Is Life Just a Game?
Quora Question: What is wrong with the philosophy that life is just a game and humans are just the pieces you play with?
It depends on what the implications are that you have in mind but the way you phrase the question makes it sound as if there is potentially something deeply wrong with this outlook.
From a deontology perspective, you are putting forth a principle that would be very difficult to turn into a universal rule of action. According to this ethical theory, an action is morally correct if it could be made into a universal rule that everyone should follow. But, what if everyone acted on the principle that “life is just a game and humans are just the pieces you play with?”
Would there be any respect for individual liberty? Would there be any respect for personal autonomy? Would there be any respect for private property? Would there be any respect for anyone’s life? It would seem not. If there were, how could this be justified given your principle?
From a simple “golden rule” perspective how would this work? Would you wish others to treat you the way you are suggesting treating them? If not, why not? Would you try to maintain that you should be exempt from the principle that you are using to relate to others? If so, why?
If you would wish others to treat you this way, have you really thought through the implications of what this treatment would entail? If you are just a “piece to play with” does that mean if you no longer serve any useful (or fun) purpose we can just eliminate you? Would you be OK with that?
At best, your principle sounds like a version of egoism which itself is a problematic ethical theory. Without going into all the details of egoism, the basic idea is that we should act only out of our own self-interest without taking into account the interests of others.
A major problem with this outlook is that it is unacceptably arbitrary. What makes you so different from everyone else? Why are you so special? If you think about it you discover that there's no good reason for singling one person out as better or more special. We're all basically the same in our desire for happiness and our right to be treated with respect and dignity. Unless there are any relevant differences between ourselves and everyone else we cannot justify different treatment. If my desire for happiness should be fulfilled and if my basic needs should be met so too should everyone else's. There's no good argument for disregarding the interests of others.
As the Dalai Lama often points out, we should instead be “wisely selfish” understanding that our own interests and well-being are deeply connected with the interests and well-being of others. In a world as deeply interconnected as ours, we depend on others for our very lives. Their right to happiness is just as important as ours. Their right to happiness, their well-being, and their interests are just as important as yours.
And, because they have interests, rights, and the very kind of life you do, they ought not to be regarded as “pieces to play with.” For that matter, neither should you.
Theories of Happiness
From a philosophical standpoint there are several prominent theories of happiness each of which defines happiness in a slightly different way and offers a different approach to achieving it.
In addition to these major philosophical theories (which I’ll summarize below), there has also been a resurgence of interest by psychologists in happiness due, in part, to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology. This has led to quite a burst of popular books that have been published in recent years many of which are interesting and insightful.
As for some of the major philosophical theories:
Hedonism: The basic idea of this happiness theory is that pursuing pleasure is the best way to achieve happiness. But, philosophers like Epicurus who advocate this approach caution against misunderstanding what they mean by “pleasure.” For Epicurus, this does not mean the pursuit of “wine, women, and song.” Instead, it means the pursuit of those things which are necessary for happiness. For Epicurus that list is surprisingly small and simple: friendship, freedom, contemplation. For more on this approach you can read Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines.
Virtue Ethics: Similar in its promotion of things such as friendship and contemplation, Aristotle’s approach to happiness is one based on pursuing the virtues. But, again, like the word “pleasure” we may be tempted to misunderstand “virtue.” For Aristotle, the virtues are traits of character which will lead to a well-lived life. They are the mean between two extremes: either too much or too little of the virtue. Courage is a good example. It is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. For more on Aristotle’s approach to happiness you can read his Nichmachean Ethics.
Utilitarianism: This approach was advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and 19th centuries. For Bentham happiness was defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. While he thought these could be quantified he was quick to point out that he did not mean his approach to be confused with hedonism. Whereas hedonism is usually associated with the pursuit of personal pleasure, the utilitarians were always quick to point out that they were concerned with the happiness of everyone. Indeed, this is how the principle of utility was formulated by Mill who said we should act so that our actions create the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Though he disagreed with Bentham’s purely quantitative approach, he was also concerned with the happiness of others, not just with the self. John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is a good introduction to his ideas.
As I mentioned above, there is a rich literature concerning happiness that has developed over the past few decades. Among all the voices discussing this topic, the Dalai Lama is an interesting one to consider. He points out, much like Aristotle did, that happiness is the ultimate purpose of our lives as human beings. And, in spite of being a religious leader, in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, he advocates a secular approach to ethics to achieve this ultimate goal. His books on The Art of Happiness and The Art of Happiness at Work are insightful and well worth reading.
Other good works you may find interesting include:
Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
Quora Question: How can US politics become less acrimonious?
I think there are several components to this very good question. It may be that many of these will have to be addressed together before any real progress can be made. However, even if the political climate can be improved we must always remember that what is at issue are deeply held and divergent views about how life ought to be lived so a certain amount of acrimony will probably always be present.
Having said that here are a few of the components that, in my opinion as a philosopher and educator, need to be addressed.
Individual knowledge: The basic principles of government and economics are necessary to any well-informed political discourse and these basics are sorely lacking. Whether or not school curricula can be improved to address this problem, ultimately, individuals need to begin to recognize that they are responsible for their own education in these areas. Individuals need to read the central documents of American political literature including the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist writings, and other relevant documents.
Individual discourse: The basic principles of good dialogue are also required in order improve our politics. Not only does that include some basic principles of reasoning and the ability to recognize logical fallacies, but as important, is the ability to engage in civil discourse. This video outlines a good way to do this:
Take "the Other" to lunch
Political Pressure: Having laid a foundation of individual knowledge and discourse it will then be possible to bring political pressure to bear on elected officials. One effective tactic is to give no attention to political demagogues; simply don’t show up at their events. Cut off their “oxygen supply,” so to speak. Encourage others to do this. For well-educated voters, this should be an easy tactic.
Join together: Political action can be more effective when individuals join together. There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying government through interest groups. If you don’t like the message that a particular interest group is promoting, join or create another to get the counter message out.
Discourage gratuitous partisanship: There will always be partisanship but it should be possible to discourage partisanship for the sake of partisanship. One possible group which can help with this is called No Labels: Stop Fighting. Start Fixing.
Finally, remember that people of goodwill are going to disagree about political issues. That makes them human, not evil. Not everyone will agree with your political outline. Let’s learn to listen, learn, and engage with the process.
Urban Confessional: A free listening project might be another good resource.
Do Politicians Have No Morals?
Part of the problem is the set of incentives that exist in the current system. So, even if you take a person who has a firm foundation of ethics (let’s assume for the moment that’s most people) once they are exposed to the system of incentives in politics they will be swayed to make compromises in their morality.
Consider, first what it takes to get elected to office. You have to raise enormous amounts of money and much of this will come from large interest groups. They will want something in return for the money they give you.
So, suppose you decide to take a completely transparent and ethical approach to this aspect of getting elected. You will openly and publicly declare that donations of any size will not garner any favor with you once you get elected.
What would happen? First, most of your potential donors will seek to donate their funds elsewhere. People will not gravitate towards you as a result of this stance however moral it might be.
So, even before you get elected you are confronted with a deal breaker. You will have to agree to be beholden to the people supporting you. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it contains a strong incentive to “sell out” if necessary.
Another factor is the self-selection process. We all know the grueling process that awaits anyone who decides to run for public office. So, in spite of the claim that many people make that they are doing this for selfless reasons, there has to be a strong attraction to the possibility of having power in order survive the process. So, only those who have this power motivation are going to seek public office in the first place. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have no morals or ethics but that a primary motivation for them is the power they will have.
Combine that with the pressure of raising money and pleasing others to remain in power and you have a powerful combination of incentives.
But, even with those factors, it is unlikely that most of the people we elect have “no morals” since it is unlikely that most people in general have “no morals.” What would this even mean?
No, what is far more likely is that we are all susceptible to the lure of power and money and in an area of life where these are willingly given to those who say the right thing the temptation for anyone to succumb to is extremely powerful.
Ideally, we have a system where we obey the rule of law not the rule of men (or women). So, in such a context if a president were to lawfully appoint a replacement to the Supreme Court the Senate would lawfully do its job and hold hearings. That’s what the law says. But, the temptation to wield power seems to overcome even the clearly written dictates of the law.
There are many other examples of this as well. And, the solution, tempting though it may be, is not to look for someone “more moral” to run for office. The solution will involve more oversight of the election process and that oversight must come from the bottom up by voters. But, with voter participation at a very low rate that leaves the field wide open for politicians to say what they need to to get elected and then do what they need to to remain in power.
We’ve seen in recent years how powerful individuals can be if they stand up and collectively assert their desire for change. Same sex marriage is one example where the power of individual action led to major changes. Similar changes could happen with other issues as well but it takes the willing action of individuals. That means all of us.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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2022 Reading Challenge
Kevin has read 12 books toward his goal of 63 books.