01 December 2006

"Dear Socrates, ... "

It gives one reason to question whether advice should ever be given except face-to-face, and perhaps even whether anything important should be written down at all. I mean the site, AskPhilosophers, which to my mind fails despite the best of intentions.

Here's how it works: chance persons send in their questions anonymously, which then get answered by any professional philosopher on the panel who wishes to take it up.

(No, it's not like those men of old who used to stand before large audiences and answer any question posed for money--the proceeds from the forthcoming book based on the AskPhilosophers website are being donated to worthy charities!)

The following tid-bit is not unrepresentative. A concerned reader writes in:

If no one ever loves me during my lifetime - if I don't ever have a relationship - will I have not lived properly? Is love that important to life, or is it something you can choose to engage in if you like? Thank you.
Four philosophers chose to respond to this. Someone jumped in right away with the following pearl of wisdom:
Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics argued that philia (a type of friendship-love) is essential to the good life. But Aristotle was a pinhead. For another take from a contemporary philosopher, who rejects the claim that love is essential to the good life, see Raja Halwani, Virtuous Liaisons: Care, Love, Sex, and Virtue Ethics. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 2003. And which rock group (J. Geils Band?) more radically impressed upon us that "Love Stinks"? To counter, I suppose, the inanity of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" (la la la la la....). The way the Rolling Stones torpedoed the Beatles' "Let It Be" with their own "Let It Bleed."
Thanks for that! Not to worry, however-- another philosopher quickly intervened and, getting right to the point, brought some needed clarity to the issue:
On Aristotle’s view, in order to determine whether Bob is living a good life, we first need to determine what kind of creature Bob is– e.g., is he a human being, a dog, or an oak tree. We then would judge the quality of his life against a species standard of flourishing. For example, our view of what it would mean for a dog to live a good life is informed by our views about the nature of dogs. We tend to think of a dog who lives its life in a cage as not living a good life for a dog, even if we imagine that it is given sufficient drugs to feel no discontent or frustration. A good life for a dog, we think, would be one that involved companionship, running around, barking at threatening noises and strangers, and so forth. Because a dog in a cage on drugs is not given the opportunity to engage in doggy activities, it is not functioning as a dog at a high level, and so, is not living a good life for a dog. If Bob is a dog, Aristotle would say, then we would judge his quality of life as good just in case he had a lot of opportunities to engage in doggy activities and was able to perform doggily at a high level. If Bob were a human being, however, we would not judge his life as going well if he spent his life running around with other dogs, barking at threatening noises and strangers, no matter how well he performed at these activities. There’s something wrong with Bob, we’d think; and even if he is content with his doggy life, since he’s a human being, he’s not living the life that is best for him.

It was on the basis of considerations of this sort that Aristotle would conclude that for human beings a good life would necessarily involve relationships characterized by mutual affection and good will. We might add that a life that involves such relationships has tended to be a successful life strategy for the human species, and as a species we have evolved to have impulses that motivate us to live a life that involves such relationships and that help us to sustain these relationships. On an Aristotelian view, any human life that did not involve the actualization of our distinctively human capacity to have close loving relationships would not be a good life.

However, we might wonder whether Aristotle is right to judge the quality of an individual person’s life against a species standard. While I agree with Aristotle that, in order to know what would be a good life for me, I would first need to figure out what sort of creature I am, and while I agree that it is likely that as a human being my nature will be very similar to the nature of other human beings, I don’t agree that the quality of my life should be judged in terms of its conformity to what would be a good life for most normal human beings. I might be quite unusual in that I feel absolutely no impulses toward loving relationships. I might feel no affection for other human beings, I might not be inclined to be in their company, and I might have no interest in their attitudes toward me. Whether they love me or hate me might be a matter of complete indifference to me. To be sure, if I were of this abnormal sort, life in a human society would be difficult, since others would have expectations of me that would be mistaken. And it is no doubt generally true that, for human beings, it would be easier to live a good life if one were normal in this respect. However, it doesn’t follow from this fact about the practical difficulties of such abnormality that my life would go better for me if it involved loving relationships. If my nature were idiosyncratic in the way that I described, loving relationships just would be no part of what would constitute a good life for me.
I hope the person who asked the question (that is, if he is a human and not a dog or a tree) now understands that, if he is the sort of idiosyncratic being for whom considerations of humanity are unimportant, then, if he chooses not to adopt anyway a life-strategy that has proved to be successful (I guess along the lines of "win friends and influence people"!), he will have 'lived properly' (his phrase!), even if in fact no one loves him.

No doubt about it, filosofi/a biou= kubernh/thj! How fortunate we are that there is now a site that "puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public"!


Mokawi said...

What a good idea! I think I'll use that for the paper of my philosophy association. I'll get questions in the nurse or communication department, and I'll try answering the riddles of common people. I hope I get a lot of love-related questions. 

Posted by Mokawi

David said...

The comment about Aristotle being a "pinhead" is really quite funny. The larger question, however, is just how appropriate it is to answer that specific query from the perspective of Aristotle. I think it was Price who pointed out that eros in Aristotle was given short shrift. The questioner seems to want to know if he/she lacks that essential erotic connection will he/she have been considered to have lived a good life. I don't know that Aristotle can answer that question.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a panelist on AskPhilosophers, I have to object. One might well wonder how appropriate it is to answer the question that was asked by reference to Aristotle, if it is assumed that the questioner is asking for "advice". But I myself would hope that questioners do not really expect "advice" from us, and if they do, we shouldn't purport to provide it. That's not our business. Our business is philosophy.

Many of the questions posted to AskPhilosophers are very philosophical. I've been struck, for example, by how many questions we've received about what are, essentially, forms of the argument from illusion. But not all the question posted to AskPhilosphers do have explicit philosophical content. There's something philosophical about them, yes, but one's job, as a panelist, ends up being is to find some philosophy in the question. Perhaps we don't always do this well, but it is, frankly, not so easy, and anyone who'd like to join the effort is more than welcome.

The panelists who responded to this question were trying to find philosophy in the question and, speaking only for myself, I find the initial response, for all its flippancy, quite insightful. The author of the response---I'll guess, without having looked, that it was Alan Soble---refers first to someone who's argued explicitly for a certain view and then dismisses it, with humor, while at the same time referring the questioner to more contemporary and quite serious discussions. Perhaps the author ought to have elaborated on what could be found in such discussions rather than expecting the questioner to go read them for h'erself, but that is a fairly minor criticism. And, again, if anyone thinks they can do better, they are welcome to join the panel. 

Posted by Richard Heck

Anonymous said...

I do suppose that anyone who has invested his entire life in Aristotle stock would be a little ticked off at having his hero called a pinhead. But Aristotle was not known for having much of a sense of humour; to that extent, at least, he was  a pinhead. As Johnny Carson once said on TV to the governor of Nevada, "Lighten Up." 

Posted by Alan "Sponge Bob" Soble

Michael Pakaluk said...


I suppose that, in response to my wondering whether an internet site is a good means of giving any sort of advice, someone might wonder whether blogs can do much more than criticize the positive efforts of others.


You see, the problem in writing for a general audience, and not to a person you know, is that it's sometimes difficult to judge how seriously a remark is intended.

By the way, in case someone thought that maybe you meant that I was the kind of person who "invested his entire life in Aristotle" -- let me be clear that study of Aristotle comes in about 20th for me in a rank-ordering and probably occupies about 2% of my time. Yet, for all that, I'll grant that I admire him passionately and am an expert. Go figure.


Diogenes said...

I'm confused.

The introduction to AskPhilosophers site claims:

"There is a paradox surrounding philosophy that AskPhilosophers seeks to address. On the one hand, everyone confronts philosophical issues throughout his or her life. But on the other, very few have the opportunity to learn about philosophy, a subject that is usually taught only at the college level...AskPhilosophers aims to bridge this gap by putting the skills and knowledge of trained philosophers at the service of the general public.

"If you have a question that you think is in some way philosophical or relates to philosophy, feel free to ask it here. If you are not sure whether your question is appropriate, send it in anyway. If it is a question about which a philosopher might have something useful to say (and which hasn't already been asked), we will post it, usually within a few days."

Heck claims that it is not the place of the site to offer advice, but to "find some philosophy in the question." So people with special training in philosophy (as per the stated mission of the site) are supposed to tell people who pose questions that really matter to them whether or not there is anything which a trained philosopher would identify as philosophy in the person's question. Thus, people are turning to AskPhilosophers to have their questions validated as philosophical by professional philosophers? How worthwhile.

Of course, if AskPhilosophers purported to offer advice, then one would immediately wonder--a la Socrates--what expertise these individuals possessed which warranted their claim to offer advice. So of course Heck should disavow offering any advice, practical guidance, or indeed wisdom about the questions asked. As far as I can tell, Soble's posturing seems to make the point even more concisely, as a reductio of sorts.

Anonymous said...


Michael Pakaluk said...

Well, maybe as high as 15th. However, truth is #1 (in aspiration, if not often in success).

And the waking time I'm thinking about something to which Aristotle says something directly relevant is probably more like 90%--as per 1166a26-7.

Anonymous said...


Dare I ask where Plato makes an appearance?

Michael Pakaluk said...

16th or 17th, of course. That is, unless he has been reincarnated as one of those persons who gets a higher rank!

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

Though I know you're not terribly keen on lists I'm dying to know your top 10...

Michael Pakaluk said...

Well, you know that I dislike dispensing advice or even recommendations anonymously as well. On the other hand, next time you're in Cambridge, over a single malt whiskey and (if you indulge) a fine cigar...

Anonymous said...

For my own take, for what it's worth, on the top dozen or so, click to: http://fs.uno.edu/asoble/pages/books.htm (my mother always did warn me about my posture. "sit up straight!"). Plato is there, but Aristotle is on the "two thumbs-down" list. 

Posted by Alan "The Boss" Soble

Anonymous said...

But I myself would hope that questioners do not really expect "advice" from us, and if they do, we shouldn't purport to provide it. That's not our business. Our business is philosophy.

Presumably, the branches of philosophy that have to do with how to live would be relevant to people seeking advice of an appropriate degree of generality. One need not, of course, believe that philosophical ethics can actually do anything useful in the way of answering questions about how to live. But holding such a position amounts to refusing to practice philosophical ethics. At any rate, I suspect that most non-philosophers who care enough about a philosophical question to ask a philosopher about it hope to receive an answer somehow relevant to their question. At the very least, they rightly expect a bit more than a bibliographical response and poorly executed insults.

As long as we're throwing around totally unsubstantiated and baseless insults of philosophers, by the way, might I say that Alan Soble is a buffoon?