The Midlife Crisis

Of course we’re all ultimately barrelling towards the abyss; but there’s something about the middle of life that starts you thinking about it…

The ancients, the Stoics, the Buddhists; even the most whacko Californians all agree: at least half of the purpose of philosophy is to cope with our own mortality. And that need kicks-in big time around half-way through.

Elliot Jacques coined the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ in his 1965 paper Death And The Midlife Crisis. And MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya has had a proper go at really thinking about what it is and what to do about it, in this terrific podcast from the ever wonderful series Philosophy Bites.

The essence of his advice lies in giving up ‘telic’ living: the life focused on ‘projects’ and achievements. Defined by their completion: projects, achievements and ‘bucket lists’ are either constantly being consumed or are eluding you – increasing the feeling of time running out.

Instead the focus needs to be on ‘atelic’ living; enjoying ‘categories’ of activity and the process of doing them. It’s about enjoying philosophy, not ticking off the great philosophers; listening to classical music, not methodically completing the works of Beethoven; enjoying really looking at Art not consuming, categorising and collating it…

One approach endlessly pursues endpoints; of which and there is an infinite supply versus a finite amount of time. The other enjoys the time there is, in the doing of enjoyable things; not just the completing of them.

It’s a subtle thing; often the identical activities, but with a slightly different mental approach – enjoying the journey, not racing to complete as much as possible before the end.

The Art of Friendship

I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast this week on the topic of ‘friendship’. It made me think afresh about the balance of ‘duties to all’ versus special treatment for a ‘selected few’ – i.e. our friends.

Alexander Nehamas’ argument is, post Immanuel Kant, many of us have come to believe that privileging our friends over others is less ‘moral’ than treating everyone the same – even strangers and people we’ll never meet. This is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, act in ways you would ‘will’ to be universal laws.

But friends are different than everyone else in our lives. For Aristotle – although he might not recognise the modern version – friends are the purpose of life and our virtue revolves around them.

Nehemas’ suggestion is we should think of friends on different plane than ethics. We should think of them more as we think of art and artists. We are interested in our friends for their ‘specialness’, what is individual and distinctive about them, not for their commonalities. We are friends to co-create distinctive, memorable, pages in our life stories.

And this is why drifting apart from friends hurts them so much. Not only do we reject them as people, we turn over – even tear out – the pages of life we created with them; in favour of new friends and new pages.

This is a very different take on friends – friends as narrative growth, not past history. Is what makes us different and how we are growing what matters most in friendship; more even than what we have in common or did together in the past?

Friends as bringers of difference, individuality and new embroidery in life’s rich tapestry, is a very different way of thinking of them. ‘Individuation’, creativity and art are very different registers from ethics, equivalence and fairness. Friends as ‘works of art’ we have a hand in creating, is a nice way of looking at each other.

Bayesian Ethics

As I’ve written before, one of my past wrestles is with Utilitarianism: that the moral act is the one with the best consequences regardless of what rules it breaks. I’m now firmly Aristotelian – aka a ‘virtue ethicist’ – we are what we repeatedly do.

But Anthony Appiah the Princeton Philosopher has some challenging things to say about virtue ethics in a Philosophy Bites podcast – including some experiments. And I’m inclined to listen. I like a bit of scientific method.

I like Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’ too which has helped me articulate my ‘live and let live’ theory of internationalism at work. Humans value culture. Different cultures value different things. And Cosmopolitanism says, short of harm, we should let them. Which I think is about right.

Appiah challenges virtue with ‘experimental ethics’ – seeing what people actually do, rather than what we theorise, and looking inside people’s heads in brain scanners. He finds, for example, nearly everyone gets more generous to strangers if they find a suitably planted $10 note on the floor.

His conclusion is that the idea of a ‘moral’ person in the Aristotelian sense is not borne out by the experimental reality. For him, we make moral choices based on context, stimulus and ‘in the moment’ not based on ‘character’. I don’t entirely agree, but it’s interesting stuff.

Learning to use the head to override the instinctive ‘yuk’ response or being over-influenced by the situation is one of the things he advocates. But only sparingly. Here’s where rules, norms and culture – plus a moral education – might help. But he’s not for becoming too calculating.

He disagrees with Utilitarianism for example. First, because it doesn’t capture the experimental reality of how we respond to moral situations. Second, because were to implement calculating ‘consequentialism’ wide-scale it would dramatically impoverish human existence. Largely because promoting purely rational calculation would tend to demote difference and different views.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism makes life interesting and liveable. And if you’re going to accept difference in culture you have to accept it in worldview and ethics too. That people care about different things is what makes people interesting – and maddening.

I personally think virtue and ‘outlying’ single instances of behaviour are not incompatible. I don’t doubt that you can get very good and very bad moral choices and behaviours out of me if you significantly change my conditions and stimuli.

I also think that the prospects of me making better or worse choices are determined, yes, by the context and circumstances – but crucially, combined with who I am. And who I am is the product of a life lived, previous choices made, data, concepts and theories within and Bayesian probability mashing all that together in a nano-second every time I act.

I think there is ‘virtue’ and I have a ‘character’. It’s just that the complexity of the probabilistic calculations – all done subconsciously by that marvel of existence, a human brain – mean Utilitarianism is too crude and individual ethical experiments are too simple to anything like capture them. I return to my own dictum – if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

So I like Appiah’s ethical experiments – they deserve a well signposted place in my Bayesian brain’s data set – and I’ve shared then with others too to influence them. But virtue, character and Aristotle’s ‘I am what I repeatedly do’ still work best for me. Thanks to Appiah though, I’m also a Cosmopolitan. So I’m delighted to weigh a well-wrought difference of opinion in the Bayesian ethical balance. It all goes in the mix.

Poppies

On holiday in France, I started reading Herbert McCabe on St Thomas Aquinas. I’d heard Sir Anthony Kenny in a ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast describing Aquinas as deserving as much attention from we moderns as Aquinas himself paid to Aristotle in his day – a great medieval foundation on which to build.

On a prominent bookshelf, in the holiday home we were staying in, Aquinas merited two volumes – Aquinas I and II – in the leather bound ‘Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World’. Only one other philosopher got two whole volumes… you guessed it – Aristotle. Good references then.

I’m too early into Aquinas to know how much is him and how much is McCabe building on him. But reading McCabe’s account, a whole series of philosophical concepts and ideas which I ‘learned’ at University are now a lot clearer to me.

Souls, existence and being are all brought to life, but also the significance of language. I never really got why modern philosophers were so hung up on language. Yes it’s an important skill, yes it codifies our world, but presenting it like maths is to science – underpinning everything we are, think and can know of the world – seemed to overrate ‘words’ to my undergraduate mind.

Take ‘redness’ I can accept your idea of red might overlap with mine, or be subtly different or be missing altogether if you’re colour blind. I can further accept my dog or a leopard might see it differently again, and a plant not at all. But as a good post enlightenment ‘atomist’, I felt ‘redness’ was ‘real’ not subjective. Whatever jingling of photons against molecules it is, ‘red’ for me was the name for a real ‘observable’ characteristic of the handsome poppies dotted in the wheatfields of Charente-Maritime.

I’m attracted by McCabe’s account that the big difference between a car and a cheetah, is one is made of parts, the other is only comprehensible as a whole. One can be taken apart and put back together again, the other can’t. One can exist uniquely as the only one of it’s kind, the other requires mates, progenitors and offspring to come to exist and continue to truly exist.

And so it is with humans. What we call ‘red’ is the product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of language – in an unbroken physical, linguistic and cultural chain. This unbroken chain can be ‘atomised’ into its constituent parts – which certainly helps us to grapple with what is and isn’t ‘red’, but that doesn’t really capture the phenomenon or the ‘phenomenology’.

There is no ‘red’ without humans to see it and a shared human language to describe it. We can describe the photons bouncing off the lattice of the petal, hitting the retina and sparking the neurones. Using language we can think hard about it and describe it to others. But before there was language to describe it, think it and name it there was no ‘red’. There were plants but no poppies.

What I call a poppy, Montaigne would have recognised as a pavot, Aquinas as a papaver and Aristotle as a παπαρούνα. Same sensory apparatus, languages from the same family tree, many common cultural references. Different words, similar – although never exactly the same – human experience: ‘redness’.

Being part of that unbroken chain of evolution, languages, knowledge and ideas is far richer than photons bouncing off a lattice. It’s good to look at the parts, but as Aquinas reminds us, it is the whole which is the special bit.