Thursday, August 6, 2009

Let Us Eat Drink and Be Merry?

How can I do the right thing and not just the easy thing? To do this, I need a standard to live by. If I want to follow a moral standard, which one do I choose. At first, there seems a bewildering variety of standards to pick from. But John Stuart Mill claimed there were at bottom only two basic approaches to morals. While I disagree with his choice, I am inclined to believe his assessment. One option is that there are absolute transcendent morals, to which our desires are required to conform. The other is that the standard is what gives the greatest amount of pleasure. I am inclined to think that those who hold to relative morals or no morals or that the standard is whatever works, end up, in the final analysis, following the second view.

To be fair to those who hold this view, they often hold it in a qualified form. They may claim that self-restraint will ultimately give greater pleasure than following the impulse of the moment. They may claim that we should not consider only our own pleasure, but what will give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number or even be willing to sacrifice our own pleasure for that of others. Nonetheless, I feel there are real problems with this viewpoint.

What basis do we have for equating what gives pleasure with what is right? I recognize the natural attraction of this, like believing a hot fudge sundae has no calories. But it does require justification, especially since the more conventional moral systems (those of the first type) oppose the idea. (This does not necessarily mean they are opposed to pleasure, merely that they do not make it the ultimate standard.) Also, the question of what gives the most pleasure is not as simple as it seems. Frequently, we find ourselves trying to judge between the impulse of the moment and deferred long-term satisfaction. This becomes even more acute if we have to judge what will give the greatest pleasure not to just one person but the greatest number . To make things even worse, there is a question of whether what gives a person the most pleasure depends on their philosophy of life. Note that different people have different things that give them pleasure but that the same person, if they were to change their viewpoint, would have different things give them pleasure.

The result of all this ambiguity is that whatever good intentions it may start out with, this view tends over time to degenerate into pure selfishness and moral (and ultimately legal) anarchy. It may start with an Epicurus who advocates self restraint and lives on cheese and crackers. But it ends in a Nero who indulges every passion. I do not believe it has yet been seen what follows from taking this view to its logical conclusion. But I would advise returning to an absolute ethical standard before we find out.

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