December 9, 2001

Taxonomy

What is a good life? This question has obsessed philosophers since the Greeks, and what we are left with after 2,400 years are three competing theoretical approaches identified by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons as Hedonism, Desire-Fulfillment, and Objective List. What follows is a brief explanation of each, stripped of nuance and accompanied by photos of Anna Kournikova, who has more personal websites devoted to her than anyone in the world and who never fails to remind me that men are attracted to women with baby-like features because men, broadly speaking, want women to be docile and helpless.

Hedonism

Anna Kournikova

Hedonism champions happiness. The more happiness you experience, the better your life. There are actually two schools of thought here, each with its own definition of happiness. Narrow Hedonism considers happiness a homogeneous state of pleasure, while Preference Hedonism expands the definition to include any state of mind favored by the individual, including pain. However the two schools are united in their focus on mental states, which, as you will see, is a bad idea.

Or maybe you won’t. Here’s a test. Imagine a life in which you are married to some fabulous person who you love and who brings you nothing but happiness, only said person is actually fucking your best friend. Would you prefer to know the painful truth or live your life in blissful ignorance? If you answered painful truth, you value something else other than mental states and thus do not subscribe to Hedonism.

Desire-Fulfillment

Anna Kournikova

Desire-Fulfillment theories define a good life in terms of… the fulfillment of desire. This is different than Hedonism in that one may desire a thing which, when fulfilled, does not produce a particular state of mind. To borrow an example from Aristotle, imagine that you have a child who you love and want very much to grow to be a happy and successful adult. Unfortunately you die while your child is still a child, which is sad, but then many years later your wish comes true. According to Aristotle, this turn of events makes your life a better one, despite the fact that you are dead. That’s right: you need not be alive for the fulfillment of a desire to effect whether your life is a good one.

Certain Desire-Fulfillment theorists say that only “ideal” desires count toward a good life. What are “ideal” desires? They are the set of desires you would have if you knew everything there is know and had flawless reasoning capacity and weren’t the neurotic bastard you are. This refinement is necessary to account for the fact that people want all kinds of superficial crap. That’s one of the core problems with this approach. Moreover certain people are, or can be, immoral, even after going through the “ideal” ringer above, which doesn’t sit well with certain philosophers. This objection can be leveled against Hedonism as well, and it leads to the final group of theories, Objective List.

Objective List

Anna Kournikova

Philosophers flying this banner (Plato was the first) propose an inventory of things that are, to quote Parfit, “good or bad for people, whether or not these people would want to have the good things, or to avoid the bad things.” I have dubbed these the Chinese Menu theories in honor of their familiar “one from column A, one from column B” format. Notably no one has ever actually proposed such a list; what has been proposed rather are various approaches to the question of what general form such a list should take. Of course this is no less ridiculous than an out-and-out list, for it merely attempts to hide the ridiculousness by making it too fuzzy to decipher.

The problem is specificity. The more specific the list, the more preposterous, for one can always devise an account of a good life that doesn’t include any of the items on the proposed list. Vagueness is no refuge, however, for the less specific an account is, the less meaningful. In the end one is left in the unhappy middle, claiming that a good life consists of one or other combination of vaguely stated things.

The philosophers who subscribe to this view are called Realists. Realists believe that value is inherent in the world (as opposed to being created by us), which leads to some really exhausting mental acrobatics once you ask yourself what a world with inherent values would need to look like.

At any rate, and I personally find this inexplicable, Anna Kournikova has yet to win a professional tennis tournament in singles, despite having been ranked as high as eighth in the world. Injuries have contributed to her difficulties, but still.