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13 Conversations About One Thing

James Okapal has 13 open questions about happiness.

Movies and moral theorizing rarely mingle. When they do, relativism and free will are the popular topics. But there are many other ethical questions, concerning, for example, the nature of moral justification, or the meaning of value-terms such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Perhaps it’s obvious to you why these topics rarely reach the big screen. However, Jill Sprecher’s 2001 film 13 Conversations About One Thing does an excellent job at depicting G.E. Moore’s important Open Question Argument (OQA), which does concern the attempt to define value terms. Sprecher’s movie depicts various characters searching for happiness. Their stories illustrate both definitions of happiness and the shortcomings of those definitions. Since the key claim made by Moore in the OQA is that all attempts at defining fundamental value terms are bound to be unsatisfactory, each depiction of happiness in the film can thus be interpreted as a cinematic OQA.

The Search For Happiness

The OQA is part of an attempt by Moore to prove that ‘good’ is a ‘simple’ – something which can’t be analysed into more basic parts, and in particular not into non-moral properties which could be studied by science. Moore’s argument is in the form of a disjunctive syllogism, as follows:

‘Good’ denotes either an indefinable simple [idea], a definable complex [idea], or has no meaning.
‘Good’ does not denote a definable complex.
‘Good’ does have a meaning.
Thus, ‘good’ denotes an indefinable simple.

The OQA is aimed at supporting the second premise. So how does this work? In his Principia Ethica (1903), Moore states the argument as follows: A definition fails to capture the meaning of the term ‘good’ when “whatever definition be offered, it may always be asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good.” In other words, if you define ‘good’ as ‘pleasure’, you can test whether pleasure is an adequate definition of ‘good’ by pointing out, “Yes, I see that this activity produces pleasure, but is the activity good?” If you can conceive of instances where the activity produces pleasure and yet is not good, then you have an example where the meaning of ‘good’ is not the same as ‘pleasure’ – thereby leaving open the meaning of the term ‘good’. (In more precise language, you test each definition by looking at situations where behavior successfully achieves the definiens, but fails to achieve the definiendum.)

By the end of second scene of the movie, the viewer is in no doubt that the topic of the movie is happiness. The last word of the first scene is “happiness,” and the caption before the second scene reads ‘Show me a happy man’.

In the second scene Alan Arkin plays Gene, an adjustment manager for an insurance firm, and Matthew McConaughey plays Troy, a district attorney. Here, two definitions of ‘happiness’ are discussed. Gene and Troy meet at a bar – during happy hour no less. Troy is celebrating another successful prosecution, and announces to no one in particular that he’s happy. Gene responds by stating the complete aphorism of the caption: “Show me a happy man, and I’ll show you a disaster waiting to happen.” He defends this thought by telling the story of a co-worker, Mickey, who after winning a lottery wound up very unhappy due to the actions of the people around him – such as those of his son, who staged a kidnapping to get more money. In this scene we hear Moore’s Open Questions procedure through Gene’s story. The co-worker defined happiness as ‘measurable financial security’. Upon winning the lottery, the co-worker did not find happiness. Thus it is clear that happiness is not financial security. A definiens of happiness is offered, shown to be achieved, and yet the person is not happy.

Troy’s definition of happiness as ‘successfully prosecuting the guilty’ is similarly rejected. Driving home from the bar, Troy hits a woman and leaves, believing she’s dead. He appears to get away with vehicular homicide. His next successful prosecution involves convicting a young man of manslaughter. This leads to suggestions of promotion, but it also leads to a deepening angst and guilt because he has avoided being found guilty for the hit and run. Troy comes to realize that his prosecutorial success involves someone else’s loss. So, although he was once able to measure his success and happiness in terms of the number of cases won, once confronted with the possibility that he deserves to be on the other side of a prosecution, this measure becomes a means to his loss of happiness.

Why do these two definitions fail? Arguably, it is because they’re naturalistic definitions. Moore claimed that attempts to define goodness failed because they commit a ‘naturalistic fallacy’, meaning that the definition involves terms that can be investigated by scientific methods, such as measurement. One could evaluate Troy’s or Mickey’s happiness by measuring the amount of money or won cases. Happiness could also be measured in terms of how far up the corporate ladder one manages to climb. This is how Gene defines happiness, and this too turns out to be a poor definition. Gene has been working very hard all his life. So far he has become a middle manager at the firm. He believes that this hard work is finally going to pay off, in terms of becoming Vice President of the company. However, in the process he has become an embittered individual who has lost his wife, become estranged from his son, and generally appears to dislike anyone who seems more light-hearted and less hard-working than himself. So, Gene has career success, but becomes unhappy because this success has cost him many other things of value.

Another main character in the film is a physics professor named Walker, played by John Turturo. After being mugged, he radically changes his life, by beginning an affair with a literature professor, separating from his wife, and buying Troy’s BMW. His attempt to define happiness involves via negativa, negativity: happiness is achieved by avoiding predictability, routine, or resignation to the status quo. Yet despite attempts at changing his life, Walker is still stuck in a routine, albeit a new one. Moreover, this new routine does not bring happiness. By the end of the affair (broken off unexpectedly by his mistress), Walker is suffering from panic attacks and seeking counseling.

Walker also attempted to define happiness, but his negative definition does not neatly fit the naturalistic fallacy. But Moore acknowledges that it is not just naturalistic definitions that are problematic – the OQA criticizes any attempt to use ‘extensional definitions’ (of which natural definitions are an example) to provide an ‘intensional’ definition. An intensional definition identifies qualities that a term connotes, whereas an extensional definition identifies the objects that are denoted by term. Take the term ‘cat’. An intensional definition of a cat would provide a list of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for an animals to be a cat – such as being furry, being naturally four-legged, exhibiting certain behaviors and having a specific genetic code. These catlike aspects are what the term ‘cat’ connotes. By contrast, an extensional definition indicates examples of cats by naming them: Sabina is a cat, Toma š is a c at, Teresa is a cat, etc. Given this, the use of naturalistic terms to define ‘goodness’ are extensional, in the sense that one equates good with pleasurable experience by pointing out specific pleasurable experiences and saying that they are all ‘good’.

All-in-all, Troy, Gene, Mickey and Walker, and many other characters not mentioned, demonstrate Moore’s Open Question Argument: each provides a definition for happiness; each achieves that definiens; each is manifestly unhappy. The film suggests that any attempt at providing an extensional definition of happiness (‘this x is happiness…’) will be insufficient – thus suggesting that ‘happiness’ is left undefined.

Happiness Discovered

If the director had stopped here, 13 Conversations would be merely an example of the OQA at work. This might leave us with the conclusion the expressivists who came after Moore adopted – namely, that terms like ‘goodness’ or ‘happiness’ are meaningless (as opposed to meaningful but undefinable). The OQA does not itself provide a reason to believe that such terms are meaningful – merely a reason to reject extensional definitions – so if no positive argument is made for fundamental value terms being meaningful, why not say that the OQA shows that they’re meaningless?

Sprecher avoids this conclusion by providing some reason to believe that happiness is meaningful, even if indefinable. Her solution is to show that whatever happiness is, it must involve other people.

This more positive aspect of the movie’s argument is primarily developed through one character, Wade ‘Smiley’ Bowman, played by William Wise. One of Gene’s co-workers, Wade earns his nickname because he always sees the brighter side of any misfortune, and is truly a happy person. For example, when Gene sends Wade to check on a claim concerning a tree that hit a house, Wade’s response is to say the policy holder “is lucky it didn’t happen last week when we were having all that rain.” Important, however, are hints that other people are the source of Wade’s happiness. When we first meet him, the others in the office are giving him a hard time because his is proud of his children’s achievements, and is clearly in love with his wife: someone suggests that Wade has a mistress because there’s some woman he’s always sweet-talking on the phone and it can’t be his wife “because no one talks that way to the ball-and-chain.” A poignant example that others are the source of Wade’s happiness is when Gene decides to fire Wade. Wade’s final response is that this will give him an opportunity to spend time with his kids before they move out of the house.

The importance of others for happiness should come as no surprise to those familiar with Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia – often translated as ‘happiness’, but it can also be translated as ‘flourishing’. Aristotle believes that a happy, flourishing life is impossible without other people. Two chapters of his Nichomachean Ethics are devoted to the importance of friendship, and one of the first lines states that “For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” This is a logical result from Aristotle’s claims that “the young need [friendship] to keep them from error. The old need it to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness. And those in their prime need it to do fine actions.” In other words, friendships make it possible to actively practice the virtues of beneficence, magnanimity, justice, etc. For Aristotle, one cannot flourish unless one acts in a virtuous manner, and the other-regarding virtues require that one has friends toward whom one can act virtuously. There are hints throughout the film – best left for the viewer to discover on her or his own – that interconnectedness and friendship are necessary for happiness, even if they’re not the definition of happiness.

The movie’s relation to G.E. Moore’s Open Question Argument is only one of the many philosophical topics it develops. Others include luck, our desire for order and structure in the world, and the belief that we can control outcomes through our choices. The rich philosophical content of this movie has already been noted in an online review by Roger Ebert, who described it as “philosophy, illustrated through everyday events.” Perhaps this should not be surprising from a film whose writer and director earned degrees in Philosophy and Literature.

© James M. Okapal 2011

James Okapal is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Missouri Western State University.

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