In my recent post “Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?,” I cast doubt on what I called the Socratic principle, the notion that self-examination in the broadest sense—contemplating not just your life but life in general, the human condition--leads to happiness and virtue. Below are my additional thoughts on this topic, plus comments from readers.
I concluded my previous post by asking: If delving deeply into the human condition cannot make us better people or yield definitive answers, why bother? I see several reasons to bother, which are not mutually exclusive. If you’re lucky, talented and hard-working, being a professional investigator of the human condition—whether philosopher or psychiatrist, anthropologist or novelist--can lead to a high-status career, tenure and possibly even fame and glory.
If your goal is moral and spiritual self-improvement, you have a shot at that, too. The path you choose—stoicism, Buddhism, psychoanalysis, cognitive science, psychopharmacology—matters less than your sincere desire to be a better person. Just remember that studies of meditation, psychotherapy and other paths suggest your gains will be modest.
The loftiest reason to study the human condition is helping others. Who knows, you might end up becoming the next Descartes, Kant, Austen, Marx, Dickinson, Nietzsche, James, Jung, Le Guin, Kahneman, Ferrante. If your work contributes, even a little, to humanity’s self-awareness and moral progress, you had a good life, even if you were a miserable grouch.
In my own case, intellectual inquiry has always been more compulsion than choice. Life baffles me. I haven’t gleaned any insights that make life less mysterious (quite the contrary), or that make me, let alone the world, nicer or happier.
I’ve nonetheless managed to construct a career of sorts out of thinking, reading, talking and writing about life’s riddles. I do this for its own sake, because I enjoy it. Getting paid is icing on the cake. This work has given me lots of satisfaction, which, I suspect, makes me nicer than I used to be (although that’s not for me to judge). I would never insist, as Socrates did, that the examined life is the “greatest good,” But there are worse paths. Contemplating life’s meaninglessness can make for a meaningful life.
Now here are comments from readers, the first of whom has a new book on the value of self-examination!
Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher, author, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life:
I think that critical, or philosophical, self-examination is a good thing, on the basis that it is working for me and for many people I know, and because it has been practiced -- apparently successfully -- at least since Socrates.
But shouldn't we want systematic studies of its efficacy? Maybe. At the very least, it is exceedingly hard to carry out such studies, because of the difficulties in setting up proper controls, in making sure the subjects are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and because such studies would have both to be long term and take into account a large number of background socioeconomic and personality variables. And, frankly, given the recent well-known troubles that social science research has gotten into in terms of artificiality and non-replicability of some of their textbook findings, I'm not going to hold my breath.
There is also a more basic reason for skepticism of systematic studies of this kind. Take my personal philosophy, which prompts my own version of self-examination: Stoicism. It "works" for me, probably because of a combination of the intrinsic power of its ideas and my personality, upbringing, life experiences, and so forth.
But for someone else Stoicism might be a complete turn off, while Buddhism -- which I tried and quickly abandoned -- will do the trick. Personal philosophies, and the whole idea of self-examination connected to them, are, well, personal, and therefore highly idiosyncratic, and so really, really difficult to study systematically.
It would be a bit like asking whether Beethoven is good for you. Well, if you have a certain sensibility and cultural background, listening to Beethoven is not just a sublime aesthetic experience, but it may be a transcendental one (not in the religious sense). But if you have a different sensibility, or a different cultural background, it only amounts to a lot of boring noise."
Scott Aaronson, quantum-computer scientist (see my Q&A with him here):
On the one hand, I'd love to laugh along with this: if ethicists are no more moral than anyone else, then what's the point of all their training?
On the other hand, I'd really hate it if someone judged whether I had any right to call myself a "computer scientist," based on whether I could fix their broken laptop better than they could fix it themselves. (Hint: I couldn't, though there are certainly others in CS departments who could.)
That's simply not where I have expertise, or where I ever claimed to have expertise. Instead come to me if you want to ask about the theoretical foundations of CS, or which principles of physics could or couldn't lead to more powerful computers in the future, etc. -- those are *my* layers of the abstraction stack.
In the same way, if I wanted to be exhorted to be more moral, maybe I'd find a rabbi or a motivational speaker (though in those cases, again, it's far from obvious that the person himself would be more moral than anyone else!).
Likewise, if I just wanted to be inspired by someone's virtuous example, maybe I'd find a monk in the Himalayas -- or better yet, someone who volunteers to distribute malaria nets in Africa, or works 80-hour weeks and makes millions of dollars for the sole purpose of giving almost all of it to charity. (Such people exist.)
The only cases where I would even think in the first place to consult a professional ethicist, would be if I were confused about what morality even *means* in the first place, or whether there's a fallacy in some particular argument about what morality consists of, or what various important philosophers had to say about such questions in the past.
It causes me little cognitive dissonance to believe that someone might know a thousand times more than me about Plato's and Aristotle's and Spinoza's views on morality, and be able to answer all my confusions about those topics, despite lacking the willpower to follow through on any of the moral exhortations themselves.
Erik Hoel, neurophilosopher:
I think you're right that there's just a handful of philosophical communities that actually put their money where their mouth is. The first are effective altruists, who often donate a significant amount of their personal income in response to arguments given by philosophers like Peter Singer. I also think many intellectuals have been motivated by philosophical thought experiments, particularly concerning existential threats, and are putting time/effort into things like AI-safety.
As to your big question at the end: if the life of the mind doesn't make you any happier, why bother? I'll briefly give what I think the answer is, because it's such an interesting prompt:
I'd equate developed self-knowledge or intellect with having a developed palate. People with developed palates (say, being able to distinguish different kinds of wine, or white from black truffle) aren't any happier, even when they're eating, than people with undeveloped palates. But people with a developed palate have a capacity for discrimination that is through the roof! So they have something that people with undeveloped palates don't have, even if it is the case that both groups are equally happy while eating a meal.
Self-knowledge and intellect is a similar kind of discriminatory capacity, but over the whole of life, such as emotions, sensations, and situations. For instance, I have a friend who lost his sense of smell. He'd much rather regain his sense of smell, even if forced to live in a dump, than not have it at all!
The novel Flowers for Algernon is a wonderful and heartbreaking example of this. I bet a lot of people with low intelligence or education and a 9/10 natural happiness level would make the trade for a high intelligence level and a 6/10 happiness ratio. I doubt almost anyone would go the opposite direction. It's probably like the difference between seeing in black and white versus switching to color.
So a basic rule might be that the moral weight of any given emotion or sensation is equal to: [discriminatory-capacity * amount-of-emotion]. Training in the humanities might not change amount-of-happiness (maybe it even lowers it by a bit), but it surely gives a massive bump to discriminatory-capacity.
Joyce Mullen, philosopher, Stevens Institute of Technology:
I think you made some interesting points including that some professional philosophers/academics, because they are so smart, think that ethics only applies to the little people, or they have learned to be very good at rationalizing bad behavior.
So, what can incentivize us to be good? I do think an examined life, where you really think about what is worth living for, can be a good thing. Philosophers also ask what is real happiness, is it merely to be as rich or thin or good looking as possible? Is it having exciting experiences all the time? If they agreed with Aristotle, happiness is a virtuous life in accord with a rational principle, that is a life that can be justified. I also agree with Mill that a selfish life is an unhappy life, because you are always worrying about whether other people have it better than you, you are miserable. If, on the other hand, you are curious about the world and everybody in it, that can make for an interesting and rewarding life. Unfortunately, many philosophers know some of these things, but I don't think they have thought them through. They, in fact, have turned some of these ideas into “straw men” that they can easily knock down.
I am also aware of some philosophers that are ethical in many ways, though not every way. The feminist philosophers who came up with the Ethics of Care have been pretty nice people from what I know. One of them, Joan Tronto, recommended me for my first job, and Virginia Held always had a smile for me whenever I would see her at a conference. Those little things can mean a lot!
Addendum: Readers also sent me interesting articles relevant to this discussion: “The Curse of Expertise: When More Knowledge Leads to Miscalibrated Explanatory Insight,” by psychologists Matthew Fisher and Frank C. Keil; and “Against Flow,” by philosopher Barbara Gail Montero.