Sunday, November 29, 2009

What governs your life?

Over the past few weeks I have been reading Jeremy Bentham to provide some bedtime reading. He explains that utilitarianism (making rational decisions that maximize your own long term pleasure) is the best system for making choices. He often criticizes asceticism (abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures) so I guess that he must have had significant exposure to a group of people that were highly ascetic.

In the past few weeks I have also heard about Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and neurologist that survived a German concentration camp. He would have been exposed to these utilitarian theories before entering the concentration camps. When in the camp, he quickly realized that pursuing a life to maximize personal pleasure was meaningless in a concentration camp. When a life is characterized by suffering, what meaning can there be in attempting to maximize pleasure or minimize pain? Here are some quotes from his book called "Man's Search for Meaning"
  • We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
  • Nietzsche's words, 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.'
Frankl was trying to make sense out of his existence in a concentration camp. Pursuing personal pleasure did not make sense for him, but giving of himself to care for others did make sense - and that he could still have control over, even while suffering.

I also think about Immanuel Kant trying to make sense out of ethics. He tried to develop a totally rational system for an absolutely universal ethical framework - one that eliminates all subjectivity. As much as Kant's system seems so different from Bentham's, it is also similar in that it is looking for a universal principal from which all ethical behavior can be decided.

All three of these writers are trying to find the root cause of morals, ethics, what is the best thing to do, and why to do it.

They are all looking for governing principals for their lives. It is funny that even a utilitarian who makes decisions based on the principal of maximizing pleasure is actually "submitting" themselves to the governing principals of utilitarianism. They are not just doing whatever whim floats across their mind at any moment. A true blue utilitarian will make decisions based on maximizing their long term best interest (refered to as enlightened self interest). They are submitting themselves to a governing principal.

It is interesting that we all have this desire to be part of something that make more sense then jumping around from this to that. We long for governing principals.


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