Friday, June 16, 2006

WELL-BEING AND PERFECTION, a meaningful dychotomy?/1

This is my first post on an issue that will make me busy for a long time. I will begin with criticism of what other people have said, before advancing my own view. My intuition is that it is more difficult that it seems to distinguish these two aspects of a good life (or maybe we should say these two criteria to evaluate it?)
In this post, I only write my gut reaction to an example by L.W. Sumner, that was purported to to illustrate the conceptual distinction between prudential value (or well-being) and perfectionist value:

"... imagine that you possess unusually acute philosophical skills. As an undergraduate you stumble into philosophy by accident and, once having sampled its wares, decide to pursue it seriously, both because you quickly discover how good you are at it and because you find this exercise of your intellectual capacities intrinsically satisfying. As a prodigy you progress rapidly, formulating dazzling new theories of truth and reference, and eventually taking a position at a prestigious university. For a while all is well, until you begin to discern a nagging feeling of unease. Your talents have not abated, indeed you are just now beginning to hit your stride, but you are no longer certain that this is the activity to which you wish to dedicate your life. Other possibilities now begin to seem tempting: perhaps organic farming or building yourself a cabin in the north woods. For a while you persist in your career, but your mood gradually darkens into irritability and depression, and you begin to feel trapped and driven by your own talents. Finally you leave the academic life to pursue an alternative direction. One discovery you find saddening: you do not have the talent for farming or cabin-building that you have for philosophy. You therefore do not feel challenged in quite the old way, but by way of compensation, you do feel relaxed and at peace with yourself. What you are now doing may develop your capacities less, but it leads to a more satisfying and fulfilling life for you."
(Two Theories of the Good, 4-5)

This example should convince us that perfectionist value and well-being are two distinct concepts, since a life that contains the former and a life that contains the latter, for the same person, can be radically different lives. The guy in the example (that is you - not me!) pursues perfection in the first part of his life (believing that it would has also brought well-being, I guess) and well-being in the second part.

How much should we feel satisfied with this? I think the example can be interpreted in different ways:
  1. a possible interpretation is: "yes, you're right. The well-being of this guy consist in A, while his perfection consists in B, therefore the two concepts are different."
  2. but a different reply is possible: "no, this only shows that the concept of perfection you are using is not good. It is wrong to conceive the perfection of a human life as the sort of thing that this guy reaches in the first part of the story, and as its extension in the future. The example may show as well that the idea that "perfection of a life = developing some species specific abilities / especially the ones that one possesses in the highest degree" is wrong.
I don't think that answer 2 is ad hoc. A life deprived of the sort of the activity of self-questioning that led this guy to change his career may just turn out to be a worse life even from a perfectionist point of view.

Sumner's perfectionist straw-man is a pseudo-Aristotelian standard of the goodness of a life: something like "perfection = reaching excellence in one's species-specific abilities". But even from the standpoint of this standard it is questionable whether this guy's choice entails a sacrifice of perfectionist value.The story Sumner tells us is compatible with thinking that, in the first part of his life, this guy has only developed one or two abilities, namely philosophical thinking, or the ability to build a solid career, which does not exhaust the species-specific abilities.

I would define the kind of excellence this guy develops in the first part of the story as "excellence in the ability that one can develop most easily, given one's genetic make-up." This doesn't seem an ideal of perfection, but rather as one of specialization. And no perfectionist ethical theory that I can think of (Aristotelian, or Stoic, or Nietzschean) contains this perfectionist ideal.

(I'd rather think that it is the structure of the market economy that suggests this canon; so the choice of developing of one's most evident ability may be a prudential rather than a perfectionist one, after all.)

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