Of Human Flourishing and Human Sacrifice

Seven of us total today, with a guest guide dog in training. So naturally the conversation began revolving around the ethics of animal abuse. The conversation took a familiar trajectory. After considering the reasons why abuse is wrong–it causes pain, dogs are sentient, etc.–all reasons were countered by some hypothetical situation. What if one cannot feel pain, and what difference does sentience make?

The question arose if consent makes something ethical when it otherwise wouldn’t be. For instance, human sacrifice–if one consents to being a human sacrifice, does that make it wrong then for those conducting whatever ritual to sacrifice that person? Answers went along the lines of: as long as those who are affected also consent. Those who are affected might include parents, friends, etc. But then that raised the question of the butterfly effect–these effects spread from person to person like ripples in a pond; it is impossible to know who might be affected and how. It is also impossible to know what the world might have been like had the person who consented to ritual sacrifice not been sacrificed. Might they have grown up to be an influential person? (Might they also have grown up to become Hitler?) There are similar arguments against abortion.

This in turn raised the question of to what extent we can use our powers for predicting the future as grounds for making any decision at all. My purpose in raising this question was to try to steer us in a more existential direction, i.e. Sartre, in making the claim that we are enslaved to freedom because, while we have no idea the ramifications of the choices we make, we are enslaved to freedom–we must make choices, and we are responsible for the choices that we make.

I can’t remember the exact transition, but this got us talking about human flourishing–the question being, how can we know that the decisions we make will promote human flourishing. Aramis made the claim–and here I am going from memory and trying not to mangle his intended argument–that we as people can look at history and discern how best to promote human flourishing. I took issue with this at on number of points, and here the conversation took several convoluted turns, so I will attempt to summarize the conclusions rather than follow the conversation as it happened. One primary objection was that human flourishing is a relative term. Different people at different times and places have different definitions of human flourishing. Granted that there seem to be common threads throughout history, but it did not seem conclusive enough to form a concrete definition. Even basic claims like “death=bad for human flourishing” and “happiness=good for human flourishing” met with potential objections. (Japanese samurai performing seppuku was seen as beneficial on the whole in terms of justice, and some versions of radical Islam which value suicide; and the relativity of happiness, as in some people actually find sadness and depression to be a comfort, or find joy in cruelty.) The second major objection was that interpreting history is not an objective exercise–the facts do not present themselves in such a way that we can automatically construct a definition of what human flourishing is or determine a means for achieving it. My argument was that to interpret history, one will necessarily start with some presuppositions. For example, one person may look at the story of Hitler and the holocaust and think, “what an atrocity, millions of lives lost,” while another may look at the same event and think, “how close we came to achieving true human flourishing; if only Hitler had not made such grievous tactical mistakes.” We seemed to agree that determining what parts of history indicated human flourishing and which parts didn’t depended on something other than the mere facts of history themselves. What human flourishing is is not self-evident.

As usual, nothing was solved, and the question still remains: is there a definition of human flourishing, and is there some means for achieving it? How are we to know given the fact that we can’t predict the future, and that we can’t interpret the past without already having some idea of what we’re looking for?

We mused that, in these meetings, it seems that there is always one person making claims and argument, and the rest play the role of the skeptic, shooting them down. Why is it so much easier to be skeptical than to make positive argument? Philosophy Club is not for the thin-skinned. I am grateful for members like Aramis who are up to playing hardball.

The final issue raised was evolution, which we decided we would save for another time. We talked briefly and informally about the nature of Philosophy Club in general, things that should or shouldn’t be discussed during the meetings. Last year, some of the meetings seemed to turn into group therapy sessions. Agreed–not that group therapy is not useful, but it is probably not what Philosophy Club is or should be about.

A lively meeting, though ultimately unproductive. (But aren’t they all?)