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I got two big criticisms of my post on eudaimonia almost a year ago (how time flies when you have a blog post you’re idly poking at in your drafts), one of which is that I am basically a preference utilitarian, and one of which is that I am basically a virtue ethicist. I find these criticisms to be hilarious, mostly because someone should inform the virtue ethicists and the preference utilitarians that, by the transitive property, they are basically each other.
My position is, in fact, influenced by virtue ethics. However, I think the subtle difference is that I’m a consequentialist. Virtue ethicists want the individual to cultivate virtue/arete; I want people to cultivate arete insofar as this increases the overall amount of arete in the world. See the classic work of moral philosophy, Serenity:
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
As a utilitarian, I have to support the Operative’s general argument, although the specific better world in question is not, actually, better. (To his credit, he recognizes this by the end of the movie.) The Operative is doing evil, making himself a less virtuous person, in the service of a greater good. Conversely, I don’t think virtue ethics has a place for becoming less virtuous to increase the amount of virtue in the world; the Operative’s evil is simply evil.
The idea of doing evil to create good is a dangerous one for humans, who are– after all– rationalizing animals. It is all too easy for doing evil to simply be evil, and quite often people talk about the pressing moral dilemmas of whether they will choose to kill one to save five, ignoring that most of the time our actually existing pressing moral dilemma is whether we will bother to get off our ass and stop watching Netflix to save five. But with those caveats I do think that it is possible for me to individually become less virtuous in a way that increases the amount of virtue in the world, and thus I am not a virtue ethicist.
[Content warning: I talk about physical fitness as part of eudaimonia.]
[First Disclaimer: Unfortunately, some humans are less capable of eudaimonia than other humans; very often, this is because those people are marginalized. I would like to make it very clear that having less capability to reach eudaimonia is not the same thing as being “less of a person” or having less moral worth.]
[Second Disclaimer: discussions of the good life are at high risk of being nothing but applause lights and of ignoring dark pains and dark joys. To ameliorate the former problem, I’ve made sure to choose specific examples; I’m not sure how to ameliorate the latter without having a giant shitstorm about my examples.]
I think that physical fitness is part of a eudaimoniac life for most humans. Of course, what physical fitness caches out to is different for different people: for a yogi, it might be flexibility; for a weightlifter, being able to lift a whole lot of heavy things; for someone with a chronic illness, the ability to do a single jumping jack. If you asked me to justify this, it would probably involve a lot of references to mens sana in corpore sano and fulfilling your capabilities as best you can and and the joy of physical movement.
I used to have a whole “nerds don’t exercise, that’s a jock thing!” going on. I think that in that case my preference was simply incorrect. I guess you can argue that my preferences about physical fitness were buried inside of me– I “really” wanted to exercise regularly, even though I consciously preferred not to exercise on every single meta-level– but I feel like that is stretching the definition of “want” to the breaking point. I think the actual difference between me and a lot of sophisticated preference utilitarians is how comfortable we are with the concept of preferences people do not recognize as preferences.
Prominent bioethicist Leon Kass also has some opinions about the eudaimoniac life. Take it away, Leon:
Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone –a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.
I fear I may by this remark lose the sympathy of many reader, people who will condescendingly regard as quaint or even priggish the view that eating in the street is for dogs. Modern America’s rising tide of informality has already washed out many long-standing traditions — their reasons long before forgotten — that served well to regulate the boundary between public and private; and in many quarters complete shamelessness is treated as proof of genuine liberation from the allegedly arbitrary constraints of manners. To cite one small example: yawning with uncovered mouth. Not just the uneducated rustic but children of the cultural elite are now regularly seen yawning openly in public (not so much brazenly or forgetfully as indifferently and “naturally”), unaware that it is an embarrassment to human self-command to be caught in the grip of involuntary bodily movements (like sneezing, belching, and hiccuping and even the involuntary bodily display of embarrassment itself, blushing). But eating on the street — even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat — displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.
I feel like from a preference utilitarian perspective one’s only response to Mr. Kass must be “okay, you don’t want to see people engage in animal-like, un-self-controlled, or otherwise undignified behavior. Unfortunately, other people’s desire to engage in that sort of behavior is much stronger than your own desire not to see it, so we can’t do much except advise you to steer clear of ice cream parlors.”
But to me Kass’s statements feel like something I can argue with. I can cite Lorde’s perspective on the erotic to argue with his disdain of the bodily. I can point out that his belief that animal-like behavior is shameful implies that sex is shameful, particularly procreative sex (humans were the only animals to invent birth control). I can point out the neuroticism of constant self-monitoring and advocate for frankness. I can say that many of the most beautiful experiences of human life are undignified, from joy to love. And I can say that base physical pleasure is important and all too often undervalued.
It might be putting it too strongly to say that there’s a fact of the matter. This debate seems to me to be similar to arguing about fiction. There is no way you can settle the argument about whether Rent is good musical or not. But it seems facile to reduce the quality of a work of fiction to popularity. I don’t respond to “Rent is a bad musical” with “well, that’s your preference, and preferences can’t be wrong or right by definition”, I respond to it with “but what about the amazing songwriting? And the depth of characterization?” And it is possible that I can win the argument: I’ve certainly been brought around to particular authors by people pointing out all the neat things they’re doing that I missed the first time through.
Unfortunately, the existence of Leon Kass makes me ask the question: what if I am Leon Kass? What if my beliefs about physical fitness are as inaccurate as Kass’s beliefs about ice cream cones? How can I come up with moral rules that pass the Enemy Control Ray test?
This is where I get into preferences as a heuristic. I don’t think that people always do what’s right for them: after all, I did once believe that physical fitness was Just Not For Me. But I think, in general, most people do want to reach their personal eudaimonia, and they will take actions that they believe (rightly or not) will get them there. And I think most people have better information about what their eudaimonia is than other people do, because they know their feelings and desires from the inside, where other people have to go by that person’s self-report. So I think, in general, we should default to the assumption that when a person says “my eudaimonia would be maximized by having C-cup boobs,” that they are in fact reporting their preferences accurately.
The advantage here is that people are often prone to typical mind fallacy. I believe that physical fitness is part of everyone’s eudaimonia because it’s part of mine; Leon Kass believes that not eating ice cream in public is part of everyone’s eudaimonia because it’s part of his. However, human minds are very different from each other. I see nothing wrong with eating ice cream in public, but that doesn’t mean it would be appropriate for Leon Kass to eat ice cream in public, and I should not assume that it is. He is a very different person from me! Perhaps he wishes to separate himself from his bodily nature while I wish to revel in it, and neither is worse nor better, any more than me having a gender identity is worse than someone else lacking one.
Can this default be overridden? Certainly. If the person has bodily dysmorphic disorder, they are probably mistaken about whether the C cup breasts are optimal for them, and many plastic surgeons won’t operate on them because of it. But one should strive, in general, to do minimalist interventions. Sincere advice to a friend is better than coercion; nudges from the government are better than banning something outright. In that way, we minimize the harm in the case that we are mistaken about what other people’s eudaimonia truly is.