On How to Live Your Life

I recently read a post entitled “There are no good habits” by Sahil Lavingia (someone I admire whose blog is located here.) Here’s an excerpt:

    There is no such thing as a good habit. The definition of habit I use is: “an established custom.” For example, “it was their habit to dine at 7 every evening.”

    You’re taught to grow up with good habits. Brush your teeth every morning and night. Floss. Exercise. Wake up early. These are “good” habits, but are they really that good?

    No. You should do what’s beneficial to you right now. Habits force you to do things you may not have done otherwise, but they also compromise against other activities that may benefit you more.

    What I do is base my life around things that would be good for me, but I don’t consider them as habits.

    I brush my teeth every morning, because it’s healthy. Not because I do so every day but because of the utility it provides. If you think about habits as guidelines, you realize that there are no such things as “good” habits. Habits exist because they force you to do good things rather than the best things.

    If you can do better things without being guided by habits, you’ll gain more utility out of your day.

Thinking about what he has to say has me asking myself: “Is individual utility the best possible motivation for performing an action?”
This discussion doesn’t really have much to do with Sahil’s original blog post except that I want to use the points he brings up to talk about a larger issue that I have been thinking about a lot lately: “What is the right course of action, how do we figure out what it is in any situation, and what makes it right?” So that little disclaimer out of the way…onward!

The best way to attack these sorts of questions is by following Sahil’s maxims to their logical conclusions and evaluate whether they can actually help us to live a better life, achieve our goals, etc.

Sahil starts in a very Rousseau-ian fashion by saying “There is no such thing as a good habit.” Rousseau was a French philosopher who argued (I’m paraphrasing here) that “the only good habit is the habit of not having habits.” Ok so basically what both of them are saying is that we shouldn’t do anything in the present just because we’ve done it repeatedly in the past – we should be constantly reevaluating our actions. I can live with that…as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

So if we’re constantly reevaluating our actions to make sure that they are the best ones, by what standard are we evaluating them? That is, in a situation in which you can choose between two actions how do we know which action is better? Sahil here chooses the principle of utility. The more utilitarian the action, the better it is. You should choose the action that provides the most utility as the one which to perform. Then the question becomes what makes one action more utilitarian than another one? This is how Sahil defines utility:

    Utility is vague and different for everyone. For me it includes money, happiness, time, and hygiene (all bunched up into an imaginary number for each activity).

Let’s do some interpolation here and say, for arguments sake, then that the most utilitarian action is the one that will help you best achieve your goals which for him include making money, finding happiness, time-savings, and better hygiene. To start I think that it’s useful to ask if money, hygiene etc. are really goals in and of themselves. Why can’t making money be a goal? Well, I would counter that question with a question which is, “Why do you want to make money?” A logical response to this is probably, “Because it will help me to be happier.” So we can say that the reason for every goal that we have is because achieving these goals will (we hope) help us to be happier. Therefore happiness is the ultimate goal, and you should choose actions that you feel will, in the end, best promote your happiness.

We have set ourselves up nicely to answer my question which is, “Is individual utility the best possible motivation for performing an action?” The answer to this in my opinion is no, and allow me to explain why. Here it will be useful to provide an example:

Let’s say you run a pharmaceutical company and that it is true that the more money you make the happier you will be. Now, you can dump the waste created by pharmaceutical production into the river, cut costs, increase profit, make more money and thus be happier. To someone who is looking at individual utility as a principle for determining the rightness of an action,  this action is always the “right” one as compared to another action which will decrease your profits.

Ok, one may say, I didn’t really mean that. What I meant was that the action that best contributes to the happiness of the society as a whole is the best action. This school of thought (actually called Utilitarianism) eliminates the option for a CEO of a pharmaceutical company to morally dump pharmaceuticals into the river because it is harmful to the collective happiness. Problem solved.

But is it really? And I think we’re getting to the crux of why I have a problem with using utility as the only guide to actions: in a utilitarian world-view nothing has intrinsic value. No action, no person, no idea. The only things that have value are those that contribute to the overall happiness. This means that all personal relationships, family relationships, and societal relationships exist and should be respected only insofar as they can contribute to the general happiness. If sticking up for your friends, or participating in your civic duty, or taking care of your parents is detrimental to the overall happiness you can safely disregard them as important duties.

This blog post is a short away of saying what I believe which is that things have intrinsic value. I think that there’s a tendency in the world to value things because of what they can provide us. This is useful in many areas, but I think to adopt this as a general principle is to objectify everything in your life. And once you start doing that, it’s very easy to be blinded by your own self-interest. Some things in life should be important intrinsically. And that’s something that we should all remember every day.

8 Mar 2011, 6:56am | leave a comment


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