“We are all here to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”
W. H. Auden
For those of you who have seen “Thank You For Smoking,” you will be familiar with the Yuppie Nuremberg Defense as being a specious justification for the impact of one’s profession on the grounds that you were doing it all “for the mortgage,” implying that your actions were selflessly aimed at helping others, namely your immediate family. Initially excited to find a good justification for ethically dubious behavior, I was soon distraught to realize that I am patently unqualified from using such a tactic as I don’t have the proverbial “mortgage.” Thus I embark here to provide some philosophical respite for the similarly unattached.
Let’s unpack the notion that the only valuable, respectable, meaningful thing to do with one’s time on earth is to help others. The goal or purpose of human life then is to alleviate suffering? But this can’t be all there is to the story. If the absence of suffering is the ultimate goal of existence, then non-existence, universal sterilization is the quickest and easiest solution. So we must add the obvious addendum that the promotion of human life without suffering is the goal or purpose of human existence. But what about those of us that live without incredible suffering? We have already achieved the goal of human existence, to live a human life without incredible suffering! Of course we must face the dilemma that all Theravada Buddhists know all too well; that their own personal suffering is but a drop in the bucket. Thus, if one’s purpose as a human is to eliminate suffering from human life, he might have to alleviate not only his own, but everyone’s suffering–a conclusion that the Mahayana Buddhists seem to embrace. However, this creates a bit of a paradox in practice, for ministering to the suffering of the world, though not without its pleasures, is nonetheless quite hard and downright insufferable for most (the incredulous should watch Beyond Borders). Those of us so fortunate as to enjoy a life without great suffering, a life where we can pursue our dreams, goals, and hedonistic imperatives, would have to sacrifice these very dreams, goals, and hedonistic imperatives to facilitate a solution to the suffering of others. But to what end? The point simply cannot be to alleviate someone elses suffering so that they can lead the exact life that the once lucky ones had to forgo, as we have established that such a selfish existence is without meaning or purpose. So that lucky soul who has been rescued from great suffering would then have to forgo his dreams, goals, and hedonistic imperatives to help the rest of the suffering masses. Is it really a “greater good” for the “greater many” if those lucky, happy souls give up their freedom and happiness to absorb or dilute the suffering of the remainder of mankind? This begins to look like a pretty unhappy situation, like when your teacher tells you at school that you can’t eat your candy because you didn’t bring enough for everybody, and you cry back indignantly, “but then nobody gets any candy!” Your teacher, a staunch Utilitarian, then responds that it would cause mores suffering for the whole class to watch enviously as you ate your candy than it would produce pleasure for you. “But,” you retort, “that logic would soon produce a policy whereby all of the good looking kids in school must wear veils so as to spare the feelings of those less aesthetically fortunate!”
It should be obvious that this ethos leaves something to be desired because it values the absence of suffering more than it values any positive good. Can’t we have our candy and eat it too? Don’t we have a right to live our lives as we please, to follow our hopes and dreams, to satisfy our desires and try to be happy? Is the existence of this “right” not the very reason that we demand an end to suffering and poverty, that we tout such an endeavor as the only meaningful or respectable human activity in the first place?
Most of us never have to face this problem because Nick Nailor has given us an out: having provided for our families and having saved them from destitution and undue suffering, we can sleep soundly in the assurance that our lives are meaningful and respectable. It is the unwed yuppie that bears the true brunt of societies scorn. He works and provides only for himself—what a philistine! What a parasite! But when can the unwed yuppie ever find justification? When world hunger and poverty are eliminated? Well then there is always the suffering caused by political struggle, disease, weather disasters, and spiritual despair? So again the unwed yuppie is a louse for not providing for others and researching AIDS cures, protesting political oppression, saving the rainforest, or offering psychoanalytic services. But then again these things are only “bad” because they stop people from following their desires and dreams and leading happy lives. So why should one give up his rights to ensure those of others? Can we make such demands on him? Do we have the “right” to demand that he forgo his “rights” so that others may enjoy their “rights?” What level of “undue suffering” must exist for humans to be justified in being selfish and living for themselves? Obviously it is an abomination that someone spend his life researching stocks and buying Porsche’s when people are starving to death, right? But what if the worlds’ starving are reduced to the worlds’ homeless and slightly malnourished? Then is our yuppie justified in “wasting” his time on his hedonistic endeavors? When does such selfishness cease to be an abomination?
Allow me to digress slightly to tell the reader that of course I have an enormous amount of respect for those of us who are disposed and capable of a happy life who forgo its many pleasures to help others. This is truly a noble life that displays much of what is great in the human character, provided, however, that they do not turn their noses up at those who do not choose this path. In the latter case it seems that the person has simply grasped that altruism is a kind of social currency, one that they would like to cash in on despite the endemic hardships. Furthermore, let me also point out that those who are incapable of a happy life who pursue this noble path are even less justified in an upturned nose. To quote Montaigne, this would be like “an unattempted lady…vaunt[ing] of her chastity.” It would seem the symptom of a weak and sickly consciousness if failing to help ourselves we did the only thing left other than to commit suicide: help others to curry social favor. This is not nobility of character, though it perhaps ranks above the unemployed stoner in the moral pecking order. However, there remains a third class of do-gooder: the one who cannot live a happy, fulfilling life unless he pursues the welfare of others, but does not begrudge others their own sense of purpose and meaning though it may differ with respect to a requirement of altruism. Oh that there are not more of these good souls! They are miraculously eating their candy and yet sharing it with the class at the same time, like Jesus with his loves of bread and fish.
Truly, many people enjoy a life of service while never feeling an altruistic urge. I doubt very much that the members of Led Zeppelin were motivated solely by a desire to enrich the lives of countless rock fans, yet they nevertheless found themselves serving mankind admirably while pursuing their own hedonistic imperatives. While the unwed yuppy may thus find some reprieve in Mandeville’s doctrine of “private vices public benefits,” and so avail himself of some ethical reprimands, it is clear that he and society at large benefit dramatically more from the efforts of do-gooders of the first and third variety described above. If the great Samuel Johnson is correct that “the happiness of Heaven will be, that pleasure and virtue will be perfectly consistent,” then do-gooders of the third variety are truly angels, and those of the first variety something even more heaven-sent. However, let us not forget about those whose private vices become public benefits with no intervening motives of altruism. Their freedom to pursue personal fulfillment, whether it be to indulge their obsession for scientific investigation or their passion for music, is what we wish for all of mankind, and we should hesitate to criticize those who have it for failing to sacrifice it on behalf of others.