Last week I was talking to a friend about happiness. We were discussing how to live a happy, meaningful life and not get discouraged by the general impossibility of eliminating suffering. That seems like a silly thing to get weighed down by, but it is hard to accept that people are suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it. No matter how much you do and how much you donate and how much you plan and all the rest, you can’t fix the world. Even small scale changing are incredibly difficult. Sure, I can volunteer at a food bank and make a difference in a number of people’s lives but that’s a tiny difference and doesn’t involve any wholesale changes to improve the person’s life. Feeding someone may help them get through the day more comfortably but how does it help prevent another person from taking his or her place (assuming the first person does move on)? I’m not suggesting charity is useless, a small help is still help. I’m wondering how we prevent ourselves from being worn down by the inevitability of true suffering considering even tiny changes are difficult to sustain?
This conversation about trying to help people turned into a conversation about what gives life meaning. It would seem like, on the face of things, eliminating suffering as much as we can for our fellow human beings would be the most important thing in life. But very, very few people live in a way that works towards that goal. And to be clear, I’m not looking down on those people, I’m included among them. It’s possible that neuroscience can help a great number of people, but it’s not entirely likely and not my primary interest anyway. (Free will arguments and being more rational isn’t feeding anyone or restructuring governments.) I always come back to the principle of equal consideration because I’ve never heard a decent take-down of the principle.
If I truly believe that overall well-being should be maximized then I don’t know how to argue out of improving someone else’s before my own. Giving arbitrary values to our well-being, someone in a poverty stricken country is probably aroudn a 1 or 2 (lacking essential needs for survival) and mine is, by default somewhere at a 5-7 (basic needs met, left over resources for entertainment and comfort and concerns about eternity and legacies and meaning). Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which may have its flaws, the base is pretty necessary for life. We can argue over the extras to hit a fulfilled, actualized life, but we mostly need to be fed to care about them. And so I’m up on that hierarchy because I ate today, flushed a toilet, showered, have access to water, etc. Even if I didn’t enjoy listening to music or reading today, I’m still higher on that pyramid. Buying 5 books won’t bump me up to self-actualization, but giving that money to a charity may bump someone up by fulfilling physiological needs.
We got to talking in more detail about what we should be doing. And she said something slightly annoying, in my opinion. She said she didn’t like when people act as though animal lives are as, or more, important than human lives. I was thinking about that documentary in which people risk their lives to protect gorillas. It’s on Netflix and is called Virunga. I don’t think she was suggesting that those people are wasting their time but I also don’t feel as though she respects them as much as somebody who would do the same, but for humans. Meanwhile, neither one of us is doing anything for anyone. (At least not on the level the people in the documentary are. We were in a comfortable car on our way to lunch with her child.) I was reminded of the Tim Minchin line “your dog has a bigger carbon footprint than a four wheel drive. And so does your baby, maybe you oughta trade him in for a Prius.” Not the same topic, obviously, but it makes a good point that we certainly pick our battles to heavily favor ourselves. To use myself as an example. I didn’t get a Keurig because I felt the little cups were wasteful, but I use a French press and occasionally I’m lazy and use a paper towel to get rid of the grounds. Is that any better? Maybe marginally, but I still make myself feel better by not using k-cups.
So she decided to highlight her philanthropy, though it may be unavoidably limited due to her financial situation, by degrading others actions. We all do. Can’t fault her.
The main line through our conversation was being happy in a seemingly overwhelmingly unhappy place. (Although, she’s religious so she sort of has an out with being rewarded in the afterlife, which makes suffering on earth not that horrible, and the whole, “God has a plan” thing means suffering have a purpose. For some reason she didn’t mention either.) Most of our lives appear to be incredibly self-centered. I’m worried about my happiness and finding meaning. Even when considering all the good we do for friends and family, and the amount we worry about their well-being, it’s all centered around us. The amount most of us do for people we’ll never meet and the time spent agonizing over their well-being is diminutive in comparison.
Our conversation went on for some time along those lines. I’m not sure we discovered anything important, but it felt good to talk about.