Delight Springs

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Scope of Happiness"

It's text transition time in HAP 101, as we come to the end of Sissela Bok's exploration and prepare to take up Owen Flanagan's Bodhisattva's Brain, on the other side of a little exam and three group reports.

Bok took us from Aristotle to brain science, Flanagan will take us from brain science to Buddhism and back again. It's fitting that we've just been pondering illusion, a core concept for those who reject the substantial self and its day-to-day stresses and strains.

So what is the full scope of happiness? Too soon to say, but Bok says this:
I have argued for the greatest possible freedom and leeway in the pursuit of happiness, subject to such moral limits [as a Kantian would impose, e.g. no "happy torturer" need apply]. There is no one view of happiness that should exclude all others, much less be imposed on the recalcitrant. But the pursuit cannot merely involve 'choosing happiness' as many advice manuals propose.
That is, our choices must always take cognizance of those others besides ourselves who may have to suffer their consequences. "Deceit, violence, and betrayal" are not reasonable bases of choice, even if we propose to betray only our own personal human potential. Aristotle and Mill have important voices in this conversation.

But so has Bentham. I love poetry and don't know a thing about pushpin, but if that's your passion the burden will be on me to show that you ought to give it up to go hear Billy Collins instead.

And so has the Buddha. Stay tuned in October.

As for "the human condition"? I'd summarize it as a combination of blindness and desire. We must struggle to overcome the former, and to satisfy as much of the collective totality of the latter as we can. Good luck to us.

But, hold that thought and prepare to receive a different one: not that we need to maximize the satisfaction of desires but that we need to minimize their number and intensity. That's one take on what the Buddhists (like the Stoics) propose. I'm halfway there, already, having begun to echo John Lachs on the wisdom of stoic pragmatism. How about stoic buddhist pragmatism? Do you like cherries?

Owen Flanagan is a good bridge between traditions. More popularly, so is Alan Watts. Here he helps us understand what Jennifer Hecht means when she says the Buddhist perspective is not that we're all a part of nature but all of it (note the strains of Sagan's "starstuff pondering the stars" in this, too):

Alan Watts series

We'll save our serious discussions of Flanagan's book for later. Suffice for now to introduce him and it with the following, from the preface and from a recent brain conference:
Flourishing and happiness are not in the head, at least not only in the head. [They] might be in our hands if we pay close attention to which among the myriad experiments in living work well, and which ones not so well... Living well, finding meaning in a material world for finite beings is a really hard problem, the hardest problem of all.
Harder, in fact, than the so-called hard problem of consciousness. And more gratifying to solve. So, we'll be paying close attention.

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