Pedra, Papel e Tesoura

30 de abril de 2022

Acts and habits.

Filed under: Passatempos, Saúde e bem-estar — Tags:, , — Yure @ 18:34

As human beings, we are action-oriented . Our actions originate from choices and generate consequences in turn. There is a certain human demand for a morality that minimizes the negative consequences of our actions, since no one likes to suffer, while also maximizing the benefits. This usually means that we humans need to learn to choose well. Now, every choice implies criteria. We can say that the first moral philosophies were reflections on criteria that could support good choices and, consequently, good attitudes, which would lead to good consequences. Deep down we want to live well, we want happiness. This is our goal while we are alive.

There are already a lot of “recipes” for being happy floating around, particularly in the self-help section. But what does philosophy have to say about this? Is the pursuit of happiness a philosophical problem? Yes, it is! And there are philosophers who have tried to find a guaranteed method of being happy. Note that philosophy cannot, if it wants to be serious, recommend without irony a moral that cannot be followed. We are people, not deities. Let’s see if philosophy does a better job than the self-help authors out there.

Can virtue be taught?

One thing my dad and nephew say is that some people will always be mean, no matter what you do. Plato perhaps thought similarly. For Plato, all the knowledge we think we’ve acquired is actually a memory of something our soul saw somewhere before incarnating. This is how Socrates gets out of the dilemma proposed in the Meno. If this is so, it is not possible to learn anything in this world, only to remember, through certain triggers, what we had seen before incarnating, but forgotten because of the dramatic event that is birth. As far as virtue is concerned, this means that it cannot be taught and depends on the environment to remind one of concepts such as courage, moderation, and liberality.

Aristotle did not like that solution. For Aristotle, virtue is indeed teachable. It is that Aristotle sees both virtue and vice as habits. A habit can either be broken or acquired through practice. Just practice and you will attain virtue. But it is necessary to go into some details: the types of virtue. There are two kinds of virtue in Aristotle: intellectual (which are to be pursued to the highest degree) and moral (which are to be pursued by moderation). Intellectual virtues are things like intelligence, wisdom, practical knowledge, things you can’t commit excesses at. No one speaks of “excess wisdom”, according to Aristotle (who did not know Solomon), so intellectual virtues must be sought by moving away from the minimum degree in all circumstances.

As for the moral virtues, these must be sought by moderating our natural dispositions. By “moderation” we mean the removal of both lack and excess in relation to our behavioral dispositions. Example: the desire to face danger. If you lack the desire to face danger, you are a coward. The lack here is identified by the avoidance of the risks you need to take. If you run away from necessary risks, you suffer from the vice of cowardice. On the other hand, looking for unnecessary risks reveals an over-willingness to face danger. It is the vice opposite to cowardice: temerity. Both cowardice and temerity are harmful and therefore vices. The middle ground is courage, the willingness to face danger in the right measure, characterized by facing the risks you need to take, without running away from them, but without looking for dangers you don’t need to face, just to show off.

Another example is liberality, which lies between avarice and prodigality, and concerns the willingness to spend money. If you spend without getting into debt and without running out of money for what you need, your willingness to spend is perfect. If you lack the willingness to spend, you don’t even spend on what you need. On the other hand, if you spend until you get into debt or until you run out of money for the things you need to buy, you are being lavish.

Thus, all moral virtues come from the moderation of our natural dispositions, so that neither the lack of such dispositions nor the excess of them harm us. Both moral and intellectual virtues are habits, just as all vices are habits. For this reason, says Aristotle, it is possible to acquire any virtue through practice. On the other hand, vices are also contracted by practice: by getting used to running away, one will become a coward, for example.

The “calculation of pleasure”.

Since we’ve given you the Aristotelian recipe for doing the right thing, let’s now talk about another guy: Epicurus of Samos. He is the founder of the philosophical school that bears his name, Epicureanism , also known as hedonism. It’s called that way because hedonistic philosophy is focused on pleasure. Pleasure is understood by Epicurus as a remedy for pain. The absence of pain is what Epicurus conceptualizes as happiness. So, happiness is not having anything to complain about at the moment. This concept of happiness is found in other philosophical schools of his period.

But it’s not just any pleasure we should be looking for. Epicurus proposes a calculation of pleasure. Here’s how it works: we should look for any pleasures that aren’t accompanied by such an amount of pain that the pleasure isn’t worth it. If you speak C, I am saying that “(P > D) ? return true : return false”, where P is pleasure and D is pain. Thus, as long as the pleasure is superior to the pain implied in an act, it is a valid pleasure to purse. With this, Epicurus classifies pleasures into three types: natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary… and artificial.

Necessary natural pleasures always pass in the calculation of pleasure: drinking water, eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom… After all, if you abstain from these pleasures, you die. Artificial pleasures, like fame and fortune, never pay off, because the amount of pain that comes with these things is always greater than the pleasure that could come from them (just think of people who have gone mad because of fame).

In the case of natural but unnecessary pleasures, you must assess in each case whether or not they are worth pursuing. The most obvious example of this is sex. Suppose you are one of those rare people who are sexually attracted to children. I’m not judging you, but think with me: is it worth exposing yourself to the risk of up to fifteen years in jail for an afternoon of pleasure? Therefore, this pleasure is one you should abstain from. After all, sex isn’t like food and you’re not going to die of celibacy. Another example: you love sweet food. Eating, in general, is something you should always look for when you feel hungry, but there are certain foods that certain people should avoid: sugar is not worth consuming, if you are diabetic. In the long run, repeated consumption of sugar will make the diabetic person blind or worse.

Thus, to live wisely would be to surrender only to the pleasures that allow us to live better. If a certain pleasure causes you more problems than it solves, it’s a habit worth breaking.


Another group of philosophers, the Stoics, believed that the path to happiness is tranquility, imperturbability, or ataraxia. Your goal is to seek a peaceful state of mind. You don’t need to be joyful to be happy, just carefree. But the way in which the Stoics arrived at this conclusion is a little less evident than the conclusion itself…

For the Stoics, each being must act according to its nature. Human nature is reason, so we have to live by it as a matter of commitment to our humanity. Our senses show us that the universe is in order, while our reason says that order can only come from a project, from an intelligent being, or there would be no order, but chaos. So, one of two things: either the universe is ordered by an intelligent being (as Christians want, for example) or the universe itself is rational. So, if the entire universe is ordered, there is an intelligence greater than us in charge of everything. If this is so, everything that escapes my control must be accepted, as the work of a universe much wiser than I am.

Things that are in my control require my actions, but those that are not require my acceptance and adaptation. Believing that things that are out of my control are in the plans of a rational universe helps in this task. Thus, it is possible to reach a peaceful state of mind simply by “letting go” of the things I cannot act upon. That’s what many Christians do today: leave it in God’s hands. This allows them to lead a more peaceful and worry-free life, although people of less faith think that there are plenty of reasons to be angry or sad. Ultimately, stoicism is a philosophy of resignation with the goal of worrying less.

Ethics and politics.

I like to say that ethics is the reflection on the right action of the individual and politics is the reflection on the right action in the group. Couldn’t we find happiness more easily by taking collective action rather than just trying individual actions? Have you ever thought about it? Most “recipes for happiness” involve individual effort, but none of these popular recipes involve group effort. Couldn’t a political system, a social organization, lead us to happiness a little faster?

Thomas More was perhaps thinking of this when he wrote Utopia. It is a description of an island with a perfect organization system, by the standards of More. More’s idea was to create a system that could lead a fictional society to happiness (More knew his system would be impossible in practice). Thus, he thought of a number of regulations to sexuality (the boy can marry as early as four, but the woman can only marry from the age of eighteen), to war (both men and women must participate in the war effort), to death (More considers it acceptable for a person to euthanize if the recipient of the act agrees and is in great pain or is terminally ill), among others.

But the most interesting regulation that More imagines is the regulation of work. For him, society has a large number of unemployed or underemployed people, so that most of society’s wealth is produced by a relatively “small”. If you give everyone a job, ideally, no one will need to work long hours to maintain the comfort level we have today. Iceland did this experiment and introduced a “four-day week”: you only work from Monday to Thursday. Thus, a full day of work was taken from the population. And… there was no appreciable drop in the production of goods and wealth. Thus, in places where unemployment is lower, each worker can afford to work less.

So perhaps the pursuit of happiness could be made easier if we saw beyond the merely individual level. Maybe that’s why the “recipes” for being happy fail: they put all the responsibility on you, as if you lived alone in the world. Unfortunately, thinking this way would also imply saying that happiness is not an easy goal to achieve… After all, we have no control over how others act. What a dilemma…

Why so much discord?

Why do the methods for achieving happiness vary so much from person to person, people to people, school to school? It’s just that “happiness” is a relative thing: different people put their happiness in different things and this means that there is no agreement between philosophers, peoples and ethics about how to act. That made people, like Kant, wonder if there isn’t at least one moral principle that we can all agree on. For that, first, we need to put happiness aside and pursue an easier goal to generate concord: justice. With Kant, ethics becomes more concerned with justice than with happiness, giving ethics the face it has today.

Kant claims that a principle we can all agree on is the categorical imperative. It is imperative because it is an order and categorical because it does not allow exceptions. Such an imperative can be described in the formula “act as if your action would become a law of nature”. In other words, you must act as if everyone else is going to imitate you. So whenever you’re in a moral dilemma, you should think, “What if everyone acted like I’m going to act now?” If the world could become fairer if everyone adopted the same attitude as you, then not only can you act that way, but you also must. You, as an ethical subject, have a commitment (duty) to justice. So if the world would become fairer if everyone acted the way you do, then you‘re obligated to act that way. If the world could become more unfair if everyone acted as you do, then as a matter of duty, you are obliged to change your attitude.

I’ve talked about this before, so there’s no need to repeat the suicide example or any other examples I have used before.

Forget happiness and justice, focus on power.

Friedrich Nietzsche thinks differently. For him, happiness is the feeling you get when an obstacle is overcome. So if you seek power first, happiness will follow. Thinking only of happiness, as the ancients did, is weak and should be avoided. And what about justice? Well, in the genealogy of morals, there are two types of morality, with their own sense of justice: the morality of the losers and the morality of the winners. In the morality of winners, the good is what makes you stronger and more capable, while the morality of losers, precisely because they feel oppressed, demonizes those things that the strong have (wealth, beauty, intelligence, among others), considering just what is in opposition to its oppressor.

Come on, think with me… be honest… If you were on top, rich, healthy, with a PhD… would you really care about things like “equality”? For Nietzsche, only those who already recognize themselves as weak think of equality. Instead of wanting to rise, the losers wants the powerful people to fall. This is the reasoning behind the genealogy of morals: good is what the strong does and which contributes their strength; everything that opposes this is weak and “evil”, for lack of a better word. Only the weak reverse this reasoning and do it to screw the strong.

Another feature of winner and loser morals is the source of values. In winners’ morality, the strong dictates values, so there are good people and bad people, while in losers’ morals, there are good deeds and bad deeds . So, in loser morals, there are things that will always be bad (or at least there should be).

You may have already noticed how this stands in stark contrast to the Kantian categorical imperative. Nietzsche isn’t much for justice or happiness. Happiness will be a bi-product of your strength, your ascension, your improvement. And justice will be what the strong dictate. So be strong.

The pragmatism.

There is an American philosophical school called philosophical pragmatism. For pragmatists, the value of something must be judged by its consequences. So, how to act? You must think about the consequences of your actions to respond to this. Faced with several options, think: what difference does it make? The option that brings you the most happiness, with the least amount of pain, will be the most correct option to follow. If we are going to do as the utilitarians do, such a calculation cannot be done thinking only of ourselves: it is necessary to take into account the pain and pleasure caused to others as well. So what has the best consequences is what we should do.

Do you want happiness? Think about which choices would bring you the most happiness and make them. Justice? Same thing. Power? Also. In pragmatism, the correct choice is the one that brings the best results.


So we see that philosophy too has tried to tell us how we should act. At first, philosophy wanted us to be happy, but since different things make different people more or less happy, it is clear that a happiness-oriented ethic would not agree with itself. Kant tried to solve this by creating an ethic of duty, but few people would choose to be just if they had to choose between justice and happiness. Could there be a balance between the two?

Perhaps there is: to be guided by the search for happiness in actions that affect only us, but by justice in actions that affect others. There’s nothing wrong with seeking individual happiness as long as it doesn’t get in the way of others. For this reason I am very attracted to ideas like minimalism or utilitarianism. However, in our dealings with others, we should be guided by justice, both for our own sake and for their sake.

As the search for happiness is something extremely personal, it is natural that different people have different morals, which can even be reflected at the community level, in places where needs are different. Happiness is what we all want, but the differences in both the concept of happiness and the means to get there is one of the things that make people and peoples different.

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