Tuesday 21 March 2017

Imperfect Volitions

My name is Alexandre Billon. I am an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Lille III. My research specialty is philosophical psychopathology, that is, the use of psychopathology to solve perennial philosophical riddles.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, I argue that in order to be happier, people with desires like us must behave irrationally. This might seem plainly paradoxical: being happier is, other things being equal, being better off. Behaving irrationally is not doing what is best for me. How can I be made better off by not doing what is better for me?

Before debunking this paradox let me briefly present my argument. Many philosophers, thinkers and even religions have claimed that unfulfilled desires diminish our level of happiness. This, I believe is not quite right. There are two kinds of interesting counterexamples.

Some desires, first, positively contribute to please us before they are fulfilled. Future lovers can willingly prolong their flirting period, enjoying the obstacles that separate their desire to love and be loved from its foresighted satisfaction. Similarly, even though I desire to win the marathon, I take so much pleasure in the activities involved in this performance that my happiness is not decreased by the fact that I have not yet won the marathon. In these examples, the subject adopts a specific attitude towards her unfulfilled desires (call it erotic or lusory) that allows her to take pleasure in the mere contemplation of the desire’s possible satisfaction and in the activities involved in satisfying it.

Another counter-example to the claim that unulfilled desires diminish our level of happiness involves what we might call mourning attitudes. It is a common observation that important and irremediable losses can have little impact on one’s happiness. Persons losing their dearest relatives can rapidly adapt to their new situation. Even in the early phases of mourning, and despite their obvious sadness, some subjects report feeling happy “in the depths of their soul.” Less anecdotally, victims of disabling injuries or chronic illnesses tend to quickly return close to their former happiness “set-point.”

This general phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” or “hedonic treadmill” has been extensively studied in the last twenty years and it has been confirmed by different measures. It is tempting to explain hedonic adaptation as a form of conative adaptation: The subjects would maintain their levels of happiness by giving up those desires whose fulfillment is thwarted by their losses. It is seldom noted, however, that this explanation has been empirically refuted. People thus maintain very strong desires to regain their healthy state even when they have hedonically adapted to their chronic illness or their disability. What happens is not that they give up their desire for health but rather that they adopt a certain mourning attitude towards it, allowing them not to be upset by its unsatisfaction.

So unfulfilled desires do not always decrease one’s happiness. We can adopt certain atttudes allowing us to remain happy in the face of unfulfille desires. There is however a price to pay for this. Someone who is not upset by an unfulfilled desire will not do her best to fulfill it, which is, I argue, generally irrational. The marathon is a case in point: the more you are serious about winning the marathon—suppose your career as a profesional runner depends on it— the less playful, the more upset you will be by your desire’s unsatisfaction. This will certainly help you satisfy your desire to win, but it will tend to make you less happy. In the paper I argue that this is a very general phenomenon, which can be explained by well established psychological law connecting the intensity of noxious stimuli, anxiety or punishment on the one hand, and learning or performance on the other hand: the Yerkes Dodson-Law. This law implies, I argue, that we won’t do our best to satisfy a desire—as we rationally should— unless its being unsatified decreases our level of happiness.

What about the paradox? How can one be made better off (happier) by not doing what is best for him (not doing one’s best to satisfy her desires)? This can happen, very simply, if the world rewards irrationality. Imagine that a whimsical god rewards me each time I do something stupid, like throwing  away money to become richer, or try to kill my son because I love him. With such a god, it would be better for me to become irrational. My claim is simply that because of the Yerkes-Dodson law, the world indeed acts as such a whimsical god, rewarding some forms of irrationality.

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