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It seems we like to tell one another that it is important to feel negative

It seems we like to tell one another that it is important to feel negative emotions, like sadness or confusion or grief, because it is an important part of being human. Is this really the case, or could we just as well do without grief and despair? Conversely, is it also an important part of being human to feel rage, or hatred towards someone or something?

There are two ways to read your questions:

1. Would we be better off never feeling negative emotions because they were never called for--i.e., because we never experienced the sorts of events that make grief or anger an appropriate reaction? Or...

2. Would we be better off never feeling negative emotions regardless of what happens to us?

I am inclined to answer 'no' to the second question. While some (e.g., Stoics and Buddhists, at least on an oversimplified reading) suggest that we should approach negative events with a level of detachment that make grief, anger, or despair inappropriate, and the wise or enlightened person will reach a point where she can avoid feeling such emotions, I find that approach inappropriate. I think it would be both mistaken and almost inhuman not to feel grief at the death of one's child or not to feel some level of anger at the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 (whether despair is ever appropriate is trickier). So, I do not think we would be better off if we could get ourselves to stop feeling these emotions no matter what happens to us. There's another question here, which is whether we could have been built such that the appropriate response to tragic events was not negative emotions, but if that were the case, I'm more inclined to say we would not really be human anymore (notice the Stoic or Buddhist is not built so as to never feel these emotions; he has to develop that attitude).

The first interpretation of your question suggests the debate about the problem of evil and suffering. It seems like an all-good, all-powerful God could have made this world a 'heaven on earth' such that we could be built the way we are but we simply did not face any (or many) tragic events. Then we could be human and still avoid any (or as much) despair, grief, anger, and suffering. Wouldn't that be the best of all possible worlds? Well, answers vary here. Some think tragic events and our appropriate emotional responses to them are necessary for us to become better people, build virtues like courage, and learn to empathize (of course, without tragedy, the need for courage and empathy is minimized). When I teach the problem of evil, I like to point out that without tragedies and the negative emotions that go with them, we'd certainly have less interesting literature and movies. But I have to say, I don't think this whimsical point nor the 'soul-building' defense are strong enough to explain why an all-good God would allow so much suffering (especially so much suffering of innocent children).

Here's a riddle your question raises too: If God exists and is entirely perfect, does he (can he) feel any negative emotions, such as grief and anger? If so, how? If not, then it would suggest we'd be more perfect if we were less human and more godly.

There are two ways to read your questions: 1. Would we be better off never feeling negative emotions because they were never called for--i.e., because we never experienced the sorts of events that make grief or anger an appropriate reaction? Or... 2. Would we be better off never feeling negative emotions regardless of what happens to us? I am inclined to answer 'no' to the second question. While some (e.g., Stoics and Buddhists, at least on an oversimplified reading) suggest that we should approach negative events with a level of detachment that make grief, anger, or despair inappropriate, and the wise or enlightened person will reach a point where she can avoid feeling such emotions, I find that approach inappropriate. I think it would be both mistaken and almost inhuman not to feel grief at the death of one's child or not to feel some level of anger at the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 (whether despair is ever appropriate is trickier). So, I do not think we would be...

If free will does not exist -- i.e, each person is only an observer experiencing

If free will does not exist -- i.e, each person is only an observer experiencing but never actually choosing or deciding anything -- can life still be meaningful?

This is an important question, since it might be that one of the reasons we worry about whether we have free will is that free will is required for life to be meaningful. If so, then any threat to our free will would also make life meaningless. (Actually, as I write that sentence, it makes me wonder if a person's life can only be meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that word, if it has a possibility of being meaningful--is a worm's life meaningless or does that word simply not apply?) But is free will required for life to have meaning?

As usual (with philosophical questions like this), a lot depends on what we mean by 'free will' and 'meaningful life'. My own view is that a theory of free will needs to be about the powers of control that matter to us, so it doesn't make sense to define free will in such a way that losing it would not matter and such that having it would not matter. If, for instance, free will is defined as some magical ability to exist outside of the natural order of things, then I'm not sure why it would matter if we don't have it. But if, as you suggest, free will is the power to make choices and have your decisions make a difference to what happens, rather than just being a helpless bystander observing what happens, then it would be terrible not to have free will. And I find it hard to see how life could be meaningful without such free will, since it seems like part of what makes life meaningful is deciding what sorts of goals and plans you have and making choices that help you achieve those goals and plans.

I should emphasize that I am a compatibilist about free will and determinism (as I explain here), so I don't think that the truth of determinism would make life lack meaning because it would not make us mere observers whose decisions didn't make a difference. But figuring out how free will works is no easy task. And figuring out what makes life meaningful is even harder.

This is an important question, since it might be that one of the reasons we worry about whether we have free will is that free will is required for life to be meaningful. If so, then any threat to our free will would also make life meaningless. (Actually, as I write that sentence, it makes me wonder if a person's life can only be meaningless , in the ordinary sense of that word, if it has a possibility of being meaningful--is a worm's life meaningless or does that word simply not apply?) But is free will required for life to have meaning? As usual (with philosophical questions like this), a lot depends on what we mean by 'free will' and 'meaningful life'. My own view is that a theory of free will needs to be about the powers of control that matter to us, so it doesn't make sense to define free will in such a way that losing it would not matter and such that having it would not matter. If, for instance, free will is defined as some magical ability to exist outside of the natural order of...

Can philosophy help us live 'better' lives?

Can philosophy help us live 'better' lives?

I hope so. And I think so. Especially if we understand philosophy in a general way to involve careful reflection on what we should be doing with our lives and how we should structure our relationships and societies, I think it can help us live better lives. While reflection isn't always good (e.g., in the middle of making a tennis shot or a guitar solo), surely it is often necessary in order to see how our ideas of what it means to lead a good life and create a good community are consistent with each other and with what other people in our community think. And when we see that they are inconsistent, we can consider how best to reconcile them to find what might be called reflective equilibrium. Another way of putting these points is to say that, whether we know it or not, we all have a philosophy (a set of ideas of which we are more or less aware) that guides our decision-making and personal interactions. It seems that trying to figure out what our philosophy is will make it more likely that we will live better lives at least in the sense of living lives that better reflect our own philosophy. (Of course, some people are very aware of their philosophy but have very bad ideas about how to live, so self-reflection alone is not sufficient for leading a good life.)

OK, but maybe you are asking whether philosophy, as it is practiced by professional philosophers, can help us live better lives (I'm not sure why you put 'better' in quotation marks--perhaps because you worry that better and worse are subjective, in which case, I hope philosophy can make us lead (for real!) better lives in part by helping us see that some lives really are better than others--e.g., Elie Wiesel has really led a better life than Bernie Madoff). The answer to this question is harder, but I still hope and think that the answer is 'yes.' I hope that professional philosophers can help students do the sort of reflection suggested above and do it better than they might have otherwise. I hope we can help scientists think more clearly about some of the problems they consider (e.g., in my own case, the issue of free will and responsible agency). And I hope we can help politicians, lawyers, doctors, secret agents, etc.--the people who most directly influence the way we structure our societal relations--think more clearly about the reasons they are doing what they are doing. By helping systematize our thinking about certain subjects--e.g., what a theory is, what a political philosophy is, what counts as knowledge--I think we can, at a large scale, better achieve what I suggested above we need to do at the individual level: reflect on what we should be doing with our lives and how we should structure our social relationships in order to make them internally consistent and maximally effective.

I hope so. And I think so. Especially if we understand philosophy in a general way to involve careful reflection on what we should be doing with our lives and how we should structure our relationships and societies, I think it can help us live better lives. While reflection isn't always good (e.g., in the middle of making a tennis shot or a guitar solo), surely it is often necessary in order to see how our ideas of what it means to lead a good life and create a good community are consistent with each other and with what other people in our community think. And when we see that they are inconsistent , we can consider how best to reconcile them to find what might be called reflective equilibrium . Another way of putting these points is to say that, whether we know it or not, we all have a philosophy (a set of ideas of which we are more or less aware) that guides our decision-making and personal interactions. It seems that trying to figure out what our philosophy is will make it more likely...

Why do so many equate 'natural' with 'good?' It seems to me as though there are

Why do so many equate 'natural' with 'good?' It seems to me as though there are loads of cases stating the very opposite. So is what is natural always what is good?

To answer your second question first, you are correct that what is natural is not always good (though of course we need to know what we mean by "natural" and "good"). For instance, if we mean by "natural" what humans have strong desires to do, presumably in part because of our evolutionary history, then it will be natural for humans to eat pretty much as much sugar and salt and fat as we can (in the environments in which we evolved, sugar, salt, and fat, all of which are crucial for survival, were scarce enough that there would be little selection pressure to limit consumption of them). But if by "good" we mean what will keep us healthy and alive, then in our current environment, our natural desires to eat so much sugar, salt, and fat are not good. What is natural is not good.

Similar arguments might be given for a variety of desires or behaviors, which humans plausibly have developed in part because of our (natural) selective history, and which we would not call good: promiscuity, racism, sexism, greed, aggression (especially between males and between "tribes), hierarchical social systems, etc. Of course, our selective history also likely endowed us with desires to be faithful to the parent of our children, to be generous (at least to some conspecifics, especially family), to control aggression, to limit inequities, etc.

The upshot is that we have lots of competing "natural" desires and traits, and our cultures and upbringing shape them in various ways, so getting us to desire and do what is good might require shaping what is natural in certain ways.

Now, why do so many equate 'natural' with 'good'? Good question. Perhaps some do it because, as I just pointed out, our good desires and traits are also part of our nature (everything about us is part of our nature!), so a lot of what is natural is good. A related reason is that people may have reason to think that what is unnatural is not good, if what is unnatural involves corruption of what is naturally good in us or the world.

Finally, some may make this move for religious reasons. God made nature. God is good. So, what is natural is good. (And what is unnatural must be bad because it is "against God".)

I don't take any of these reasons to be any good. (In philosophy, these sorts of questions sometimes gets discussed in terms of Hume's "is-ought gap" or the "naturalistic fallacy.")

To answer your second question first, you are correct that what is natural is not always good (though of course we need to know what we mean by "natural" and "good"). For instance, if we mean by "natural" what humans have strong desires to do, presumably in part because of our evolutionary history, then it will be natural for humans to eat pretty much as much sugar and salt and fat as we can (in the environments in which we evolved, sugar, salt, and fat, all of which are crucial for survival, were scarce enough that there would be little selection pressure to limit consumption of them). But if by "good" we mean what will keep us healthy and alive, then in our current environment, our natural desires to eat so much sugar, salt, and fat are not good. What is natural is not good. Similar arguments might be given for a variety of desires or behaviors, which humans plausibly have developed in part because of our (natural) selective history, and which we would not call good: promiscuity, racism...

Many ideas on the 'meaning of life' (assuming death is an ultimate fate of non

Many ideas on the 'meaning of life' (assuming death is an ultimate fate of non-existence) presuppose that meaning may still be derived in this world through the actions we make and the impact we leave, our 'legacies.' However, it is perfectly rational and scientifically plausible that not only will we die, but our entire race, world, and indeed the universe itself (at least this incarnation of it, assuming there ARE multiple incarnations) must some day end. Assuming this is in fact true, doesn't the argument that the meaning of life can be derived from our impact on the world seem, if not wholly incorrect, than at least rendered moot by the rather over bearing reality that whatever impact we have is not merely fleeting but permanently erased?

I would suggest reading a wonderful essay by Thomas Nagel titled "The Absurd" (try here). One point it makes is that if our lives would be absurd or meaningless if they are fleeting (or if human existence is fleeting and small), then they would just be more absurd if they were longer (e.g., eternal) or had a larger place in the universe. In this case, says Nagel, size doesn't matter.

Rather, what matters is whether our lives have meaning from within (e.g., from within our human cultures and relationships) rather than from some external (impossible?) point of view. And there looks to be every reason to think that our lives do have meaning from within--that the projects we engage in and the love we give and receive and the experiences we have, at least if they are good, are important, significant, meaningful, far from absurd. (Oh, and what makes them count as good is also determined, I think, from within our system of social and personal relationships, which makes morality and meaning relative to our systems, but this does not mean that they are entirely subjective or ungrounded).

I would suggest reading a wonderful essay by Thomas Nagel titled "The Absurd" (try here ). One point it makes is that if our lives would be absurd or meaningless if they are fleeting (or if human existence is fleeting and small), then they would just be more absurd if they were longer (e.g., eternal) or had a larger place in the universe. In this case, says Nagel, size doesn't matter . Rather, what matters is whether our lives have meaning from within (e.g., from within our human cultures and relationships) rather than from some external (impossible?) point of view. And there looks to be every reason to think that our lives do have meaning from within--that the projects we engage in and the love we give and receive and the experiences we have, at least if they are good, are important, significant, meaningful , far from absurd. (Oh, and what makes them count as good is also determined, I think, from within our system of social and personal relationships, which...

Is happiness really all that important?

Is happiness really all that important? A lot of people think so, but that being happy just for happiness' sake is a waste. If there was a "happiness pill" that could make me happy for the rest of my life, I wouldn't take it. Because if I did, I'd get lazy and wouldn't accomplish anything. It seems like the pill would be cheating. But on the other hand, I'm not so sure I'd want to be the most successful person in the world if it meant I could never be happy. So I have to wonder: is it happiness or the things that make us happy that we should value?

On this topic, I have always been intrigued by Simone de Beauvoir's comments in the introduction to The Second Sex. She says:

But we do not confuse the idea of private interest with that ofhappiness, although that is another common point of view. Are not womenof the harem more happy than women voters? Is not the housekeeperhappier than the working-woman? It is not too clear just what the word happyreally means and still less what true values it may mask. There is nopossibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easyto describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them.

In particular those who are condemned to stagnation are oftenpronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being atrest. This notion we reject, for our perspective is that ofexistentialist ethics. Every subject plays his part as suchspecifically through exploits or projects that serve as a mode oftranscendence; he achieves liberty only through a continual reachingout towards other liberties. There is no justification for presentexistence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future.Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, thereis a degradation of existence into the ‘en-sois’– the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of libertyinto constraint and contingence. This downfall represents a moral faultif the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spellsfrustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil. Everyindividual concerned to justify his existence feels that his existenceinvolves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freelychosen projects.

What this suggests to me is that happiness may be at odds with freedom or transcendence (these latter aren't necessarily the same, of course). The idea seems to be that genuine freedom (and transcendence) are difficult and one is not likely to be happy if one pursues them. And yet, they are more valuable than happiness. (And more valuable than the experience of being free or of transcendence.)

Others are likely to say that virtue is more valuable than happiness, and these two are often in conflict. Many philosophers have tried to argue that there is a necessary connection between virtue and happiness, but it is a hard case to make. For example, we often make commitments to others and it would seem that we have a duty to fulfill those commitments, even if doing so would make us worse off -- and even positively unhappy -- in both the short and long term.

I'm inclined to think that happiness, at least according to most interpretations, isn't the most important or valuable thing. Freedom and virtue are more important to me. Moreover, I'm also inclined to think that actively pursuing happiness isn't the best way to achieve it. This is connected to the idea of "flow" Eddy mentions. Happiness comes when you are engaged in meaningful activity that is well-suited to your abilities (it challenges you, but not too much); it's a byproduct of activity, not the goal of activity.

As usual with such a philosophical question, much depends on how you define the key concept, happiness . One conception of happiness identifies it with a type (or types) of feeling(s), such as contentment, joy, excitement, and pleasure. These are the feelings a happiness pill would presumably supply. And some utilitarians pick out this sort of happiness as what should be maximized. Some then object along the lines you suggest: utilitarianism seems to entail that we should want to take a happiness pill (and if things would keep running smoothly, for everyone to take happiness pills)--or for us all to enter a Matrix that would keep us all happy--but there seems to be something wrong with living on such a pill (or entering such a Matrix), so there must be something wrong with utilitarianism. This objection works against egoism as well (the view that all we want is pleasure). Perhaps the intuition here is that only 'authentic' happiness is truly valuable, the sort of happiness that one derives...