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Thursday, October 07, 2010

What does it mean to "flourish"?

There's a post at The New York Times philosophy blog - The Spoils of Happiness by David Sosa - which seems to be about selling Aristotle's idea of virtuous flourishing = happiness (as opposed to pleasure = happiness). Here's some of the article ......

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? [...] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening [...] Would you plug in?. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 3) ........

I think that for very many of us the answer is no .... Life on the machine wouldn’t constitute achieving what we we’re after when we’re pursuing a happy life. There’s an important difference between having a friend and having the experience of having a friend ... [it] would all be, in a way, false — an intellectual mirage ....

One especially apt way of thinking about happiness — a way that’s found already in the thought of Aristotle — is in terms of “flourishing.” Take someone really flourishing in their new career, or really flourishing now that they’re off in college. The sense of the expression is not just that they feel good, but that they’re, for example, accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments. If they were simply sitting at home playing video games all day, even if this seemed to give them a great deal of pleasure, and even if they were not frustrated, we wouldn’t say they were flourishing. Such a life could not in the long term constitute a happy life. To live a happy life is to flourish .....

[W]hat’s wrong with the drug addict’s life is not just the despair he feels when he’s coming down. It’s that even when he’s feeling pleasure, that’s not a very significant fact about him. It’s just a feeling, the kind of pleasure we can imagine an animal’s having. Happiness is harder to get. It’s enjoyed after you’ve worked for something, or in the presence of people you love, or upon experiencing a magnificent work of art or performance — the kind of state that requires us to engage in real activities of certain sorts, to confront real objects and respond to them. And then, too, we shouldn’t ignore the modest happiness that can accompany pride in a clear-eyed engagement with even very painful circumstances.

I guess the article is pitching a point of view, that of Aristotle and almost everybody else, but I think it states as facts what are really just assumptions: that imagined experience is less worthy than actual experience, that enjoyment of the moment is a less true form of happiness than achieving some goal, (and that drug addicts and animals experience only pleasure rather than flourishing - what?).

And the article expresses the common (but I think wrongheaded) belief that we can't experience real happiness unless we've crawled over broken glass to achieve it. I used to call this the Captain Kirk philosophy of life :) and you can see it expressed in this out-take from This Side of Paradise, an episode in which Kirk "rescues" Spock from a world where an indigenous plant produces in everyone, even Spock, a sense of peace. I believe Spock was right in thinking he was truly happy ....


Blogger Matthew said...

> I think it states as facts what are really just assumptions: that imagined experience is less worthy than actual experience

It also is fairly fuzzy on what constitutes "actual" experience. And why it's valuable.

Anyhow, I agree with your assessment.

11:22 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Matthew,

Yeah, he uses the example of the movie The Matrix, and how Neo and Orpheus are the good guys who don't want to live the imagined existence, and Cypher the bad guy who does. But that was a situation in which people were kept in the dark about their options and couldn't make informed choices. I can think of some situations where imagined experience would be a good thing - even the Spiritual Exercises uses the imagination to create scenarios that otherwise couldn't be experienced.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

"But that was a situation in which people were kept in the dark about their options and couldn't make informed choices."

First, isn't your assumption that not being able to make an informed choice the same type of an assumption, most likely based on a moral value that is also an assumption that you hold to? Secondly wouldn't a person having an imagined and controlled experience be in a situation of not being able to make informed choices?

And I agree that the article does express assumptions as facts. Still most of us have moral values that we accept as facts without physical proof. I have always used the comparison of a plastic knife to a good kitchen knife. Few would find the plastic knife to be a work of art, it is used and tossed. But a good kitchen knife is treasured, but its value comes from the forging and tempering in heat. Some of the Spanish swords that are made of multiple layers of metal beaten together, tempered, and carefully sharpened are seen as true works of art. Of course what is art is probably an assumption :).

None-the-less, it would seem that some assumptions have been accepted as true by most people through most of time, one of them being that reality has more value than fantasy.

Come to think of it, the belief that I exist physically may be only an assumption on my part :).


Mike L

3:29 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

The writer brings up the movie The Matrix in the article (I didn't post that part of the article) and he says that the imagined reality in the movie was bad and that the good guys chose the real reality. But the thing is that in the movie, human beings are being "grown" by intelligent machines and used as batteries, while their brains are stimulated in a way that makes them think they live in a normal reality. So, what's being rejected as bad is not necessarily imagined reality itslef, I think, but the whole idea that intelligent machines took over the world and enslaved humans, keeping them pacified without their knowledge or caonsent by making them think their mental lives are real.

So I just meant that I thought that example of The Matrix was not a good example for defining the worth of imagined reality.

But assumptions, like that idea that nothing good comes easily, are so accepted that I just wanted to say that. I think people want to believe that kind of thing is so, but it isn't necessarily so, though it's sometimes so :) Why is, for instance, looking at the stars, or listening to music, or eating a banana split a less true experience of happiness than something that took more time and was hard to do?

4:01 PM  
Blogger Makavetis said...

Hey, I noticed art as one of your interests, I started a new art blog maybe u'll like it! Thanks and keep up great work.

9:54 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the comment. I will drop by your blog :)

12:24 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

And what is wrong with intelligent machines using people in that way? I was trying to point out that most, if not all of our value and moral systems are built on assumptions rather than provable facts. There is nothing in science that says this is bad or that is good.

I had a bit of a discussion on another blog about global warming. As far as I can tell the fact is that global warming is happening, and everyone assumes 1) it is a bad thing, and 2) humans are causing it. Since this cycle happened several times before humans came along, I kind of doubt the second assumption, although I think human activities may be speeding it up, and as such may have some validity. The first assumption however is something else that depends on a lot of other assumptions. It may be bad for us, but perhaps it is an evolutionary force that will kill us off and bring something better (whatever that means) into existence. In any case, it seems to me that "good" and "bad" are just assumptions since we don't really know what the outcome will be.

Yikes, this kind of stuff leads to headaches.


Mike L

8:46 AM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Hi Crystal –

Ow…my head hurts reading all of this! It’s a fascinating discussion, and it’s tempting to ask things like “whose facts?” and “whose assumptions?” I think most people reach a certain stage in life where many things are felt to be true, though they might not be provable, or at least not provable very easily. Are these facts or assumptions?

In any event, I find that the word “happiness” itself is a very illusive word, difficult to pin down. I use it of course, but hesitate to use it in situations that require rigorous thought. In many common usages, it’s a bit too close to the word “fun,” which I usually reserve for occasions that are, well, more on the shallow side of things. Not that I mind fun, and not that I am against happiness! But for me, neither comes close to the word “joy.”

I think that there is a certain relationship to “truth” that is important to our human experience, but that shouldn’t preclude the value of imagination. I DO place a high value on imagination, which has always been for me a significant component of prayer, and it’s certainly necessary for creativity. I experience imagination as in a different category from illusions, delusions, or drug use.

Deluded people can feel happy. Spock was! (I loved that episode, & still have it on DVD.) One can have love illusions – it happens all the time. Drug use is certainly very attractive to a lot of people. Do we want to call these things “happiness,” at least in a serious meaning of the word?

Thank for the happy exercise!

12:16 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I go back and forth between thinking nothing has any moral vlaue beyond the one we give it, and thinking some things are bad always, like torture. I guess that conclusion that some things are bad is a decesion (an assumption) on my part. That's how I feel about global warming - I consider it bad because it's going to cause a lot of suffering and I've decided suffering is bad.

I know that I always wonder if God really exists and if anything means anything intrinsically, but how do you, who believe in God, come to a decision that there is no intrinsic value in things?

1:13 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

Yeah, I think the guy who wrote the article decided ahead of time that happiness = virtuous activity/flourishing in the way Aristotle meant it, so for him (and Aristotle, I think) pleasure/fun didn't count as happiness.

I guess I think there is fun and there is joy and when I'm experiencing them I'm feeling happy, but if you asked me at any other time if I was happy, I'd consider happiness to be something that is more a continuous state of mind or way of looking at how my life is going.

The two things I remember Aristotle saying from philosophy class were that "one swallow does not a summer make' and 'call no man happy until he is dead'. I think he saw happiness sort of the way I do, or I guess I see it the way he does, even though I mostly disagreed with the article.

I too do think deluded people can be happy - it's got to be a subjective decision.

Star Trek :)

1:23 PM  
Blogger Mike L said...

Crystal, I believe in God and I do believe that some things have intrinsic values. The difficulty that I run into is that we can only observe reality to a certain level, and so I believe that we can only model our world and that means making assumptions and definitions. We can compare that model with our experiences of reality and if flexible enough modify it to fit closer to that reality, but I don't think that we ever get it perfect.

An example, for most of history we have had a definition of what is male and what is female. Yet there were individuals that did not seem to fit those definitions. Since they were few, they were generally ignored or through surgery modified to fit the standard definition. In time we learned something about genetics and thought the problem was solved. As we came to know more, we found that genetically male and female were only the most common genetic expression of sex and many other combinations of the sexual genes occur. If you are not a man, and not a woman, what are you? I am sure many will decide "intrinsically deformed". Much easier than changing our assumptions.

So, I do the best that I can to model reality to the best of my ability. What I don't do is insist that my model is the only true model, or even the best model. I try to be open to new or different ideas, and realize that others have had different experiences and different values. Sometimes that means everyone is mad at me, but that is the way it is. Sometimes I really wish that I could be absolutely sure about something, it would be much easier.

And yes, I think suffering is bad, yet I also see times when greater good seems to come from it.


Mike L

7:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I do the best that I can to model reality to the best of my ability. What I don't do is insist that my model is the only true model, or even the best model. I try to be open to new or different ideas, and realize that others have had different experiences and different values.

I admire this about you! I really try to do this too.

Everything is so confusing. When I watched my cats sufer, I was sure there was nothing that would justify that suffering, or at least I think that nothing should be able to do so. Maybe I'll find out differently after I'm dead :)

10:38 PM  

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