Moral Philosophy and What To Aim For In Your Life
Our moral philosophy determines what we care about and what we don’t care about.
I have an imaginary friend, whom I’ll call John.
John wants to know how he should live.
In particular, he wants to know what kind of life he has most reason to aim for. He keeps asking me:
“Which life do I have the strongest reasons to try to have?”
The source of reasons
That’s already deep stuff, but to have a shot at answering John’s question we need to descend deeper down the philosophical rabbit hole:
In virtue of what could someone have the strongest reasons to want to have some life? What provides these reasons?
Reasons are provided by facts.
Facts give us reasons when they count in favor of doing something.
For instance, the fact that calling an ambulance would save someone’s life counts in favor of calling an ambulance.
The million-dollar question, then, is which facts are the ones that count in favor of living a certain life.
Idea 1: Facts about desire-fulfillment provide reasons
Some people think that these facts are facts about what would fulfill our desires.
According to so-called ‘constructivists’, our passions create value. Something can be objectively good because it is desired for its own sake:
“Chocolate, for example, gets its value from the way it affects us. We confer value on it by liking it.” -Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity
If things matter by mattering to us, then, to figure out what he should aim for in life, John should figure out what matters to him.
The best possible life for John just is the life that he, after figuring this out, would in fact choose to live. There’s no way to get ‘beyond’ that, no way to get beyond John’s point of view.
My finger or the world?
On this way of seeing things, the truth or falsity of value judgments depends on the person who’s making the judgment.
Here’s philosopher David Hume, writing in 1738:
“’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ’Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ’Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than for the latter.” -David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
For Hume, preferences can’t be irrational, because reasoning only applies to how you go about realizing your preferences. Reasoning does not apply to which preference you have.
On the most fundamental level, what you take to matter in life is something that you discover about yourself. It’s an involuntary sense of importance on which reasoning doesn’t get a grip:
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” -David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Our “passions” provide the reasons in virtue of which we should design our life. We have most reason to do whatever would best fulfill our non-instrumental desires.
John, then, needs to do some introspection.
Desiring to do something is not always a reason for doing it
So, our desires are the source of our reasons for living a certain life.
What to make of that?
To begin, note that we could not have a beginless chain of desire-based reasons: any such chain must begin with some desire that we have no reason to have. After all, only facts about desire-fulfillment provide reasons, so the ‘first’ reason must be provided by a desire which is itself not based on reasons.
We can use reasoning only to, once we’ve arrived at our deepest passions ‘work our way up’ and discern how to best “serve and obey” them.
Constructivists are right that we cannot fully invent ourselves but have to discover some of our deepest longings. They are, however, mistaken in holding that facts about what would fulfill our desires always provide reasons.
On their theory, we can infer nothing about how a person chooses to live from the fact that she makes no mistake in reasoning. This has peculiar consequences.
This is clearest in cases like pedophilia: while these people can’t be blamed for the way their brains are built and the urges they have, they can be blamed, we believe, for upgrading that desire to a reason for acting that way. A desire for having sex with children is not a consideration that counts in favor of having sex with children.
As this example shows, there’s more to choosing how to live than obeying your deepest passions, even when you’re a flawless servant of them.
Why? Because desiring to do something is not always a reason for doing it.
Desires themselves call for support and the bare fact that one has a preference for something is not thereby a consideration that counts in favor of doing it or bringing it about.
The facts, then, that provide reasons for having a certain life cannot be facts about our ‘deepest passions’.
Introspection won’t tell John which life he has the strongest reasons to try to have after all.
Going beyond your own standards
Let’s slow down a bit and see where we are.
There is something wrong with someone who prefers the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger and anyone not in the grip of a narrow conception of what reasoning is would regard his preference as objectively wrong.
Hence, the facts in virtue of which John has the strongest reason to live a certain life aren’t facts about what he would like:
“Now, if this is rubbing you the wrong way right now, just think about it for a second. Everything that’s screwed up in your life, chances are it got that way because you were too beholden to your feelings. You were too impulsive. Or too self-righteous and thought yourself the center of the universe. And I hate to be the one to tell you, but you’re not.” -Mark Manson
To make progress in answering John’s question, I believe we need to get beyond John’s point of view.
In choosing what to aim for in life, it is random to prefer one goal over the other if there are no facts about these things that give us any reason to have this preference:
“Our preferences draw arbitrary distinctions when, and because, what we prefer is in no way preferable.” -Derek Parfit, On What Matters
To avoid chains of reasons based on objectionable desires — like the desire to have sex with children — we need to make sure that the beginning of the chain of reasons cannot be something for which we have no reason. Whatever our deepest passion, the fact that it is our deepest passion, does not mean that we should pursue it.
Idea 2: Facts that make events good or bad provide reasons
“In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world.” — Franz Kafka
It’s not always good to do what you want because your wanting something to happen is not always a consideration that counts in favor of bringing that event about.
If not my deepest passions, then what could start a chain of reasons?
Reasons are provided, not facts about what would fulfill our desires but by the features that make what we want worth achieving.
Plausibly, there are facts that give us reasons to have certain desires.
These reasons are given by facts about the objects of these desires. They are provided by facts that make the objects of our desires good or bad. When we have a reason to want something, that is because the object of our desire is in itself good, or worth achieving.
Facts about what is good, or right, provide the reasons in virtue of which John should try to have some life.
We have such object-given reasons, for example, to want to avoid agony. The nature of agony gives everyone very strong reasons to want not to be in this state. The awfulness of agony gives everyone clear reasons that are irrelevant of one’s desires.
There are certain worthwhile-making facts that give us reasons both to (1) have certain desires and aims and to (2) do whatever might achieve these aims.
Living based on what’s good/right is often difficult. But, on the long term, doing what’s good/right is the only approach that adds meaning to our lives.
Good luck, John.