While it can often be tempting to unfollow friends who have differing political views than you, one philosopher tells us why we should embrace, rather than shun, such challenges to our worldviews.
We've all done it, unfollowed that conspiracy spouting friend we have on Facebook rather than endure one more post about how the Earth is flat and Obama was born on Neptune. Sometimes we go a step further, removing those with opposing political views from our friend lists. After all, social media is for fun! Why should I have to see my nutty uncle's viewpoints when I am looking for pictures of cute cats?
This problem has been discussed here at Big Think before and Eli Pariser gave an excellent Ted Talk on the subject. While the issue is often viewed as one of immaturity or tribalism, it has another dimension. Rarely do we think of it as the problem of our moral development it is.
It is a major part of that development, at least according to philosopher John Stuart Mill.
In On Liberty, his defense of a liberal democratic society, Mill argues brilliantly for the necessity of the freedom of speech. While he references our dependence on it for the success of a free society, he also points out it has another, vital, function; it allows us to make steady progress towards the truth that is otherwise impossible.
Mill suggests that any viewpoint can be one of three things; true, false, or a little of both. He further reminds us that humans are never sure of anything and that we are often wrong when it comes to knowing if our ideas are the whole truth or not. He explains that:
"First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied."
When you are living in your bubble falsehoods don't get checked. New truths are never considered if you unfollow those who offer them. Comforting lies can get passed from person to person without anybody noticing that they cannot be true. Progress towards better ideas can be stalled as there is no active questioning of the ideas you have.
To be fair, we have all felt this woman's rage at a post before. Maybe some people should be unfollowed?
Of course, sometimes we know which side is correct with as much certainty as is possible. If you have a Facebook friend who is a flat-earther, it is clear that they are very wrong when they try to explain that the Earth is flat. Censoring them from your feed can't be too terrible, right? Mill disagrees, he argues that testing our true beliefs with rational debate is essential.
"Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience."
If we don't occasionally interact with objections to our ideas, even if our thoughts are already correct, they will lose a bit of their punch and decay into mere dogma. Debate keeps our ideas fresh; it reminds us of why we support one side over the other and stimulates our intellect. For Mill, who saw personal development as a stop on the road to a just and happy society, this is all but a moral imperative.
So, how can we get back to challenging our ideas? How can we pop the bubble?
Luckily, there are lots of ways to do it. While not all of us can bear to see our family’s political posts every time we log in, we can still expose ourselves to challenging viewpoints that keep us from becoming too trapped in our echo boxes.
The KIND foundation has the Pop Your Bubble campaign which adds a simple extension to your browser that determines what kind of person you are, demographically speaking. It then suggests pages for you to follow on Facebook that differ from what pages you are likely to see already. While the effectiveness of it seems variable, it is a simple way to add new viewpoints to your feed.
There is also the option of patience. Waiting for your friends with differing viewpoints to post, viewing those posts, and then getting on with your life is a rather simple, yet effective, method. Some people are going to disagree with you, but this is no reason to shut them out of your circle. For each political post you manage to dodge by unfollowing someone, an apolitical post about their newborn could be missed as well.
While it can be tempting to banish opposing viewpoints from your screen, it isn't good for us. Preventing yourself from seeing different opinions, even more than the internet does already without you knowing, can reduce your worldview to mere dogma and even your ability to form a reasoned opinion. While enduring the posts of family members who tend to make Thanksgiving political isn't always enjoyable, it does pay off in the long run.
The question isn't "are you happy"... but rather "what kind of happy are you"?
Quick question, are you happy? If you need more than two seconds to answer it, I can wait. For many people, happiness is the end all meaning of life; that rare and beautiful thing that they long for more than anything. If you can’t answer that you are happy, don’t worry; you’re in good, if glum, company.
But maybe the question would be easier if we asked: what kind of “happy” are you?
When people talk about “happiness”, there can be more than a few things we are really talking about. The most common understanding of it is “feeling good”. This relates to hedonistic happiness and the seeking of pleasure while avoiding pain. It is a common approach to happiness, one which has been enshrined in the philosophy of Utilitarianism. It is not, however, the only way to be happy.
Eudaimonic Happiness, for example, is rather different. Eudaimonia means “flourishing”and is the idea of having a worthwhile life rather than an explicitly pleasant one. The idea goes back to Socrates and the Stoics who argued that being virtuous was enough to assure a good life even; if it was less pleasurable than a life of vice.
The idea was also the foundation of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, though he argued that a truly excellent life also required a few external goods as well as virtue; money, friendship, beauty, and a decent amount of luck among them. For Aristotle the most worthwhile life is the life of reason, to live virtuously and intellectually is far superior to living otherwise, even if it can be less fun.
More recently, the idea was given a psychological reboot with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A person who has reached the apex of the pyramid, self-actualization, and self-transcendence, can be said to be living a Eudemonic life. One where they seek to fulfill their potential and life their lives to the fullest.
There is also the idea of Evaluative Happiness. This idea is fairly straightforward, social scientists ask people on questionnaires to rate their happiness on a scale from 1-10. This kind of happiness is most closely tied to “life satisfaction” and the fulfillment of goals. Given that it can be measured very simply and doesn’t make assumptions about what will make the person answering the question happy, it is considered the gold standard of well-being metrics.
How can I be happy then? Is there a guide to reaching each form of happiness?
Hedonism can be the easiest kind of happiness to conceptualize, just chase pleasures while running away from pain as fast as you can. However, this isn’t going to work for you in the long run. This was the key insight of the Buddha, the Stoics, and other thinkers throughout history.
The Greek hedonist Epicurus argued that the key to hedonistic happiness was moderation. Living a life of simple pleasures, he thought, would maximize pleasure experienced over the long run. For example; while we might be tempted to live richly even for a short time before returning to a typical lifestyle Epicurus argues that this will make us less happy than if we just lived moderately all along- as then we cannot miss luxury.
For the less than stoic we have John Stuart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian philosophers. He expanded on the idea of hedonism being more than the life of base pleasure seeking. In his work, Utilitarianism, he argues that some pleasures are higher than others. For a person who could do both, reading Shakespeare will give more pleasure than drinking heavily, so Mill postulates. Though the accuracy of this statement has been debated for some time; to really achieve hedonistic happiness Mill would have us develop our intellectual abilities and find pleasure in their use rather than seeking the “happiness of a pig”.
Though, he does look contented.
For Eudaimonia, Aristotle left us a how-to guide in the form of the Nicomachean Ethics. Suggesting that each virtue is the median between one vice of deficiency and one of excess. He argues that we can, by practice, come to embody virtue and become “flourishing” people, given the good fortune of having the necessary external goods as well.
The difficulty with Eudaimonia, as opposed to other forms of happiness, is that it not only requires most of a lifetime to really get right, but there is still a great deal of debate over what “right” is. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been criticized as being of use only to a person living in an individualistic society, what a constitutes a flourishing person, and how you personally can reach your potential, is different for each everybody. Learning what your potentials are is an art in itself.
There is also the criticism that most Eudaimonic theories all but require the individual to be reasonably well off to be successful in reaching their goal. Recognizing this, American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written on how the Scandinavian countries, with their generous social programs that assure people’s basic needs are fulfilled, are best able to allow their citizens to flourish. The consistently high scores of those nations in happiness rankings suggests they may be on to something.
Evaluative happiness is also very open to individual choice. What makes you happiest is up to you, the problem is going out and getting it. Places with high scores for this kind of happiness can be quite different from one another. Singapore scores very high on happiness tests, but for differing reasons than does Costa Rica. However, people who do have this kind of happiness tend to have things in common; like financial security, status, pride in their work, and feeling as though they are living their values. This, like Eudaimonia, can take decades to truly achieve, and can also be very dependent on having a decent amount of luck.
There is more than one way to be happy. Each of the three kinds we considered here is valuable in its own way. By better understanding the ways we can be happy we have a better chance of doing it. Before you despair too much at how long it might take you to become “happy” based on these three schools, remember this quote by the American psychologist Carl Rogers, “The good life is a process, not a state of being”.