I define personal development as the process of becoming a better person through the pursuit of personal development goals.
Personal development goals are desirable, feasible, and challenging self-chosen outcomes that through their pursuit, cultivate virtues in the individual and benefit others.
Pursuing a personal development goal is an heroic quest that changes who you are for the better, and therefore might simply be called an adventure.
What is Philosophy’s Relevance to Personal Development?
Most personal development inquires into the purpose of one’s own life, but not of the purpose of life in general. By doing so, we unnecessarily limit the scope of our inquiry into the important aspects of life, as well as potentially create alienation and separation from others through an excessive focus on one’s self. If we only ask what our own life’s purpose is, we imply that our own life is of primary importance. If we only focus on how to get what we want more efficiently and effectively, we may fail to consider what is truly good to do. This is just bad philosophy! And indeed, this is the primary failing of personal development culture — it cultivates and celebrates selfishness as the highest good.
Marketing consultants, who often have no experience doing anything successfully other than selling the promise of success, encourage coaches and therapists (like me) to specialize in tiny niches like “relationship advice for single women over 40” or “resolving procrastination for undergraduate math students.” Such a narrow focus is said to be the key to success as well as contribution. But such groups do not necessarily have unique needs when it comes to the Big Questions like “How should we live?” A focus on some narrow slice of human society reduces collective human striving for meaningful lives to meaningless marketing verticals to be exploited. A broad philosophical inquiry must underlie any truly meaningful personal development approach.
So before we create a product or service aiming to cure life’s ills (as coaching and psychotherapy and $pirituality all do), we must inquire into the general purpose of life for all beings, going beyond writing a purpose statement for our own individual lives and instead boldly crafting a purpose statement for all of life.
The questions we must answer include, among other things…
- What is the purpose of life?
- How should we live?
- What is good?
- What kinds of good and bad actions are there?
- What is the nature of the Universe?
- What is the nature of being human?
- What actions are virtuous and what actions vicious/vices?
- How does a person cultivate virtues?
- How does a person avoid or eliminate vices?
- How should we organize society?
Clearly people will have different answers to such questions! But the general inquiry is of the utmost importance. It’s also important to note that while this may appear to be irrelevant to a scientific approach to goal pursuit, it is in fact quite relevant. For science is descriptive but not prescriptive. We must have already answered questions of what we ought to do to apply the findings of science usefully.
The Big Questions
and Some Possible Answers
What follows is my (first) attempt to give a reality-based take on these Big Questions that links the development of one’s self into a better person with larger social, economic, biological and ecological realities. I hope that my answers are broad enough that they can be mostly acceptable to almost anyone with a reality-based view (that is, looking to discover what is actually true about life as opposed to “literally” interpreting a metaphorical religious text, adopting New Age Solipsism where everything is considered a projection of my consciousness, or some other anti-reality view) — regardless of religious, cultural, racial, or socioeconomic background.
My answers are tentative and always under revision, and hopefully serve more as starting places for discussion rather than end points to be accepted as gospel Truth. Some people will agree fully, while others will agree in part and disagree in part, and still others may disagree fully. That is part of the dialectics of philosophy in human society, and such discourse (and disagreement) on the Big Questions of life should be highly encouraged, as we think together about the most important things in life.
Also, obviously these answers are far too short to address the complexity of various ethical dilemmas and philosophical thought experiments, as are all ethical principles and systems of philosophy, even those that are far more complex and comprehensive than in this short article. It is also difficult to me to connect doing broad philosophy such as this with putting skin-in-the-game, as many of these answers could support opposing political positions for instance. But my hope in giving answers at all is to at least take a stand for something as a starting point, and more generally to reconceive of personal development as primarily an ethical endeavor, which I believe it must be if we are to live meaningful lives.
What is the purpose of life?
To put it very broadly: to do good things and avoid doing bad things.
What is good?
- Actions that reduce the suffering of beings.
- Actions that increase the flourishing, well-being, happiness, or liberation of beings.
- Actions that create beauty or prevent the destruction of beauty.
- Actions that generate pleasure or reduce pain for beings without having subsequent side-effects.
- Actions that preserve the possibility of flourishing (well-being, happiness, etc.) for future generations of beings.
What is bad?
- Doing the opposite of good things (e.g. actions that cause or increase the suffering of beings), or failure to do good things.
- Doing a bad thing is an act of commission.
- Failing to do a good thing is an act of omission.
What is the nature of the Universe?
- The Universe appears to be a hugely complex, profoundly large but finite collection of interacting matter and energy, organized into a variety of objects both incredibly small and incredibly large, including some living organisms on a small blue planet we call Earth (and possibly elsewhere).
- The Universe is not a projection of my (Duff’s) consciousness, nor am I a dream character in another person’s consciousness.
- Because the Universe is not a projection of my consciousness, there is no reason to expect that things will happen in the way that I’d like them to happen. It is therefore reasonable to encounter obstacles to what I want, and reasonable to prepare for potential obstacles and how I might overcome them.
- Because the Universe is not a projection of my consciousness, assuming that things “should” be a different way also doesn’t make sense. The Universe did not come about from what I value or find important — it exists independently of my values and desires. I can engage in actions to attempt to change aspects of the world, but there is no good reason to think that it should already be organized in such a way as to please me.
What is the nature of being human?
- Human beings are social animals (primates) currently confined to planet Earth, and are a product of biological evolution by natural selection.
- Since humans are social animals, what is good for humans is usually that which not only benefits the individual but also other humans.
- Since humans are just one of many animals capable of suffering, it is also good to extend our care to non-human animals.
- Since humans exist on a single planet at this time, it is good to act in ways that preserve the capacity for continued life on this planet.
- Since human beings are creatures of habit, doing good things and avoiding bad things means developing good (ethical, virtuous) habits and eliminating bad (unethical, vicious as in vice) habits.
- Other people are other people (i.e. “theory of mind” describes reality). Other people have their own internal experience, consciousness, values, personal history, desires, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, intentions, etc. which may differ from my own. There may be another sense in which “we are one” in the connectedness between all things at every level, but in this sense “we are many.”
What are virtues?
- Virtues are positive personality traits that are displayed in habitual good actions (or habitually refraining from bad actions). For example: patience, generosity, courage, love, grit, optimism, creativity, sobriety, etc.
- There are many quality lists of virtues: Aristotle’s discussion of virtue in his Nichomachean Ethics, the three theological virtues of Christianity (Faith, Hope, and Love), the seven holy virtues (the opposite of the seven deadly sins — humility, charity, kindness, patience, chastity, temperance, and diligence), the VIA (Values in Action) survey, the paramitas of Buddhism, the yamas and niyamas of yoga/Hinduism, Benjamin Franklin’s list, etc. Feel free to substitute your own list from your religious or philosophical tradition.
How does a person cultivate virtues/eliminate vices?
- Cultivating good intentions is an important foundation for doing good and avoiding bad actions, for example through compassion (metta) meditation, prayer, affirmations, etc. However, actions and results matter more than just good intentions, and iatrogenesis (harm from attempting to help) is an important concern when attempting to do good. Good intentions are good, but not enough — the means and the ends must also be good.
- Methods include choosing one (or two) specific behaviors(s) to cultivate (or eliminate) at a time until habitual, integrating inner objections to change, responding to obstacles by setting if-then plans for preventing or overcoming them, getting support from others or a group, and using any of a number of effective personal change techniques to change feelings, thoughts, responses, or behaviors.
- Another way is by following the processes outlined in the Creative Solutions Generator (designed by me!), based on relevant psychological science of goal setting and pursuit. Or pursuing goals based on some other method which is based in the same reality-based principles.
How should we organize society?
- This is not a question that can be answered by one individual! I do however have my opinions. I think ideally societies should be organized from the bottom-up through collective agreement.
- Societies should be organized in such a way that inequality of resources and opportunities is not allowed to be radically concentrated between rich and poor, privileged and destitute. The world we currently live in where one billion people live on less than a dollar a day while a few people have more than a billion dollars in personal net worth is unconscionable. We ought to do everything we can to create different economic systems that are more just and fair, providing equality of opportunity but also a more reasonable equality of distribution of resources. Actions that make the world more just are good (and vice versa).
- In addition, human societies are destroying natural resources, species, and biological systems at an incredible rate. This destroys beauty as well as the possibilities for flourishing in future generations of humans and other animals. We ought to prevent such destruction and turn our actions towards solutions that preserve this planet, taking special care to avoid iatrogenesis (negative side-effects) in our attempted solutions to the problems we face.
Moral relativism: This anti-ethical view can be summarized by the quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
Prison, my lord?
Denmark’s a prison.
Then is the world one.
A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.
We think not so, my lord.
Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251
In context, it is clear that Hamlet’s famous quotation “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is in reference to his opinion that Denmark is a prison, for which Rosencrantz disagrees. Rather than giving reasons, he decided to say basically that it is a matter of opinion. (Enotes interprets this passage a bit differently too, in the context of the play.)
While certainly good is always “good for whom?” and questions of ethics are highly contentious, I don’t think it is even possible to operate without a basic sense that some things are good and other things not good. For example it is good to live and bad to needlessly starve to death. And while ethical judgments are not exactly objective facts, they are also not quite the same thing as mere opinions, such as the opinion that Denmark is a prison.
One version of moral nihilism that I received in response to this article is to call all ethical distinctions “dualism” and that to solve our human problems we must transcend dualistic thinking. But how can we do that without implying that a nondualistic perspective is therefore better than a dualistic one? The only way I can think of is to drop thinking and communicating altogether, but this leads more to an instinctual acting-without-thinking which may be good or bad depending on the effects of such. Even Eastern religious and spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and the various strains of Yoga still have ethical and moral doctrines, and rigorous traditions of philosophical debate and scholarship. I’m in favor of (and practice) meditation that quiets unnecessary mental activity, but I think this is useful precisely because it gives us the space and freedom to think new, creative thoughts.
While ethical reasoning is difficult, moral nihilism is no solution to the difficulties we face.
Putting it All Together:
My Vision for this Project
My vision with Scientific Goals is to spearhead a movement in personal development where becoming a better person means becoming a more virtuous, ethical, and heroic person for the benefit of all beings; and to do so in ways that are truly effective (reality- and science-based) and don’t lead to iatrogenesis (i.e. “ecology” problems).
Clearly many details will need to be filled in to realize such a vision. I invite you to join me in doing so by participating in discussion and perhaps also becoming a coaching client or customer as this project continues.
I have turned comments off on this page not to discourage discussion, but to encourage ongoing discussion in various forms and formats. Comments are organized by time and thus are more appropriate for timely material, but less appropriate for material aimed to be more time-less. Comments on web pages also freeze conversations as if they are static, whereas in the course of conversation people might change their minds. Do feel free to engage with me (and others) on Facebook in particular by adding me as a friend and starting a discussion on my Facebook wall about any thoughts spurred by this article.
Resources for Developing Ethical Reasoning Skills
Most people were never taught how to think ethically. Luckily, the skill can be learned.
Michael Sandel’s excellent Harvard lectures entitled “Justice” are excellent. He also has a book by the same title, Justice.
Prinston University’s famous ethicist Peter Singer has an excellent website and book called The Life You Can Save. Singer’s work has profoundly influenced my thinking, and my life.
“Over the thousands of years of the history and development of philosophy, a lot of philosophers have asked, ‘Does life have a meaning? What is it?’ And that’s a question, I think, we can give an answer. And I think the answer is we make our lives most meaningful when we connect ourselves with some really important causes or issues and we contribute to that–so that we feel that because we lived, something has gone a little better than it would have otherwise. We contributed in however small a way to making the world a better place. I think it’s hard to find anything more meaningful than doing that, than reducing the amount of unnecessary pain and suffering that there’s been on this world or making the world a little bit better for all of the beings who are sharing it with us.”