the mind toward the end of achieving happiness for oneself and more importantly for one's kids is an individual's moral imperative.

Achievement as the Path to Happiness

Above we've established that achieving happiness is virtuous, but this is not prescriptive unless we outline how to achieve happiness. Here we're defining happiness as a long term state of well being, not as a short term emotion. It is a Boolean, meaning that you are either happy or unhappy, and there is no relative measure of happiness. The relative discussion of happiness applies only to people who are unhappy, i.e. not self actualizing in the sense that Abraham Maslow describes it. 

Have you ever heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? It is an attempt to define human motivation, and just as earlier I pointed to the theory of evolution as the preeminent theory of biology, I am going to accept Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at least in the general sense, as the preeminent theory of human motivation. In the linked wikipedia page above, there is mention of this idea of "self-transcendence," which was not included in Maslow's original hierarchy of needs, and I reject its inclusion, although its inclusion does not really change this discussion, as achievement is still a prerequisite to transcendence.

The first four levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs; physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, and esteem; are known as deficiency needs. Basically what this means is that these four needs have to be met at a basic level before happiness is possible. What's interesting about this is that most people consider these four needs as the only requirements for happiness, which is why most people are not happy. While the deficiency needs are prerequisites in order to go after self actualization, it is this fifth need that needs to be met in order to achieve happiness.

Self actualization loosely translates to "fulfilling one's potential." This is not some woo woo concept of destiny as much as it is about finding something that you love and becoming the best you can at it. For some people this will be about curing cancer. For others, it may be about athletic achievement, or writing a novel, or any number of other things. Some people may never achieve their goals, but happiness is more about the process of going after an actualized version of yourself than actually achieving it. When Stephen Hawking said that "we should seek the greatest value for our action," he was referring to self actualization.

Maslow said that "most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization. He labeled this the psychopathology of normality. When you see mention on this blog of people "settling" for mediocrity, I am referring to this psychopathology. In other words, a person who settles is someone who chooses to not self-actualize, but rather to accept the condition of an unactualized self. Someone who chooses to accept unhappiness.

On Coercion and Force

Why is freedom so valuable? Since each individual must evaluate what is an appropriate course of action for himself with his own mind; as these decisions can potentially mean life or death; coercive action that forces one to do or not do something is a threat to his life, and should be treated as such. Since it is immoral to threaten someone else's right to life (as life is the primary standard of value), it is immoral to force others into or out of any action. Force is the only defense against force, and as a defense is the only time when force is morally acceptable. Any attempt by someone else to force you to do something that you do not want to do must be met by force.


  1. I like the new tune you are singin =)

  2. Haha thanks, but this is not a new tune, I think that in general we share a very similar concept of morality. Where we differ, and where I think Ayn Rand is wrong (which is why I avoid the label of "Objectivist") is when we go from morality to political theory. I think she missed a couple of fundamental elements, and thus came to the wrong conclusions about government from her moral premise. Stay tuned.

  3. You lost me somewhere around "human life is the standard of value". Is there anything further to support that, or is it an assertion you are personally making?