John Stuart Mill, and the Philosophical Way
John Stuart Mill: “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.”
Is this true? What might these more elevated faculties be? How have you become conscious of them?
Mill again: “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base.”
Try the “Happiness Box” thought experiment. Go here.
Being human is an opportunity for intellectual, moral, and creative freedom; without growing intellectually, morally, and spiritually, we cannot be truly happy.
Mill believes this even though he knows that the “superior” person tends to be more sensitive to the imperfections of the world and therefore more prone to bitterness and cynicism. He says, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
So what is philosophy? It’s a way of becoming less satisfied with things—less complacent–and more willing to question what’s usually taken for granted. A way of becoming more human.
But being truly human, as Mill defines it, is extremely difficult in our instant-gratification society. In other words, American culture is not very friendly to the philosophical life.
Mill says, “Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed…. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.”
Philosophy as a noble activity requires leisure time—opportunity to get away from the daily grind so that you can reflect on it and on higher things. But we are a society of workaholics….
Furthermore, mainstream entertainment in America is so easy—requires little or no training to appreciate—and so plentiful that it’s hard not to get addicted to. But this gets in the way of appreciating a “high aspiration” like philosophy. If you get instant-gratification from watching TV or reading throw-away fiction, then why bother with philosophy, which is hard to read? Also, watching TV or reading throw-away fiction establish bad intellectual habits which prevent people from becoming sensitive enough and skilled enough to truly appreciate the finer things.
We become more human by asking not just any sort of questions—but by asking philosophical questions.
What’s on TV? vs. Should government censor forms of entertainment which appear to have a negative influence on young people?
How can I have more fun? vs. What is the best way to live?
Philosophical questions are special. They are the sort that, for the most part, can’t be answered once and for all. In each new generation, the questions are resurrected and people try to answer them once again. To some degree, their answers may be guided and informed by older philosophies, but there’s always something new about them, too.
Some people—a lot of people—probably think that this is why philosophy is impractical and a suspicious sort of enterprise. Philosophical questions aren’t closed. Philosophy isn’t like mathematics, where given formulas have definite answers (although, I admit, some philosophers have tried to make philosophy more like mathematics).
But I think this is the wrong way of looking at philosophical questions. Philosophical questions are human questions, and as such, they reflect the human journey on a personal and communal level. Each individual and each community must take this journey for themselves—it can’t be done for them. Each individual and each community must find its own peace in a very challenging world.
Imagine with me that the question, What is the meaning of life?, has a definite answer (like 2+2=4). Imagine, also, that you are already in possession of it. Does mere possession of this truth automatically translate to mature wisdom and genuine peace? Does it automatically translate into community happiness and justice?
For some people, doing philosophy is easy and natural; for others, it takes a lot of work. As with learning to play tennis or the piano, the only way to get good at it is to practice. That means studying how great minds approach the big questions and testing your own ideas against theirs. You don’t always have to agree with their positions, but you should be able to get better at showing why you disagree; and that means becoming familiar with how they think.
The goal of philosophy is to reflect on our beliefs, to state clearly and convincingly what we believe, developing the implications and complications of those beliefs. It includes the effort to see how these beliefs are connected with other people’s views (including those of past philosophers) and how they might be defended against objections. It also includes the effort to coordinate different ideas into a single viewpoint.
Even when philosophers disagree, they hope that their discussions clarify the issues and highlight useful techniques for pursuing the topics. These techniques are developed in doing philosophy–that is, in identifying basic issues, clarifying positions, justifying assumptions, and defending arguments against criticism.
In short, as Socrates says, philosophy is about examining life in order to make it worth living (even
if, in the end, it only means acknowledging how ignorant we are). After all, virtue (doing something well) is possible only if one knows what one is doing: virtue is knowledge. For this reason, philosophy often is concerned more with clarification of the questions than giving answers.