Showing posts with label Aristotle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aristotle. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Do you live in harmony with your daimon?

 


Some readers will be wondering what the question means. What is this daimon? How does it relate to eudaimonia? How can you identify your daimon?

Your daimon

In his book, Personal Destinies, David L Norton explains that your daimon is your innate potentiality – a unique “ideal of perfection”. Every person has this innate potentiality as well as an empirical actuality. Self-actualization is the process of discovering your daimon and living in harmony with it.

Norton suggests that people begin to discover their daimon during adolescence. He argues that autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by other people. (That is clear in a passage quoted in the preceding essay on this blog.) Adolescence is a period of exploration and experiment when mistakes are inevitable. Exploration and experiment are part of the process by which individuals may discover their daimon and obtain the maturity to choose to live in harmony with it – to live an integral life.

Integrity is the consummate virtue. It is “living one’s own truth”. An integral life follows from choosing “wholeheartedly” the self one shall strive to become.

Eudaimonia

I have been accustomed to thinking of eudaimonia in terms of the good life, or self-actualization. As indicated in the passage quoted above, however, Norton draws attention to the distinct feeling of eudaimonia that constitutes its intrinsic reward. He describes that feeling as “being where one wants to be, doing what one wants to do”, as well as the feeling of being where one must be, and wholeheartedly doing what one must do. (pp 216, 222). The feeling of eudaimonia signals that the present activity of the individual is in harmony with his daimon. (p 5).

By contrast, the dysdaimonic individual is impelled to two different directions at the one time:

“The dysdaimonic individual is perpetually distracted, being only in a part of himself where you find him while part of himself is somewhere else, his ‘here’ and ‘there’ being not continuous but contradictory.” (p 221)

Norton suggests that eudaimonia is fully present whenever a person is living in truth to himself or herself. Eudaimonia is as much present for the individual who has just set foot upon his path, as for the accomplished genius of self-actualization. I particularly like this sentence:

“It would make good sense to say that to set foot upon one’s path is as good as arriving at the end, provided we recognize that a condition of being on one’s path is to be engaged at walking”. (p 239)

Norton’s book begins with a quotation from Carl Jung, who speaks of the daimon as an “inner voice” that has determined the direction of his life. Norton recognises that we may be apprehensive that “an ear turned towards our inwardness will detect at most only meaningless murmurings”. Many people who read the book will no doubt have a desire to listen to their daimon but might still have some difficulty in hearing its voice, amid all the meaningless inner murmurings that are seeking their attention.

How can you identify your daimon?

As a philosopher, David Norton could not have gone much further than he has in this book in helping readers to identify and follow their personal daimons. Anyone wishing to proceed further might find some contributions from positive psychology to be of assistance. In what follows, I briefly mention some approaches that I think are helpful.

Two relevant approaches which I discussed briefly in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing involve identifying personal values and character strengths. Stephen Hayes developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help people to identify the personal values that they want to guide them in important aspects of their lives. Russ Harris, a therapist who has written extensively about ACT, has written a book, The Happiness Trap, which I reviewed here. Harris’ book is highly relevant to some of the issues discussed by David Norton.

Martin Seligman and Christopher Petersen identified 24 character strengths that they view as the routes by which virtues can be achieved. People can obtain useful information about themselves by responding to a questionnaire at the VIA Institute of Character, and having the responses fed back in summary form.

At a more personal level, I should mention the help I have obtained from the “inner game” books written by Tim Gallwey, a sports and business coach. Gallwey’s books (described here) are pertinent because they deal with performance problems that arise when an individual becomes confused by inner voices that conflict with his or her authentic inner voice. Gallwey suggests many techniques to help people to maintain focused attention on the task at hand, avoid self-doubt, and exercise free and conscious choice when that is appropriate. People are helped to discover their true identity as they master this “inner game”. My podcast episode, entitled “Tim Gallwey, my inner game guru”, can be found here.

Conclusions

David Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, provides an insightful account of the nature of eudaimonia. He explains it as a distinct feeling as well as the condition of actualizing one’s innate potentiality.

I have suggested some contributions from positive psychology that I think are helpful in complementing the approach adopted in this book.


Tuesday, January 23, 2024

What is wrong with Sartre's view of self-creation?

 


I have read a great deal of the fiction written by Jean Paul Sartre, but my knowledge of his philosophical works is second-hand. I read Nausea, The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron in the Soul, when I was in my 20’s. Those novels still sit on my bookshelves along side novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Ayn Rand.

The only Sartre novel that left a lasting impression on me is Iron in the Soul. I have a vague recollection of the plot of Part One that novel. It ends with Mathieu Delarue, an academic who became a soldier in the French army, taking part in a futile military operation after France had been defeated by Germany during World War II. The purpose of this military operation was apparently to use up ammunition. Part One ends with Delarue declaring that he is free, even though it seems that his life is about to end.

At the time I read the book I would have been impressed that Delarue had found inner freedom by doing something decisive, but I doubt that I contemplated whether he had discovered himself or created himself.

It is only in the last decade or so that I have pondered whether personal development is best described as a discovery process, or a creative process. David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies: A philosophy of personal individualism (1976) has recently prompted me to think further on the topic. I will begin with a general discussion of Norton’s view of personal destinies before considering his view of Sartre’s position.

Is your destiny in your genes?

While reading the first chapter of Personal Destinies, I balked at Norton’s injunction to "accept your destiny".

I accept the author's argument that self-actualization requires a person to discover the daimon within, and to live in accordance with it. I have no problem with injunctions to "know thyself", "choose yourself", and to "become what you are". However, being told to "accept your destiny" seems more challenging.

What does Norton mean?

Norton suggests that from the moment of birth, it is the destiny of each individual to actualise their potential in a particular way. If they live in accord with their destiny they become like the heroes of a Greek tragedy, showing undeviating consistency of character as they meet their fate.

He is suggesting that individuals are destined to have a unique personal character if they follow their daimon. He is not suggesting that the individual’s fate is pre-determined.

Why did I object?

My first objection was that accepting one's destiny seems opposed to accepting personal responsibility for one's choices. Norton explains that is not so. Individuals are free to choose to adhere to their destiny or to deviate from it.

I think my second objection has more substance. I have seen individuals change their character through their own actions. Genes play an important role in determining our destinies, but they are not the only determinant. Brain plasticity seems to enable people to change their destinies, for good or ill.

I recommend David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain, to anyone who needs to be persuaded that genes are not destiny. As previously discussed on this blog, Eagleman, a neuroscientist, makes the point that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

It may even be possible for adults who follow their daimons to create more "potential" to actualize. If that is correct, it makes sense to think of personal development as involving self-creation as well as self-discovery. In the post already mentioned, I referred to the approach offered by Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, as an example of self-directed personal development. Gorlin has referred to her approach as a call to self-creation.

What is the problem with Sartre’s view?

Sartre argues that humans are “condemned to be free”. Each self constitutes itself as a “fundamental project” which is a product of free choice.

Norton explains that Sartre’s view of self-creation stems from the idea that whatever may be given to consciousness can appear in consciousness only as a meaning, and meanings are the product of consciousness itself. A person is nothing until he or she (or ?) chooses an identity. Human reality owes nothing to “inner nature”. There are no innate capabilities. “Talent is nothing other than acquired ability deriving from activity that is engaged in by choice.”

Norton suggests that autonomous self-awareness first appears in adolescence as a discovery rather than as a creation:

“In adolescence, autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by the other. … Throughout childhood the individual has unquestioningly accepted adult identification of himself, usually that of his parents. Now, however, it is in the parental identification that the adolescent recognizes misidentification …. . Beneath this sense of misidentification and responsible for it is the adolescent’s new-found awareness that only he can speak. The moment is portentous and felt to be such. By its tone of  “from this moment and forever-more,” it signals a future very different from the past, it marks a disruption of the personal continuum. At the same time misidentification by others cannot be corrected because the new found “inner self” of the adolescent as yet has no voice with which to speak to the world, it is but a murmur within, audible to one person alone, and this helplessness projects itself as “fated to be misunderstood.” (p 111)

That passage brings back some memories of adolescence. And, even now, that feeling of being “fated to be misunderstood” sometimes returns to me.

An internet search suggests to me that developmental psychologists commonly believe that autonomous self-awareness first occurs during adolescence between the ages of 12 and 18 years. That stage of life often involves a great deal of experimentation leading to self-discovery.

The attraction of Sartre’s view of self-creation is that it appears to offer unlimited opportunities to individuals choose their identity. In arguing that human freedom is freedom for self-discovery and self-adherence, Norton suggests that Sartre’s advocacy of absolute freedom is actually a capitulation to “the forces of alienation at work in contemporary life”:

“The man who has no authentic feelings, and must on every occasion manufacture his feelings, is no exemplar of freedom but rather the self-alienated product of special conditions of life today.” (p 116).

Sensible self-creation

The main difference between Gena Gorlin’s approach to self-development and that of Sartre is that Gorlin does not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming a self-aware person. The existence of a person is presupposed in the builder’s mindset that Gorlin advocates:

“A person chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself accountable for the work of building it.”

Robert Kegan’s concepts of self-authorship and self-transformation also seem to me to be sensible approaches to self-creation. Most adults have socialized minds – they are faithful followers and team players. Those with self-authoring minds are in the next largest group. They are self-directed and can generate an internal belief system.  Only a tiny percentage have self-transforming minds, capable of stepping back from, and reflecting upon the limits of personal ideology. I included some discussion of Rober Kegan’s concepts in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Conclusions

David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, has prompted me to think further on the topic of whether personal development is best described as a discovery process or a creative process. Norton’s view that personal destinies are determined at birth does not leave any room for self-creation. The existence of brain plasticity suggests, however, that it may make sense for psychologists to view personal development as having a creative component.

Norton offers an illuminating account of what is wrong with Sartre’s extreme view that it is necessary to choose an identity before being aware of being a person. Norton seems to me to be correct in suggesting that autonomous self-awareness occurs as a discovery process during adolescence.

Sensible advocates of self-creation do not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming aware of being an individual person.


Sunday, December 31, 2023

How would you describe your philosophy?

 


I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question posed above. When I tell people that I am an economist, some of them ask about my views on economics before regaling me with their opinions. When I tell people that I am a blogger, they usually ask what I blog about before telling me what I should blog about. I don’t claim to be a philosopher, so there has been no reason for anyone to ask me to describe my philosophy.

However, a comment by Ed Younkins in the addendum to the preceding post on this blog prompted me to think about whether it would be possible for me (as a casual reader of philosophy) to prepare a coherent summary of my philosophical beliefs.

Some readers might be interested in the process I used to summarise my views. I asked ChatGPT to ask a series of questions to help me to explore my philosophical beliefs. I responded to her questions by providing copies of extracts from blog posts etc. that I had written, and asked her to summarise my responses. The summary she produced was done competently, but I did some further editing.

I view the outcome as a work in progress. If anyone points to holes in my reasoning, I will endeavour not to be excessively defensive in my responses.

Summary

I am a Neo-Aristotelian classical liberal.

As will be apparent from what follows, I am strongly of the opinion that it is appropriate to consider what kind of thing an individual human is before engaging in philosophical reasoning related to any aspect of human experience. That is why many of my beliefs are grounded in current scientific knowledge (and speculation) about human evolution, neurology, and psychology.

It seems appropriate to begin with philosophy of mind because awareness of our own awareness is the starting point for all consciousness reasoning. I will then proceed to outline views on epistemology, metaphysics, human nature, ethics, and political philosophy.

Philosophy of Mind:

We cannot doubt that we think. When we are thinking, we may be aware of the flow of inner thoughts and feelings and of our experience of the world in which live. Our observations of other animals suggest that they share with us some awareness of their surroundings. That awareness is a product of evolution – it serves a purpose in helping animals to survive and reproduce. Similarly, our awareness of our own awareness is just another step in the evolutionary process – the purpose it serves is to help individual humans to flourish within the cultures in which they live.  (Main influence: Richard Campbell).

Epistemology:

Humans are born with a potential to acquire knowledge that is particularly relevant to human flourishing. However, knowledge acquisition is primarily experiential. Experiences during early childhood have a major impact on brain development. As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified, but brains retain some plasticity throughout life. Brains learn by evaluating feedback from actions taken – they adjust internal models when predictions are incorrect.

Conscious reasoning plays a crucial role in determining what knowledge adult humans acquire. It makes sense to use probabilistic reasoning when considering alternative explanations for observed phenomena.

Practical wisdom (wise and well-informed self-direction) is integral to individual flourishing. As well as being important in its own right, it helps individuals to maintain good physical and psychological health, good relations with other people, and to live in harmony with nature. (Influences: Aristotle, David Eagleman, Michael Huemer).

Metaphysics:

Metaphysical realism: We exist as part of a real world. Beings exist independently of our cognition of them. (Influences: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Human Nature:

Humans have inherent potentialities that are good. (Main influence: Abraham Maslow).

Ethics:

Our awareness that we need to make something of our lives emerges before we can make conscious choices relating to our individual flourishing. Ethical intuitions relating to traditional virtues – practical wisdom, integrity, courage, temperance, justice – are a product of social evolution and family upbringing.

Ethical intuitions provide only a foundation for ethical reasoning. Although everyone has a natural inclination to engage in activities that contribute to their own flourishing, actualization of their individual potential requires some understanding of that potential, and the application of practical wisdom that is linked to that person’s dispositions and circumstances. Each individual is responsible for developing his or her own character, and adopting the good habits required to flourish more fully. (Influences: Robert Nozick, Aristotle, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen).

Political Philosophy:

Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends provided they do not encroach upon the rights of others. Recognition of individual rights enables individuals to flourish in different ways without interfering unduly with the flourishing of others.

The role of government is protection of individual rights. Performance other roles should be contingent upon consent of the governed. (Influences: Friedrich Hayek, James M Buchanan, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Notes

The summary presented above focuses on some broad categories of philosophical beliefs. I have left out some categories of beliefs (philosophy of science and methodology of economics) because they are too specific to be covered in this overview. One of the most popular posts on this blog is about aesthetics, but I have not read widely on that topic. Some other important categories (e.g. religion) have been left out because I prefer not to display my ignorance.

Anyone interested in further explanation of my beliefs is welcome to ask me. Many of the relevant topics are covered in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. There are also relevant articles on this blog that have been written since that book was published e.g. a discussion of Richard Campbell’s views on the emergence of consciousness (here), and David Eagleman’s views on neural mapping and plasticity (here).

References

Philosophy of Mind

Campbell, Richard, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Epistemology

Aristotle, The Complete Works (Kindle Edition), ATN Classics, 2023.

Eagleman, David, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, Canongate Paperback, 2021.

Huemer, Michael, Understanding Knowledge, 2022.

Metaphysics

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Human Nature

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being (Chapter 14), D Van Nostrand, 1962

Ethics

 Nozick, Robert. Invariances, The Structure of the Objective World, Harvard University Press, 2001.

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics (Translator: F.H. Peters) Online Library of Liberty, 1893

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Political Philosophy

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.


Saturday, December 9, 2023

Did Ayn Rand recognize the capacity to exercise practical wisdom as a basic good?




 This question is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s novels. Second, in the first chapter of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I seek to identify the basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

My view of basic goods

The chapter identified the basic goods as: wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being. I suggested that the exercise of wise and well-informed self-direction helps individuals to obtain other basic goods.

The chapter also noted that Aristotle saw the exercise of reason as the function that distinguishes humans from other animals and held that a good man’s purpose is to reason well (and beautifully).

I argued that individuals develop and realize their potential for wise and well-informed self-direction largely by learning from experience. I therefore accepted implicitly that it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices that on mature reflection they might later regret.

Rand’s view

Until recently, I was fairly sure that my view of what is good for humans was broadly similar to that of Ayn Rand. Some of the things she wrote suggest that impression was correct. For example, John Galt’s speech (quoted above) suggests that it is good for humans to have the capacity to exercise practical wisdom. A similar sentiment is expressed in the following passage in the chapter, ‘What is Capitalism?’ in Capitalism: The unknown ideal:

“Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival – his only means of gaining knowledge.”

However, later in that essay, in endorsing “the objective theory” of the nature of the good, Rand rejects the idea that good can be an attribute of things in themselves:

“The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value.”

It seems to me that Rand is suggesting that it would not be legitimate to say that the capacity to exercise practical wisdom – which is a thing in itself - is a good attribute for an individual to have, irrespective of how it is used. Rand seems to be implying that having the capability is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of value.

Grades of actuality

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs) seem to me to provide a less ambiguous approach to considering the nature of the good in a recent article in which they compare their Individualistic Perfectionism (IP) to Rand’s Objectivist Ethics (OE). (‘Three Forms of Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism: A Comparison’, Reason Papers 43, 2, 14-43, 2023.)

The Dougs acknowledge that a person does not have a concept of moral good apart from the self-directed use of their conceptual capacity. The human good is individualized. It is good for a human being to engage in the act of discovering human good.

However, the Dougs suggest that the process of discovering the human good can be thought of in terms of grades of actuality:

“IP holds with Aristotle that there is a distinction between grades of actuality when it comes to living things. The first grade of actuality is the possession of a set of capacities that are also potentialities for a living thing’s second grade of actuality—that is, their actual use or deployment by a living thing. Included among the set of potentialities of a human being that comprise its first grade of actuality is the potential to exercise one’s conceptual capacity. This first grade of actuality is a cognitive-independent reality. However, when one’s conceptual capacity is exercised and used in a manner that actualizes the other potentialities that require it, then a second grade of actuality is attained. For example, one has the capacity to know one’s good and attain it (first grade of actuality), but one needs to engage in knowing and attaining it in order to be fully actualized (second grade of actuality).”

One’s inner nature

In 2008 I wrote a blog post on the topic, ‘Is our inner nature good?’. The post consisted of a discussion of the views of Abraham Maslow, Aristotle, J S Mill, David Hume, and Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund. My outline of the views of Abraham Maslow is reproduced below because it seems relevant to the current discussion.

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968, chapter 14).

On reflection, I am not sure that the concept of an inner nature makes much sense. However, the idea that all humans have good potentiality is appealing.

Conclusions

In my view it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices, that on mature reflection, they might later regret.

I am unsure whether Ayn Rand would have agreed. At one point she seems to imply that a capacity to exercise practical wisdom is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of values.

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl offer a less ambiguous approach by recognizing different grades of actuality. They suggest that the first grade of actuality is cognitive-independent. On that basis, there is no reason to doubt that the potential to exercise practical wisdom is good.

I like the idea that all humans have good potentiality.

Postscript

My understanding of the quoted passage by Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl is as follows:

Though we must use our minds and act in the appropriate manner to self-actualize, that is, to attain our second grade of actuality, it does not follow from this that what is being actualized is merely a potentiality.  Rather, it is a cognitive-independent actuality that also has potentialities.  The distinction between actuality and potentiality in the case of living things does not require a dichotomy. It is not 'either-or'. Aristotle is subtle.

Moreover, though attaining one's second grade of actuality requires both cognition and practical actions to exist, this does not make human good simply an evaluation (which Rand claims). To hold that an objective view of human good is an evaluation is a further non sequitur.  Consider this analogy:  Phar Lap was a thoroughbred racehorse, as such he would not have existed without much human thought and effort, and in terms of the function of racehorses he was very good.  But the reality of his goodness did not consist in our evaluation of him as good but in how well he fulfilled his function. The same is so for human beings, mutatis mutandis.  Humans attaining their second-grade of actuality does require cognitive effort and choice, but this does make the goodness thereby expressed merely an evaluation.

Further Reading

I was prompted to write this contribution by my reading of two recent essays on The Savvy Street:

Ed Younkins, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison; and

Roger Bissell, Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics.

Roger Bissell has also responded to this essay.

I encourage anyone wishing to obtain a better understanding of the issues to read those articles as well as the article by the Dougs referred to above.


Monday, July 24, 2023

Where is the soul of libertarianism?

 


Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have contributed an excellent history of libertarian ideas in their recently published book, The Individualists. The question I pose for myself is related to the subtitle of the book: “Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism”.

The reason Zwolinski and Tomasi refer to individualists rather than to libertarians in the main title is presumably because they believe that a commitment to “individualism is at the core of libertarianism”. They also note that many of the most intellectually active friends of liberty in Britain were known as individualists before the term libertarian caught on.

Synopsis

The authors spend some time discussing who is, or isn’t, a libertarian. They note that “libertarian” has been used in both a strict sense, to refer specifically to those who see liberty as a moral absolute, and in a broad sense, to include classical liberals who view liberty as a strong presumption. The book discusses the views of contemporary classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as those of “strict libertarians”, but doesn’t devote much attention to historical classical liberalism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify six markers which form the core of a libertarian world view: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty. They observe that while libertarians don’t necessarily view those principles as absolutes, they typically see them “as a tightly integrated system of thought, with each commitment being supported by, and lending support to, the others”.

After providing a historical overview, the book discusses the history of radical and reactionary libertarian ideas relating to private property, libertarian anarchism, big business and free markets, poverty and spontaneous order, racial justice and individualism, and global justice and noninterventionism. Much of this information was familiar but I was surprised about how much was new to me.

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s final chapter focuses largely on the battle between bleeding heart libertarians, left libertarians and paleolibertarians for control of the libertarian party in the United States. The authors conclude that libertarianism is “intrinsically a diverse ideology”, and that “the struggle between libertarianism’s progressive and conservative tendencies, a struggle for the soul of libertarianism, is likely to go on”.

That may be an appropriate way to end a history of ideas directed to an audience composed largely of people who live in the USA. As a person who doesn’t fit into that category, however, I am concerned that describing differences of opinion as “a struggle for the soul of libertarianism” may generate more heat than light. As I see it, libertarians should be encouraged to acknowledge good ideas whether they are espoused by conservative or progressive libertarians. I would have preferred to see the book end by acknowledging that libertarians are engaged in an ongoing struggle against authoritarianism as people on opposing sides of the culture wars seek to enlist the coercive powers of the state to pursue their interests.

More fundamentally, the struggle the authors describe - about which set of political prescriptions will come to be most closely identified with the ideology – seems to me to be conducted without much reference to the soul, or essence, of libertarianism. The book left me wanting to promote the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi may have good reasons for not exploring that idea more fully in their book, but it seems to me to be an idea that deserves to be given more attention.

The soul of libertarianism

In my view, the passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt quoted at the beginning of this review comes close to capturing the soul of libertarianism. Liberty is the best principle for the coexistence of humans because it offers conditions most favourable to self-directed individual flourishing.

Humboldt’s contributions influenced John Stuart Mill in writing On Liberty. They were also acknowledged by Friedrich Hayek in the conclusion of the chapter of The Constitution of Liberty discussing education and research:

“And we cannot think of better words to conclude than those of Wilhelm von Humboldt which a hundred years ago John Stuart Mill put in front of his essay On Liberty: ‘The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.”

Readers who are eager to know more about Humboldt will find an online article by George H Smith published on libertarianism.org to be of interest.

The discussion of egoism in The Individualists is relevant to considering the link between liberty and individual flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi note that in the 19th century American libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker, were influenced by Max Stirner, a German theorist, who held that the only standard or right was the ability to transform one’s will into action. That view is in stark contrast to the ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand and her followers during the 20th century. Rand denied that might makes right and argued that egoism is compatible with recognition of universal natural rights.

The link between liberty and individual flourishing is recognized today in the writings of some classical liberal and libertarian authors. Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl deserve special mention because they have developed related ideas rigorously in their trilogy of books: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn.

Readers looking for a non-technical introduction to these ideas may find relevant discussion in various places including an article by Ed Younkins on The Savvy Street, and in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  Rasmussen and Den Uyl have provided a summary of their views in Chapter 2 of The Realist Turn. A quote from the conclusion of that chapter will convey the essence of their understanding of the role of liberty in the context of human flourishing.

“In essence, natural rights represent a realization of certain normative requirements that are inherent in the individualized nature of human flourishing within a social context. In particular, when thinking about rights, we are concerned with the conditions that must be secured for the individualized nature of flourishing to function. Although liberty is the key term in this context, we regard it not as the central concept for flourishing generally, but only with regard to setting the social context for flourishing. And although we reject constructivism as a foundational principle, we recognize the role of social constructs within the constraints provided by a framework of natural rights. As such, our theory is not about the whole of political and social life, but about the political/legal structure within which such life should and must be allowed to function if flourishing is our standard.”

Conclusions

My reading of The Individualists by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi has prompted me to present a view about the soul of libertarianism. Zwolinski and Tomasi end their excellent history of libertarian ideas by suggesting that progressive and conservative factions within libertarianism will continue to struggle over the soul of libertarianism. I put the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Wilhelm von Humboldt came close to capturing the soul of libertarianism 230 years ago when he suggested: “The highest ideal … of the co-​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake”. The link between liberty and individual flourishing has been recognized by many libertarians and classical liberals, and is rigorously explained in the writings of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl.

References

Bates, Winton, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, Hamilton Books, 2021.

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Smith, George H., ‘The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt’, libertarianism.org, 2013.

Younkins, Edward W., ‘Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Trilogy of Freedom and Flourishing’, The Savvy Street, 2021.




Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Is Vipassana meditation consistent with self-acceptance?



Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation based on practice of equanimity in observation of physical sensations and thoughts. As people who practice Vipassana observe sensations arise and pass away, they experience a lessening of both aversion of unpleasant sensations, and of craving for pleasant sensations.  The Vipassana tradition has been kept alive since the time of the Buddha, and popularized over the last 50 years by S. N. Goenka, who died in 2013. The practice is taught in 10 day residential courses.

People who hold views that are incompatible with the Buddhist principle of anatta, or no self, are not excluded from attending Vipassana courses. I have practiced Vipassana meditation, with varying consistency, for about 25 years, and associate the practice with self-acceptance rather than loss of a sense of self. Moments of self-forgetfulness, accompanying feelings of goodwill towards other beings, could be described as quieting the ego rather than abandoning it. It seems to me that Scott Barry Kaufman may be on the right track in his suggestion that “those with the quietest ego defenses often have the strongest sense of self”. (See Transcend, p 204-5).

However, when Goenkaji was asked why he only spoke of the ego in negative terms, he replied:

“Now it seems to you that there must be an 'I' who feels, but after beginning to practice Vipassana, you will reach the stage where the ego dissolves. Then your question will disappear! For conventional purposes, yes, we cannot run away from using words like 'I' or 'mine' etc. But clinging to them, taking them as real in an ultimate sense will only bring suffering.”  

That raises interesting issues. In this article I will briefly discuss the concept of no-self, illustrate similarity between the practice of Vipassana and a psychologist’s approach to self-acceptance, consider how Vipassana meditation might be viewed from an Aristotelian perspective, and end with some observations about the nature of the inner game involved in acquiring equanimity and practical wisdom.

The No-self idea

In their book, Classical Indian Philosophy, Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri note that the Buddha sought to differentiate his view from those who say that we are identical to our bodies and from those who say we have souls that lack connection to anything else. They write:

“To express his own view, the Buddha offered similes: a person is not like the thread running through a necklace of pearls, but like the flowing of a river or the flickering of a candle flame.”

The river metaphor captures the idea that to grasp on to feelings, perceptions, or mental fabrications of the self is as futile as it would be for a person to try to avoid being swept down a swiftly flowing river by grasping on to grasses etc. growing on the banks.

I am attracted to a different river metaphor which reconciles my observation that impermanence is pervasive with my inability to doubt my own existence, and perception of my “self” as having continuity (at least while I remain alive). I have written previously about Richard Campbell’s suggestion, in his book The Metaphysics of Emergence, that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”. It makes sense to understand consciousness as a flow, and to perceive ourselves as complex processing systems.

Self-acceptance

In explaining Vipassana meditation, Goenkaji emphasized that attempts to escape from misery by diverting the mind to another object did not provide lasting benefits. He explained:

“The object of meditation should not be an imaginary object, it should be reality—reality as it is. One has to work with whatever reality has manifested itself now, whatever one experiences within the framework of one's own body.”

It seems to me that the Vipassana approach of observing thoughts and sensations with equanimity has much in common with the approach to self-acceptance recommended by the psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

“At the most fundamental level, I accept myself. I accept the reality of my thoughts, even when I cannot endorse them and would not choose to act on them; I do not deny or disown them. I can accept my feelings and emotions without necessarily liking, approving of, or being controlled by them; I do not deny or disown them.” (p 163)

An Aristotelian perspective

It is clear from the passage quoted at the beginning of this article that Aristotle thought it inconceivable that a person could doubt his or her own existence.

However, Vipassana’s emphasis on equanimity as a desirable frame of mind has much in common with Aristotle’s view of temperance as a virtue. An equanimous person could be expected to be temperate in emotional expression – to be able to avoid excessive anger, fear etc. The techniques involved are also similar in respect of the emphasis placed on practice of the relevant frame of mind and associated behaviors.

As I see it, one possible difference between an equanimous person and a temperate person is that the latter would be less inclined to accept that there should be no craving. In accordance with Aristotle’s teaching, a temperate person could exercise his practical wisdom to crave the things he ought, to the extent he ought, as he ought, and when he ought.

Nevertheless, I have not found the practice of Vipassana meditation to be an obstacle to exercising practical wisdom to pursue personal goals enthusiastically. When I meditate conscientiously early in the morning that tends to promote clarity of thinking which serves me well later in the day.

The inner game

How is it that a person who lacks peace of mind (equanimity) can learn to observe troubling sensations and thoughts with equanimity? How can it be possible to adopt a frame of mind which requires the exercise of a quality that you perceive yourself to lack? It seems to me that the people who do such things must be drawing on inner resources that they didn’t fully realize that they had.

Tim Gallwey, the inner game guru, has helped many people to draw upon resources that they didn’t realize they had. Gallwey is recognized as a pioneer of sports psychology, and is the author of books applying inner game concepts to a range of activities including tennis, golf, work, and stress management. The aim of the inner game is to improve the internal dialogue that people carry around with them. For example, if an individual’s internal dialogue is infected by self-doubt, they can improve their performance in sport by observing what happens when they trust their unconscious minds to coordinate their muscles.

The general pattern of the inner game is to recognize that performance is being adversely affected by mental interference associated with false beliefs about one’s self – the lack of a desired quality – and then to observe what happens when that quality is expressed. People improve their performance as they discover qualities, or inner resources, that they didn’t know they had.  (Readers who want to know more about Tim Gallwey’s inner game approach may be interested to listen to a podcast I have prepared.)

The point that needs to be emphasized is that if we assert that we are inherently lacking in desired qualities (wisdom, temperance, integrity, courage, self-trust etc.) we are fooling ourselves. We all have potential to demonstrate qualities that we perceive to be lacking by asking ourselves what we would be thinking or doing if we believed that we possessed those qualities to a greater extent than at present.

So, I ask myself: If I was a wiser person, what would I be thinking right now? I am thinking that it would be wise to end this now and leave readers to contemplate their answers to that question. 

Saturday, March 4, 2023

What does it mean to be an Aristotelian?

 

In my view,  Aristotelians are people who seek guidance from Aristotle's ethics in considering how to live their lives. Please read on for an explanation.

I was prompted to pose this his question by an article by John Sellars entitled ‘How to be an Aristotelian’ (recently published in Antigone).  While thinking about the question I read Sellars’ new book, Aristotle, Understanding the World’s Greatest Philosopher. By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Stoicism Today, Volume 4, which contains an article by John Sellars entitled ‘Hard Truths and Happiness’. I mention the Stoicism article because the approach that Sellars adopts in discussing what it means to be a Stoic seems to me to be relevant to considering what it means to be an Aristotelian. (I also think many of the articles in Stoicism Today are worth reading. It is fascinating to read about how people seek to apply this ancient philosophy in their daily lives.)

This article will meander around, so it is particularly important in this instance to foreshadow what I am going to tell you before I tell it to you. I will begin by outlining Sellars’ view about what it means to be a Stoic. I will then discuss the view Sellars presents of what it means to be an Aristotelian in his Antigone article before moving to a discussion of the approach he adopts in his book. I will conclude with some personal comments on what it means to be an Aristotelian.

What principles do you need to accept to be a Stoic?

In his Stoicism Today article, John Sellars’ argues that Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well. Stoicism is a philosophy which makes claims about the nature of the world. It is a way of living, not merely a collection of exercises, or therapies, aimed at making people feel happy. Stoics believe that learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works. However, Sellars implies that means more than just a commonsense understanding. He argues that if you want to get to grips with Stoic philosophy as a way of life, you need to get to grips with the fundamental principle that “everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change”.

Everything in this world does seem to be in a process of continual change. Perhaps everything in the cosmos is matter. Who knows? I am not even sure what that means. In any case, I don’t understand how trying to get my head around the ultimate nature of the cosmos would make me a better human. It is interesting to read about the Higgs boson etc. but that seems to have less relevance in considering how I should live my life than the views of Robert Higgs on Facebook.

What principles do you need to accept to be an Aristotelian?

In his Antigone article, John Sellars makes what he describes as “a wild claim” that Aristotle “is the single most important human being ever to have lived”. To support that claim he finds reasons to rule out Jesus and other possible candidates. However, his main argument is that Aristotle shaped the way we think about so many things including by laying “the foundations for all empirical science”.

In considering what it means to be an Aristotelian, Sellars suggests that there are two ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian. The first involves “dogmatic Aristotelianism” – to subscribe to the truthfulness of the assertions that Aristotle made in the texts that he left behind. The second simply involves joining Aristotle in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the Antigone article in a Facebook post. In his response, Roderick Long, a philosopher, wrote:

Seems like a false dichotomy:  either being an Aristotelean means being a rigid, dogmatic adherent of a fixed and detailed Aristotelean system, or else it means something so watered down that any sincere seeker after truth counts as an Aristotelean.  Neither of these, of course, is what we who call ourselves Aristoteleans mean by Aristoteleanism.  Sellars is unfortunately failing to reckon with the possibility that we can learn not just from Aristotle's truth-seeking attitude but from his actual arguments.”

My response to Roderick: 

“I am inclined to agree with you. However, when I praise Aristotle’s arguments about happiness, ethics etc. I am sometimes reminded (by people with science training) of all the things that Aristotle got wrong. So, if a case can be made that he was an early advocate of scientific method (rather than a dogmatist) that does seem an important rhetorical point”.

I added that I was interested to read Sellars’ book, to see what he writes there about Aristotle’s arguments.

What does Sellars’ book say about Aristotle’s arguments?


John Sellars’ book is a short intellectual history of Aristotle. It is intended to serve as an introductory text but some people who already have some knowledge of Aristotle’s writings may also benefit from reading it. I found it enlightening because I had not previously considered how one thing may have led to another in the development of Aristotle’s views at different stages of his life. For example, the time Aristotle spent studying animals on Lesbos seems to have been important in his rejection of reductive materialism and the development of his thoughts about the purposes of living organisms, including humans.

In the book, Sellars provides an account of Aristotle’s struggle with Plato’s views and the development of his own ideas about being, substance, the idea that natural entities have intrinsic purposes (natural teleology) and the difference between actuality and potentiality. He summarises thus Aristotle’s argument about what it means to be a human being:

“So, a human being is a living thing with a certain set of capacities: the ability to grow, move, and reproduce. These capacities are ones that we share with other animals. The distinctive capacity of humans, Aristotle says, is the ability to reason: humans are rational animals. The defining characteristic of humans, then, is the ability to think rationally. The vast majority of adult humans have this capacity; we are all, we might say, potentially thinking beings. However, we are only truly thinking beings when we are actually thinking, when we actualize that potential and use the capacity. In short, to be a human being is not to exist statically, but instead to engage in a whole range of distinctively human activities, the most important of which is thinking.”

However, the book also presents Sellars’ view, referred to above, that there are two different ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian and that he prefers the second view - being an Aristotelian simply involves joining him in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

While I think Sellars view of what it means to be an Aristotelian is excessively broad, I think he performs a useful service in demolishing the view that Aristotle was a dogmatist. He notes that some thinkers in the 16th century, who were critical of clerical dogmatism, were aware that Aristotle was a champion of observation and open inquiry. He notes that even Galileo was happy to describe himself as an Aristotelian because he knew that Aristotle recognised that every theory is open to refutation by further observation.

My view

As already noted, I find it difficult to accept that everyone who is trying to understand the world in which we live is an Aristotelian. I think that is a necessary condition to be an Aristotelian, but not a sufficient condition.

It seems to me that Aristotelians accept certain philosophical principles, such as natural teleology, that are not accepted by everyone who is trying to understand the world. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy is not sufficient to enable me to advance that argument with much confidence. Perhaps I am wrong. If you think that is so, please tell me why.

My main point is that in considering what it means to be an Aristotelian it is appropriate to adopt a line of argument like that adopted by John Sellars in considering what it means to be a Stoic. Like Stoics, Aristotelians are also guided by a philosophy which is concerned with what it means to live well. That philosophy is Aristotelian ethics.

The passage from Sellars’ book about the nature of a human being (quoted above) describes the philosophic foundation for Aristotelian ethics.

Many people who are trying to understand the world have no understanding of Aristotelian ethics and obtain no guidance from it in how they live their lives. I don’t think it makes sense to view such people as Aristotelians.


Friday, August 9, 2019

How could the great philosopher of human flourishing endorse slavery?


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was the great philosopher of human flourishing. He argued that although health, wealth, honour, pleasure etc. may be sought for themselves, we choose them also for the sake of living well. Living well involves making use of the vital functions that make us human. Many of the vital functions of humans, including nutrition, reproduction and movement, are the same as those of other animals. However, humans also have the capacity to use reason to guide themselves and exercise appropriate moderation in their behaviour. Parents and fellow citizens may help us to acquire good habits, but we are individually responsible for exercising the practical wisdom that we require to flourish.


It would be reasonable to expect that a person who held such views would be opposed to slavery on the grounds that slaves can only use reason to guide their actions within the limits imposed by their owners. So, how could Aristotle endorse slavery?

Julia Annas explains in The Morality of Happiness that Aristotle saw slavery to be natural. His appeal to nature has two aspects. The first is his claim that slavery has a natural basis in differences between types of people. According to Aristotle, there are “natural slaves” whose “state is such that their function is the use of their body, and this is the best they can do”. On that basis he argues that “it is better for them to be ruled”. He also suggests that the benefits owners obtain from use of slaves “differs only a little” from those obtained from use of domesticated animals. Aristotle saw the relationship of subordination between owner and slave as an example of a general pattern, also encompassing the relations between men and women (p 152).

The second aspect of Aristotle’s appeal to nature was based on his observation that slavery was widespread and should therefore be considered natural.  (p 153).

Julia Annas suggests that Aristotle’s defence of slavery fails even in terms of his own view of what is natural. Aristotle distinguishes between natural behaviour, governed by internal sources of change, and forced behaviour, brought about by external factors that overrule the internal sources of change. Even if we were to accept Aristotle’s claim that some people are natural slaves, that cannot explain the functioning of actual slavery which is based on the use of force.  Again, Aristotle’s observation that slavery was a “near universal social institution” did not justify his inference that it is natural in the sense of not resting on force. Annas comments:
The usual may be natural with plants and animals, but the complexity of human nature allows the usual to be something that is forcibly repressed, unjust and in every way frustrating to normal human capacities” (p 155).

How could Aristotle not see this? Perhaps he perceived that some people are natural slaves because he couldn’t imagine the slaves he knew as free citizens. Many of us have a somewhat similar problem today is assessing the potential of individuals to accept more responsibility than they have at present. There seems to be a common cognitive bias that leads us to identify people with their current roles. We don’t know what people are capable of until we see them in a different role.

Aristotle’s perception that it was natural to make slaves of defeated enemies can possibly be explained as the biased perception of a slave owner, but his loose definition of circumstances in which external force is involved left him scope to take a biased view. He was able to disregard the use of force at the heart of the system of conquest and slavery by identifying the whole system as a natural system.

Similarly, Aristotle’s loose definition of circumstances in which external force is involved enabled him to condemn the profit motive and the market economy. In this instance he identified the natural system as the primitive system of directly producing what meets one’s needs, and only using exchange as much as required to satisfy unmet needs and get rid of unusable surplus. That enabled him to identify the market economy as an external force that disrupted a natural system.

Aristotle’s view of what is natural would have been less prone to bias if it had been based on the natural rights of individuals, and hence the naturalness of mutually beneficial voluntary cooperation and exchange among individuals. That would have made it much more difficult for him to condone any use of force (coercion) that constrains individual flourishing.

However, we shouldn’t judge Aristotle too harshly for his wobbly views about what is natural. It is worth remembering, that a more coherent view of natural law didn’t prevent eminent philosophers who lived much later from also endorsing slavery. For example, Thomas Aquinas, who lived over 1500 years after Aristotle, also endorsed slavery despite holding the view that the first precept of the natural law is to do good and avoid evil.

A question worth exploring further is the extent to which Aristotle’s views on the potential for individual human flourishing played a role in the eventual recognition of the natural rights of individuals, via Aquinas’ endorsement of those views in his natural law theory of morality.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What was Aristotle's secret of happiness?


Aristotle held that being happy is the same as living well and doing well – it involves fulfillment of potentials inherent in each individual human. From this perspective, happiness is activity in conformity with virtue. It is acquired through practice in much the same way as one might learn an art or craft. Aristotle’s view rests on the view that emotions are not inherently good or bad. Virtue lies in avoiding excess or deficiency:
For example, one can be frightened or bold, feel desire or anger or pity, and experience pleasure and pain in general, either too much or too little, and in both cases wrongly; whereas to feel these feelings at the right time, on the right occasion, towards the right people, for the right purpose and in the right manner, is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount - and the best amount is of course the mark of virtue. And similarly, there can be excess, deficiency, and the due mean in actions. Now feelings and actions are the objects with which virtue is concerned; and in feelings and actions excess and deficiency are errors, while the mean amount is praised, and constitutes success; and to be praised and to be successful are both marks of virtue.” Nicomachean EthicsBook 2.


Aristotle acknowledged “happiness does seem to require the addition of external prosperity”, but he regarded notions that happiness can be identified with wealth, pleasure, health, honour or good fortune as superficial.

Aristotle’s view also differs from the modern view of happiness as a state of contentment, as satisfaction with life, or as the absence of symptoms of depression.

Many psychologists maintain that since Aristotle’s teachings on happiness were about ethics - how people should live their lives – they have little relevance to the question of what makes people happy. Subjective well-being research has been dominated by the view that happiness is about the balance between pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Even the use of life satisfaction, which has some cognitive content, has been grounded largely in utilitarian philosophy. More recently, some researchers have sought to introduce eudaimonic considerations by asking respondents about feelings of autonomy and competence, the quality of personal relationships and whether they feel that their lives are meaningful.

Aristotle would not have accepted a distinction between living a virtuous life and living a pleasant life. He maintained: “happiness is at once the best, the noblest, and the pleasantest of all things”. Similar views have been expressed by some modern philosophers. For example, Neera Badhwar writes: “the integration of emotional dispositions with intellectual (especially deliberative dispositions), which is required by virtue, makes virtue highly conducive to happiness, since a common source of unhappiness is conflict between our emotions and our evaluations” (Well-being, Happiness in a worthwhile life, p 152).

Can Aristotle’s view about the desirability of minimising the excess or deficiency of emotions be tested empirically? Some conditions need to be met before empirical testing is possible. First, we need a measure of human flourishing. In the absence of anything better, we might need to be prepared to accept some standard measures of life satisfaction, for example, as an indicator of human flourishing. Second, we need to be able to accept that the individual is an appropriate judge of “right feelings”, so that any excess or deficiency of emotion can be measured as the difference between right feelings and actual feelings. I’m not sure whether Aristotle would have accepted the second condition, but I don’t have a problem with it.

Some such testing has been reported in a recent article entitled ‘The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?’  by Maya Tamir, Shalom H. Schwartz, Shige Oishi, and Min Y. Kim. The study was based on a cross-cultural sample of 2,324 participants from 8 countries around the world. The researchers used statistical analysis to explain happiness in terms of the discrepancy between desired and actual emotion. Their analysis controlled for experienced emotion, desired emotion and some other variables. They measured happiness both as life satisfaction and the absence of depressive symptoms. The analysis focused on four categories of emotion: self-transcending emotions (love, affection, trust, empathy, compassion); negative self-enhancing emotions (anger, contempt, hostility, hatred); opening emotions (interest, curiosity, excitement, enthusiasm, passion); and conserving emotions (calmness, relaxation, relief, contentment).

As expected, the researchers found that people were happier the more they experienced pleasant emotions and the less they experienced unpleasant emotions. However, they also found that people were happier when they experienced smaller discrepancies between the emotions they experienced and the emotions they desired.

In accordance with the Aristotelian prediction people were happier when they felt the emotion they desired, even when that emotion was unpleasant.

The authors concluded:

“The secret to happiness, then, may involve not only feeling good but also feeling right.”

The authors note that their findings are consistent with two different interpretations: happiness is related to experiencing the emotions one desires, or happiness is related to desiring the emotions one experiences. In either case it may be reasonable to speculate that awareness of a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion leads people to engage in struggles that make them unhappy – whether they are struggling to change their cognitions or their emotions.

What advice would Aristotle offer to a person who felt unhappy as a result of a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion? Would he tell that person to obtain cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help bring their emotions under the control of reason? He certainly emphasized the importance of practical reason, so he might have seen merit in CBT.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the context in which Aristotle advocated “right” emotions was more about the nature of virtue than about the emotional benefits of self-control, even though he recognised the latter aspect. In modern terms, it seemed to me that Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of emotional moderation translates to a discussion about values. The message I take is that to have lives worth living we need to look our values and to behave like the persons we want to become.