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It seems that many philosophical positions are very depressing and scary. For

It seems that many philosophical positions are very depressing and scary. For example, a world without God, a world without freedom, or a world where everything can be explained away by science, even a world where everything that makes us human can be reduced to neuroscience. Not all philosophers endorse these views I know but how can some philosophers be happy people and live fulfilling lives with some of the positions in philosophy? I enjoy philosophy but some of the possibilities scare me or worry me too much for me to think about.

Whether one finds view, philosophical or otherwise, is depressing or scary is likely a function of one’s prior beliefs. If you already belief that God is the source of all things, has endowed us with freedom, and is the ultimate moral authority, then challenges to the existence of God may indeed be scary and depressing. But many atheists believe that there couldn’t be a being of the sort that provides the positive explanations of the existence of the universe, human freedom, and morality. But it doesn’t follow that such individuals can’t embrace non-theistic answers to such questions. Atheists can and do theorize about the origin of the universe, the nature of human agency, and the specialness of humanity. One who believes that the mind can be understood by neuroscience doesn’t think that the mind is “explained away” by neuroscience. Rather it can be explained by neuroscience, and the possibility of such explanations for such a person may be exciting and uplifting. Such an individual may delight in the natural complexity of the human brain, and its awesome abilities. Further, such an individual may also hold that we can account for human freedom within that same naturalistic framework, and may be thrilled by the challenge of explaining freedom and other positive features of humanity within the natural world.

My father once told me: "do not expect anything from anyone, then you will live

My father once told me: "do not expect anything from anyone, then you will live an easy and happy life". Is it true? Would I really live an easier life and would I be happier if I don't expect from a friend to call me from time to time or if I don't expect from my cousin to invite me to his birthday or going to extremes if I don't expect from my children to love me? I have thought about this a lot. Sometimes it makes things easier if I don't expect anything but can we generalize his statement?

Great, classic question that goes back to Ancient Greece. Stoics and some others taught that we should seek out a life that is free from passion about the future. They thought we should seek out what they called (in Greek) apatheia (from which we get the term apathy). Famously, Buddhists believe that a life of expectations is a life that is built on desire and thus can be the source of suffering. So, your father may have some serious philosophical and religious support! Also, there is some common sense to keeping expectations low, as this does (naturally) mean you will more likely be pleasantly surprised when your cousin calls and your children show you love. However, the philosopher William James and others have stressed the constructive, important role of HOPE. If you have no hope at all in running a race or in building a new friendship, odds are you are not going to be as committed to the run or the relationship. Loving another person also seems to involve hoping that the love is returned. To be sure, unconditional love will endure even if there is no return at all, but if I am loved (conditionally or unconditionally) I hope that the one who loves me hopes and expects me to return the love. There have been some recent studies on conflict resolution that also supports James' point of view. Apparently, when parties enter into negotiations to end conflicts there is a demonstrable difference between when both parties hope and expect a resolution versus when neither party expects a just resolution. So, your father has some serious support in the history of ideas, but I suggest there are cases when good expectations and hope can carry the day when it really matters.

As the Lays Potato chip ad goes, "bet you can't just eat one." Yet I will

As the Lays Potato chip ad goes, "bet you can't just eat one." Yet I will sometimes find myself eating potato chips even when they no longer taste good. Why do we continue to desire things that when they no longer give us pleasure?

I think that what philosophers call "moral psychology" (the analysis of why people act as they do, where by "act" we mean behavior that is voluntary, rather than involuntary) would hold that the relevant factors here are a bit more complex. Some eating is, as you suggest, simply a matter of pursuing the pleasures of taste. But the whole notion of "comfort food," for example (which which I hope you are familiar) adds yet another factor--namely, that eating some foods provides us with a sense of comfort that is at least somewhat independent from the special pleasures of taste. Eating can also be habitual, and the very act of eating (even when we are not hungry or not enjoying the taste of what we are eating) can provide us with a sense of well-being. In brief, then, I think the explanation of why we pursue things even when they no longer give us pleasure will probably be very complex indeed, because our psychologies of desire are not as simple as just pleasure-seeking of a single, simple kind.

I enjoy playing lots videogames, listening to (and DJing) lots of various styles

I enjoy playing lots videogames, listening to (and DJing) lots of various styles of electronic dance music, and frequently smoke marijuana. These things are hobbies of mine that usually make me happy. It seems, however, that most philosophical thought says to disregard things like this because they instill a false sense of happiness in us; that they are temporary, material things that satisfy the senses and should be discarded in favor of supposed "real" things that have a lasting value. Take Plato's cave allegory, for example. Are the things that I like simply shadows, fooling me from real happiness? Because I fill my free time with these things, am I living in ignorance of what real happiness could be? Is there any value from engaging in these activities at all?

An excellent question, it is important to reflect upon the things we invest our lives into. I think there are three very different concerns you might have about investing life into these activities:

1: Perhaps, these activities aren't happiness at all, but merely distract you from genuine happiness.

2: Perhaps, these activities are genuinely good to a degree, but distract you from more important things that are more central to happiness.

3: Perhaps, these activities are genuinely good because you find them pleasurable (or fulfill your desires). And pleasure (or fulfilled desire) is the only thing that is genuinely good, but these ways of pursuing pleasure are only effective short-term and are likely to undercut your total amount of long-term pleasure.

Since you ask whether there is any value in these things at all, you seem to be more concerned about the first potential problem. However, the good news for you is that Plato's view is a minority view (even among philosophers) since it presupposes that something like virtue or wisdom is the ONLY genuinely good thing in life. He thought that other things were so irrelevant to 'true' happiness that 'no one could harm the good man' even if they unjustly executed the good man.

However, problems two and three are also very real potential problems. For problem two, assume that there are a variety of things that are genuinely good and contribute to happiness... things like physical pleasure, experiencing beauty, authentic relationships, knowledge, virtue, fulfilling desires, spiritual experience, etc. (feel free to modify the list by adding or subtracting things that appeal to you). Well, in this case there is a risk that you might lead an unbalanced life and miss out on important things because you are overly preoccupied with one or two things on the list. So, to take an extreme example suppose you play video games and do drugs so much that you never experience genuine undrugged authentic friendship, you might miss out on something truly great in life.

Finally, suppose something like pleasure is the only genuinely good thing in life that constitutes happiness. Well, the things that you are involved in certainly bring you pleasure. Yet they still might distract you from something even more pleasurable like authentic friendship or certain types of knowledge. Also, suppose that drugs are damaging to your health or psyche in some way that makes it difficult for you to maximize your pleasure long term. In either of these cases, you need to consider whether you are undermining your long term happiness.

That being said, I think that things like video games and creating and listening to music are certainly enjoyable to those who prefer them. For these activities, it is simply a question of balancing them with other pursuits. I'd be more concerned about the long-term effects of drugs (though I admit I'm not an expert on their effects). It does seem to me that addictions of all sorts are significant threats to long-term happiness on all accounts of happiness.

Why is it that most people feel better after talking about their problems?

Why is it that most people feel better after talking about their problems?

It doesn't take much science-fiction imagination to conceive of creatures -- Klingons, or whatever! -- who work differently. When their equanimity is disturbed, e.g. by relationships falling apart, then they naturally recover their emotional balance after a while, so long as they don't keep dwelling on things. Rather as we heal broken skin so long as we don't keep picking at the scabs, so for our Klingons talking about their problems is like picking at scabs. For them, it is better to "let nature take its course" and for their emotional system to recalibrate itself to the new situation without paying too much conscious attention to the processes. They don't suffer from effects of "repressing" bad experiences, etc.: in fact they function better if they do "repress".
Now, if we are very different from our imagined Klingons (as modern therapeutic "it's good to talk" theories suppose we are), then that's an empirical fact about us. And if it is a contingent empirical matter, as it seems to be, then arm-chair
philosophers aren't really the people to explain it. Rather, it's up to empirical psychological theory to explore what it is about our cognitive/emotional wiring and programming that makes us feel better if we talk about our problems.

I am reading some philosophy and psychology about happiness, and much of the

I am reading some philosophy and psychology about happiness, and much of the work proclaims that we must act in order to be "happy" (Aristotle, William James, as well as more popular writers such as Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie and Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi). As you will notice, they are all men. Are there difference in how female philosophers describe and prescribe "happiness" (or subjective well-being or flourishing)? Thank you.

The four major views of happiness (aka subjective well-being) are that happiness is constituted by:

1) Pleasure (and the absence of pain)

2) Fulfilled Desires

3) Virtue

4) A number of different sources that form an objective list of some sort: usually including things like pleasure, fulfilled desire, virtue, but also friendship, knowledge, or beauty.

Of course, this list of theories is an oversimplification since each of the theories has a number of variations. I'm not aware of any correlation between gender and preferred theories. I think theories one and two are the most dominant theories among philosophers and psychologists. Theory four seems to be the 'common-sense' theory that most people intuit...(but academics are often drawn to theories one and two because they attempt to reduce all the sources of well-being posited in theory four to a single value). Theory three enjoys a lot of classical support and still has contemporary supporters as well.

I should also point out that there is an ambiguity in what you might mean by needing to 'act' in order to be happy. The older thinkers like Aristotle meant that we needed to '(act)ualize' our human potential in order to achieve happiness. I'm not sure that concept 'maps on' to what we currently think of as being 'active'. An interesting variation of Aristotle's theory was advance by Maslow several decades ago.

You might also be interested in my forthcoming book, The Prudence of Love, which argues that there is a connection between possessing the virtue of love and subjective well-being on all four of the above theories.

A long time ago - Jan 2006 if I'm not mistaken - Alan Soble wrote (http://www

A long time ago - Jan 2006 if I'm not mistaken - Alan Soble wrote ( "Finally, the heart and soul of philosophy is argument, providing reasons for claims, including claims about morality and duties. In the answer to the question above, I cannot find a shred of argument. We should also avoid, that is, pastoral or friendly counseling. Without rigor, philosophy is nothing." That was back in the days when there was routinely more than 1 response to a question. Today's responses seem more and more to be becoming "pastoral or friendly counseling" without rigor. The panelists do not argue with each other - the responses are just accepted. Here's an example: Peter Smith wrote very recently ( "For irrationally formed beliefs are not likely to lead to actions which get any of us what we want -- including a decent life, lived well in the knowledge of our all-too-explicable mortality." This statement - simply put out...

I don't agree with Soble's claim that "without rigor, philosophy is nothing." Philosophy can be a source of insight, a glimpse into a completely different way of thinking about things, a moment of doubt, an invitation to reflection, the introduction of a new concept, and much more. All this can happen without argument and without "rigor," whatever that is supposed to be. And disagreement, although valuable, is not necessary for good philosophy. An over-emphasis on "rigor" can shut down genuine inquiry and leave us with sterile platitudes, and agonistic debate is only one model for gaining knowledge. "Rigorous" philosophy, full of argument, and undertaken in a spirit of debate can be fantastic, but philosophy is also so much more than this!

I am perplexed by Alexander George's recent posting (http://www.askphilosophers

I am perplexed by Alexander George's recent posting ( He says "Your observation that we sometimes take pleasure in beliefs even if they have been irrationally arrived at seems correct but beside the point: it speaks neither to the truth of (1) nor to that of (2)." (2), in this case, is "(2) that actions guided by false beliefs are not likely to get us what we want. " I believe the science of psychology has shown us that we form many beliefs entirely irrationally. The mechanism for their formation is often a defense mechanism. The purpose of their formation is often to hide some truth about ourselves from ourselves - to hide some unpleasant information that we would have gleaned had we formed our belief rationally. I just can't see how the above information is "beside the point". The point is: 1) I want to be happy. 2) My beliefs are formed irrationally in order to reach that desired end. Perhaps what is beside the point is that the belief-forming...

Just a footnote to Mark Collier's helpful post. I actually said that irrationally formed beliefs are not likely to lead to actions which get us what we want (rather than cannot get us what we want). And that claim is enough to explain why we should in general care a lot about forming our beliefs in a rational way . Which in turn is enough to counter the original questioner's worry that philosophy "uses as its main tool a mechanism [rational thought] that is the opposite of what is most important to us": in general, rational belief-formation matters for getting whatever is important to us. Even if pockets of irrationality, episodes of self-deception, etc. can -- by good fortune -- happen to promote our welfare.

I consider myself a compassionate person. Probably too compassionate,

I consider myself a compassionate person. Probably too compassionate, though. I have a hard time doing ANYTHING that causes death or harm to any other creature, even if it's as insignifigant as a bug, especially if it's something that is just 100% for my own pleasure, or satisfaction. Please forgive me because I know that this probably seems crazy, but this really is a problem for me. I've discussed this with other people and they have pointed out the fact that human beings seem to have a superior place in the world, and that bugs are just a part of an eco-system where they generally eat other insects, and or are food for other creatures. Even though I understand this, I find it impossible to do anything that causes them death or harm, especially things that are unimportant. For example, I have not cut my backyard all year because I know it will negatively affect the insects living there. I want to do it, but since it is only for my satisfaction I can't bring myself to do it. This is just...

What's crazy about your thinking? I see nothing crazy about it. You are following an extremely plausible moral principle--that you shouldn't cause serious harm to other creatures for trivial reasons. I think you should stick by that principle, and in fact recommend it to others!

Now about the lawn. If it bothers you to have a shaggy lawn, you might want to think through how your altogether plausible moral principle applies in this case. Do you really cause serious harm by mowing the lawn? You might also want to think about how trivial it is to want a nicely groomed lawn.

On the first question, it will be relevant to delve into the nature of insects. The lawnmower would do them more harm if they suffered pain or had goals or desires. But do they? Some do think so, but some don't. If you conclude they don't have such sophisticated mental states, there might still be harm (in some sense) in killing them, but mowing down insects might be like mowing down dandelions. If so, then even a pretty trivial reason would justify you in mowing the lawn.

You'll also want to look at your lawn-mowing desires. Are you a champion croquet player, missing out on Sunday games? Do you have a hoarde of kids who are being forced to stay inside, for fear of the insect-infested lawn?

After all due reflection, you may find yourself mowing the lawn again, without feeling bad about it.

When I get sad and depressed I am often told to "wise up" and stop moaning

When I get sad and depressed I am often told to "wise up" and stop moaning because people in Africa suffer far more than I do. Is this a logically valid point? Does the existence of vast quanities of human suffering in Africa necessarily negate my suffering?

I love this question and have often pondered it myself. I don't think sufferings need to be compared with one another. All human pain is of moral concern and deserves unique respect.

Utilitarians like to quantify pain. Even if one does this, and thereby compares different pains, it does not follow that we need to devote our psychological attention to the place/person with the greatest quantity of pain. Utilitarians, do, however, think that our moral concern (but not our psychological attention) should be directed to where we can relieve the most pain or bring about the most happiness. Perhaps the audience to your suffering is telling you that they are more obligated to relieve suffering in African than to help you feel better. (I hope for your sake that your friends are not such utilitarians. Care ethics is a better moral framework for this kind of case.)

As for "stop moaning," I think this is often psychological advice. Often, we feel better when we consider others who are in much greater pain than we are i.e. "there but for the grace of god go I." Personally, I have found that this consideration works when I am suffering a bit, but not when I am suffering a lot.

Also, depressed people are often obsessed with themselves (this is a descriptive fact, not a rebuke from me!) It turns out that becoming concerned with the needs of others is often helpful, not only for those others, but also for the depressed person. (a kind of cognitive psychotherapy)