Thursday, January 15, 2009

Examples of thinking objectively

I’ve provided suggestions in earlier posts about thinking objectively. Here are two more examples or resources. The first is a web page that features a series of debates on various topics in many different subjects, not politics. It is Intelligence Squared.

The other isn’t so much a resource as an example: Camille Paglia. She also writes a regular column on If you’re not familiar with Camille she is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a feisty author who, according to Wikipedia, “is an intellectual of many seeming contradictions: an atheist who respects religion and a classicist who champions art both high and low, with a view that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian aspect, especially the wilder, darker sides of human sexuality. She favors a curriculum grounded in comparative religion, art history and the literary canon, with a greater emphasis on facts in the teaching of history. She came to public attention in 1990, with the publication of her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.”

To me the inability to pigeonhole Paglia into neat political or ideological cubbies suggests that she thinks independently and maybe objectively as well. I say this because Paglia is willing to give credit, where she thinks it is due, to those on the other side of the political fence from her rather than dismissing opposing viewpoints with a knee jerk reaction that is all too typical and prevalent on both sides. Even when I don’t agree with Paglia I nonetheless love reading her entertaining, vivid writing style. I wish I were half the writer she is. Check her out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Folk Concept of Happiness

Early in The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, the author Daniel W. Haybron makes a comment about folk concepts of happiness.

For the most part, folk concepts gain currency and persist because they denote matters of broad and lasting concern. They have been vetted in the crucible of many people’s experience, and we use them because, in some sense, they work for us. One reason they work for us is that human beings are extraordinarily discerning intuitive distinction makers; on a continual basis, we instinctively and implicitly respond to a vast array of important distinctions, most of which we cannot even begin to make explicit. Consider how richly any normal person is attuned to the countless non-verbal cues offered by her conversational partners. Think of how often one person will sense something wrong or inappropriate with another’s behavior or demeanor without being able to say just what it is. And as any ethics instructor knows, people’s sensitivity to values far outstrips their ability to articulate them.

I quote this because I believe folk concepts get short shrift in Objectivist literature. (I think there also is a strong distrust for implicit distinctions.) While Haybron doesn’t elaborate on other folk concepts I think they would include common sense, fairness, and the importance of valuing family and friendships in addition to career goals.

This is not to say that all folk concepts and traditions are healthy or life affirming. While I’m no expert on the subject or on folk concepts in different cultures I’m sure we could find plenty of examples that thwart happiness and well-being. However this doesn’t mean we can chuck all folk concepts as worthless or harmful.

The Pursuit of Unhappiness

A lot of my reading centers on well-being and living a good life. In this vein I just started reading The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, by Daniel W. Haybron. He makes a distinction between the approach the ancient Greeks took toward happiness and well-being versus that of the Enlightenment that I have not encountered before. I feel it is worth highlighting this difference before finishing the book. I plan to write a review after reading it. Below are several key quotes from early in the book. (Note these quotes are not contiguous.)

The ancients apparently took it as a given that individuals are not, in general, authorities about their own welfare. Quite opposite: most ancient philosophers followed Socrates’ lead in distinguishing ‘the many’ and ‘the wise,’ with the former and much larger class being, basically dolts. Aristotle notoriously maintained that some of us are so ill-fitted for self-governance that we are better off enslaved, with masters to look after us.

The spirit of modernity is rather different. Inspired by Enlightenment optimism about the individual’s powers of reason and self-government, modern liberals tend to believe in one or another form of the sovereignty or authority of the individual in matters of personal welfare: by and large, people know what’s best for them, and tend to act rationally in the promotion of their interests.

But what if it turns out that people don’t have this kind of authority? What if they frequently and predictably make serious mistakes about what matters in life, act irrationally, or otherwise err in ways that undercut their prospects for well-being? What if, as a result, they tend to botch their lives at an alarmingly high rate, in many cases being unwitting pursuers of unhappiness?

The central thesis of this book is that people probably do not enjoy a high degree of authority or competence in matters of personal welfare.

I’m sure the rest of The Pursuit of Unhappiness will flesh out the empirical case for Haybron’s thesis. I’ve read other books that report results of various studies which reveal the inability of the average person to recognize the effects of genetics, temperament, and subjectivity on decision-making. To me these findings don’t prove it is impossible to be objective, just that it’s work. Sometimes it’s hard work!

In any case, I’ll write more on this interesting book when I’ve finished it. Wanted to throw out these quotes as thought provokers.