Tranquility Ethics

Tranquility Ethics

What constitutes the good life? According to ethical hedonism, the good life is the life of pleasure. But what is it about pleasure that makes it conducive to the good life? Is it pleasure’s inherent phenomenology or is it something to which pleasure gives rise? Is it the way pleasure feels or is it the kind of effect that pleasure produces? What might that effect be? Consider the following case: you are setting out to write something important to you so that you require undisturbed time alone; however, a good friend of yours of hedonistic persuasion decides to give you a lot of pleasure by arranging all manner of delightful diversions. You do not welcome these intrusions despite their undeniable pleasurableness. Or consider the pleasure machine that ensures non-stop enjoyment but gives you no time to do anything else: again, this will detract from other values you hold dear. Too much pleasure seems to upset the balance. Nevertheless, pleasure does achieve one kind of outcome for which you have reason to be grateful: it spares you the discontent that comes from having unsatisfied desires. You don’t have to worry about desires you can’t satisfy, needs that go unmet. So you want the amount of pleasure that accompanies satisfaction, contentment, but you don’t want so much pleasure that you feel deluged with the stuff. The good life, then, is not so much the maximum amount of pleasure as the right amount of pleasure. But what is the right amount?

            I suggest it is the amount that ensures tranquility.[1] The qualitative feel of pleasure may be part of what gives it value, but that is not the whole story—there is also its connection with what might be called peace of mind. For example, the pleasure of eating is associated with the knowledge that one is not going to go hungry in the near future, and it is incompatible with hunger pangs felt in the moment. Present and future hunger pangs are not consistent with a tranquil, contented, peaceful state of mind. If (per impossibile) pleasure invariably led to a troubled and distracted state of mind, then it would not have the value it now has; indeed, one might wonder if it has any value. So some of the value of pleasure derives from its instrumental value as a way of achieving tranquility—though it can lead to the opposite of tranquility in certain (unusual) circumstances. Perhaps this link to tranquility explains at least part of the attraction of ethical (and prudential) hedonism. The pleasurable life is the tranquil life—calm, peaceful, composed, restful, and agreeable. It is the opposite of chaotic, anxious, vexatious, and annoying. And tranquility is a value to which we can readily assent: we all want to live a tranquil life; we all subscribe to what might be called “tranquility ethics”. One of the things we ought to do (morally and prudentially) is bring about a state of tranquility. Tranquility is a good thing.

            Now consider virtue ethics: the good life is the virtuous life. This looks like a very different conception of the good life from that of the hedonist: instead of pursuing pleasure we should act as we morally ought to act. Then and only then will we be living a good life. Obedience to God is one version of this general position. A reason often given for following this precept is that we will not have to suffer the pangs of conscience: we will be contented with ourselves and not tormented by perception of our moral failures (and prudential blindness). The virtuous life is a life untroubled by a guilty conscience. But notice the affinity between this rationale and that presented by the reflective hedonist: the virtuous life is similarly the tranquil life. We will not be distracted by the pricks of conscience; we will be free to pursue whatever occupations appeal to us. We will not lie awake at night berating ourselves for our bad deeds—as the hungry person lies awake wondering where his next meal is coming from. So tranquility is part of the appeal of virtue ethics too. It turns out, then, that hedonism and moralism (as we might call it) share a common feature, namely that both rest upon an underlying commitment to the value of tranquility. We can imagine a moral theorist beginning with tranquility and moving on from there to advocate (limited) hedonism and (moderate) moralism. Thus: tranquility is clearly central to the good life (morally and prudentially); hedonism and moralism serve the cause of tranquility; therefore we should adopt hedonism and moralism. But we only accept them in a form that respects tranquility: not excessive injunctions to maximize pleasure, and not extreme forms of moral self-abnegation, but sensible precepts that don’t upset the delicate balance that ensures peace of mind. Then we will be living the best possible life for a human being. Given the nature of human existence, we know that tranquility is difficult to achieve, but it should be our focus, our ideal; it should form the core of the good life.[2] A life with much pleasure in it will be a tranquil life (as long as the pleasure is not too distracting), and a life of virtue will also be a tranquil life (if not pushed to absurd extremes): so we should find room for both things. Thus tranquility ethics unites hedonistic ethics and virtue ethics, as well as highlighting a central value often neglected. The happy person is seen not as someone overflowing with pleasure, or as sternly following the moral law, but as someone internally at peace, untroubled, cool, calm and collected.

No doubt many characters from literature could be cited as fitting this description, but James Bond provides a simple and familiar example of the type (if somewhat cartoonish): always in pursuit of pleasure but heedful of the demands of duty, never flustered, inwardly calm (even when delivering necessary violence), utterly imperturbable. He faces situations of utmost stress but he never loses his quietness of mind, his composure, his sangfroid. Even his name suggests firmness of purpose, an internal unity. No wonder people envy James Bond his life-style, his easy way with the world. Despite his superficial difference from another famous spy, George Smiley, both men have a kind of inner constancy, a preternatural calmness under pressure. You feel they would remain tranquil in the most perilous of situations (likewise Mr. Spock for different reasons). By contrast, Shakespeare’s characters (Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth) are hardly ever tranquil, always worked up about something. As to ordinary humans, their life is full of anxiety, disquiet, inner conflict, turmoil, uncertainty, fear, and want—the very opposite of tranquility. This is why it makes sense to urge its importance, and its difficulty. This is also why we envy trees their tranquil lives. It is strange that the Western tradition in philosophy places so little weight on tranquility.

Colin McGinn

[1] Eastern traditions emphasize tranquility as essential to the good life, but I won’t talk about this here except to say that detachment from emotions and from other people does not seem to me a good way to achieve the right kind of tranquility. Tranquility comes in degrees, and perfect tranquility strikes me as unachievable given human nature.

[2] The concept of tranquility is not the same as the Aristotelian concept of flourishing: the latter concept connotes realizing one’s potential in forms of excellence, while the former concept is more negative in that it suggests an absenceof turmoil as part of the good life. Tranquility is not feeling certain things like anxiety or self-hatred or anger. Rocks are tranquil.

2 replies
  1. Jeffrey Kessen
    Jeffrey Kessen says:

    Hate to hear that news. You didn’t say that your case is terminal, but I gather it is. If it isn’t, a 128 pounds is still a good fighting weight. Hitchens, in his last months, highly recommended morphine. If taken as prescribed, you can be lucid “till, well, the end, but I really don’t know much about that—having never taken it, shall we say, as prescribed. Yours is a good sort. Fare thee well.


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