Friday, December 10, 2010

Dear Peter Singer

It is true that compassionate people who care about justice and fairness will be troubled by the existence of starving children in far-away places and other examples of human misfortune and tragedy, especially when we ourselves are relatively affluent. The more fortunate cannot claim all of the credit for their stations in life, any more than the less fortunate are completely to blame for theirs, and awareness of this creates a very justifiable tension in the minds of well-off people, especially those of us who do not believe in God or cosmic justice or any force that evens the moral scales other than chance and human effort.

I have asked myself how I can resolve this tension for myself, in those hypothetical situations in which I actually am pretty well-off, and well-organized enough that I would really have something to give if I decided to. I have tried to face pretty squarely the question of how I can be happy or strive to be happy while others suffer and do not have even the means to improve their lot. What I have come up with as a solution to this problem, as well as many others, is a vision of a good life which fulfills every obligation that I think is worth honoring. I will try to outline it here very briefly.

I have constructed in my mind a kind of mythological creature that I label a healthy human being. Such a creature values its personal autonomy- it respects itself- but it is also aware of its place in an interdependent network of creatures much like itself, as well as its place in a larger ecosystem that all of them depend on, but none of them can completely control. It accepts that it is mortal, fallible, and finite, and does not consider these faults; it understands that it is a creature risen from primordial darkness, rather than fallen from perfection. It understands how lucky it is to exist at all, and is not bitter about not being immortal or omniscient or omnipotent. It has grown up in such a way as to be confident, appreciative, open, compassionate, thankful, and generous. It cares not only about security, comfort, and pleasure, but also about the significance of the life it is living, and it hopes that the conditions and consequences of its existence will reflect its values and good character. It knows how to love well; it is not jealous or possessive of the objects of its love, but is above all concerned that they flourish, ready to contribute to that flourishing, and happy to participate in it. It accepts the reality of tragedy, but finds it worthwhile to go on caring in all of these ways. It laughs a lot, but its laughter is not cruel. It wants to achieve much, but is able to enjoy what it has, and is neither self-denying or greedy. It allows itself to be enjoyed, but not to be taken advantage of.

This is a dream. I have inhabited it more and less in the past than I do now. I believe that such a creature is worth aspiring to become, and occasionally actually exists, and when it does, it gives, as much as it can, virtually by instinct. I do not respect any proposed obligation that leads me astray of the aspiration to be a healthy human being, but I believe I can resolve the tension inherent in my being very, very lucky in a world of unlucky people by making efforts toward being one. It is in this sense that I think I am fully justified in looking after myself first.

Unfortunately I'm terrible at even making progress toward being that kind of person. I think I know something about how to do it though. I shall detail this in another post, after I have gone to bed, and gotten back up, I don't know how many times. Good night.

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