Friday, 9 March 2018

A comparison between the three main theories of happiness

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From all branches of philosophy, ethics is the most practical. Values connect abstractions to decisions, and morality provides guidelines to surmount difficult situations and achieve happiness. It goes without saying that ethical systems are worthless if they are not aligned with reality and validated by facts.

History has produced hundreds of different ethical teachings that work well in specific circumstances but fail catastrophically in other contexts. Fortunately, by grouping those philosophies in three main categories, we can see if they pass the tests of veracity and practicality without having to examine them one by one. For the purpose of analysis, ethical systems can be grouped in three main types: the partial, the logical, and the teleological.

1. Fragmentary ethics

Fragmentary ethics consist of precepts that are not comprehensive enough to constitute a system of thought. The vast majority of ethical convictions held by people can be classified as partial ethics.

Let me underline that moral principles enunciated in this manner are not necessarily false. Sometimes, flawless albeit incomplete guidelines are predicated; on other occasions, utter nonsense is put forward as an ethical precept.

As examples of two well-meaning commandments, take for instance "protect the planet" and "help other people." Individuals who advocate such ethics will usually possess good intentions, but their formulations are so fragmentary that cannot be implemented consistently.

If you want to protect the planet, you have first to define "planet." Does it involve only animals and trees, or also insects and mountains? If the concept encompasses all living entities, should it not include human beings first and foremost ? And if plants and insects are both part of the planet, should you be protecting them from each other? Interesting questions, for which partial ethics cannot provide consistent answers.

If your only ethical principle is to help other people, how do you determine which individuals you should be helping with priority? If person A is expected to help person B, is person B then required to help person A? What happens if B has a different opinion? Who will settle disagreements on the meaning and scope of the word "help"?

Partial ethics are unsatisfactory because they do not work in all circumstances. Principles such as those mentioned above are correct if applied in a certain context, but cannot be stretched to a full-blown system of morality. Life is too complex to navigate if you know only one thing. Man requires an all-encompassing thinking methodology, an integrated formula for happiness, not just a few unconnected precepts.

2. Logical ethics

Logical systems of ethics represent a major step forward in human thought. Their purpose is to create a morality that answers all questions, a method that can be applied to all events without incurring contradictions. In history, partial ethics have often evolved into logical moral systems after it became obvious that man cannot make good decisions on the basis of isolated precepts.

In contrast to partial ethics, logical moral systems are consistent. Their principles and guidelines are linked to each other. Their conclusions aim at universality in space and permanence in time. A well-rounded moral system should be able to guide individuals in any situation they may encounter in their private or professional lives.

The "categorical imperative" originated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the best known system of logical ethics. According to Kant, true principles of morality must be universal, non-contradictory, and recognizable by reason. Decisions and actions are considered virtuous only if they can be elevated to universal rules for all men.

"Do not steal" and "do not murder" are two specific applications of the categorical imperative. Kantian ethics do not address only a few situations; they aim at covering all possible alternatives in human action. Logical ethical systems do not give recommendations only for isolated cases; they aim at providing a complete thinking methodology valid in all possible situations.

Nonetheless, logical morality systems suffer from a major weakness. Although they are superior to partial ethics because they are consistent, their consistency does not guarantee their usefulness. Kantian morality is an intellectual clockwork foreign to the richness of human experience; it is a cold machinery that functions without feelings, ambitions, passions, or hesitations.

Categorical imperatives rightly forbid us to aggress against our neighbour, but they don't tell us what we need to do in order to be happy. Logical systems of ethics fail to address the psychological aspects of human action. Kantian morality does not provide us with guidelines on how to define our goals, allocate our resources, and deal effectively with adversity.

3. Teleological ethics

Teleological systems of ethics are the best that philosophy has produced. On the one hand, they go beyond the isolated commandments of partial morality; on the other hand, they aim at providing a comprehensive and consistent methodology, just like logical ethics. In addition, teleological systems are rendering morality useful by linking ethical principles to happiness, which they view as the overriding goal of ethics.

The word "teleological" comes from the Greek "telos," which means "purpose or goal." Advanced systems of ethics go far beyond "do not steal" and "do not murder." They view the human condition as a combination of complex factors that need to be judged according to general values, and prioritized according to individual objectives.

A teleological morality based on reason provides a frame of thought that encompasses all our decisions and actions. This system of ethics aims not only at keeping us out of trouble, but also at helping us make the best of our life. The list of teleological virtues includes not only honesty and justice, but also independence, ambition and persistence.

If you want to make optimal choices, you should adopt a teleological system of ethics based on reason. Other approaches to morality will work in certain conditions, but fail to pass the tests of universality, permanence, consistency and comprehensiveness.


Image: photograph of classical painting -- photo taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books 

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Here is the link to an audio interview just published:

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Our endless search for safety -- and the value of flexibility, alertness and entrepreneurship

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Prosperity and happiness would be easier to achieve if we made safe decisions all day long. Imagine how efficient we would become if we never succumbed to seductive lies; how far we could go if we never got distracted by irrelevancies; how much we could profit if we never wasted time chasing impossible goals. The question is whether we can consistently ensure making such safe decisions.

Yet, an exalted view of safety can be a constant source of mistakes. Human beings seem to suffer from an ingrained cognitive distortion that makes them favour all things that are tall, wide, and long. If you think about it, you will find few exceptions to this distortion.

The groundless preference for tall, wide, and long applies equally to space and time. In cities, most people prefer to live in tall buildings rather than in small houses. In the countryside, hotels are built next to wide lakes, not little streams. In literature, most readers prefer long novels to short stories.

Our belief in safety is the culmination of our bias towards everything tall, wide, and long. We long for safety and solidity whenever, wherever we can. Children stories such as Three Little Pigs are teaching infants the desirability of solid homes. Career advisers tend to encourage youths to choose well-established professions. Dietitians will routinely recommend clients to err on the side of safety.

A better answer

However, more often than not, the safe answer is going to prove wrong. Safety is presented as the perfect answer to all questions, the solution to all problems, the meal that always satisfies. A temporary approach will be often considered unwise on principle. Anything transient is to be distrusted. Anything incomplete is to be viewed with suspicion.

Long live the mirage of permanence and safety, even if it is wrong and historically false. The truth is that human beings have been leading predictable lives since only ten thousand years ago -- since the inception of agriculture. During a ten-times larger period, during the time before agriculture, men and women had few routines --and were, in some respects, much better off.

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers used to move around frequently, carrying their household with them. A varied diet and daily exercise were keeping them healthy. Since tribes would rarely stay long in one place, they were difficult targets for parasites and predators.

In those days, man lived on the alert. Since the world was unsafe and disorderly, man's attitude was entrepreneurial. Each season brought him new challenges, each territory new scents. To danger, man reacted with prudence -- and to opportunities, with courage and self-reliance.

The concept of safety only made its entrance in human society with the inception of agriculture. Land cultivation and animal domestication brought humans a steady supply of wheat, rice, corn, milk and cheese. On the other hand, a sedentary life also brought humanity smallpox, influenza, malaria, measles, lice, and vermin.

As soon as human beings began to build permanent dwellings, rats became their companions. Insects multiplied, feeding on domesticated animals. Bacteria found a fertile ground to grow, and viruses nested and mutated. Sickness turned to epidemics, and disease to morbidity.

Safety possesses a downside of which many people choose to remain unaware until it is too late. Routine has advantages, but it can render you blind to innovation. Predictability has benefits, but it can make you passive. Steadiness has its charms but it can make you forget to enjoy the present moment.

Viewing safety as desirable at all costs can deprive you of independence. An exaggerated search for safety can overrule your perception of reality. If you long for safety too strongly, you will develop tunnel vision. Do not let your flexibility and entrepreneurship wane -- If you stay alert, change will never find you unprepared.


Image: photograph of ancient sculpture -- photo taken by John Vespasian, 2014.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books 

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Here are the links to four audio interviews just published:

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

How to make highly likely that good things will happen to you

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If you are prepared, good things will happen to you. Closed doors will open, opportunities will materialise, and jobs will become available. Preparedness brings not only material benefits, but also psychological ones such as self-reliance, a highly desirable trait.

Through education, apprehensive kids can become stars. Through training, people who are fearful of every shadow can learn to thrive in new challenges. Through preparation, men who used to be suspicious of every innovation can make themselves supremely confident.

We should all welcome means and ideas that help us face life courageously. While despair can make people retreat into disaffected tunnels, self-reliance can motivate them to figure out the shortest way to attain their objectives.

Look farther ahead

Training and education, reading and learning, enable us to see farther ahead. Preparedness helps us build the conviction that achievement is possible, and success within reach. The ability to look ahead with confidence give us an extra advantage. While some people are so afraid to slip that they keep their eyes focused on the ground, individuals with vision will continue to prepare themselves, and reinforce their self-confidence.

How long does it take for a person to learn to turn defeats into victories? While in the eyes of worried men, achievement is a receding point in the horizon, rational individuals will keep pursuing their objectives relentlessly. Since they know that ambitious goals will always involve difficult obstacles, they just keep trudging forward day after day.

If you talked to elderly men in the late twentieth century, you must have heard how they returned from World War II without any savings, sometimes physically or mentally wounded, and had to rebuild their lives from scratch. They trusted their ability to find opportunities, start families, build houses, accumulate wealth, and lead a happy existence.

The only way those men knew was the way forward. Each step was preparing them for the next. What they learnt one day, they put in practice the next. Training was done on the job. On many occasions, they resorted to evening education to get the knowledge they needed to move ahead. Their self-confidence was the result of their willingness to absorb new information.

Mental resilence

Preparedness helps individuals overcome shyness and develop mental resilience. A man who has acquired specific skills has been, at the same time, training himself to deal calmly and successfully with obstacles. Rationality enhances our capacity to solve problems and overcome life's perils.

Developing an active mind enables us to surmount adversity and avert danger. Self-reliance help us  assess risks prudently, and discard exaggerated fears. Preparedness and education, either formal or self-acquired, are going to reinforce our creativity. Imagination and innovation are characteristics of rational men. Those faculties are unknown to people living in ignorance and fear.

When things go wrong, unreasonable men will always blame the world. In contrast, obstacles are going to prompt self-confident individuals to reassess their options, choose the best alternative, and redouble their efforts. While ignorant people tend to see adversity as final, prepared individuals will view obstacles as manageable, and mistakes as part of the learning process.

Fertile ground

Trees planted on fertile ground will keep growing year in, year out. Learning and education constitute the fruitful ground where our self-confidence can take root. The conviction that new knowledge can be acquired and mastered is crucial to motivating us to further achievements.

Self-reliance is going to enable us to try new approaches, and ensure our long-term success. By the time a cautious person begins to move, a fearless innovator has already gone through a whole cycle of failure, recovery, and improvement.

In all fields, learning is going to involve errors, usually lots of them, until you acquire the expertise necessary to achieve your objectives. Self-confidence will help you not to pay too much attention to occasional failures. Resilience will prevent your doubts from ever turning into paralysis.

Mistakes are part of the learning curve in any endeavour, whether private or professional. Detailed, valuable knowledge needs to be acquired through experience. Trial and error will only build your self-confidence further. If you keep preparing yourself for life's challenges, it's only a matter of time before you'll see the tide turn in your favour.


Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2015.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books 

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to two audio interviews just published:


      Monday, 15 January 2018

      Why you should make longevity your primary goal

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      If human beings were happy all the time, there would be little need for philosophy. If transactions never went wrong, there would be no market for lawyers and arbitration services. If individuals never became sick and died, few persons would choose to become medical doctors. In this light, death is not only the ultimate justification for medicine, but also its most crucial subject of study.

      Statistics are telling us why people die, but there is much more to death than what the eye can perceive. Road accidents, heart failure, stroke, and cancer occupy prominent positions in every country's causes of decease. Contemporary statistics are also recording the toll taken by auto-immune deseases.

      Why all animals die

      Statistics are giving us the immediate cause of decease, but fail to address why we have to die in the first place. This question should not to be dismissed as trivial. Unless we get a clear idea of why we must die, statistical data become irrelevant. After all, one could argue, if we are doomed to pass away at eighty-five, who cares if we die of cancer or diabetes?

      Since all animals die at a certain point, we are taking for granted that nature has foreseen a particular lifespan for each species, but is this really true? Can science extend man's life, allowing us to become at least one hundred years old?

      Historical records show that, in previous centuries, many men and women have lived longer than a century. What is preventing us from making exceptional longevity a general rule applicable to all of us? Even if self-driving cars eliminated road accidents as a cause of death, we would still have to contend with cancer and cardiovascular disease. Will those ever be eradicated?

      In order to explain why all animals must die, scientists have put forward different theories, but many of those have been abandoned during the last sixty years due to lack of evidence. The two theories that still remain (the waste theory and the exhaustion theory) seem to be pointing in the right direction.

      The waste theory

      The waste theory considers death as the inevitable consequence of biochemical decay. From the  moment a newborn begins to breath, its cells are acting as biological converters that turn oxygen and other substances into chemical products that the organism will consume in order to stay alive.

      However, the biological conversion is going to generate certain amounts of waste that will slowly accumulate in our bodies. According to this theory, when the amount of waste surpasses our body's ability to deal with it, we die.

      The exhaustion theory

      The exhaustion theory is attributing death to the depletion of our body's ability to replace its own cells. While we are still alive, our cells are continuously dying and being replaced by new cells, which are almost identical to the ones that died.

      According to the exhaustion theory, our cells can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times without losing their key genetic information. This limit is what will determine the maximum lifespan of each species. In the case of human beings, the maximum lifespan is estimated to be hundred and twenty years. Afer that, human cells cannot longer reproduce themselves quickly and accurately enough.

      Learning from statistics

      These two theories are putting cause-of-death statistics in a new perspective. Indeed, if the waste theory and the exhaustion theory are true, there might be a common cause behind cancer and cardiovascular disease.

      Would it be possible that cancer and cardiovascular disease are nothing but symptoms of biochemical waste accumulation and cellular exhaustion? If that is the case, the practical consequences are earth-shattering.

      What would you say if you woke up one day, and realized that your vision of the world has been turned upside down? If the waste theory and the exhaustion theory are correct, the way we are living our lives might be massively wrong.

      A new paradigm

      Our whole view of the world is based on a pattern made of six steps, namely: that we are born into a certain family and social environment; that we live, eat, and work in that environment; that one day, cancer, cardiovascular disease, or other major sickness will hit us out of the blue; that we will follow a medical treatment in order to fight that particular illness; that even if the treatment is successful, another disease will soon come to haunt us; that eventually, when all medical treatments fail, we'll die.

      Yet, if the theories of waste accumulation and cellular exhaustion are true, we should be changing our views and expectations. Sickness and death take a whole different meaning when we start to look at them as factors that we can influence to a much larger extent than we had assumed.

      If we adopt a new paradigm, we will start to see the world differently. Our new set of beliefs will be something like this: that we are born into a certain family and social environment, but the people around us won't necessarily know what's good for their health; that we can avoid or delay chronic sickness by choosing a healthy lifestyle; that we'll be much better off if we live, eat, and work using reason as a standard, irrespective of what other people may think of us; that it is up to each of us to establish longevity as a primary goal.

      What to do next

      We need to learn how to live in a way that slows down the accumulation of biochemical waste in our organism, since our own behaviour is the number-one factor that is keeping us healthy or making us sick.

      When it comes to health, prevention should be our main concern. If the waste-accumulation theory is true, we can choose a lifestyle that will delay fatal illness until a later stage, allowing us to live longer and more healthily.  We should be running our lives in ways that minimize cell exhaustion, so that we can extend our lifespan towards the one-hundred-and-twenty years that constitute the maximum human lifespan.

      The types of sickness that are killing most people are a direct consequence of a wrong lifestyle. By correcting our thinking and behavioural patterns, we can live more healthily and extend our lifespan.

      Imagine the enjoyment you could draw if you lived a decade longer without being afflicted by debilitating illness. The inspiring aspect of the waste theory and the exhaustion theory is that they are reinforcing the idea that we, as a rational individuals, are in control of our future.

      We are still far away from understanding all the implications of the new paradigm, but it is clear that the waste theory and the exhaustion theory are strongly favouring the tenets of rational living.


      Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2015.

      For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

      Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

      Thursday, 21 December 2017

      Instead of Season's Greetings

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      Instead of Season's Greetings,
      I am sending you a reminder
      to focus on the few things
      that'll make your views wider

      Instead of merry this and happy that
      shun noise, avoid chitchat,
      won't you rather take a pause
      and let others welcome Santa Claus

      In the New Year, you have things to do
      more important than trudging blindly
      more ambitious than arriving timely;
      take the clue, and pursue a breakthrough

      Make this Christmas unique
      by thinking real hard
      about what you will discard
      and what you want to be

      Days and months will pass,
      another year will elapse
      and before you know
      your whole life might be gone

      There is no time to lose
      Christmas is no excuse
      for pretending life's too hard
      to do what needs to be done

      Instead of Season's Greetings
      I am wishing you strength
      to look ahead, stay alert,
      and above all, think for yourself

      [Image: photograph of classical painting; photo taken by John Vespasian, 2016. 
      For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

      Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

      Here is the link to a media interview just published: