What is the Highest Good?
Determining the good thing which is good for its own sake, and not for other things
Subject: I began this piece as a response to the claim of a certain David Merry, that philosophy is the highest good, the thing capable of being good without needing to be useful for any other good thing. It still is such a response, but I believe its contents are more useful to answer the more general question of “what is the supreme good?”, rather than merely whether or not philosophy in particular is the supreme good.
The Practical Utility of Philosophy
The practice of philosophy, and academic accreditations that show a practice of philosophy, are somewhat professionally and practically useful. They confer reasoning skills, and can possibly be appealing to certain employers. Philosophy might be less practically useful than some alternative field of study, depending on the student. The practical utility of philosophy is anyway not interesting to me.
Clarifying the Highest Good
What is interesting to me is the claim made by David Merry here, that philosophy is valuable specifically because it is useless. Invoking Aristotle, he suggests that philosophy is done for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. Since anything done for the sake of something else is inferior in importance to the thing that it is for the sake of, philosophy is superior in importance to other aims. I would amend this, by saying that “anything that is done for its own sake is of the highest possible class of good things”, rather than saying that “anything useful for another thing must be inferior to that thing, and the thing desired only for itself and not for utility is therefore supremely superior”. There are two reasons for this:
Reason 1. If the latter statement were accepted, it would bar the “highest good” from ever being useful for the sake of something else, because then it would be classified as inferior to the thing it is useful for.
One could argue that the second statement may still be accurate, if the highest good is only circumstantially inferior in cases where it is utilized for the sake of something else, but circumstantially supremely superior in cases where other things are utilized for the sake of it without a continuation in the chain of utility thereafter. I think this argument is actually correct, but it makes the second statement equivalent to the first statement (excepting the problem in my “reason #2” forthcoming), in that “X is of the highest class of good things because it can be done for its own sake” is the same as saying “X can be circumstantially supremely superior in goodness to other aims”.
Reason 2. It is possible that there are multiple things that can be done for their own sake, so we must deal with “anything” as in the first statement rather than “the thing” as in the second statement. I don’t know what David Merry’s original opinion was on this matter, but it has anyway been assumed that he did mean “the thing” originally, so that “his opinion” could be contradicted for clarity.
The doctrine that there is a highest good might take two forms. It might be supposed that the chain of utility relations leading to the highest good consists of subjective desires, as in “X is useful to me for fulfilling desire for Y, and Y is the highest good by being simply desired”. Alternatively, it might be supposed that the chain of utility relations leading to the highest good consists of an objective hierarchy of value, as in “X condition is useful for fulfilling Y condition, and Y condition is objectively good”. I don’t know in what sense the original idea was put forth, because I am a dilettante, but it also doesn’t matter.
For my purposes, I am using the first interpretation, because I believe the second one is impossible. The reason for this is too long to write here, so it has to be taken as an assumption - I believe that the is-ought problem is irresolvable, and that the failure to resolve it is a feature of all claims to supposed objective valuation or objective morality. One can get a “hint” that nobody is able to conceive of a true objective highest good, by the fact that discussions about it always proceed from the lesser goods to the highest good (as one would do if they were trying to gauge someone’s psychological disposition) rather than from the highest good to the lesser goods (as one would do if they were trying to lay out objective philosophical principles irrespective of individual opinions).
There is then to be dealt with the issue of “desire” - when one speaks of “doing something for the sake of itself”, there is an implied element of desire in “for the sake of”, and also (I believe) a psychologically essential element of desire in “doing something”. Can it be said then that the highest good, even if it is initially supposed to be philosophy (or anything else), is actually fulfillment of the particular desire for philosophy (or the thing in question)? I don’t believe so, because the “desire” element is already a part of the definition of the highest good (doing something for the sake of itself, each part of that being by nature desirous, as aforementioned), and one cannot say that the highest good is the abstract concept of the highest good itself. But it is to be noted that when one speaks of the highest good, they are speaking of the highest desire, not the highest motivation for human action, which is in fact the desire.
What is the Highest Good?
As to the actual subject, of whether philosophy is a thing in the highest class of good things by virtue of its uselessness: I don’t see a reason why this has to be uniform for the whole of humanity. People in my experience have very different desires from one another, and the rank order of the highest good does not alter its ability to be different for different people. In this case, I can think of a number of people who would be (or who are) perfectly content living in a false reality with no access to philosophical truth whatsoever, as long as it leads to apparently pleasant outcomes. Such people cannot be said to follow (or exclude) the “wrong” highest good, because the highest good is determined subjectively by a person’s willingness to pursue it, as per either of the initial definitions. One would think that the average person would pursue philosophy much more rigorously than they do, if it were a generally existent highest good for humans.
In my own case I am fairly certain that philosophy does not occupy a supreme position in my hierarchy of things of value, but is instead something I utilize to enhance the clarity of things that I do supremely value, as well as other things that I value less, and to enhance my ability to make valuations itself. My highest good is not “understanding truth”, but “valuing things with a truthful understanding of those things”, which is not in itself philosophical (but reliant on philosophy). Regardless, I believe there are many people who do have philosophy as a highest good.
In conversation with Mr. Merry, I said the following:
Is not "wanting something that is bad for oneself" always something that happens with an inferior desire in the chain of desires, rather than with the supreme good? It is in the very phrase I think, bad "for" you. By contrast, try to imagine a highest good being "bad for you", I can't conceive of it. If I place "eating copiously to become corpulent" as my highest good, in what manner can it be bad for me? Rather, to the extent that the desire to eat copiously to become corpulent can be bad for me, it is so because it contradicts a certain higher desire that I have. Yet there is a problem, because if I am capable of contradicting a higher desire for a lower desire, would this not mean that the supposed "lower" desire is actually higher? Certainly to say so would seem to follow the logic of highest goods, but it would of course contradict the idea that there can ever be a "detrimental" thing that can be desired. To resolve this, I think I may make a point that contradicts my previous understanding of the highest good (for which reason I may edit the previous post): whether or not something can be desired for its own sake actually does not place it at the highest level of goodness, because there also exist gradations of desire. In other words, gradations of desire and the dependency of desire are two different things. Thus I may desire pleasure for its own sake, but have a stronger desire for truth for its own sake. The cases of "wanting the wrong thing" that you mention can be assumed to result from a lesser thing desired for its own sake interfering with a greater thing desired for its own sake. Because the lesser desire is still desired "for its own sake", it is possible to act for benefit of it even though it interferes with something greater.
Of course, in other cases, sometimes the "wrong" things are desired because one believes that they are useful to a certain highest good, but in fact they are actually not useful or detrimental. In such cases a person does not know that they have the wrong lower order desires.