Make the Most of the Good Stuff at Thanksgiving and Beyond

By Jon|November 29, 2014|Culture, Philosophy|

At Thanksgiving, we are fortunate enough to celebrate in the United States by eating lots of food…good food. We remind ourselves of what we really have by bringing it all out…not just food, but family and friends. But there is space for an analogy here with two major moral worldviews. Let’s assume for the sake of it, that Thanksgiving Day is the last day of your life.

Everyone prefers certain foods at Thanksgiving — first- just in general which is why we all agree to have turkey, stuffing and potatoes. But also second each person may prefer stuffing over turkey and visa versa. These preferences for Aristotle are an indication that that thing you desire is good for you…i.e. it gives you the nutrients you need and as a result this gives you pleasure. You never desire anything that isn’t good in some way, and you have the freedom to eat what you want and however much you want. That ‘good’ for him is not defined by how much pleasure it gives you but by how much it perfects or makes you better, even though its your last day on earth. So here is where we must ask, what does it mean to be a perfect human? Some would be insulted by the question and would respond “It’s whatever I want to it to be.”Aristotle would disagree — saying that it is more human to have conversation…but let’s leave people out of this one. I hate to rain on the parade, but even in this circumstance of it being the last day of your life, you should still not do heroine at Thanksgiving dinner at the end of your meal, even if it will bring you more pleasure on your last day of life, because its not good for your human nature.

On the other hand, the way a Utilitarian should behave at thanksgiving dinner is believe it or not different than an Aristotelian. While an Aristotelian considers ‘the perfective good’ apart from the pleasure it produces, the Utilitarian considers to be morally right the choice that maximizes happiness/positive feeling for the most number of people. It is an attractive moral philosophy because it appears to mathematically ‘get the job’ done. It appeals to the modern mind because its simple and claims to quantify and measure what really matters. This means ‘the stuff’ of life is happiness or positive feeling and that as long as you don’t take away from other people’s happiness you can do whatever you want and THAT is what is morally right. So if there were a drug that could produce that pleasure/positive feeling…utilitarian thanksgiving would look much different before the world ends.

This may seem like a drastic, weird or overstated analogy…but really its not an inaccurate conclusion of the principle that most in our culture have absorbed through THANKSGIVING TURKEY EAT HIS OWN SELFosmosis. You see, utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory. That is, the only thing that matters in considering what is right and wrong are the consequences of the action…not the action itself, and when you know your time is up at the end of the day the consequence of not acting based on that is a lack of happiness that could be there. You aren’t going to have your body in a few hours anyways and neither is anyone else, so shoot up baby! Its the same reason utilitarians squirm on the question of what should be done if the fate of the country depends on the choice to kill an innocent man…it must be done for the greater good.

What is at the crux, what is the fundamental difference between the two? Aristotle confidently claims to know what is good for us — it is first that which perfects us andsecond that which feels good. In Utilitarianism, because knowing what is perfective of a human being is a judgmental claim supposedly beyond our ability to know because we are all different (apply this to all of the controversies today), it is first what makes most of us feel good . What is ‘tasty’ for me may not be ‘tasty’ for you, so therefore what is good for me may not be good for you. I prefer coke you prefer pepsi, you prefer conversation, I prefer heroine, you prefer crack I prefer not to have my grandparents at Thanksgiving because they are a lot of work and are a drain on everyone in the end. You can see how quickly a society that can’t agree on what constitutes positive feeling (or happiness) will spin into disagreement, and an agreement to disagree. This is why so many issues today are being reconsidered: from assisted suicide to aberro-marriage to what makes a good thanksgiving weekend — wisdom is no longer considered part of science–to say something is actually ‘good’ for a person and prevent them from acting against it is judgmental. Modern science can tell us what is going to produce positive feelings in us in the long run but it cannot tell us what the fulfillment of human nature is….secular society despaired on an agreement on that project nearly 400 years ago now and the consequences of that conclusion continue to come home to roost.

After all, we all know the real reason we celebrate thanksgiving isn’t to be thankful –that would be useless, its because we enjoy company, great food and the positive feeling that stays with us in the coming weeks (if we do it right) reminding us of how bad things could suck for us.

I thought I would just write down some of my musings from the weekend and I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving and Christmas season done right! Please consider subscribing to my monthly emails below or leave a comment below!

About Jon

Jon connects leaders and organizations to Catholic philosophical resources to battle for the soul of the western world.