What is the Good Life?

Philosophy is broadly concerned with two questions: what is there (i.e. what exists)? And what is the good life? The former still holds a prominent place in philosophy. The latter has undergone an evolution. If it is asked now days, it is usually rephrased something more like: how can I maximize pleasure and reduce suffering? But is this the question we ought to be asking?

This post inspired by this one on The American Conservative.

In the article linked above, Rod Dreher quotes a thought experiment by Robert Nozick:

What matters other than how people’s experiences feel “from the inside”? Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper 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’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?

The idea here is wondering if the truth of the world – perhaps the answer to the question “what is there?” – matters when it comes to the second question of “what is the good life?” It is the famous question behind The Matrix of whether to take the blue pill or the red pill. Dreher quotes the Catholic philosopher Jennifer Frey to make the point that secularism has turned “the good life” into “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.”

Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist, is a star psychology professor at Yale. She is world-renowned for a course she taught in 2018 titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” which made headlines when over a quarter of Yale’s undergrads enrolled. Santos assures young Yalies—and now, through online coursework and a popular podcast, the rest of us—that we can all live happier lives with the scientific, “evidence-based tricks” she teaches. This is critical since—as Santos is quick to inform us—students at Yale, despite being poised to take over the levers of wealth and power in this country, turn out to be anxious, depressed, lonely and adrift. With good-hearted cheer and solid technique, Santos aims to change this—indeed, she claims to have transformed thousands of lives through her lectures.

I came to know of Santos by way of an invitation to participate in a dialogue with her, which was extended to me by some Christian student organizations at Yale. I am a philosopher who works at the flagship university of the state of South Carolina, where we were, at the time, at the tail end of a multimillion-dollar grant project bringing together philosophers, theologians and psychologists to explore how virtue, happiness and meaning in life might be plausibly related. I am also a Roman Catholic reasonably well-versed in my own intellectual tradition. Presumably, I had been summoned to remind students that Christian philosophers and theologians have concerned themselves with the question of happiness for over two millennia now, and this too is worthy of our attention.

The first stop on my trip to Yale was to visit Santos’s famous class. The topic that day was procrastination, and its upshot was the demonstration of a technique for students to reprogram their brains for better time management, enabling them to be more successful and productive. Santos, like most social and cognitive scientists, thinks of happiness within an entirely subjective frame. Happiness is about feeling good, which means experiencing more positive than negative psychological states over a period of time. This suggests, of course, that a life is nothing more than a series of moments we might call good or bad depending on how they made us feel, and the good life one with more good than bad in the final tally. What Santos calls “life hacks” and “science-based tips”—in this case, to enhance students’ time-management skills—are mere techniques for ensuring, as much as one can, that one’s psychological perspective has a net gain on the positive side. As Santos herself admits, it makes no difference whether the objects that make you feel happy are even real, let alone tethered in some way to the demands of morality.

Santos made this commitment plain during a dialogue that night with me in front of about six hundred Yale students. To test how wedded she was to the idea that happiness was fundamentally a subjective state, I posed the following hypothetical: if we could design a virtual-reality machine that was sophisticated enough to guarantee that we could no longer tell the difference between real goods and their simulacra, would she choose a “happy life” plugged into a machine over the complicated mess of a real human life? Without skipping a beat, Santos replied that she would certainly choose the solipsistic “happiness” the machine offers. This was when I realized that Santos’s vision was much darker than the gimmicky self-help she had offered earlier that afternoon.

In the movie The Matrix, of course, the decision is between living a lie that increases pleasure and reduces suffering and a truth that reduces pleasure and increases suffering. But what about between a lie and a truth that both have the same number of pleasurable and unpleasurable psychological states? In the post above, Rod Dreher quotes a reader who wrote in to him:

I’ve been a grad-student in philosophy since 2016, first at [university] (for an MA), and now at [university] (for a PhD). So I’ve had to lead discussion sections as a TA, and have also taught classes as the instructor of record for undergrads where we’ve talked about Nozick and his Experience Machine. My experience is much as you say, that the thought experiment doesn’t really work anymore, because students think that being in the machine is just fine. From talking to professors who have been teaching students for more than 30 years, they say there’s been a steady decline over the years in students who respond to it in the way you and I do.

However, I did find a similar thought experiment, I forget where I read it, though it might also be from Nozick, which tends to bring some students over to the other side.

Imagine two lives, Life A and Life B, which internally to the subject, let’s call him “Rod Dreher,” are identical.

In Life A, Rod is a successful columnist for The American Conservative. His readers really appreciate his work, his wife loves him, his children respect him, and his employers really value his work. He feels that he has a pretty good life.

In Life B, everything seems the same to Rod, but His readers think he’s a clown, though they respond just the way they do in Life A, his wife stopped loving him years ago, and has been cheating on him, though she perfectly hides her infidelity. His children have nothing but contempt for him, though they’re outwardly respectful. His employers keep him on, but they mock him behind his back. But Rod B feels exactly the same as Rod A.

So the question is: Is one life, A or B, better than the other? Which life would you rather have, given the choice? If you think Life A is better, why do you think so? If you think they’re equivalent, why do you think so? If it’s because the affective experience is the same, I would ask: Does it matter to you that your wife really loves you, or just that you think your wife loves you?

A lot of students who say they would be plugged into the Experience Machine will come over to the other side given this thought experiment. I think they start to get the intuition that there’s something important about reality—that we’re genuinely valued by others, or that we have legitimately accomplished something, that matters. For some reason, the Experience Machine example doesn’t bring this intuition out anymore. Figuring out why this is would be an interesting project, which fortunately for me, is outside of my bailiwick.

As the reader points out, both scenarios are the same – being plugged into the experience machine and living in blissful ignorance of people’s true feelings. Dreher goes on to compare the experience machine to video games and the internet, which is a fascinating topic in itself (and I encourage you to read his article), but here I am interested in the philosophical question itself of whether “what there is” matters to “what is the good life?”

I feel like I would be a prime candidate for the experience machine. I am a philosophical pessimist, a (borderline) nihilist, and an atheist. Yet I have always had the attitude that the truth matters. Despite my issues with depression and substance abuse, I have always maintained, at least in principle if not in practice, that an unpleasant truth is better than a pleasant lie. I would take the red pill. I would refuse the experience machine. I would prefer that my loved ones actually love me than that they don’t, but act like they do. I even find the idea that we live in a simulation somewhat distressing, knowing that everything would be a lie.

I think this is why I am drawn toward studying non-fiction – things like science, philosophy, history – as opposed to fiction. I find fiction fun, just like anyone else, but I don’t delve into literary criticism or analyses of movies and TV shows as much as I do with topics about the real world. Certainly there are insights to be gained about the human condition and the real world through analysis of the arts, and I do indulge in these practices, but it still has this feeling to me of studying something that isn’t real. A person creates something and then others sit around commenting on it, then other people comment on the commentary, and then other people comment on that, and we end up with simulacra of original thought. It’s even worse with “reality” TV shows, because those are both fake and lack any sort of layering that can give insight into the human condition.

I know that this is reductionist and that there is a lot of benefit to analyzing culture and the arts. It is both absurd, and hypocritical, of me to reduce the importance of the arts as compared to the sciences. But my point is to illustrate that I have a perhaps irrational attachment to the truth – or maybe we could even say the Truth.

The question is: why? Why does the truth have value? According to the theory of value in economics, what I value ought to be what brings me pleasure. I think this conflation of economic, or utilitarian, value as the pursuit of pleasure with what we ought to value in a more philosophical sense (i.e. the good life) is one of the places where things have gone wrong. When Jennifer Frey is surprised by Laurie Santos’ instant willingness to take pleasurable lies over (potentially) painful truths, it is because Santos has made the conflation of our economic theories of what we ought to do with our money so as to maximize utility with our philosophical theories of how we ought to live our lives and how we ought to answer the question “what is the good life?”.

When I purchase things, I want things that have maximum utility (in accordance with my budget), because objects have functions. That is the meaning of an object for me: its function. The meaning of an object is its functionality. But to turn myself into a thing whose utility is pleasure, and therefore I want to maximize pleasure, is to objectify myself. To make myself nothing more than my function. But if there isn’t anything more than the physical world, and there is nothing more to a pleasurable moment than the fact that it is pleasurable to me, then why should the truth matter?

Rod Dreher, who is an Orthodox Christian, says this in the article linked at the top:

From a Christian point of view, our true home is Heaven, and the purpose of life is to live so that we will spend eternity there united with God. The goal is not simply to avoid Hell, but to participate fully in the life of God — and that starts right here, in this life.

This way of looking at things has never sat well with me. It seems to be shifting the utilitarian view up a level: the meaning of my life is not to maximize my own pleasure, but to maximize God’s pleasure. God created humans in order that He can love something in order to make Himself happy, and therefore my function, as one of God’s creations, is to ensure that God is happy; I should find my own highest happiness in maximizing God’s pleasure. The good life, then is a life that maximized God’s pleasure. It also makes me wonder about Heaven: is it the case that in Heaven our pleasure is maximized (because in Heaven we are best able to participate fully in the life of God, or have proven that the life we lived on earth had maximized God’s pleasure)? Is that what Heaven is? The place where maximal pleasure can be, and is, achieved? Because that seems to go against the idea that we ought to strive for more than maximizing the number of pleasurable psychological states (whether our own or God’s).

Rationality can be described as 1) knowing what sorts of ends will maximize utility for me and 2) being able to discern the correct means for achieving those ends. The first one is required because, for instance, a heroin addict may be good at knowing how to score more heroin, but using heroin would not usually be considered an end that will maximize pleasure. The second is required because, if I have the end of maximizing my revenue, buying frivolous knickknacks or playing roulette would be a bad way of doing that. When the ends and the means align, that is rational.

The point of this is to say that, from a utilitarian point of view, it is rational to desire pleasant lies over (potentially) unpleasant truths. If my end – my goal – is maximizing the number of pleasurable psychological states, which at least prima facie seems like an end worth working towards, then hooking myself up to the experience machine would be a means to achieving that end. But this is under the assumption that maximal pleasure is the only worthy goal. We can break this down to two hypothetical statements:

1. If you value pleasure over truth, then you ought to hook up to the experience machine
2. If you value truth over pleasure, then you ought not hook up to the experience machine

I think, in a way, my philosophical pessimism and nihilism sort of direct me toward number two – toward valuing truth over pleasure. I always liked the quote from Joss Whedon‘s show Angel: “if nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do.” (Look at me, I am analyzing a work of fiction; hypocrisy truly is the tribute vice pays to virtue). That my life is pleasurable does not, in the long run, matter. I am destined to be forgotten, an anonymous nobody among droves of nobodies.

However, given my views on the supreme principle of morality being based on consciousness, the things I do to maximize conscious experience – not just experiences of pleasure, but of consciousness itself – is what I ought to establish as my ends. Searching for, and doing what will succeed in finding, the Truth is what will maximize conscious experience. It’s what I called in the linked post the Principle of Wisdom:

Expanding one’s knowledge and understanding of the world. Only through a deep understanding of both nature and humanity can a person grow in wisdom, thereby one’s conscious experience of the world. By learning more, and having a greater pool of knowledge to draw upon, provides a richer experience of one’s conscious existence.

Think about when a person becomes more and more of an expert on a genre of music. The person who is still a neophyte in that genre may complain that every song sounds the same. The expert, however, will be able to discern differences and thereby have a richer experience of listening to that music. In this instance, the expert’s capacity for conscious experience is greater. The same can be extrapolated to existence itself. The person who is more knowledgeable will have a richer experience of the world than the ignoramus.

It is, in a way, another roundabout path toward maximizing pleasure. It is simply saying that there is something intrinsically pleasurable about the Truth. I don’t think, given how humans have evolved, that it is possible to completely escape the attraction of pleasure in some form as an ultimate end. The brain is such that the good will always be inexorably entwined with the pleasurable. What it comes down to is what sort of pleasure we are talking about: the pleasure we get from finding our lives meaningful and filled with purpose? The pleasure we get from the company of others? The pleasure we get from the senses? The pleasure we get from creating “content” vs. the pleasure we get from consuming “content”? Immediate pleasures or long-term pleasures (i.e. being able to look back on our lives and feel good about how we lived our life)?

Psychology has shown what philosophers long suspected: that the sorts of sense pleasure that is held as the highest good in our modern times does not lead to overall happiness; people need to feel meaning, purpose, and community. When we discover that there is no “higher” purpose (i.e. what was long believed to be our function, i.e. maximizing God’s happiness, was not the truth), then we are condemned to freedom. It is difficult to find a purpose for ourselves, so we accepted sense pleasure as a poor substitute.

Main image from here.

Leave a Reply