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The Survivalist/Flourisher-Dichotomy

THESIS: Against Flourishing

Section One: The Nature of Flourishing

Now if we are to properly get a handle on this debate, there are certain distinctions which must be made. First, there are some values which we pursue simply as means to other ends. These are what we can instrumental values. Then there are some ends which we pursue, not because they lead to any other values, but which we simply pursue for their own sake. These are what we call ends-in-themselves. Now, in deference to the flourishers, I am willing to --for the moment-- consider the possibility that there exists some values which we pursue both because they are valuable in-themselves and because they serve as the means to other ends-in-themselves.

This was, in fact, Aristotle's own approach. Now to understand how a given value may be --according to Aristotle-- both an end-in-itself and an instrumental value, we may take the example of the bird and its young. The bird devotes precious resources to its young, such as the time and energy which it could otherwise spend feeding itself. Thus, for those who accept Aristotle's interpretation of the bird's activity, it is clear that the bird does not simply have its own life as the end-in-itself towards which all of its activity is directed.

Yet one cannot assume that the end towards which the bird's activity is directed is simply the survival of its offspring, either. If this were true, then it would be true of the offspring, itself. The offspring would not exist simply as an end-in-itself, but only for the sake of its own future offspring, and the same principle would be applicable to each succeeding generation of offspring, leading to an infinite regress in which nothing serves as an end-in-itself. Furthermore, if we assume that a bird's own life is simply directed towards the life of its offspring, then we would leave unexplained the behavior of the bird once it is no longer capable of reproduction: a bird will continue to feed itself and seek shelter even once the bird is no longer able to lay eggs.

Thus, in Aristotle's view, we "must" assume that the activity of the bird is both directed towards its own survival as an end-in-itself and towards the survival of its offspring as an end-in-itself. And insofar as the survival of the bird serves both as an end-in-itself and as a means to the survival of the offspring, we "must" assume that the bird's own life is both an end-in-itself and an instrumental value.

Section Two: The Foundations for the Problem

Now of course, Dr. Harry Binswanger has given an argument that it is possible for the strict survivalist to explain the behavior of the bird (which acts deterministically in the same way that its predecessors have) strictly in terms of its pursuit of its own life. I won't repeat it here, but simply refer the reader back to his book "The Teleological Basis of Biological Concepts." I will, however, point out that by itself, this argument does not establish that the survivalist is right-- it simply establishes the point that the survivalist is still a contender: the fact that a bird engages in reproductive behavior which diverts precious resources away from its own survival (in the context of its own lifetime) does not eliminate the survivalist interpretation as one of the interpretations of the bird's behavior which fits the evidence.

Thus given simply what has been presented so far, both the survivalist interpretation and the flourisher interpretation seem to be possible. But now I will state the argument by which one eliminates the view that there may exist more than one end which serves as an end-in-itself, e.g., that both the life of the bird and of its offspring are ends-in-themselves towards which the activity of the bird is directed, and that both life and happiness are ends-in-themselves towards which the activity of the moral person should be directed.

Let us assume that there are two or more values which are ends-in-themselves towards which the activity of a living being is directed. If this is the case, then the actions of the organism will sometimes serve to promote the achievement of one end-in-itself, and sometimes serve to promote the achievement of the other. Now let us assume that the extent to which the action of an organism can promote the achievement of an end-in-itself exists in degrees. In other words, some actions will serve to promote the achievement of an end-in-itself, but not as much as others. I may, for example, have an apple or a candy. The candy would give me some energy, but the apple would be better for my overall health. People may survive on rice, but they will be healthier on three-course meals, and as the survivalist would argue, live longer if they have such meals.

Section Three: The Probem with Flourishing

Now if, as the flourisher believes, there are two or more ends-in-themselves towards which the activity of the moral man should be directed, there will come times when he will have to make trade-offs: he may engage in an action which contributes to his survival to a high degree but contributes to his happiness only to a low or negative degree (for example, exercising), or he may engage in an action which contributes to his survival to a small or negative degree but contributes to his happiness to a high degree (for example, going to the movies). Now it is clear that he has a choice between two alternatives. What is the standard by reference to which he is to make that choice?

As long as there is only one value which serves as an end-in-itself towards which all of his action is directed, it may serve as the standard by reference to which he acts and chooses between alternatives. However, now he is faced with a choice between two alternatives, one of which essentially promotes one end-in-itself, the other of which essentially promotes the other end-in-itself. If he is to rationally choose between these two alternatives, it must be by reference to some standard. Furthermore, assuming that we take a teleological approach, this standard must be one which guides him in the achievement of some single end. Having two or more values which serve as ends-in-themselves is the same as having two or more ultimate standards which guides one's actions. But, speaking metaphorically, you can serve only one god.

Which will it be? If there exists some standard by reference to which you settle a conflict between two or more standards guiding your actions (e.g., "promote your happiness" and "promote your survival"), then the standard by reference to which you settle the conflict is what actually serves as your standard of value, and the value towards which it directs your action is what serves as your ultimate value, that is the one end-in-itself which is the goal towards which all of your action is directed.

Now I will consider a strategy which a flourisher might attempt to use in order to blunt the force of this argument: he has an ultimate value, but this ultimate value is neither survival nor happiness. His ultimate value consists of a combination of both survival and happiness. But this strategy does not actually answer the problem, it merely transubstanates it into another. By what criterion does the flourisher decide the mix of survival and happiness which constitutes this value? Should it consist of mostly of survival and very little happiness (with whatever happiness one achieves above this mix being considered, in effect, a fringe benefit) or should it consist mostly of happiness and very little survival? Or in otherwords, in the choice between a long, miserable life and a short, happy life, what is the standard by reference to which he should make the choice?

There can be only one ultimate standard guiding human action, otherwise there will exist no means of making a rational choice when two or more standards come into conflict.

General Index


©1996 by Timothy D. Chase. All rights reserved. This article is meant for personal reading. Copies may be made only for that purpose. Do not distribute.