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If you are someone who likes to help others, is helping them actually a selfish

If you are someone who likes to help others, is helping them actually a selfish act that is only done to avoid feelings of guilt that would otherwise occur? Is it really any less selfish than a sadist who hurts others for personal enjoyment, despite the happiness that may be felt in those who are helped?

In the general muddle of psychological impulses that might come under the category of motivations for a given action, we can distinguish between our principle aim(a) in doing the action, and enabling conditions such as its being broadly in their interests to do such actions. The mere existence of such enabling conditions does not mean that they figure in one's principle aims; the mere fact that it is in my interests to look after my child does not mean that that is my principle aim when I treat her kindly - in particular, it does not mean that my interests are what I have in mind when I treat her kindly. So one might have a situation in which someone - a nice person who enjoys helping others - has nothing more than 'helping my friend' as her principle aim, even while something like 'I'll feel better for doing it' might figure as an enabling condition (it might make it easier to put in the necessary time and effort that the friend needs).

We judge people in important part by reference to their principle aims, and if someone's principle aims are sadistic then they are morally speaking entirely different from someone whose principle aims are to help others. Kant thought the mark of morally good action is doing it from duty, doing it just because it's the right thing to do. He thereby sets (I would say) a very strange standard of moral worth; one which has no place for altruistic feelings as moral motivations. By contrast, Hume before him was more Aristotelian and conceived most good moral actions to be, simply, those that we naturally admire. Here, in this (I would say) more natural philosophical conception of the moral, we find a proper home for the idea that if a person's principle aim is to help someone, then they and their action are to that extent morally good. The sadist's acts of sadism have no such admirable motivations.

Is it ethical for a depressed person to limit social interaction with friends,

Is it ethical for a depressed person to limit social interaction with friends, based on the idea that the friends might find such interaction unpleasant? Part of the problem is that friends often don't openly admit to not enjoying the depressed presence, but, if the depressed person finds it difficult to live with him-/herself, would it not follow that other people also find his/her company difficult? Increased isolation would undoubtedly have adverse effects on the depressed person. Would it be possible for a philosopher to explain the ethical position of the depressed person as regards to social interaction, please?

When you are going through a depression your social identity is severely undermined. The mirroring effect that others have on your own perception of yourself- the way you "see yourself seen"- is so modified by your emotional states that one can argue that it would be probably safer to avoid too much contact with others. I'm not claimimg this on ethical bases: I agree with Thomas Pogge's idea that depressed people shouldn't avoid interactions on moral reasons, that is, to "spare" friends and acquaintances of their unpleasant presence. Still, I think that depression is a major distortion of the usual social feed-back we get from others in stabilizing our personal identities. Thus, one may argue that a mild isolation can be therapeutic. Jean Paul Sartre used to say that "Hell is other people". I think that depressed know very well the meaning of his claim and avoiding others in some circumstances can be a safe move.

My question pertains to the idea of happiness being induced by a drug. If the

My question pertains to the idea of happiness being induced by a drug. If the drug--like modern anti-depressants--actually changes a person's neurochemistry such that for all intents and purposes the brain looks just like a "happy" brain, then wouldn't you consider that person happy? (Would you give a different answer for a drug like Ecstasy that alters the brain in slightly different ways than classic neurochemical happiness but still brings about a perception of happiness?) And what about the perception of happiness over the long haul? If someone is on anti-depressants for, say, fifty years, and has an over-all sense of peace, purpose, etc that they would NOT have otherwise had, have they, in fact, been happy?

For the reasons that David offers, I agree that subjective feelingsof contentment are not sufficient for well-being: one couldfeel good and not be doing very well. At the same time, I would notconclude (not that David suggests otherwise) either that (1) positivefeelings of contentment are not necessary for well-being orthat (2) the fact that someone’s feeling of contentment was induced bydrugs (anti-depressants, ecstasy) by itself undermines that person’sclaim to well-being.

Individuals who are suffering from depression notonly are suffering a loss of good feeling; in addition, they often havea difficult time motivating themselves to form and sustain significantrelationships, to gain a deeper understanding of the world, toappreciate beauty, etc. In other words, without a subjective feeling ofcontentment, humans are often unable to engage in the sorts ofactivities that objectivists about well-being tend to associate with a genuinely goodlife.

Additionally, if I were to learn that someone had been on anti-depressantsfor fifty years, had lived a life of contentment, and alsohad formed and sustained significant relationships, had a significantpositive impact on the world, had thought deeply and well about theworld and her place in it, etc., I would not conclude that herwell-being was fake. She really did succeed in living a good life,because she really did manage to engage in activities that hadsignificant value. The fact that this achievement was made possiblethrough her fortunate access to anti-depressants is to my mindirrelevant. Incontrast, if I were to learn that a person’s drug-use prevented himfrom engaging in objectively worthwhile activities, then I wouldconclude that, although the drugs gave him the illusion that he wasdoing well, as a matter of fact, he was not. As a matter of fact, hewas not doing well, because, as a matter of fact, he did nothingworthwhile.

Many elderly people I've met are extremely lonely yet somehow extremely strong

Many elderly people I've met are extremely lonely yet somehow extremely strong emotionally. They often say that friendship today isn't the same as when they were young. Can we be too old for friendship? When the years fall and maturity reaches its ultimate heights does our heart turn into a shell?

Loneliness does seem to be an affliction common among the aged in modern industrial/consumerist societies, but I'm not sure empirically that it's greater or less than that suffered by other segments of the population or the elderly of other sorts of societies. If it is, I suspect it may be caused by factors such as: isolation, the deaths of friends and spouses, the loss of meaningful work, and the loss of time with children to mobility and to the concerns of their own lives. In many ways, in our society the elderly seem to be left out and left behind. I doesn't strike me as accurate, however, that among the elderly hearts commonly "turn into shell[s]." On the contrary, I find that many among the elderly possess relatively open, warm, and giving personalities. Factors contributing to this seem to include being unburdened of the demands of work and freed from the business produced by modern life so that one possesses more free time to spend socializing and talking. Friendship often arises through the capacity to engage in meaningful conversations, to share projects and work and accomplishment, to enter into various human intimacies, and to assist one another in the realizing of various goods (like wealth, health, honor, etc.). Friendship does seem difficult to establish among people as they get older, however, in some cases because it's more difficult to establish meaningful shared histories composed of these sorts of things (because of the constraints of time, money, health, etc.).

Is it possible for one to be wrong about one's own happiness? In other words,

Is it possible for one to be wrong about one's own happiness? In other words, could one think (and feel that) they're happy without actually being so?

"I call no man happy until he is dead," said Solon, which is a bit longer than most of us are willing to wait. The point, though, is that we tend to use 'happiness' in two quite different senses. The first ('I feel happy now') is an immediate feeling of satisfaction and well-being. The second ('His years in Brazil were happy ones') is an over-all sense of achievement, purpose, peace, or again well-being. It is entirely possible for someone to have frequent sensations of happiness, over a long period of time, and yet in looking back think of themselves as broadly unhappy; likewise, a happy life doesn't necessarily require many moments of happiness in the first sense.

I suppose it is also possible that the feeling of happiness even in the first sense could be mistaken, for example if 'artificially' induced by a drug. Similarly, the discomfort of indigestion might get mistaken for hunger. However, whereas indigestion and hunger are clearly physiological states that can be separately measured, whether happiness is so is a matter of debate.

I read somewhere years ago, and it was in my mind that Aristotle claimed that

I read somewhere years ago, and it was in my mind that Aristotle claimed that happiness is the by-product of engaging in activity; that happiness is not a thing that can be held in one's hand and it does not drop into our laps as we sit alone in a room. However, I have not found this specific idea in anything I have read of Aristotle on happiness. I remember being profoundly affected by this idea as it explained the need to choose rightly the activities that bring happiness. I want very much to share this perspective of happiness with a 17-year-old girl so she can benefit. Do you know whose idea of happiness this is?

Your memory is accurate. Have a look at Book I of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Great reading for young and old!

Is it possible to comprehend happiness if one never experiences unhappiness? In

Is it possible to comprehend happiness if one never experiences unhappiness? In a life in which a person has no negative experiences, is it possible for a person to distinguish especially positive experiences? In other words, can happiness exist without something negative to compare it to?

You ask whether a being that had never experienced unhappiness could experience happiness. Alex appears to be suggesting that happiness requires the possibility of unhappiness. Now that possibility could exist even if it were never actualized. I find no difficulty in imagining a human being who has never suffered a moment's unhappiness living a very happy life. Further, I can imagine a being who is actually incapable of unhappiness being very happy. Many have thought of God in this way.

Do chimpanzees really enjoy eating bananas?

Do chimpanzees really enjoy eating bananas?

Perhaps you mistyped the URL for the "Ask Chimpanzees" website?

Chimps do have brains very similar to ours, and it's likely that when they eat the food that they pursue, they are in states that are physiologically like ours when we eat what we enjoy. Plus their brain states play similar roles to our enjoyments: they lead the chimps to keep eating (and not to discard the food and look elsewhere), they reinforce the chimps' preference for the food item, and so on. I think most people familiar with chimps would say, obviously they enjoy bananas.

Ah, you say, so they have pleasure analogues when they eat bananas, but do they literally experience pleasure? And how could we ever answer this? What is pleasure--what constitutes feeling pleasure? Is it a physiological sort of state that requires having brains like ours? Maybe so--maybe what we're confronted with when we notice our pleasure is in fact some physiological state, and it's this that we call "pleasure". Or is pleasure a more abstract state that requires only structural and functional commonalities with human brains? Maybe so--maybe, for instance, our understanding of the role that pleasure plays in us serves to define "pleasure", so that to feel pleasure is to have a state playing that sort of role. There are other possibilities for how the concept of "pleasure" might have acquired a meaning in a way that sets a standard for what chimps, say, have to be like if they're to count as feeling pleasure. On some of these standards, chimps are enough like us to count; on others, not.

Are we even confident that our use and understanding of the word "pleasure" has established some one standard for what it would take for non-humans to count as literally "feeling pleasure"--or could it rather be a concept that, not having been designed to adjudicate such cases, meets them with only an uneasy shrug? Then it might be a refinement in use--a natural one, to be sure--to apply the term to chimps. Would that be troubling? It would if there were some good reason to be especially concerned about the question whether the word "pleasure", as we have traditionally used it, literally applies to chimps. But is there such a reason? Some philosophers would insist that there is: after all, the question of the literal applicability of the word "pleasure" as traditionally used is just a reformulation of the question whether the chimps experience pleasure. Still, we might wonder whether the particular boundary between confident verdicts and shrugs reflects a naturally important divide (say, between the chimps' states and our own), or whether it reflects only arbitrary historical pressures on the use of the term "pleasure" (for instance, not having the question whether to count animals as feeling "pleasure" assume any great importance). Maybe, then, it's not so interesting whether chimpanzees enjoy bananas.

Is there pleasure in the melancholic? I like reading sad films, I enjoy solitary

Is there pleasure in the melancholic? I like reading sad films, I enjoy solitary walks getting sad about sad things, puffing cigarettes that I know will kill me, alone in cafes, half-drunk and looking out at swarms of people buzzing around me, getting sad that I might turn out to be one of them. Is there pleasure in the melancholy? Why?

You have given a number of examples, each of which probably deserves specific responses. But as a general reaction, I think your cases do show that there certainly can be pleasures taken from things that also arouse or contribute to sadness or melancholy. There may be any number of reasons for this, though I suspect that many of these reasons have to do with the ways in which we have evolved as a species. For example (and purely speculative at that!)--as a social beings, we often take pleasure from the experience of being put in a position to see or empathize with the way other people experience things. Seeing a sad film may induce a kind of empathic sadness in us...but even so, we may experience some pleasure at seeing things "through the eyes" of the characters in the film.

According to a general approach to virtue theory, there is nothing wrong with "getting sad about sad things." What would be inappropriate, surely, would be to fail to get sad about sad things.

On the other hand, several of your examples suggest to me that you may be struggling somewhat with depression (and also addiction--to cigarettes, at least, and I worry a bit about the "half-drunk" part, as well). If so, you would do well to discuss this with a physician, whose help you might find more ueful at this point than a philosopher's. (Dare I say that at this site?!)

I was hoping you could help me with something personal.

I was hoping you could help me with something personal. My general question is, is there any philosophically rigorous defense for being lazy? Here are the specifics: I'm 20. My parents started me playing cello since I was 4: weekend music school, recitals, the whole bit. And I enjoyed it while I did it, and got good at it. Now I'd like to stop. Naturally, my parents are up in arms: "you can't stop." "why not?" "because 1) you've invested so much time. 2) you owe it to yourself to continue. 3) it's part of who you are, you like it, and it's in your best interest to continue. You shouldn't abandon a rewarding activity just because you're lazy. 4) you have the potential to bring others joy through your music". How do I respond to these claims? I feel like the ideas behind the claims traffic in philosophy, that there are equally philosophically defensible rebuttals, and that I don't know them. As another piece of information, and I think this applies to a lot of young people caught in this...

Perhaps you'd be interested in reading the great English philosopherBertrand Russell's (1872-1970) essay "In Praise of Idleness". It'sreprinted in his book In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. You can find a copy of this essay on-line here.