Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Ecological Paradox of Happiness

This is something I've been thinking about, as a new way of framing the intersection of my interests in well-being and environmental ethics. I'm calling it "An Ecological Paradox of Happiness," although it isn't, strictly speaking, a paradox. (Perhaps I should instead call it the tragedy of happiness, pace Hardin's "tragedy of the commons.")

Consider, for example, the "American Dream" of living comfortably, middle-class, free to move (and fly) where your dreams take you, settling down, having nice things, and so on. (Suppose something like that is the American Dream.) The carbon footprint of the average American is very high; if everyone on the planet lived like the average American, the result would be environmentally unsustainable. Now if more and more people pursue something like the American Dream--read: American happiness--and if more and more countries (e.g. India and China) are industrializing in ways like Western nations (including the United States), then it's obvious we're headed toward insustainability. The more people who pursue and acquire happiness [important caveat: of a certain sort], the more unsustainable global happiness becomes, and the closer we get to ecological disaster, which, of course, will be a cause of great unhappiness for many (future generations).

This leads to something that looks like the traditional paradox of happiness, which says that in order to be happy one must pursue something other than happiness. The ecological version is that it looks like in order to make the happiness of future generations possible, we should pursue something other than (American) happiness, i.e. if we want it to remain possible for future others (as well as others in other parts of the world now!) to live happily, we should give up our own pursuit of happiness.

Now, it seems to me that, to the extent that there is something that seems paradoxical here, it's actually a false paradox, and that, briefly, we don't have to give up happiness (or its pursuit), but instead certain aspects of the "American" part. In connection with this, I just finished a paper by Judith Licthenberg on "Consuming Because Others Consume," which provides some interesting insights on why people consume other than simple greed, particularly in order to maintain a sense of equality to those around them, which for most people, is (according to JL) necessary for self-respect. This is something worth bearing in mind, insofar as her argument makes it clear that the path to sustainable change is going to involve collective action (and policy) rather than exhortations to personal virtue (although that isn't particularly because not enough people are personally virtuous).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

More on Body-Swapping and Gender

In Body-Swapping and Gender, I discussed a scenario I presented to my classes, where they were each asked to suppose it was possible to swap bodies (while preserving one's whole mind intact), and whether they themselves would want to to swap. We saw there that about 35% of males and 10% of females said that they would want to swap.

Today, I asked the students to predict what percent of males, and what percent of females, said that they would want to swap. Here are the results and some thoughts about them.

76% of the class predicted that the percentage of women who would want to swap bodies would be higher than the percentage of men. There was little variance by sex here. So, 76% of the class was wrong about how the survey would turn out at this basic level.

The mean prediction for how many women would want to swap was 47% (median 50%); for men, 29% (Median 25%). When we break this down by sex we get:

Women: Predict that 44% of women would want to swap (median 50%); predict that 24% of men would want to swap (median 20%).

Men: Predict that 51% of women would want to swap (median 55%); predict that 34% of men would want to swap (median 32.5%).

Interestingly, both sexes are about equally wrong in their predictions about women, although they are roughly correct in their predictions about men, although men were more spot-on. In the case of men, perhaps that's not surprising, since more of them did say they'd be willing to swap. But it's not clear how much we can trust these predictions, since they were probably in part based on comparison to their other prediction.

Nevertheless, while men were more spot-on about men, why were women just as inclined as men to grossly overestimate how many women would want to swap bodies?

Eve Browning Cole, like other feminists, suggests that in Western thought, women are more identified with the body, (the earthy, Mother Nature), and so perhaps when women were asked to reflect on their own desires here, they were more inclined the swapping of bodies as a real loss of something intrinsic to the self. But then why don't they extrapolate that to their prediction? Is it because we see women doing more things to modify their bodies (from makeup to plastic surgery), and so body-swapping would just be an instance of that?

There's a weird double-standard (or perhaps a tension) lurking here: men are not their bodies (or less likely to think that, given Western ideology about mind, body, and gender), but the body is an important "tool". Thus, if you can get a better tool, trade up. Women, on the other hand, are--or are more closely identified with--their bodies, so it's not simply an object for trade. At the same time, women, it seems, can feel intense pressure to make their bodies fit an idealized (and for most, impossible) physical standard. It seems likely, however, that this is changing, as young men feel pressure to work out and to get "buff", etc.

Nevertheless, there's a difficulty here for women: you are your body (is the implicit message of Western culture), but you need to change it, make it fit an ideal. The double-standard is that for men, this is just an extrinsic modification--not a deep change of the self. But for women, the change demanded poses as an intrinsic change: it's not that you need to make your body more, say, beautiful; you need to make yourself more beautiful (i.e. you are your body).

So, while the results of the study seem surprising, they might just go to show that the difference in the way the sexes conceive of themselves (and their relation to their body) DO fall along the lines put forth by feminist thinkers, and because of the emphasis on beauty in the West, women are in an uncomfortable double-bind.

That is, of course, rather speculative. For one thing, I asked the women in one class whether they felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and many said no. But at the same time, they agreed that women complain a lot more about their appearance. (So there could well be dissatisfaction with body, but an unwillingness to "swap" because of the stronger identification with one's body than men, for better or worse.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tiberius on Reflection (and the Self)

From the opening pages of Valerie Tiberius' The Reflective Life:
But it turns out that the rational or reflective self isn't all that good a charioteer after all. Recent investigations in empirical psychology show us that the self-conscious, rational processor is more fallible than we imagined. The rational self makes inaccurate predictions about what we'll find satisfying, is plagued by biases, and has a tendency to distraction. When we try to be reflective about our choices, we end up confused about our reasons, and we choose things we don't ultimately like. The rational self is hardly the reasonable, responsible, and prudent leader we took it to be. (p. 5)
She goes on, but you get the idea. Bad news for reflection. (And roughly, like it or not, reason is "the slave of the passions.") What to do, what to do? She continues:
Perhaps, then, we should abandon the reflective self and identify with the elephant [viz. the passions]. But this won't work either, for two reasons. First, our non-reflective, emotional selves are not the best leaders either. The most obvious problem here is that we can have passions that lead us in opposite directions, leading to a lot of frustation. Even without conflict, momentary passions can lead us ina directions that frustrate our long-term interests.

Second, it is as reflective creatures that we want to know how we ought to live our lives. People who ask questions like "What is the best life for me? or "How should I live?" are already engaged in some reflection about their lives, and so these questions need an answer that will satisfy us insofar as we are being reflective. (p. 5)
Even though reflection has limitations and is prone to certain kinds of mistakes, the answer to the several questions here can't be "stop thinking" (full stop)--or as a put it in a prior post, "Don't Think Too Hard".

That said, Tiberius wants us to reflect better, and not, for that matter, "too much." (There are times when we should just live.) Her project strikes me as very much on the right track; we want reflection to "get us somewhere we'd like to be" (p. 7). "Somewhere" seems quite apt, and Tiberius doesn't want to postulate a summum bonum for, as it were, all of humanity, but to start from our own first-person, reflective viewpoints.

However, something about these opening remarks rubbed me the wrong way, although this is somewhat a side concern, especially since Tiberius wants to consider "how to train the rational and reflective capacities we actually have so that they function together with our emotions, moods, and desires" (p. 7). What irks me is the implicit division of the self into a "reflective self" and a "non-reflective (emotional?) self," and all the Platonic and Cartesian meanings and baggage that go along with that. Not having read the whole book, I'm interested to see what else, if anything, Tiberius has to say about this division. But there is something suspicious in the implicit idea that the "real me" is the reflective self, rather than the other self, or that this is, as Descartes might have it, a "real distinction" (i.e. a distinction between two wholly different entities).

The problem, I suspect, is that we'd like to think that the "real me" is the reflective me, not the (part of) me that acts spontaneously, sometimes in ways that we don't like, on reflection. But that sort of distancing from our spontaneous, emotional lives just fosters the idea that the emotions are not wholly "us", and thus, like Plato's wild horse, need to be whipped, etc. Now, since Tiberius aligns herself with Hume, I assume she rejects the core of those ideas. (And certainly, the first few pages are just laying out the philosophical situation and traditional responses, so Ii don't exactly want to pin these criticisms on her, as much as the language with which we (philosophers) have grown accustomed to discussing and framing these problems.)

To begin with a division of the self distracts from the thought that we are one person with one life, and in those respects, one self, all of which can be more or less integrated. Sometimes we reflect, but most often we act, and experience, and respond, etc. These are all activities of a single self (barring multiple personalities, etc.), not the doings of distinct "homunculi" within the soul. Presumably, none of this is to quibble with Tiberius' direction, but it makes more clear that reflection is not some privileged activity among others, even though it is an activity that is the only one suited at all to its aim.

But what is the aim of reflection? It isn't knowledge, for emotions (and more generally experience) can be a source of knowledge. (Similarly, it can't be self-knowledge, because psychology can tell us a lot about ourselves, as can our friends!) If reflection has a distinct aim, then, it is not the production (or discovery) of knowledge, but the ordering of knowledge (or, if you want, information). This ordering is the basis for personal decisions about what's important. (So reflection, and what some would call the "faculty of judgment" are, here, related.) Whether we go on to live by those decisions depends upon a great many other things (and is connected to whether our lives are more or less integrated).

Privileging reflection (a la Plato and the rational) is like saying that one organ is more important than all the others--but they are all essential for life. (Of course, one might say the brain has a special status, is irreplaceable, etc., but that might only be a contingent fact. And at any rate, the other important aspects of "the self" are going to have a significant claim on the brain, too. So no one gets to plant its flag first!) On the other hand, it's no good pooh-poohing on reflection as if the lesson is to give up on it, because there isn't anything to replace it in our practical lives (which is, roughly, Tiberius' point).

(Thanks again to Pamela for reminding me of this book! I'm likely to have more to say on this book as I read on...)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Body-Swapping and Gender

In my intro to philosophy classes, we've been discussing Descartes' dualism and are about to look at an article by Eve Browning (Cole) that considers feminist critiques of the Cartesian project and conception of the self. I had the idea to survey students about a “body-swapping” scenario; and gave them the following to consider:
Suppose that it was possible for you to trade out your present body for a different one. And suppose that you get to pick from some selection of bodies. Your mind would be transferred to the new body, with no loss of memory, thought, mental ability, etc. (Your mind and its contents would be preserved wholly intact.) The only thing that would change is the body you inhabit. The trade will be permanent, in that your present body will be discarded once the mind-transfer process is complete. Would you want to trade in your present body for a different one?
They were asked to check yes or no, and I also asked, “If you checked yes, would you choose a male or female body?” I also asked them to report their gender.

The results are intriguing (to me and a female colleague of mine, at least). 35% of males (11 out of 31) checked “Yes”. By contrast, only 10% of females (3 out of 30) , checked “Yes”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, NO ONE who checked yes said they would choose a body of the opposite sex. Obviously, the disparity between males and females who checked yes needs explaining. Do they show that young men are more prone to body-dissatisfaction than young women? That men are less likely to identify as closely with their own bodies? (That would explain willingness to swap bodies, but wouldn't seem by itself to explain why any particular one would swap.) That men are less “risk-averse” (or more adventuresome)?

Environmental Vegetarianism

EKU (Eastern Kentucky University) hosts a series of lectures called the Chautauqua Lectures, and I attended the first of the season on Tuesday, given by marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

In addition to bearing witness to the enormity and beauty of what's below the surface of the oceans (and hammering home the mantra that the earth is really blue, not green!), Earle touched on the problems of commercial fishing and how it is depleting populations of various (edible) sea critters, and pointing out how these practices have numerous negative impacts on these ecosystems. (And since ocean life generates a significant amount of the oxygen we breathe, it's not just a problem for the fish, etc.)

This got me thinking again about something I've been thinking about already: the ecological considerations supporting vegetarianism. I located a nice paper which states the issue clearly: "An Ecological Argument for Vegetarianism," by Peter Wenz.

Peter Singer's arguments for vegetarianism have never quite worked for me, not because animal suffering isn't bad, but precisely because there's nothing wrong with eating an animal that lived a decent animal life. (Of course, he would say that most of the meat that's readily available isn't from animals that enjoyed such privilege.) I'm still mulling over Cora Diamond's very different approach, which, roughly, involves the thought that seeing other animals as our kin should lead to the further insight that we shouldn't eat them: we don't eat our kin (see "Eating Meat and Eating People," Philosophy, Vol. 53, No. 206 (Oct., 1978)). I've yet to read a recent essay by Stanley Cavell that engages Diamond's ideas (as well as John McDowell's response), but it's on the shelf, waiting.

Nevertheless, I tend to find the ecological considerations most compelling. Waste not, want not, or something to that effect.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Sweeping Claim About (and Plea to) Philosophy

This is rather sweeping and (too?) grandiose, but it's the best I've got at the moment--painted in broad strokes--on a possible worry about the interest in how bad we are at lots of (important) things (or misunderstandings about the implications of such study). From some work in progress:

"If philosophy is conceived of as an entirely (and negatively) critical activity, then philosophy will be regarded as an enemy of life-affirming inspiration and a hazard to conviction. There have, of course, always been some who issue warnings about philosophers, but often not for intellectually honest reasons. Are these warnings always incorrect? There is a trend in some recent philosophy, particularly that informed by empirical research in psychology and other social sciences, which might be viewed as providing new ground for a lack of self-trust. An optimistic response would be to hope that these findings can be employed in the service of more careful (and informed) reflection, rather than causing a general loss of confidence in our own emotional responses and judgments. If philosophy is to make itself (or preserve itself as) a constructively critical activity, then those working in these areas should be thinking and writing not just about our failures as reflective and emotionally guided beings, but also about how our new understanding of those failures can transform our self-conception, and improve our capacity for judgment, so that we aren’t simply left with a sense of how bad we are at being ourselves."

Is that (too?) unfair?