A student of philosophy might think that American philosophy sprang straightaway from the heads of Charles Peirce and William James or even that before Quine nothing of note happened at the other side of Atlantic. Undoubtedly philosophy in America cannot have as long roots as philosophy in Europe, but it still wasn't as recent innovation as it might seem. Indeed, the Founding Fathers of United States have often been described as philosophers. Admittedly, they are far from systematic and scholarly philosophers, and many of them might be better characterised as men of letters, concerned with things like the relation of an individual and a society and the role of religion in modern state. Furthermore, instead of a theoretical framework, their main achievement is of a more practical nature, that is, the constitution of the independent United States of America.
|Historically important, but where they philosophers?|
One of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, is especially famous for having founded the American Philosophical Society. Yet, the name is somewhat misleading, since by philosophy often all kinds of learning were meant in those days. Thus, American Philosophical Society might well be considered a republican version of the British Royal Society. In this sort of philosophy Franklin was, of course, famous, as is proven by the description of him often found in history text books – holding a kite and waiting lightning to strike it.
|At least the tale's good for dramatic portraits|
Franklin's collected works take up ten volumes, getting to know which I am not going to spend all my time, especially as Franklin seems to have no clear major work engaged with philosophical issues. Instead, I chose a short dialogue explicitly concerned with such philosophical issue as good life. The dialogue was published, when Franklin was quite young, so it should definitely not be seen as his final statement on the topic.
The participants of the dialogue are called Philocles and Horatio – I am not sure if Franklin chose intentionally a Greek and a Roman character or whether he just couldn't tell the ethnicity of the names. Whatever the case, Horatio is clearly presented as a traditionally Epicurean character, caring only about pleasures, while Philocles opts for a loftier standpoint.
It comes as no surprise that Franklin sides with Philocles. Yet, his strategy is not to disparage pleasures altogether, but only to argue for a hierarchy in pleasures: some pleasures are inherently better than others (John Stuart Mill would later become famous for saying something like that). Horatio of the dialogue, on the other hand, assumes that there is no objective criterion for the worth of pleasures and that everyone must decide for themselves what pleasures are worth pursuing.
Franklin lets Philocles attack Horatio by stating that certain pleasures will lead to unwanted consequences: a man spending all his money and health on intense sensual pleasures will become economically and physically broke in very young age and have no viable alternative, but commit a suicide. This unwanted end can be prevented, Philocles continues, only through self-denial, that is, by avoiding such intense pleasures. Further in the dialogue, in its second part, Philocles then sets out his own alternative: while sensuous pleasures are always fleeting, altruistic pleasures arising out of helping other people are lasting and should thus be pursued.
One can at first point out that Franklin's dialogue is far from a theoretical work on metaethics, but instead is very down-to-earth, discussing practical mores and not high-blown principles. Even more, the outlook of Franklin is utilitarian: what makes altruism viable is the pleasure it produces. While I find sympathetic a position that defends altruism for increasing pleasure (altruist is happy not just of his own good luck, but also of the good luck of others), Franklin's argumentation has still some glaring holes. He concentrates on good works improving the condition of others. But what if everyone already lives in a content state, how then to improve their condition? Furthermore, it seems obvious that such an altruistic enjoyment is dependent on the enjoyment of another human being and that ultimately this series of enjoyment must end in some independent enjoyment, which does not depend on enjoyment of another human being – that is, non-altruistic enjoyment. In other words, while altruism can multiply pleasure, it cannot be its only source.
Even more suspect is the argumentation in the first part of dialogue. Franklin want us to conclude that a short life full of intense pleasures is inherently worse than a long life with less intense pleasures. Yet, if the only criterion of the worth of a life is its pleasantness, it could well be that a sum of intense pleasures during a short life would exceed a sum of less intense pleasures during a long life – just like a rectangle with a short base and a long height could have greater area than a rectangle with a longer base, but shorter height.
Furthermore, Franklin's suggestion that it is always better to deny some pleasure, if it leads to better life in the future, is somewhat misleading. Consider a person who always leaves half of his year's earnings unused, in order to have a decent fortune that would sustain him in his old years. If this person dies now in his sixtieth year, without ever having used the fortune he had collected, the fortune never really served him, and on the contrary, he had to life a paltry life because of his savings.
This is all I'll say about the dialogue. Next time I shall turn my eyes from the Founding Fathers of USA towards thinkers of French Enlightenment.