Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Unhappy Socrates and the happy pig. Is Socrates indeed better? and other tales

John Stuart Mill says that
"It is better to be unhappy Socrates than a happy pig"
Why indeed?

Mill claims that there is asymmatric information. The philosopher knows what it is like being "high minded" but the pig does not know the alternative. We have two judges of which only one knows both options.

This logic, however, is not convincing.
1) The philosopher actually does not know what it is to be a happy non-philosopher. At best he may observe it from afar throught other people. (I assume philosophers are born - not made. Even if made people tend to forget and distort their past experience).
2) Ecology of judgement. Abstract knowledge of options is insufficient. It is the overal personality attitudes etc. that determines a person's ultimate opinion. Socrates experiences another kind of existence, but this very existence along with all his personal featuers etc. may have bent his opinions toward valuing this kind of existence.

There is also a selection bias in the professional philosopher making a judgement. There may have been others who experienced Socrates for awhile and retired back into moviegoers. They tried both options, made the choice, but you do not name them for philosophers who knew.....

Sour grapes. When the fox cannot reach the higher grapes, he says they are sour. When the philosopher is too nerdish to practially enjoy life (fill in yourself), he invent a story where wisdom is more improtant.

Misleading statement.
"happy pig" sounds bad + it is extreme (ad absurdum problem - Reductio de absurdum proves only that the rule is not extremey absollute, it says nothing about the rule itself in normal conditions).
i.e. Maybe we would prefer to be a unhappy Socrates rather then a happy pig. But pig is an extreme. We may still prefer happy regular person over unhappy Socrates.

PS. It took relatively long time to write it. Because I preffered to go to the beach, chat with freinds etc. (happy pig). Only when I decided that this writing has a happy pig side to it (social attention, and joy of writing) I resolved to go into writing.
I hope the reader got some material joy from reading this.... I love only happy pig, not frowning philosophers.

We should also remember the aesthetic bias and the "prominence" distortion.
Aeatheic is that we consider certain ways of livign and thinking as nicer. We automaically translate it to better. A mistake. I tend to have an especiay good intuition about the life quality and wisdom of sexy women. Took me long to realize that since I see beauty first, I a misleading myself seriousely (kahneman did forma work proving that).

"prominence" distorion is that we want to be smart and sound smart. After we have some intuition about what terms are more prominent in whatever sense, we give them more essential attributes. After a series of self cheating and distortions, we end up really beleivinig these smart sounding things. (Same for morality. Long story by itself how morality distort opinion).

Off-topic. Experience vs. story
An important feature of this is the experience vs. story question. We experience one thing moment by moment. But remember it in a different way. Also the story we have in head about our whole life and certaini experiences, is many times altogether different from actual experience. People care a great deal about their story (kahneman).
Is story central? or experience central?
I feel kahneman's approach is the right one. That is, people want actual experience AND story. I still do not feel clear about the the topic, however.

more references.
Loewenstein 2008 what makes life worthwhile
measurements issues 1999 WB volume


PS said...

Thanks, another great post.

Glad to know you spend the time between them doing things you enjoy.

Ro'i said...

Here's another argument:
A happy pig is doomed to remain a happy pig. An unhappy Socrates can become a happy Socrates, which is much better.
What remains is the tradeoff between how better it is to be a Socrates than a pig and the probability of Socrates remaining unhappy.

PS said...

I wouldn't say the happy pig is 'doomed' to remain a happy pig. Isn't happiness the key point?

Another approach. Some advanced alien with an intellectual capacity far beyond that of any human. Is it better to be a happy human than an unhappy alien?

Or, to put it more personally, would you rather be you or a genuinely doomed genius who produces great works and commits suicide before aged 40, having lived in a deep depression for many years, convinced that they are a fraud and that their work is no good?

Yechezkel Zilber said...


The whole question assumes no change but a comparision between two constant states.


I find no interest in being such a depressed genius.
Actually, I care zilch about what will happen a second after my death. Only lie me beforehand that I will have a respectable funeral. You do not have to fulfill it, because I will not be there to care.

I must admit however, that human actual preferences do not always adhere to my theory that happiness is everything. As Danny cohen duly demonstrated, people do care about what will happen after their death. I think I am investing lots of money in buying books I will not read to delude myself with stories about wisdom and scholarism. Dreaming all kind of dreams whose utilitarian value is doubtful.
Unless my best way to enjoy life is reading (reasonable possibility), I may actually not follow my rational philosophy. Go figure.

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Yechezkel Zilber said...

thanks for the compliments.
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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

The philosopher obviously knows what it feels like to be a happy non-philosopher, and this for two main reasons:

Firstly, because philosophers are indeed "made", the philosophical way of life, thinking and method all being a conscious choice. That people are born philosophers is simply ridiculous. At best people might be born more inquisitive than others. That alone however does not make one a philosopher.

Secondly, because it is the job of the philosopher to know things abstractly without directly experiencing. That is what makes one a philosopher. Even the most hardcore empiricits has not experienced proof of his empiricism. Rightly so, given that most of the theories rely on newborn experience (tabula rasa theory) or complex foundational theories (making truth related to the mundane, as opposed to the other-wordly, as in Plato, which is of course related to the empiricist attitude).

Anonymous said...

I am, of course, borrowing from your own argument that the philosopher would forget how a non-philosopher feels - the empiricist would obviously also forget his own experiences at birth. Which means that either the empiricist is right and does not forget (and neither does the philosopher forget his non-philosopher experiences); the empiricist is right but only through abstract thinking; the empiricist is wrong and therefore knowledge is not only or primarily derived from sensory experience (meaning that the philosopher can abstractly experience, through philosophy, the non-philosopher state).

Admittedly, it could also mean that the empiricist is right, but only incidentally. Still, the fact that he did manage to guess does make his abstract thinking somewhat useful and correct. Perhaps, in that case, one could say that one cannot truly know but can guess with a high degree of probability.

Failing that, it's the route towards absolute scepticism which would make your own article redundant.

Jazi Zilber said...

on first set of comments:

1) I am sure philosophers have different initial qualities etc. one does not become a philospher at random. Even the choice to be a philosopher includes certain judgements (including the preference to philosopher happiness etc.)

2) The issue here is about experience and its value. how does hte abstract prove about it?
Moreover, the claim of Mill is an intuitive one, and there is no clear logical proof in his argument.

Jazi Zilber said...

I am not pitting theoriticist vs. empiricist.

I am merely saying that Mill's argument is unfounded.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that Mill's argument is logically sound, and that there is indeed a good employment of logic in it. At least it is as logically sound as possible.

For if we are going to set higher standards for what makes a claim logical (by, for instance, claiming that one can never prove the implied premiss, that is to say, that philosophers cannot experience the non-philosopher life - which ironically is itself based on a premiss which one can never prove (and we are here on the brink of solipsism) and is itself similarly intuitive: neither Mill nor you has experience the non-life, that is to say the being of something else at a precise moment in time, for that would entail your not being the thing that you in fact are), then one could also, and indeed logic dictates that one "would also have to", point out the fact that there is no clear logical proof of logic either, as any undergraduate student of philosophy would well know.

Mill's argument is only unfounded if one adopts such a strict - and in my opinion untenable - epistemological attitude.

Anonymous said...

Let me rephrase for clarity and convenience:

you are attacking Mill's argument on the grounds that a philosopher cannot experience the non-philosophical way of life.

However, since no one can experience the non-being of a being, so that means that whatever you are has not experienced the non-being of whatever you are. And yet, without experiencing it directly, you know of it and talk of it.

Mill is essentially doing the same thing: he is comparing two states by analysing what the two entail. This is, to my mind, perfectly sound. Claiming that we do not know what the two states entail (since we can only experience and know one) would logically mean that we cannot distinguish another state as being different.