Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thin, relativistic, and ephemeral

18-foot fork in the road by Ken Marshall, Pasadena, Los Angeles Times, November 2009. Photo by Wakitu via Flickr. 
David Brooks writes, "The Big Decisions", New York Times, August 25, 2015:
Suppose you had a chance to become a vampire. Or suppose you had a chance to run for Senate. But I repeat myself.
No, seriously, the vampire question is one of those whimsical little devices used by professional philosophers to get a fix on how we should live our lives. And let's say it isn't a standard-issue evil Dracula type of vampire, for the sake of argument, but a stylish and benign vampire, what the philosopher L.A. Paul referred to before an editor got hold of the draft as a "vegetarian vampire", who only drinks free-range, organic, humanely slaughtered animal blood, bear with me here, and it turns out lots of your friends and relatives have done it already and are really happy with their decision, which gives them immortality, immense power, heightened sensory experience, companionship, and meaning. But once you do it there's no going back. I added the companionship and meaning part myself.
The point of this one is that if you did become a vampire you would become a totally different person than you are today, with different attitudes and emotions, so that if you try to imagine as the person you are how you would feel about being a vampire if you were one you can't do it. You can't make a rational choice even if you're an economist, because you have no experience to base a choice on.
Similarly, having a child will distinctly lower your quality of life, costing tons of money and ruining your sleep, and once you've done it you can't go back to being a non-parent, so it's really just like being a vampire. That one's in a later chapter and I may not have gotten it quite right.
I can't say whether I should read Paul's 2014 book, Transformative Experience, all the way through, because if I did that it might make me a different person, so I can't know in advance how I would feel about it, but I can tell you that she announces her conclusion at the end of the vampire bit, on page 4, that "the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we'll become." So I can disagree with that.
Because if she thinks I'm going to become a vampire out of curiosity, I think that is thin, relativistic, and ephemeral. A more fat and absolutist approach would be to make your decision on moral grounds, like whether the decision will make you a better person or not. This is a life script that has evolved with our species, harking back to the mystical character of our remotest ancestors. Besides, if you shoot for virtue, you won't have to worry about all that "but I'll be a different person" stuff but will simply be happy with your new life, because I don't have time to explain right now but it just stands to reason.
Additionally, the goodness principle doesn't take a whole densely argued philosophy book to apply. This is why it hasn't been necessary to write a lot of tracts on ethics and morality over the past two and a half millennia or more, because the answers are all encoded in our life scripts. Or putting it another way, if you want to know whether you're doing the right thing, you can just ask me.
Driftglass suspects it must be some kind of test. Multiple choice. I find myself wondering what it's like to be a tenured philosopher with a relatively readable book that hasn't gotten a lot of reviews, to get a plug from somebody like Brooks who is incapable not only of understanding your work but even of getting past page 4. Much more embarrassing than a plug from Oprah, and also much less profitable, but can you turn it down?

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