Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How Ends Contend

I claim that the ultimate goals of humans are products of feeling and not reason.  However, Roderick Long, as a eudaimonist, claims that what the teleological philosopher usually thinks of as ultimate goals are really penultimate goals (although he doesn't use that term) which serve as means to the one ultimate end of "eudaimonia".  These penultimate goals, he contends, are chosen according to reason.  In his lecture Economics and Its Ethical Assumptions, Long writes...
Now according to this tradition, why do they say that we have just one ultimate end? Why not say that we have lots, that there are lots of things we want: ice cream, fame, not being killed? We've got all these different things, but why suppose that they're all constituents of some big super-end? Well, I think part of the reason they think this is: what happens when you make trade-offs? Suppose there are two ultimate ends you have: ice cream and fame. Those are two ultimate ends you have, and they come in degrees. (That's why I didn't use not being killed, because that's less a matter of degree.) So you want more ice cream, and you want more fame. And sometimes those go together, like winning an ice-cream-eating contest. But still there are lots of cases where these goals might conflict, and so you have to do trade-offs, and decide between them.
If you're deciding between them, that's an action. Actions have to have a means-end structure, right? So if you're trying to decide how to trade off between ice cream and fame, then doing that must be a means to some end. Well, what is the end? It can't be the end of maximizing the ice cream, because you haven't decided whether that's what you're going to do. It can't be the end of maximizing fame, because you haven't decided that. It can't be the end of getting the maximization of both, because it's a trade-off — that's impossible. Instead, you're trying to maximize something of which these two are parts, some general, overall satisfaction — that's what you're trying to maximize. You might wonder whether "maximize" is even the right word, but anyway you're trying to promote some good that includes both of these intrinsic good; these are intrinsic parts of your overall good. And it's that sort of thing that leads the eudaimonists to think that whenever you're acting, you're always promoting some ultimate good of yours, some ultimate end or aim.
Let's consider a fleshed-out hypothetical case of Long's ice cream/fame example.  Let's say a man is at a karaoke bar-and-grill with some friends and the place is packed.  He takes a number for a turn at singing.  Then, just as his number comes up, the waiter brings a giant banana split to his table.  His friends are bunch of pigs, so he knows that if he goes up and sings, the banana split will be gone by the time he gets back.  But if he doesn't take his turn now, he will miss his chance to sing.  Now, he loves banana splits, but he also loves performing (he's quite a good singer).  So he is torn between his desire for ice cream and his desire for performing.  Ice cream and fame are, strictly speaking, not his ends but means.  The physical ice cream is a means to the goal of the delicious taste sensation that occurs when he is eating it.  And the act of performing is a means to the goal of the exhilarating sensation he gets while performing.
Now the eudaimonist would say the goals of taste sensation and "stage exhilaration" are not ultimate ends, but intermediary means to a single end.  A Tolkien geek would say their ethical doctrine is, "one end to rule them all, and one end to bind them" (which is not to say that I myself am a Tolkien geek, just that that is what one would say. [*-)]  The eudaemonist would argue this must be true, because the man chose between the two goals, choosing implies a criterion, and a criterion implies a "higher" goal.  The eudaemonist calls this higher goal "overall well-being" or (of course) eudaemonia.

This would seem to run counter to the Humean contention that goals such as taste sensation and stage exhilaration are truly ends, and are therefore creatures of the passions.  And it might follow from the following propositions:
  1. Such goals are means, and we choose between them.  Choice implies deliberation.  Therefore we deliberate over such goals.
  2. Deliberation is entirely a process of reason.
  3. Such goals, therefore, are products of reason.
First of all, I insist that such goals are not products of reason.  The veracity of #3 would not follow from the veracity of #1 and #2.  To say that we choose between the goals of flavor and exhilaration is not to say we choose to have those goals in the first place.  The statement, "I choose to desire X" makes no sense.  One chooses to act upon desire, but not to feel the desire in the first place.  Let us grant for a moment that goals like flavor and exhilaration are not ends, but penultimate goals which are but means to the ultimate goal of eudaemonia.  Even if that were so, such penultimate goals, along with eudeamonia itself, must be creatures of feeling, because the notion of choosing to desire something makes no sense.
For example, the man in the karaoke bar does choose between the banana split and singing.  But he can't be said to choose to desire the banana split in the first place.  When he sees the dish, his eyes widen; he begins to salivate; the image of himself eating the thing involuntarily manifests before his mind's eye.  Neither can he be said to choose to want to sing in the first place.  That too is simply a manifest urge that arises in response to the opportunity to sing.

So #3 above is certainly not true.  Now how about #1 and #2?  #1 is true; choice does imply deliberation.  But I contend that #2 is false;  deliberation is not entirely a process of reason.  Reason is the power of the mind to form judgments by process of logic.  But what kind of logic decides the matter when a man in the bar chooses between ice cream and fame?  It is not calculation; he doesn't count "utils" in his head.  It is not by deduction nor is it by induction that he finally decides.
This is not to say he doesn't think about it.  To work toward a decision, he may reflect upon eating ice cream and singing in order to get a more full picture of exactly what each will entail.  He thereby comes to a greater grasp upon exactly what it will be like to eat the ice cream and to perform on the stage.
To achieve this fuller picture and greater grasp, it is true that he may use reason.  For example, he might think, "That big party over there is leaving.  Therefore, if I sang, I would have a smaller audience than I thought."  Each of the contending urges he feels might then either increase or diminish in intensity in response to the new, fuller notions in his head regarding the two potential experiences.  

But ultimately, the only product of such a thinking process, after all the facts have been gathered in his head, can still only be two contending urges: one for ice cream and the other for fame.  And these urges are unanalyzable givens; they are not susceptible to ratiocination.  For a time, the man suspends both urges in his psyche.  At the point of action, he will either be impelled by one urge or the other.  We say then that the action-impelling urge is, by definition, the stronger of the two.

The use of reason can be impelled by feeling.  And the conclusions reached by reason can have impacts upon feeling.  But final decisions between contending goals are always directly impelled by feeling, and it is not a matter of ratiocination regarding the maximization of some mysterious single ultimate end.

1 comment:

Tobias said...


I am a student of a health department in Denmark. I accidentally read your blog on reasons vs non- reason for doing what we do, if I may call it that.

Just to clarify, what you mean: Is it so that we human beings are drawn by emotion in any simple situation, where after we try to wager the urge to obtain such a emotion out with the other, in a human-sort of logical reasoning pattern?

What I get from you block is that we are largely drawn by emotion, not as many people might think logical reasoning.

Is that right?

I btw. found myself really en-trailed by the blog - I couldn´t stop reading, however it produced some questions.

Yours sincerely

Tobias, 27 y, Copenhagen