WARNING: This blog post starts easily enough but turns wonky. Also, I don’t think it’s finished, but I’m posting anyway. Proceed at your own risk.
I’ve been doing CrossFit lately. After three and a half weeks of it, I finally have those perfect abs! You’ll just have to believe me, here, as my camera seems broken. Ahem.
Anyway, what’s intriguing to me about CrossFit is the impressively scientific approach that Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, has taken to defining fitness. In a nutshell, according to Glassman fitness is the ability to move loads (weights), with some speed, in different ways. (I’m paraphrasing.) Health, in turn, is an individual’s fitness over that person’s age. That is, fitness is a snapshot in time — like the weather on a given day or a company’s balance sheet at the end of the quarter — while health is the compilation of that person’s fitness through time as he ages — like climate is a compilation of weather and an income statement is a compendium (in some sense) of balance sheets.
Let me see if I can “draw” it out for you as Glassman does. Imagine a simple graph. On the vertical axis on the left you’ve got power: the ability to move stuff. At the bottom on the horizontal axis you have duration: how long you keep moving stuff. Now, as you do squats or power cleans or sprints, you record as points on the graph the power you exerted and how long you exerted it. Plot a bunch of those points and you get a curve. The area under the curve is your fitness. But we’re not done. Now add a third axis to the graph, coming straight out toward you. This is your age. The volume under the curve — your fitness plotted over time — is your health.
Ok, so fitness means you can move stuff around in different ways and health means you can keep doing so over time. Everybody got it?
Well, this got me thinking about morality, naturally. I have long contended — at least since 2002, while I was still firmly a believer — that “moral good” is that which increases net human happiness. Sam Harris similarly said morality has to do with human and animal well-being. One problem, as Harris notes very well in The Moral Landscape, is that we don’t really know what “well-being” means, just as we don’t know what “health” means.
But thanks to Glassman, we do know what health means (at least, we know what physical health means), and in a scientifically measurable way to boot. So, could we do the same with morality, with goodness?
I’m just spitballing here, but it seems to me that we could come up with at least two general conceptions of goodness as they relate to an individual. Let’s call them happiness and joy, roughly analogous to fitness and health, respectively. For my purposes here, let’s say that happiness refers to our ability to extract pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction out of life experiences, and that joy is a measure of how happy a person is over the course of his life. On our vertical axis, we might plot points depicting how much self-reported pleasure we obtain from a particular activity or life experience, and the horizontal axis may measure how long such pleasure lasts per experience. We’d need some kind of composite score of not just pleasure, though, as we’d need to incorporate the concepts of meaning and satisfaction as well. With such a composite graphed over two dimensions, we could integrate the curve they create, and the resulting area under the curve would be an objective measure of our subjective happiness. Now when we extend the third axis, age, toward us, the volume under the curve would be a measure of the joy we have in life.
The result of this, theoretically, would be scientifically verifiable and measurable notions of happiness and joy, which have until now (as far as I know) been pretty elusive concepts. We might even go one step further and assert that the term wellbeing, when used to refer to an individual, could refer to a composite of the concepts of health, as taken from Glassman, and joy, as discussed here. In turn the goodness of a person would be some amalgamation of the individual’s wellbeing and his contribution to the wellbeing of others.
Let me pause for a moment just to point out a few things. First, in this conception, happiness is a skill. It’s not something that “just is”; instead you have to develop an ability, a technical know-how, related to extracting pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction from life. While some individuals may be more naturally gifted than others, the maximization of happiness requires careful training and practice. By extension, then, joy is a meta-skill. Second, tradeoffs will need to be made in order to maximize happiness and joy. A bully, for example, may derive extreme pleasure from beating up a younger kid and taking his lunch money. However, meaning and satisfaction may be sacrificed in the process. Further, the pleasure may diminish rather quickly over time, both in the sense of an immediate bullying encounter and of the habitual bullying of several kids. As pleasure diminishes (assuming for the moment that it would indeed do so) and as satisfaction and meaning continue to be sacrificed, happiness and joy suffer, for the bully. Thus, we may find, via repeatable and verifiably scientific measurement and analysis, that bullying is not an efficient strategy for maximizing one’s own happiness and joy.
Now, how does all this relate to “goodness”? Well, note that “goodness” is not something experienced only in isolation. That is, for something to be morally good, we can’t just look at an individual’s happiness and joy. At the very least we need to look at an individual’s interaction with a community of people at some scale. To call something good it must increase net human happiness or joy, which means that it must increase either an individual’s happiness or the happiness of several individuals, or both — all in a way that more than offsets any decrease in human happiness or joy (which I would call evil) caused by that something. Thus, good is measured by the extent to which something causes people to be happy.
Taking our previous notion that happiness is a skill, we must also recognize that — despite whatever skill we have — the actions of others (and of animals, and of weather, etc.) affect our happiness in ways we cannot necessarily control. Nevertheless, with the tools I’ve outlined here, theoretically, we can define and measure whether someone or someone’s actions are good or evil. Further, we may even be able to identify over time those actions that tend to be good and in what circumstances they are so, allowing us to move from simply observing what is to prescribing what ought to be.
Sorry to wax taxonomic with you, but…well…I thought it might be good to do so.