I have argued in several posts that our good is to maximally flourish in our powers and recently I wrote that “it is a practical contradiction to destroy (or reduce on net) the preconditions of one’s own being.”
In reply, Russell Turpin writes:
There are myriad examples of people committing suicide or sacrificing their lives for what they consider ethical reasons, eliminating the preconditions of their own being. There are many other examples where people simply put other goals above optimizing health, undermining the preconditions of their own being. You’re certainly free to hold that that is always wrong. But…
It is just an acknowledgment of the most basic of all practical contradictions.
“Practical contradiction” is just a label. It’s not an argument. If you tell a professional football player or boxer about the stats on head injuries, and how those shorten life, destroy physical competence, and end careers, they might respond that life choices are full of such practical contradictions. And they’re right.
Russell writes more in that same comment but the issues he raises there deserve a different post and so, assuming time allows, will be treated distinctly. For now let me just clarify that “practical contradiction” is not “just a label”. Practical contradictions refer to something very specific. They refer to actions which formally undermine their own preconditions such that if they were universalized the actions themselves could not happen at all. Kant’s famous example of lying when making a promise illustrates the point that there is something formally irrational about making promises you intend to break. Were every promise a lie, promises would never be believed and would never deceive anyone. Your promise is only successful because of the good will and trust each has in each other. If everyone were to be like you, your deception would not succeed. And, in practical terms we might add, that by your lying promise you help in fact to erode the trust of the community—both of the trust of individuals towards each other in general and, specifically, the trust of you by those who know you are a liar. It is similarly a practical contradiction to undermine the conditions of your own desires or, more importantly, of your own highest objective good since by doing so you are destroying their objective preconditions. If you always acted against your own highest objective good and your own desires, you would be at cross-purposes with both your own subjective preferences and your own objective interests.
I do allow that some formal practical contradictions are permissible in that our ultimate good is to flourish, not merely to be formally rationally consistent. (Section 5.13 of my dissertation was titled “A Critique of Pure Practical Reason”, and in it I distinguished my view of the relative importance of practical contradictions from Kant’s.) I just think that the good of flourishing most effectively overrides all other competing goods and that the irrationality of undermining that flourishing is the kind that must be avoided the most of all, if we are to live fully rational and fully realized lives.
But when I talk about not undermining the conditions of our being, I do not mean trying to stay alive as long as possible at all costs and at the expense of all other goods. I think that what we are is not only our minimally functioning bodies and brains but rather that we are our powers and that when we fulfill our powers more we come further into being in some crucial sense. It is better to live more fully, i.e., more powerfully, than to live longer where these are incompatible goals. This is what I pick up from Nietzsche’s emphasis that life is essentially not about surviving but about thriving. Given the opportunity, it would be best to live both as powerfully as possible and as long as possible, of course.
I just don’t think undermining our own maximum fullness of powerful life or the fullest reach of our powerful positive effects beyond our individual bodies is ever rational since our highest objective goods are maximum powerful positive effects in the world and maximum internal powerful functioning. Willing anything less than these is to desire less than what, if we fully understand how good these things were for us, we would rationally desire. Our specific actual desires are ultimately desires for what we see as the concrete instantiations of the general goods connected to our essential goods of flourishing which we most deeply crave.
On the most basic psychological level we are rightly oriented to crave power, respect, honor, resources, love, sex, food, friendship, social concord and satisfaction, victory, order, freedom, creativity, physical strength, emotional strength, play, fun, family, etc., etc. Pursuing all these things is related to realizing our potential with respect to whole sets of intricately interrelatable powers through which we may realize ourselves. We pursue these things not in the abstract usually but by pursuing specific instantiations of all those goods and through pursuing all those specific instantiations of all those goods, we have occasions to excel in the powers requisite to achieving them. In the pursuit, we realize ourselves to a greater or lesser degree, i.e., more or less powerfully.
So our specific desires can be challenged to see if, for us—given our circumstances and potentials, they are aimed at the goods which would best realize the greater, more fundamental goods which we are more ultimately looking for psychologically and the pursuit of which would lead us to flourish the greatest we can in our objective excellence.
So, to me, the question of the good of the football player (or the boxer) and how he should desire and rank his priorities in life is the question of what the maximum powerful effectiveness of the football player (or the boxer) is. This is someone who is most powerful and most effective through his physical prowess and his athletic accomplishments. Through coordinating his mind and body to function at an elite level of performance in all the complicated tasks requiring immense human power, the football player is more effective than the vast majority of humanity and realizes a rare level of human excellence. As a role model of the human ideals of physical power and coordination of a number of mental and physical excellences, and as a contributor to team excellences (in the case of the football player), and as a spreader of joy, inspiration, and communal feeling to his fans, and as an earner of millions of dollars with which to increase the flourishing of himself, his family, and his community, the athlete is most powerful and most realizes his humanity all as an athlete. (See my fuller argument about how culturally constructed activity can create and help shape intrinsic goods for us in my post on The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and the Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods.)
In all of these ways, he will probably be a far more powerful person as a football player than he would be by avoiding concussions altogether and being a bit smarter and maybe living a bit longer. In all of these ways he will live more powerful years with longer resonating effects beyond his immediate life and these will justify pursuing a better, shorter life with a greater overall realization of power than a longer but less effectual life with less overall realization of power and only average intelligence. He will probably best realize his ultimate desires for internal power, respect, love, external influence, etc. and realize his objective flourishing goods all by trusting his desires for his physically brutal sport and being willing to trade off the risks involved in it.
My philosophy, by centering our good on power, accounts for the good of the football player (or of numerous other varied powerful life pursuits) in a way that philosophers traditionally have not.
Traditionally philosophers have judged that the highest life for anyone at all must be the one where someone specifically maximizes their excellences in reasoning. While I would say that the highest human life for anyone in theory would be one which maximized every kind of human power and every kind of complex power built off of each human power, and which had a maximally powerful and good influence on the maximum number of other people and animals and plants, etc., obviously a particular person is inevitably limited in time, resources, and natural capabilities. Often becoming great at one power might involve trade offs whereby one never fully realizes another given power. Some powers even come directly at the expense of others in some cases (one physically cannot, for example, have maximum muscularity and maximum flexibility).
In choices between which powers to pursue we can weigh numerous objective factors on basically objective scales. Someone naturally strong and not naturally bright should cultivate those natural physical excellences. He should not neglect all intellectual and emotional powers in the process though as good reasoning is going to contribute to life in a myriad of ways—including physical ones. But if elite football players or mediocre thinkers spend more time on the football field than in the library, I don’t see what’s wrong with that. It sounds smart to me.
Russell has more helpful, related objections to more aspects of my philosophy. I will turn to them as there is time and opportunity.
In the meantime, I have written many posts already in which I flesh out answers to various common objections to my metaethical positions (including the charge that it is impossible to rank competing functions to see which is a better and which is a worse one to fulfill and also the charge that this account might wrongly sanction bad things, like murdering, since they too are forms of effectiveness).
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.