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I was encouraged to start a new question thread pertaining to a question that sprung out from this one. According to one of the users's answers:

The delusion of the joys of life that had formerly stifled my fear of the dragon [death] no longer deceived me. No matter how many times I am told: you cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think about it but live, I cannot do so because I have already done it for too long. Now I cannot help seeing day and night chasing me and leading me to my death. This is all I can see because it is the only truth. All the rest is a lie. (pg 32)

The futility was reinforced by the fact that our ability to obtain happiness is heavily influenced by our birth (i.e., circumstances completely outside our control). Tolstoy had a 'good' birth, in that he had access to plenty of resources that could provide him with happiness. The average person in Feudal Russia had very little access to happiness and had plenty of suffering. Furthermore, accidental events can completely remove our ability to achieve happiness. Environmental disasters, disease, war, etc. can destroy our wealth, body, and brain and often these events can happen regardless of what we do. Thus, not only is achieving happiness irrelevant at the end of our lives but during our lives it is heavily based on chance and outside of our control.

I'm obviously not saying the user who posted this answer shares these views - he merely interpreted them for me. My question is this, however, what is your counterargument to this line?

Furthermore, accidental events can completely remove our ability to achieve happiness. Environmental disasters, disease, war, etc. can destroy our wealth, body, and brain and often these events can happen regardless of what we do. Thus, not only is achieving happiness irrelevant at the end of our lives but during our lives it is heavily based on chance and outside of our control.

Because I really don't want to believe this is true. I'm inclined not to, but it's not obvious to rebut. I'd like to call it rubbish, but I'm not sure if Tolstoy's reputation and distinction, and mostly, involvement in this subject imposes itself upon me to give it credence or not.

  • Regarding the last quote, it seems correct to me that some people truly are victims (my word) of events like war ( the stray bomb, etc) and sudden environmental disasters and so on. And sometimes, even if people work hard on e.g. environmental issues, disasters still occur.; we know this. But I would still encourage commitment to some issue which is bigger than the individual himself. The students down in Florida have shown the power of commitment and action. Whether we agree with them or not,and whether they ultimately fail or not, this commitment I think can be a way to refute nihilism. – Gordon Mar 13 '18 at 17:09
  • Here is a Wikipedia on Abraham Maslow and his concept of self-actualization. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Maslow Of course, many people have heard of Sartre and they may want to take a course in existentialism in college or by self-study. If novels are more interesting: Title: The traitor; Author: Gorz, André.; Pub.: Simon & Schuster, 1959. I am personally not a great fan of existentialism, but it may interest others. Again Maslow's "self-actualization" may be worth a look. – Gordon Mar 13 '18 at 17:30
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The nihilistic argument here relies on the fragility and contingency of happiness. One may or may not be born into conditions conducive to happiness; and if one achieves happiness it may be removed at any time by chance or at any rate unpredictable events.

My inclination is to suggest that the hazardly nature of happiness is not enough to vindicate nihilism. Nihilism involves views such as that life is absurd, meaningless, a waste of time in face of death and the like. But it does not follow, because happiness is fragile and contingent, that therefore life is any of these pointless things. There is more to a valuable life than happiness.

What more, then ? Dignity : the capacity of persons as autonomous agents to choose their ends. This can survive, not indeed every misfortune but a much broader variety of circumstances than happiness.

The nihilist might try to rebut the meaningfulness of a life informed by dignity - 'it's pointless like everything else' - but only by a kind of practical self-contradiction. For the nihilist is exercising his or her capacity for autonomous agency throughout. He or she has decided to remain alive in face of the meaninglessness of life : suicide is an option, it has by the nihilist's autonomous decision not been taken. The nihilist, or at least the kind of vocal nihilist we are dealing with here, has also taken the autonomous decision to voice his or her sense of the meaningless of life. All this amounts to a practical valuing of autonomy.

If life is pointless and not worth bothering about, why preserve and exercise your capacity for autonomous decision to tell people that life is pointless and not worth bothering about ?

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Furthermore, accidental events can completely remove our ability to achieve happiness. Environmental disasters, disease, war, etc. can destroy our wealth, body, and brain and often these events can happen regardless of what we do. Thus, not only is achieving happiness irrelevant at the end of our lives but during our lives it is heavily based on chance and outside of our control.

Because I really don't want to believe this is true. I'm inclined not to, but it's not obvious to rebut. I'd like to call it rubbish, but I'm not sure if Tolstoy's reputation and distinction, and mostly, involvement in this subject imposes itself upon me to give it credence or not.

The argument isn't completely clear. It seems to be:

1) Achieving happiness is based on chance and outside of our control.
2) Achieving happiness is irrelevant at the end of our lives.
3) If 1 and 2 then we don't have reason to pursue happiness.
4) Therefore we don't have reason to pursue happiness.

Premise 1 could be criticized be taking a stance that prerequisites for happiness are out of our control but happiness isn't. We could do this f.e. with a (naive) stoic position. But I don't think it's too successful as there are prerequisites that control or ability to control - think f.e. of mental illness.

Premise 2 is extremely doubtful. Why should we think that? The idea that only the end result of our life matters is really strange. If we could choose between living a happy life or living an equally long but unhappy life then surely we'd see no reason to take the latter. Nagel has a nice essay that deals with such arguments - discards them, takes their sentiment seriously and then comes to an absurdist conclusion based on irony. It's fairly short. I highly recommend it. Here's a link.

Premise 3 takes the same criticism as premise 2 does, I believe. I'm not sure why we should think that it's the case. This is important in case we try the argument without premise 2 and change premise 3 slightly (drop the conjunction and only take p2 as antecedent), because the criticism still holds.

So even if we grant premise 1: there are a number of problems before we get to the conclusion.

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