Friday, June 17, 2005

The Nature of Success (from the mailbag)


A friend writes ... "I dont know if you do requests, but it would be interesting to see MelbournePhilospher's viewpoint on the nature of success. I had an interesting discussion at lunch on its psychological, economic and cultural aspects - and whether these are relative or absolute - e.g. does one aim for a particular goal, or is that goal entirely relative to environment and peers.

Is there a philosophical viewpoint or construct that can be brought to the table?

Or does any of it matter?"

Well, the easiest way to wriggle out of giving an opinion in this fairly subjective area is to present the ancient Greek conception of Eudaimonia . Briefly, this concept refers to living well, and to a kind of satisfaction with life than can only be achieved by living in accordance with ones principles. By linking a state of being with the results of acting morally, the Greeks manage to deflate any friction brought about by the idea of achieving happiness through wealth alone.

Psychologically speaking, humans have a wide and inconsistent set of desires, both known and unknown. One of the difficulties in life is that too often we don't even know what will bring us contentment. Most people would accept that some rich people are not happy, and that while wealth provides an escape from many of the pains of this world, it does not guarantee contentment.

In this debate, the maximisation of some particular mental state is often put forward. If only we could be happy all the time, we shall have achieved the best for ourselves that can be achieved. This viewpoint is known as psychological hedonism. The debate surrounding hedonism is very much still present in our lives - are we better off meeting our wildest desires, thus experiencing the extremes of self gratification, or is this a false grail, and instead we should temper our desires comensurate with our ability to fulfil them. Is it better to desire less, and thus be always happy? Are there any kinds of better ways of finding happiness, if the happiness achieved is the same? Is it better to be a happy fool?

When presented with extreme theoretical positions - such as that of a slave who is made happy through drugs - most people accept that there is something wrong with aspiring to such a situation. Even unphilosophical people accept that there is something about the problem which goes beyond mere happiness, and towards a notion that there is a right kind of happiness which is only achieved through a certain degree of morally good behaviour. This is the problem of psychological hedonism, and speaks in favour of eudaimonia, the contentedness that comes from having lived well.

There is a certain amount of evidence from psychology that the desire for material wealth is a relative one. It is clearly contextual - a peasant in the 1500's has not got the conceptions to desire a laptop computer for example. But beyond this, there is a certain sense in which what people desire is to have more than their fellows. This view poses a degree of difficulty to the Greek modes of thought, which are primarily concerned with the character of the individual. What kind of person, they ask, will best embody the good person, and how can we be like that?

Is success, then, something introverted, and ultimately about you? Is success any more than a feeling of satisfaction with ones life? Perhaps. But for many of us, we are still left wondering exactly what it is that we are supposed to do about it.

In a world with objective values - such as Christian metaphysics - you can have success criteria for a life. I think most people would accept that there is a little wriggle-room even in many quite prescriptive ideologies, and many paths to choose. Within any particular ideology, philosophical ones included, the particular other things you believe are likely to help define some metrics for success. Approached without a moral compass, success is perhaps a strange word, because ones actions are undirected. One needs to have a conception of what goals are worth pursuing, even if only in a basic form such as the pursuit of wealth or happiness, if one is to adopt any consequentialist position.

Those, ultimately, are the possibilities. The satisfaction of living well, the achievement of ones moral goals, or attainment of objective success according to a doctrine. Unfortunately, you still have to choose one for yourself.



Anonymous Clive said...

If success is subjective and mostly self-defined, could success be merely thinking yourself successful?

Sort of 'I think I am successful therefore I am successful'. And I dont mean in a selfhelp book kind of way.

Arch-Feminists often point to happy mothers as being unsuccessful - although I wouldnt. Can person 'A' define person 'B's success?

6/20/2005 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Well, sure you can, but why would you want to? :)

Let's say rather that person A can assess person B's success. Sometimes, this can be quite objective - such as in the relationship between employer / employee, or a maths test.

At other times, it might be quite different - such as according to religious doctrine. Person A might regard person B as being unsuccessful in God's eyes, and thereby likely to end up living in eternal damnation, or something equally unpleasant.

That assessment may or may not mean anything to B. It might not bother me what other people think about my success. It might be that I'm entirely happy being a serial killer, or garbage collector, or politician, or whatever.

Sometimes, my own feelings about success might be affected by what others think, such as if I am being bullied, or laughed at, or paid for work.

In those cases, where I my relationship is one of a supplicant, the other person determines my success. It is more about the power relationship between you and others than about what success "is" per se.

If, as I argue, success depends quite crucially on morality, probably the most common position is that morality is a kind of property of the system, affected by and affectign every individual. Our own moral compass is a function of our environment, but as interpreted.

It's probably not true that one can have an entirely isolated feeling of success, just as it's not true than one can have entirely isolated sense of what is right or wrong, or good or bad. However, neither does one surrender ones own will, morality, or understanding of success, entirely to the community or others.


6/20/2005 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Eudaimonia can be described as a "smooth flow of life", avoiding any extreme elation or despair. Success would be measured by the ability to maintain your mental equilibrium and this is best achieved by (dare I say it) living a virtuous life. Since material things are neither good nor bad in themselves, it is how we use them that is good or bad. There is nothing wrong with aiming to accumulate material goods, providing we do so ethically and we use them ethically. However, we need to recognise that they are not really "ours" and if we lose them we need to be able to avoid being upset.

The person who is successful is the one who has studied enough philosphy to know how to live life wisely(rationally), treating other people justly, putting the correct value on external things and using them with moderation, facing setbacks with courage.

6/20/2005 03:43:00 PM  

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