Are you free?

The extent to which we have control over our lives is somewhat more limited than what we might perhaps first assume: Where, when and how we are born, how we are brought up, who our parents are, how our childhood pans out. All of these are clearly beyond our control, yet it would appear that the same non-existence of control holds for ourselves- Do we have free will? Do I have any control whatsoever over anything? Is talk of ‘I’ meaningless?

A hard materialist would say that free will is an illusion which we experience when conscious, perhaps because this illusion is in fact incredibly pragmatic-it enables us to feel in control of our lives, gives us a sense of responsibility, and allows us to hold others accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, an illusion is all it may be. First, if we are free, this must mean that there is some part of us which is not bound by the natural world, which can separate itself from the scientific laws and rise above them-something non-physical. There is no hard evidence for such a faculty (because of its nature). Second, the talk of ‘I’ is ambiguous. One might argue that ‘I’ can choose freely without being controlled by external factors, such as one’s environment, one’s memory, one’s state of mind (e.g. homicidal), yet what is the ‘I’, if anything at all, but the amalgamation of all these and more?

It could perhaps be said that free will is an illusion if the brain is responsible for our mental states (which evidence suggests it is), but that it is an illusion that we cannot do any with. A sense of morality would collapse, and society could no longer justifiably punish anyone because they were guilty. Freedom may be an illusion, but a necessary one.

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What is morality?

This is a question which has been asked for centuries, but is there any definitive answer even now? The most common debate is that of relativism and absolutism, whether there are things which are universally right and wrong at all times for all peoples, making morality objective, or whether everything is relative, either culturally or individually, and therefore subjective.

Morality presupposes freedom. If we are not free, then there is no actual morality, just an idea of what it should be like. There is no doubt that societies cannot function without this idea of freedom, otherwise the judicial system would collapse, since nobody could be blamed for anything, since no actions are made freely. However, just because societies would not be orderly without the concept of freedom and objective morality, this does not necessarily mean that freedom and objective morality are actualities. Free will may just be an illusion, and merely provides a basis for responsibility and a system of justice, as well as our brains tricking ourselves into thinking that we are making choices when really we aren’t.

Again, the objectivity of morality seems somewhat absurd. How does one know what is actually right and actually wrong? The general claim is that morality comes from God, thereby making it objective, but what kind of morality is it that comes from God and how do we find this out? There are so many different interpretations of scripture, and religions differ and oppose each other constantly in moral beliefs, all claiming that their own morality is the divine one. It seems to me impossible to reach past our subjective nature to any objective truth about morality. Even if there was a right answer as to what to do, how would we attain this answer without the trouble of subjective interpretation arising?

Morality keeps society orderly and maintains a system or justice, but this system of justice seems based on a set of subjective principles which are then proposed as objective from a standpoint of power. A moral statement seems to be a preference or opinion put forward as a fact. Yet this solves nothing, and the question of what is right and what is wrong may go forever.

The answer is within

An argument greatly in favour of religion is the one which claims that it enables us to be moral, and that without it we would become immoral human beings. People claim that morality comes from God. Everybody recognises today that the Bible is not a moral book-it is literature, rather than a guide on how to live. A common phrase is that without God or religion, how could we be good? How could we even know what was good? Religion has made a fundamental mistake here. It claims morality came from elsewhere and was put into our minds by God. But in fact it is the opposite-morality came from our minds and was then put into religion. What a religion dictates to be right and wrong is not divine revelation or Biblical quotation (although, sadly, some of it is), but is based on what appears to be reasonable. It is thus right reason which dictates to us what is truly right and wrong, rather than God or any so-called religious authority. There is one basic law of morality, and that is to treat others as you would wish to be treated. This comes in different versions, from the Buddha to Jesus to Kant, and it is a law formed by reason. Kant said that two things awed him most: the starry sky above him and the moral law within him. Moreover, he said that great minds think for themselves. This isn’t true because Kant said so, however. It is true because it is reasonable, based on right reason and natural law. The answer about what is right and wrong is not out there, in the external in the forms of dogma or the Bible or religion, rather it is inside us, but only when we allow our right reason to govern our minds through the course of the natural law.

Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.