Then What?


I remember a philosophy class in college where the professor was discussing the idea that reasons for action must terminate in some final goodness. For example, consider this dialogue:


Professor: Why are you taking my class?

Student: It’s required by my major.

Professor: Why do you want to complete your major?

Student: To graduate.

Professor: Why is that important?

Student: To get a job.

Professor: What for?

Student: To make money.

Professor: What for?

Student: To support myself.

Professor: What for? (Not trying to be a jackass here, seriously.)

Student: Because that’s what I need to do to live.

Professor: What for?

Student: um…


The obvious point is that if this just continues forever, the student doesn’t really have a reason to take the class, only a long list of unjustified claims. On the other hand, is a valid ending even possible? If the student eventually says “Because it feels good,” “Because it makes me happy,” or “Because my god or community expects it,” would that be the end of the conversation? Would he have found true goodness and purpose then? Maybe, maybe not. I’m inclined to say that happiness is pretty close to goodness. I can’t say that they’re equivalent, but it seems like they should coincide. For example, if I upgrade my computer and it causes me to feel joyful for the next year, I’d say it was pretty good. If I upgrade my computer and then realize that any change in performance is actually pretty insignificant to my life, then I’ve found little goodness.


In any case, I think a better question than “What for?” is “Then what?” Suppose the student in the example passes the class, graduates, gets a job, and builds a nice house and bank account. Then what? Is his life complete? Maybe he can buy a big television. Then what? Has anything really improved? Maybe he can get married and have kids. Then what? Is he fulfilled then? Suppose he retires to a mansion on the beach. Suppose he gives time and money to the less fortunate. Suppose he prays every day. Then what? Would he know goodness then?


The limitations of knowing a final goodness can be a rather difficult problem for me since I like to think of Individual Valuism as a philosophy that can improve lives. Imagine if I were to infiltrate a vicious cult and managed to convince a member that the leader is a liar and exploits people. That’s great. Now the person has a better grasp of values and reality. But then what? What if reality isn’t that great either? What if delusional happiness is better than humdrum truth? Perhaps the allure of cults and religion is that they offer a final answer to “then what?” Reality can’t make alluring promises such as eternal peace. But whatever its limitations are, reality is real, and I haven’t given up on it yet.