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Is there any coherent non-religious argument that shows that the appearance of

Is there any coherent non-religious argument that shows that the appearance of life on the universe is a "good" or "valuable" thing? It seems to me that something is valuable iff there's somebody who values it. So life would not be valuable when it does not exist, but it would become valuable when it does exist? Would it value itself? I'm not sure if this circular reasoning, or there's some solid ground. What would be some standard literature on this kind of issues?

An interesting question. I'd start by suggesting that your "if and only if" is open to challenge. First the less important part for our purposes: the fact that somebody values something doesn't obviously mean it's actually valuable. Some people value terrible thing, after all. There's a chilling scene in James Clavell's novel Shogun in which a samurai takes deep, deliberate and despicable pleasure in the screams of a man being tortured to death by a torturer who specializes in optimal cruelty. The samurai clearly values the experience, but I'm not willing to say that it's therefore valuable.

Still, it seems right that value has a deep connection with experiences and the beings who have them. That may seem to be all that your worry needs. In other words it might seem that something is valuable only if someone values it or, more broadly, only if it evokes the right sort of reaction in some sentient being. But this is too strong. Consider: something could be exquisitely beautiful (to take one kind of value) even if no one ever encountered it; beauty unnoticed is beauty all the same. This doesn't mean that there's no connection between value and experience; it just means that a counterfactual connection can be enough. Crudely, we might say that something is beautiful if it would evoke the right sort of reaction in a sentient being, given the right circumstances -- whether or not it ever does.

All that is background to addressing your main question: is the appearance of life in the world a good thing? Here are a couple of thoughts. Some things are valuable because they have the capacity to produce certain kinds of experience. But some of those experiences are valuable for their own sake. And so the appearance of sentient creatures in the universe brings two things with it: the possibility for value to be "realized" and as part of that, appearance of a kind of value that a universe without life would lack.

Does that mean that the appearance of sentient life is an unmitigated good thing? Obviously not. Before sentient life arrived, there was no pain and no cruelty. We like to think that on balance, life is a good thing, but there's no necessity in that and it might not even be true.

I have a question about food and objectivity. My friend insists that all

I have a question about food and objectivity. My friend insists that all opinions about the value of certain instances of a type of food being better than others are merely subjective. I disagree with this and when I say that, for example, "my mom's chocolate chip cookies are better than store bought cookies" I believe that there is actually some objective basis to this. I would cite as evidence the fact that my mom uses higher quality ingredients, puts more care and attention into baking, and that generally others agree that her cookies are quite good and preferable to store bought cookies. Is there any truth to this idea about food more generally? Can there actually be some objective basis for judging which food is better?

Great question! Two great sources for this is David Hume's famous essay, "A Standard of Taste" and Mackie's "The Subjectivity of Values" -- a quick response to you, here, is to suggest that perhaps you are BOTH right (a happy verdict!): when we can specify in advance precisely which qualities are valuable, then we can "objectively" evaluate cookies (or food more generallY) to the degree to which the item in question reflects or contains those qualities. (Mackie uses the example of juding the 'best dog' in a competition, I think -- we articulate in advance what the 'good dog qualities' are, and then objectively judge the individual dogs to the degree ot which they have those qualities). But then once THAT is done, we can always ask: yes, but what makes that specified quality a truly 'valuable' or 'good' quality? (We may say 'a dog that is strong is a good dog', so a given strong dog will objectively be 'good'; but now we're asking, 'what makes the strongness itself good'?) And here a very plausible answer is 'it's subjective', ie up to the individual, everyone's 'taste' is literally as legitimate as anyone else's etc .... So, in short, it may be purely objective whether the given cookies have (or don't have) the specified qualities, but purely subjective that those qualities are the ones worth having ...

Now there's much more to be said here -- so check out Hume and Mackie!
Hope this is helpful


Why are wisdom and truth important? How does one defend their importance over

Why are wisdom and truth important? How does one defend their importance over the superficial like wealth and popularity? What is wrong with the superficial anyway? I like to think that I pursue wisdom and scorn worldly goods, but I can never justify to others why I live this way.

If by superficial you mean something like material wealth, then it is clear that there are many who are possessed of and perhaps by the superficial but who do not lead good/happy lives. Wisdom is a knowledge of how best to live and without that knowledge your Maserati may not mean much.

Suppose for instance that the best life involves deep and lasting relationships. Devotion to the superficial can make those relationships and a sense of humanity very hard to develop. I suppose we could put it this way, if the contest is which leads to a better life cool things or wisdom, then I guess it would all depend on what you understood to be the good life.

I don't think even Donald Trump would disagree with Aristotle that if the good life is the goal then it would be good to know something about that goal-- and that will require wisdom. Of course, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that some of the things that you might judge to be shallow-- also have an important place -- but he never puts those things up there with sophos. Thanks

There was something that I wanted so badly for so long. Now, I got it but I am

There was something that I wanted so badly for so long. Now, I got it but I am not as excited as I thought. How can we know what we want (our goal) in life?

Some recent papers by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggest that we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy. It is a good idea to read these to get a feel for human fallibility.

Philosophers often argue that reflecting rationally on our values and goals can lead us to pursue what we "really" want, and thereby lead to greater satisfaction. You might try this and see whether it helps.

Some Buddhists, and some psychologists, argue that pursuit of a goal is more exciting than achieving it. They suggest focussing on the activity rather than the desired result.

Is it possible to strike a balance between being content and being ambitious?

Is it possible to strike a balance between being content and being ambitious? Both are desirable qualities but aren't these mutually exclusive?

I don't see the incompatibility, to be honest. I think you are thinking in terms of results rather than in terms of processes, and I think that those who tend to think in terms of results rather than processes are quite likely to lose most of the value in life that is available to them. Yes, one probably cannot achieve the results of ambition and also not be motivated to pursue those results. But why cannot one be content with a life that is shaped around trying to become better at something?

When I was younger, I was an avid volleyball player. I was always working very hard to become better. Truth is, I was never really tall enough to be really good (I topped at at a meager 5'11''). But I sure enjoyed doing what it took to be the best player I could be. I actually enjoyed practicing with my team even more than the tournaments we played (and I played with a good enough team that we often won at tournaments). Was I content with practicing and working hard to get better. You betcha! Was I also ambitious to become better. Absolutely! So the goal was to get better, and the process was all that practicing--and I was content (until an injury finished me off--sigh!).

Is it abnormal to be perturbed by the fact that whatever you might do, your

Is it abnormal to be perturbed by the fact that whatever you might do, your existence/achievements would no more than a tiny speck of dust and the differences you could make even if you try your best would not be of much value if you look at it from the grand scale?

I don't believe it is abnormal to be perturbed by the fact that relative to the size of the universe we are less than specks of dust, in the sense that very many people have been perturbed by it. Russell's "A Free Man's Worship" is based on this sort of idea, and it is very much a creature of what Thomas Nagel calls "the external perspective", the view from nowhere in particular. Is it abnormal in the sense that there is something philosophically wrong with the thought, or unsound about it? I think that it is abnormal in this sense. I am growing some cabbages, and they are very very small with respect to the moon, say, though they are MUCH larger than the ones in the allotment next to mine. Does their small size relative to the moon make them less valuable? Not to me; I plan to eat them, and they will get me through part of the winter. They even have economic value, and you can't eat the moon. I am with Frank Ramsey, who wrote that, 'Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone.'

Is a person only as valuable as the good he/she produces for others?

Is a person only as valuable as the good he/she produces for others?

Making the lives of others better certainly does add value to your own. But I believe it would be a bit extreme to say that making your own life better adds nothing to the value of your life. How might one argue for this belief?

Here is one way. There are wonderful writers and artists who create novels, paintings, movies, sculptures and performances that can greatly enrich our lives. The fact that these people enrich the lives of others makes them and their lives more valuable, as we said. But this enrichment will happen only if we go and expose ourselves to their creations. By doing so, we -- alongside them -- make a necessary contribution to the enrichment. It would be odd to celebrate their necessary contribution to the enrichment (by saying that it makes them more valuable) while ignoring our necessary contribution. Surely, just as they have a reason to produce their creations for us, so we have a reason to expose ourselves to these creations.

The richness of human lives matters, and an agent who adds to this richness (e.g. by creating good art or by making such art accessible to people) thereby adds value to her/his life -- even in the special case where the recipient of this effort is s/he her-/himself.

This response still leaves out something important that is hinted at in your question. It is not ethically irrelevant how the good one produces for people is distributed among them. In producing good for people, one should not exclude oneself or count oneself for naught. But one should also not prioritize oneself to the point where only a small portion of the good one produces for people goes to others. Nor should one produce good mainly for those in one's own (possibly privileged) circle: the picture of a bunch of millionaires producing lots of good for one another while ignoring all the rest is just as ugly as the picture of a single millionaire producing a lot of good for her-/himself while ignoring the rest. The story of the Good Samaritan nicely captures the more general point. It would have been good for this man to help a fellow-Samaritan. But what makes him memorable, and especially admirable, is the fact that he was willing to help someone outside his own community, that he was responsive, primarily, to human need.

This brings me to a final point. As the story shows, the Good Samaritan was willing to help a needy stranger. But he might not have encountered one on his journey. Without the opportunity to produce good for a robbery victim, he would have produced less good in his life. But would this have made him a less valuable person? Would this have reduced his value to that of another Samaritan traveller who would never have considered helping a Jew? No. Even here an important difference remains. While the second Samaritan is clearly not a Good Samaritan, the first one is a Good Samaritan thanks to his firm disposition to help needy strangers -- even if the occasion to act on this disposition does not present itself.

This point is especially important if we judge human lives from the outside. Perhaps a person who never had a chance to go to school and is struggling to make ends meet cannot do as much good for people in a lifetime as a fortunate millionaire can do in an afternoon (by donating money for building and running 15 primary schools in Africa, say). Here we should judge the first person not merely by the good she actually produces but also by her aims and dispositions -- as revealed to us in what good she does on her much smaller scale.

But this thought is problematic when employed in the first person. All too many people do very little good and yet think highly of themselves on account of their (supposed) pure heart and of all the good they (supposedly) would have done under different circumstances -- a phenomenon Sartre subsumed under the label of movais foi (bad faith). So, thinking in the first person, about oneself, one should aim for actual achievement of good, and one should aim not merely to increase the amount of good one produces for people but also aim to achieve a proper balance in its distribution: between oneself and others as well as between our close relations and distant strangers in need.

As a teenager, I often have the tendency to embrace certain 'life philosophies'

As a teenager, I often have the tendency to embrace certain 'life philosophies' with complete disregard to all others. These philosophies often changed depending on my mood at that time, with little rational consideration. One of the most common of these teenage mottos is the saying "live every day like it's your last", or perhaps more relevantly, "live in the moment". Whether it is wise or not is another matter, but surely it is rational to hold such outlooks, since living every day like it's your last at least assumes that if you were to die, you have experienced at least some of life's prizes. However, my question concerns whether it is rationally possible to live life through this lens, while simultaneously respecting the need for hard work in consideration of future, perhaps greater, opportunities? Is it possible to abide by both philosophies, or must one choose?

I think you have to compromise. If you only live for today and you make it to the future, you will be worse off in it. However, if you only live for the future but you don't get there, then today is lost. So enjoy some things today that won't ruin your future and defer some gratification today to prepare for a better future, both for yourself and those you care about.

It is clear that determinism can give a logically valid account of human

It is clear that determinism can give a logically valid account of human behavior; it is a viable theory of human action. But it seems that if determinism, or at least a deterministic account of behavior that precludes free will, is true, much of what we hold very valuable in most if not all human cultures (e.g. love; trust; the value of the person; etc.) is all an illusion. I, for example, do not freely place a value on my wife and love her because of this value; my "love" is a product of my genes, or my psychological history. Similarly, it also seems to me that atheistic accounts of the origin of morality (e.g. a need to survive and get along better to propagate our genes) are plausible, but likewise seem to remove deeper meanings involved in moral behavior (e.g. I choose not to murder someone because I find it violates, in some sense, a universal moral law that I could be held accountable for at some point now, or perhaps even after my death). I am not sure what philosophers who have discussed these...

A great question, which deserves a longer response than I have time for now! But just a very general response: how could concerns about what we value give us a grounds for determining what's true with respect to determinism? Determinism seems, as you've sketched it, to be a kind of scientific thesis -- it's up to science to figure out whether there are deterministic laws of nature which govern our bodies and brains and behavior, I would think. The fact that we may not like the result -- that determinism might challenge our pre-existing set of values -- hardly seems relevant as to whether the result is correct. Where philosophers step in, of course, is in judging whether in fact the determinism revealed by science WOULD or NEED challenge our values, in the way you've sketched -- but it isn't obvious to me that the philosophical activity would be relevant to the 'scientific' question of whether determinism is true.



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.