… people who knowingly delight in the product of abject misery are worse people. People who can take no pleasure in such things are clearly better people. To the extent that we must partake in necessary evils (if it’s true that we must) then we are clearly better people when we emphasize their necessity, rather than rejoicing in their benefits to us. For example, if I really did have to murder two people to spare a thousand, it would certainly be the right thing to do. But if I rejoiced in the act, anticipated and looked forward to it, licked my lips and drooled at the thought of it, I would be worse than if I bore the deed in unwilling, solemn discontent. Whatever is left of ethics by denying this bears so little resemblance to our moral intuitions, we may as well abandon it all together.
You might think that most people will share some big-picture beliefs about morality (a la “common morality“). And you might think that this agreement is the result of reflective reasoning about ethics. For example, most people might think about ethics for awhile and accept a consequentialist principle like this: we should try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Well, it turns out that people don’t agree about such ethical principles — not even people who often reflect on such matters. Before I get to the evidence for that claim, take a look at someone who thought that reflective people do agree about ethics.
1. Will Reflective People To Agree About Ethics?
Here’s Henry Sidgwick:
“The Utilitarian principle […that there is a] connexion between right action and happiness […] has always been to a large extent recognised by all reflective persons.” (The Methods of Ethics, Book I, Chapter 6, Section 3)
Sidgwick is claiming that…
- there is a connection between happiness and right conduct (and)
- all reflective people recognize this connection.
What do you think? Do these claims sound right?
2. The Evidence
Notice that 2 requires evidence. Alas, 2 is not well-supported by evidence: reflective people do not seem to agree that there is an important ethical connection between happiness and right conduct.
Consider that there is widespread disagreement about 1 among philosophers. To quantify this disagreement a bit, let us look at some data. Of about 1000 philosophers surveyed in 2009, 25.9% of leaned toward or accepted deontology, 18.2% leaned toward or accepted virtue ethics, and 23.6% leaned toward or accepted consequentialism (Bourget and Chalmers 2013). Consequentialism is the view most associated with 1 — the idea that there is a connection between happiness and right conduct — and yet fewer than a quarter of philosophers are partial to it. So, contrary to Sidgwick’s claim, the consequentialist’s connection between happiness and right conduct does not seem to be recognized by all reflective people. Indeed, it does even seem to be recognized be even most reflective people.
In situations like this, an intuitionist like Sidgwick might want to press on the notion of ’reflective’. After all, the finding (above) is only a problem for Sidgwick if — among other things — philosophers count as ‘reflective.’ If they do, then Sidgwick’s hypothesis is falsified. If they do not, then Sidgwick’s hypothesis might still be intact.
So if you want to defend Sidgwick’s hypothesis 2 from the evidence (above), then you need to argue that philosophers do not count as reflective — and do not thereby pose a counterexample to 2. One cannot, of course, merely stipulate that philosophers do not count as reflective. That would be ad hoc. In order to defend Sidgwick’s 2 from the aforementioned data, you will need to appeal to independent evidence. Fortunately there is independent evidence about the relative reflectiveness of philosophers and non-philosophers.
Alas, the evidence does not support Sidgwick’s hypothesis (2). Rather, the evidence suggests that philosophers are significantly more reflective than non-philosophers. In a sample of 4000 participants, those with training in philosophy performed up to three times better on tests of reflection — e.g., the Cognitive Reflection Test (Frederick 2005) — than those without such training (Livengood et al 2010). This result has been replicated and expanded. For example, those with (or a candidate for) a PhD in philosophy also performed significantly better than others — F(1, 558) = 15.41, p < 0.001, d = 0.32 (Byrd 2014). And these findings are not new. Over 20 years ago, Deanna Kuhn found that philosophers demonstrated “perfect” and domain-general reasoning competence (Kuhn 1991, 258-262).
So it seems that if any group of people should count as reflective, it is philosophers. And these reflective people do not — contrary to Sidgwick’s hypothesis 2 — unanimously recognize a connection between happiness and rightness.
3. So what now?
The idea that people share a “common morality” via “reflective equilibrium” might fly in the face of evidence. It certainly does for Sidgwick. After all, it seems like reflective people (e.g., philosophers) simply don’t agree about the alleged connection between happiness and right conduct. And if you try to respond to this evidence by denying that philosophers are reflective, then you run into another problem: that claim also flies in the face of evidence. So those objections won’t work.
A better strategy might be to reject my claims about the association between Sidgwick’s claims and consequentialism. That is, you might say that non-consequentialist approaches to ethics acknowledge the connection between happiness and right conduct just as much as consequentialist approaches — sort of like Andy Hallman does in the comments. If that claim is right, then Sidgwick might have been on to something. I leave it to you to decide if that kind of objection is promising.
Featured image: “Extermination of Evil Sendan Kendatsuba” via Wikipedia Commons (in the public domain).
Michael Bishop outlines a network theory of well-being in which well-being is constituted by positive causal networks and their fragments (2012, 2015). ‘Positive’ refers to — among other things — experiences that have positive hedonic tones, the affirmation or fulfilment of one’s values, and success in achieving goals. So according to Bishop’s view, we flourish when certain positive causal networks are robust and self-reinforcing. For example, something good happens to us and that improves our motivation and mood, which then helps us achieve more, which improves our motivation and mood even more, and so on.
Bishop’s network account musters philosophical rigor by providing a systematic and coherent account of wellbeing that satisfies many common sense judgments about well-being. But lots of philosophical accounts can do that. So Bishop’s account does even more. It unifies and makes sense of a huge swath of the science. This provides some reason to think that Bishop’s account is superior to its competition.
So what’s this got to do with exercise and neuroscience?
I am largely persuaded by Bishop’s arguments for the network account of well-being, so I will skip my criticism of the project. Rather, I will add to it. Specifically, I will show how well is makes sense of the neuroscience. While I will not be able to review all of neuroscience, I can accomplish a more modest goal. I can review one part of neuroscience: the effect of exercise on the brain.
There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that regular physical activity and exercise forms an important part of one’s positive causal network of well-being by, among other things, increasing positive affect (Harte, Eifert, and Smith 1995), increasing confidence (Klem, Wing, McGuire, Seagle, and Hill 1997), reducing stress, relieving depression (Blumenthal et al 1999; Motl et al 2005) and preventing more than a dozen chronic diseases (Booth, Gordon, Carlson and Hamilton 2000; see also Biddle, Fox and Boutcher 2000 for a review of relationships between exercise and well-being). The mechanisms for all of these results are not entirely clear. But neuroscience is providing, in broad strokes at least, some clues about the mechanisms that can explain, in part, why exercise produces a series of positive effects in a well-being network (e.g., Meeusen 1995, Farooqui 2014).
The Positive Effects in the Brain
Let’s start with how exercise produces direct positive effects in the brain. Firstly, exercise and regular physical activity directly improve the brain’s synaptic structure by improving potentiating synaptic strength (Cotman, Berchtold, Christie 2007). Secondly, exercise and regular physical activity strengthen systems that underlie neural plasticity—e.g., neurogenesis, the growth of new neural tissue (ibid., Praag et al 2014). These changes in the brain cause “growth factor cascades” which improve overall “brain health and function” (ibid.; Kramer and Erickson 2007).
Now consider how exercise has indirect positive effects in the brain by producing ancillary positive circumstances. Generally speaking, “exercise reduces peripheral risk factors for cognitive decline” by preventing—among other things—neurodegeneration, neurotrophic resistance, hypertension, and insulin resistance (ibid.; see also Mattson 2014). By preventing these threats to neural and cognitive health, exercise is, indirectly, promoting brain health and function.
Positive Causal Networks
It requires no stretch of the imagination to see how these positive effects will reinforce positive causal networks and thereby increase well-being. Even so, I will do you a favor by trying to demonstrate a connection between exercise, the brain, and the larger network of well-being.
We have already seen how exercise results in, among other things, increased plasticity. And increased plasticity results in improved learning (Geinisman 2000; Rampon and Tsien 2000). Also, the increased plasticity that results in improved learning can produce other positive outcomes: increased motivation, increased opportunities for personal relationships in learning environments, etc. (Zelazo and Carlson 2012, 358). Further, increased motivation and social capital can — coming full circle — result in further motivation (Wing and Jeffery 1999).
That right there is what we call a self-reinforcing positive causal network or positive feedback loop. And that, according to Bishop, is how we increase well-being (see figure 1).
This causal model shows how the neuroscience we just discussed implies a causal network. The nodes and causal connections in this model show how well-being is a matter of positive causal networks.
3. What about Ill-being?
Obviously, I’ve only mentioned the neuroscience of well-being. But if we want to promote well-being, then we also have to decrease ill-being, right? Right. And once again, the network theory of well-being will fit nicely with the research on ill-being. For example, the research on emotion regulation (see Livingston et al 2015) implies some causal networks that can inhibit ill-being. The same can be said of the research about using deep brain stimulation in treatment-resistance depression (Bewernick et al 2010; Lozano et al 2008; Mayberg et al 2005; Neuner et al 2010).
4. A Concern: Fitness
You might object by positing that Bishop’s theory of well-being will not fit neuroscience as well as it fits positive psychology. This objection can be dismissed in a few ways. Here are two ways.
First, we can safely accept that Bishop’s network theory of well-being will not fit neuroscience as well as it fits positive psychology. After all, Bishop’s network theory was designed to fit positive psychology, not neuroscience. It’s hardly a fault for a theory to not do what is was not intended to do.
Second, neuroscience is a larger domain than positive psychology. So of course it is harder for a theory to fit it. Allow me to explain. As the domain of discourse increases in scope, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to find a theory that fits all of it. So, because neuroscience is a larger domain than positive psychology, the challenge of providing a theory that fits neuroscience is always more difficult than providing a theory that fits positive psychology. So the fitness objection doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on Bishop’s theory. It might only reflect a difference between positive psychology and neuroscience.
Let me summarize. I mentioned a few cases in which Bishop’s theory of well-being can unifies and makes sense of neuroscience. Then I proposed a few more cases in which Bishop’s theory might do the same. And then I addressed a skeptical worry about the project I propose. So Bishop’s theory of well-being can accomplish even more than Bishop intended.