Thursday, January 28. 2010
Kenny pointed out to me another example of people feeling a yearning for a simpler existence: "What Could You Live Without?" a New York Times op-ed about a family who, at their daughter's urging, downgraded to a smaller home and donated the proceeds to charity. The family experienced a double benefit: not only did they get the warm-and-fuzzies for making an enormous gift to the needy, they also discovered that a smaller house gave them more time together.
The benefits of cutting back are getting renewed attention these days. The recession certainly removed a lot of excess buying power, forcing people to look for happiness that couldn't be bought. The environmentalists, as we had discussed before, consider overconsumption to be a moral issue, since consumption of energy and other resources is what ultimately drives pollution, deforestation, and (is widely believed) global climate change. Kim John Payne, a therapist who recently spoke at our school, published a book called Simplicity Parenting that urged parents to jettison substantial amounts of both material possessions and scheduled activities as a means of making their kids happier and more well-adjusted.
I'm glad that people are rediscovering these truths. But I put the emphasis on re-disovering, since these are hardly new. While some forms of evangelical Christianity have occasionally gotten sidetracked down the doctrine of wealth, the mainstream Christian message has always advised people to "lay up their treasure in heaven" – moral action, not material accumulation, is the secret to happiness. It used to be that thrift – only buying what you needed – was a common-sense virtue, not a startling epiphany.
The Salwens, the family that sold their house, did so because their daughter observed, ""Dad, if that man [in the Mercedes next to us] had a less nice car, that man there [begging for food on the other side of us] could have a meal." While I admire the moral bravery of such a statement, I shudder at its economic naiveté. It's such a small step, intellectually, from wanting to help those in need, to believing that poverty can be "fixed" through a simple redistribution of wealth. It reinforces the massively mistaken notion that economics is a zero-sum game – that someone having more is somehow taking away from those who have less. My ethical heroes are not the sackcloth-and-ashes folks that make "sacrifices," but rather the mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who generate enormous value and wealth by doing what they love, and who then use that wealth for something better than mere conspicuous consumption. You never know – that guy in the Mercedes might have already fed more hungry people than you could even dream of helping with your modest means.
Monday, July 20. 2009
Paul Lockhart's "Lament" repeatedly questions the purpose of education as well as its methods. He doesn't just grieve that true mathematics isn't being taught, but rather that it is not recognized as an art, something that ennobles the spirit and gives joy, something loved for its own sake and not any sort of utility that it brings. He wants math to be lumped in with the liberal arts – literature, music, painting, etc. – things that the education establishment teaches without regard to vocational preparation. This sort of thinking runs counter to the "3 R" crowd just who want their kids to get jobs and balance their checkbooks.
Anyone who would divide education into "the useful" and "the beautiful" is bound to run into trouble, because they are not separate. The useful is beautiful – ask any engineer, businessman, homemaker or child who set about to solve a practical problem and found an elegant solution. The beautiful is also useful – if nothing else, by giving pleasure to its consumers and creators. Any attempt to divide them invariably leads to people running to unhealthy extremes in either direction. On the one hand, you get college professors determined to magnify their greatness by emphasizing their uselessness. On the other hand, you get No Child Left Behind, in which anything that's not part of a pathetically low standard of usefulness is jettisoned. Either way, both utility and joy get destroyed.
What neither side seems to realize is that they are arguing about ethics – in the classic Greek sense of answering the question: "What is a worthwhile life?" Education is just the practical implementation of a notion of ethics. Once you've decided what a good life looks like, you try to prepare your citizens to have that sort of life. Everyone educator and politician starts by saying, "We all agree that we want what's best for the child" – without acknowledging that we have vastly different notions of what "best" really is. You can't say what's a good curriculum until you decide what kind of life you want your children to have . . . and you can't decide that without determining what life is, ultimately, all about. Is life about Work? Is life about Experience? Is life about Happiness?
Last year I went to a workshop for directors of independent schools, a crash-course for new board members. One of the duties of a board of directors is to define the mission statement of the school and to make sure all policies are serving the mission. In talking about mission statements, the facilitator explicitly made the connection to ethics: "Your mission is really about what you want your kids to be. In general, every parent and every school has the same three goals for their kids. We want them to be Successful. We want them to be Happy. And we want them to be Good. The priority you assign to each of those goals will determine the character of your school."
I thought that was a pretty good analysis. Most public schools emphasize Success as the primary goal, with Happiness a distant second and Goodness not even on the radar. Many parochial schools put their notion of Goodness at the top, and then Success, and then Happiness. Waldorf schools explicitly put Goodness (i.e. spiritual capacity) at the top of the list. Happiness probably comes next; Waldorf schools are the few I've ever seen that took Happiness seriously as an important part of human development. No one wants to say that Success comes last – it's hard to be happy without some measure of success – but it is correctly recognized as a means, and not an end in itself.
Tuesday, July 7. 2009
I got some comments off-line on yesterday's post regarding Sandra Tsing-Loh's affair and subsequent divorce, which have prodded me into clarifying my position on sex within marriage. Discussions of sexual morality always seem to get people worked up – yet another clue that it's something important, and worth discussing.
I thought I was pretty safe, in terms of political correctness, because nine-tenths of my arguments were just citations of things women had written about sexuality within marriage. However, I because I said something directly about marriage partners being obligated to "put out on a regular basis," I crossed some mysterious line that men are not allowed to cross. If a woman like Sandra Tsing-Loh writes about a man who refuses to have sex with his wife for two years, she's allowed to say "that's a raw deal." If a man says it's unreasonable for a spouse to refuse to have sex for two years, then suddenly everyone thinks I'm talking about the sexual enslavement of women, the subjugation and humiliation of half the human race. In other words, I'm the Taliban.
There were multiple levels of rights and responsibilities that are involved in all sexual activity, and it's easy to get them confused:
When I spoke about "putting out on a regular basis," I'm definitely not talking about #1. All human beings have a right to the sanctity and integrity of their own bodies. Everybody has a right to freely choose when and with whom to have sex. Using physical force to coerce sex from another is rape, even in marriage, and is a crime in all civilized nations. Nobody's forcin' nobody to do nothin', ok? And, to be 100% clear, everything I'm writing here applies equally to woman and men, so there's no double standard going on.
So, that being said . . . I do think a married person has a moral obligation to have sex with their spouses. There are very few conditions in the typical, traditional marriage contract that are spelled out in detail. All that "love, honor, cherish" stuff is pretty vague on the details and open to lots of interpretation. There are a couple things that are extremely explicit, though:
If an arrangement between two people lacked these principles, I don't think we would call it "marriage." (We could argue about that, but let's not. I think we can agree that this is the traditional understanding of the meaning of marriage.) Because sexual exclusivity is explicitly stipulated as a core principle of the arrangement, I think it deserves very special consideration. It wouldn't be spelled out that way unless it was important. I think it's also clear that this is something going against the grain of human nature: if it were perfectly natural and normal and expected to be monogamous for our entire lives, we wouldn't have to make solemn promises about it.
If you make a commitment to lifelong sexual exclusivity, it seems to me that the conscious, prolonged attempt to withhold sex from a spouse, contrary to their desires, is clearly breaking faith with that commitment. People don't get married to become celibate. They have a reasonable expectation to reasonable access to sex.
Ahh, but what's "reasonable"? That's where all the marriage counselors and sex therapists get involved. I'm sure the answer is dependent on lots of personal factors of health, opportunity, and desire. I've already said that "never" is not reasonable. Usually, "reasonable" is whatever the couple can mutually agree upon as reasonable, or at least acceptable.
This is the point at which I move from "moral obligation" to "strongly recommended advice." And that advice is just a rehash from a dozen pop psychologists, which is this: you should have sex whenever either spouse wants it.
Mostly, this comes out of my functional extension of the Golden Rule, strongly recommended for good working relationships of all kinds, which states: All reasonable requests made in good faith should be met in good faith. If your spouse asks you to do something, and it's reasonable, then you should do it. Or, to put it another way, the default answer to spousal requests should be Yes. If your wife asks you to move the junk off the porch because company is coming over, you should do it. Maybe you have a perfectly good reason not to move the junk right this moment, because you're busy or tired or whatever – that also is a reasonable request. Of course, this principle would be quickly subverted if it wasn't coupled with another principle, which is: Don't make unreasonable requests. Ask for what you need, with the understanding that everyone will work in good faith to meet everyone's needs.
Usually, when I spell out this philosophy, people think it's silly – either because they agree with me and think it's so obvious that it isn't worth saying, or because they totally disagree and think such an rule would result in someone, at some point, being totally taken advantage of. For my money, it is an essential part to any good working relationship. All kinds of interpersonal friction are minimized if you trust that the other person has a good reason for their requests. It restricts arguments to things that are worth arguing about. It communicates trust and respect.
If it works for putting the cap on the tube of toothpaste or taking out the trash, it also works for sex. Make your best effort to meet the needs of your spouse, and you will maximize everyone's peace and contentment. If you ignore their needs and desires, you will pay a price for it.
Monday, June 29. 2009
Kenny wrote an excellent defense of the rights of minors in his essay "Of Strip-Searches and Students," in which he commented on the recent Supreme Court case of Safford Unified School District v. Reading. 13-year-old Savana Reading was strip-searched by school administrators on suspicion that she was carrying ibuprofen. (Yes, you read that right -- an OTC drug available in every household in the country is contraband in a government-run school.) The High Court found (thank God) that Savana's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated. But Kenny is looking for a larger legal precedent. He wonders: why shouldn't minors enjoy the same legal rights as adults, when it comes to respecting their basic human dignity?
Read Kenny's essay if you haven't already. Then come back here, because I want to propose another angle from which one could construct a theory of the legal privacy rights of minors.
^ ^ ^
It's hard to talk about the legal rights of minors without also talking about the legal rights of parents. In general, the law provides parents with absolute power and authority over their children. Children do require a lot of governing, relatively speaking, and our culture trusts that the parents are the ones most likely to have the child's best interests at heart when using that authority. A parent's powers are pretty broad – they can search, seize, and physically restrain the freedom of their children as they see fit. Most people see that arrangement as appropriate; so long as the children are not physically endangered and adequately provided for, parents should have that right to exercise those powers. (As a matter of good parenting, I think parents are well advised to restrain their use of those powers. You should, in general, treat children with all the respect and autonomy you would accord to any adult, within the bounds of the child's ability to hold up their end of an adult relationship. But I still think it is appropriate that parents have the legal right to those powers.)
The only problem with that arrangement is that it gets us used to thinking of children as entities without rights. We wouldn't think it wrong to search our own children's rooms if we suspected wrongdoing, so we generalize that out to "children have no privacy rights at all." I think parents have rights that may trump the child's right to privacy (or association, or religion, or speech, or many other constitutional rights) but that doesn't mean the children don't have those rights at all.
Things get especially murky with schools, in which the teachers and administrators are acting in loco parentis – that is, they are delegated some of the powers of the parents while the children are in their care. They are permitted to control where the children go, what they are allowed to say, and can even apply certain punishments. The question is: do teachers and administrators have the same powers as parents when it comes to privacy, or not?
My feeling is no. I think the only parental powers over children that are given to other adults are those that are explicitly delegated from the parents. If a school wants the right to search a child's backpack or locker, they need the explicit consent of the parent. If a parent does not delegate those parental powers, then a child has exactly the same constitutional rights as an adult. (You may find, by the way, that adults don't have as many rights as you might think. There is no legal expectation of privacy in most workplaces, for instance – your email can be read, your desk searched, etc.)
This model isn't perfect. Savana could still be strip-searched for ibuprofen under this legal theory, had her parents signed some consent form that gave administrators the power to do so. As long as there are bad parents, there would be bad outcomes. But this, at least, would start us from the correct basis: children have the same rights as adults, unless some other parental power prevails.
Saturday, June 27. 2009
Ethics, in the classical Greek sense, is an attempt to answer the question, "How should we live?" Or, to put it another way, "What would be a good life?" If you develop a system of ethics, you should be able to apply it to your own life, or any other life for that matter, and answer the question: "Was that a good life?"
Which brings us to Michael Jackson.
Yes, sirree, that's a real stumper.
People find meaningfulness in all kinds of things: success, fame, power, impact, uniqueness, love, happiness, virtue. On some of those measures, Michael was off the charts. He was enormously talented, enjoying the kind of fame and fortune and cultural influence that was shared by few, and not likely to be repeated again in our hyper-fragmented culture. Thriller not only holds the record for most albums sold, it's actually still a really good album; popular music doesn't often have that much staying power. The economic productivity of this one life is staggering -- Jackson's annual residuals alone are about 100 times greater than my entire lifetime output. He generously supported lots of charities, which almost lets you forgive the new levels of personal extravagance he reached with his Neverland. And man, could he dance. It must have been fun, to be able to dance like that. So, yeah . . . a lot to admire. Who could say it wasn't Good?
And yet . . . there is the other side. It's hard to gauge whether he was happy, since he was so far withdrawn from reality, but the smart money would guess he was miserable in his freakishness. Lots of people withdraw from reality, but few have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to propel their weirdness. We accept that great artists sometimes suffer for the sake of their creative powers, and even behave badly. We are not used to them becoming barely recognizable as human. Robbed of a real childhood, he spent the rest of his life trying to get it back, and becoming more and more grotesque in the process. (The Onion, as always, nailed it with their headline: "King of Pop dead at 12." I doubt that he molested those children, but I do think he lusted after their innocence in a manner that was disturbing. None of this was immoral, exactly, though it was repulsive.
So how do you add all that up? Was it worth it? Had a 12-year-old Michael been offered a vision of his future life, would have accepted the whole deal? Unparalleled fame and accomplishment, along with misery, isolation, suspicion, and disgust? Some people would, but I know I would not and, I suspect, neither would Michael. Achievement is pretty empty when you find yourself cut off from the rest of world. It's not the sort of life one would choose. That, I think, is the source of the international mourning – people recognize the tragedy of someone being so poor while being so rich. Now that the awkward man-child is gone, everyone is free to embrace the good things of his life and try to forget, or at least forgive, the shadows. I like to remember him playing the Scarecrow in The Wiz, when he was at the peak of his powers, still recognizable as a black male with magnificent talent and vitality, and not yet transformed into mythological figure, the fey creature with the one white glove.
Saturday, May 23. 2009
In response to Kenny's comments on the primacy of effort:
Saturday, April 11. 2009
So, how do we make decisions, especially moral decisions, in the absence of absolute knowledge?
There is one field of human knowledge that spends almost all its time on this question – the law. In civil and criminal cases, judges and juries are routinely asked to suss out the truth in the face of conflicting claims, and make weighty decisions on the basis of their findings. The court system is designed to be as fair and true as possible while still being pragmatic. What can the law tell us about practical epistemology?
For one, courts use different standards of evidence for different kinds of cases. Thanks to Law & Order and other such courtroom dramas, we're all familiar with the standard of evidence for murder trials: the defendant must be found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt in order to be convicted, and twelve different people must all agree. Lesser standards prevail in most other cases. Many legal principles use the "reasonable man" test: what would any reasonable person conclude, given certain evidence? The important point here is that our standards for evidence vary with the case, and extraordinary measures (e.g. executing someone) must be justified with extraordinary proof (i.e. beyond all reasonable doubt).
The other important concept outlined in the law is burden of proof. The law recognizes that epistemological confusion can justify anything or nothing, depending on your inclination, so it determines ahead of time what course should be taken when insurmountable doubts arise. In nearly all criminal proceedings in the United States, the burden of proof is on the prosecution: if reasonable doubts about a particular case exist, criminal law presumes the person is innocent. (Note that in lots of other non-legal proceedings, the burden of proof is quite different; when a salesman is trying to convince us to buy a used car, the burden of proof is upon the salesman to prove the car is not a lemon, and even the slightest suspicion of problems can be sufficient grounds not to buy the car.) The important point here is that we need to decide what's the reasonable "default" to take with certain kinds of cases.
Does any of this help with our ethical questions of helping the poor? The standard of evidence required is going to vary with just how big a claim you make about our moral responsibilities to alleviate poverty. If you say everyone should give a little bit to help the poor, then you can probably get away with the simple "fed people are better than starving people" argument. If you are going to claim (as Kenny did) that everyone has an infinite duty to help the poor, to the extent that they should give away everything until they live in poverty themselves . . . well, that's going to demand a pretty high standard of evidence. It almost certainly flunks the "reasonable man" test; a grand jury would probably approve of pressing murder charges against a man who stands by and watches a girl drown in a pond, but would never dream of prosecuting someone for not giving to Oxfam. The prevailing "reasonable" position is that giving to the poor is good, but superogatory. And, I believe, the burden of proof is upon Kenny to prove that it's otherwise.
Again, none of this proves that Kenny is wrong about helping the poor. Principles of law are often not the same as principles of ethics, nor should they be. I just want to make it clear that I'm not hiding behind an epistemological fog. Reasonable standards of practical evidence do not demand the ethical standard that Kenny is proposing, at least with the rationale he has presented so far.
In his comments, Kenny writes:
Descartes made a very strong distinction between the kind of truth you look for in philosophy--the truth of absolute certainly beyond a doubt--and the kind of truth that you have to use as a basis for action, which is more probabalistic, based on the best evidence you have at the moment. Both are important, but don't get them confused. That's the big distinction I see here. I want moral truth on the level of absolute certainty--this is, in fact, the very heart of my own justification for the life of the mystic (shameless plug for another of my own essays, I know, but really, it's all based on the necessity of finding some absolute basis for morality, and the impossibility of doing so through reason).
At the same time, there is the practical level that you have to act on. From all I can tell, right now, well-fed people are better than starving people. That unjustified assumption gives enough basis for making decisions.
Ok, all philosophic discussions have to run up against the questions of epistemology: "How do you know what you know?" Absolutely everything gets harder to talk about once you recognize the fact that you have incomplete and incorrect knowledge. In college my twin brother and I took a seminar class called "Personal and Disciplinary Approaches to Truth," in which a bunch of different professors from various departments discussed how their particular field (science, engineering, design, etc.) thought about truth. For our final exam we had to write papers about what we had learned from the class, and then in the last class meeting the instructors asked us to pick out the one most important sentence from our papers to share with the class. I don't remember what I wrote, but I do remember my brother's: "You could be wrong."
The problem with epistemology, of course, is that it has no end. There are an infinite number of explanations that can be made to explain our observed phenomena. Maybe the world was made by an omnipotent God. Maybe it was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Out of the millions of potential models for the world, which one do we pick to guide our actions?
Epistemology can be used to forestall action forever. We are all familiar with government agencies and officials who, when pressured to implement a policy they don't like, will declare that "further studies are needed." I call it the "epistemological punt" – "We don't know enough yet to know if it's the right thing to do, so let's do nothing." Cowards and couch-potatoes delight in the realm of epistemology, since it gives a never-ending reason to put off doing absolutely anything, forever, for no particular reason. Intuitively, most of us realize that "how-do-you-know-that-you-know-that-you-know-that-you-know" is a trap, a recipe for inaction not unlike death. We need some other mechanism or standard for operating in the realm of partial or conditional truth.
One can, however, make the exact opposite mistake about epistemology. "Oh, since we can't know anything for sure, all models are equally valid." I call this the "epistemological push" – "you can't really prove anything, so I'm going to go right on believing that homeopathy really works." While the Punters would have you do nothing in the absence of sure knowledge, the Pushers believe that anything goes. This form was mastered by the Postmodernists, who declared nothing was true and therefore anything was valid and therefore we have to believe anything they say. Pushing can be used in moderation, too, to justify whatever we happen to uncritically believe, because "that's just the way I see it."
So, getting back to our original discussion about the moral demands of helping the poor . . . Kenny seems to think that I'm Punting. I started questioning the logic and assumptions that he used in his assertions, essentially raising epistemological doubts to the degree that I could say, "You don't know that for sure, therefore your case is flawed and I don't have an infinity moral responsibility to alleviate poverty." And, for my money, I think Kenny is Pushing: he's making claims without sufficient proof, and claiming that the necessity of immediate action is sufficient to overcome any deficits in our absolute knowledge.
What to do?
Thursday, April 9. 2009
Some good comments from Gary and Kenny; let me return to those in a moment.
Pinker had another point in The Stuff of Thought (another of his books that I just finished and am still digesting) that seemed relevant to the discussion, about the nature of taboos. A taboo is a cultural norm, but it's not just that a certain action is proscribed, but rather that even directly thinking about something is forbidden. You can violate a taboo just by mentioning it in conversation, or otherwise inviting other people to think thoughts that should not be thought. Taboos are kinda weird, because it's not that the taboo subject is completely unknown to the people who respect the taboo – it's just that they don't want to think about it directly, or behave as if it's a subject for rational contemplation.
Sex used to be a taboo subject in our culture. You could offend someone just by mentioning its existence. Everyone, of course, knew all about sex and certainly engaged in it – it was just not a subject for conversation or contemplation. Over the last fifty years or so that taboo has faded considerably, given what you see on TV, but you will still see some boundaries in what most people will comfortably talk about in public. Religion was also a great taboo that has faded over time; there is more talk now about the "religious marketplace" in which people freely mix and match religious traditions and beliefs. But with religion, too, we become conscious of certain taboos when we see them violated. Recently, the atheists started crossing a taboo line by boldly, publically declaring the non-existence of God. Lots of thinkers declined to believe in divine personage over the centuries, but their opinions tended to be quiet and oblique. It is still largely considered rude to announce one's atheism loudly in a dinner party.
Why do we have taboos, if everyone knows about what we're not talking about? In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker suggests some taboos are related to the terms on which we define our relationships. The anthropologist Alan Fiske categorized all human relationships into three broad categories: Communality (freely sharing among kin and community), Authority (using power to claim resources), and Exchange (trading resources for mutual gain). Each kind of relationship has its own rules and logic, and if you mismatch the rules to the situation, the result is a faux pax. A man who gets up from his mother's Thanksgiving feast (Communality) and offers to pay her $200 for it (Exchange) will certainly offend her and everyone present. Likewise, if a waiter in a restaurant provides good service in hopes of receiving a big tip (Exchange) and instead gets a hearty "thanks!" from the patron (Communality), the waiter will be offended.
Some topics, then, are taboo because they frame the relationship with the wrong set of instinctive relationship-logic. Pinker gives the example of the pre-nuptial contract. Since half of all marriages in our country now end in divorce, you might logically think everyone ought to get a pre-nuptial contract spelling out how a divorce would be handled. Yet most couples strenuously resist even discussing prenuptials, because it engages Exchange mentality ("I'll give you this if you give me that") at precisely the time they want to be emphasizing Communality ("what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine") to ensure a committed marriage. Even thinking the thoughts can bring about the outcome they are trying to avoid in the first place.
I think religious taboos follow a similar sort of logic. People don't want to discuss religion because it undermines the intuitive logic of Communality ("we are all children of God") and Authority ("He alone is the Lord") which defines the nature of our relationships with each other. Whether there actually is a God is not the point – we just want to keep treating each other as if there is a God. And while specific religious traditions have blurred into one another in the multicultural melting pot, the most basic common elements of religion as a definer of our relationships persists: a belief in God (though barely defined), and a vague consensus on a moral reality.
Which brings us up to the current conversation about the genesis of morals. Whenever I pursue moral arguments out to their logical ends (as Singer does), I wind up standing at the precipice of this final taboo: no one wants to admit that our morals are hanging in space with no visible support. Even atheists such as Pinker, who are perfectly comfortable declaring God to be "palpably unreal," are unwilling to say that "there is no moral law." Even after demonstrating that the emotions that support morality and ethics are evolved mechanisms, he will still vehemently insist there really is such a thing as right and wrong. Pinker suggests that maybe morality is the necessary result of logical truth: it always stands to reason that everyone is better off if everyone helps everyone else. Maybe our brains evolved the moral emotions to perceive an objective truth, just like we evolved the mechanism to understand mathematics. These explanations are hardly explanations; to define morality as merely enlightened self-interest is just to say, once again, that we only have self-interest and all we do is look out for ourselves. To say that morality is character of the universe simply begs the question: morality is real because it's real. I have to suspect that Pinker is holding back for reasons other than logic. Perhaps even he can't override the programming in his brain that says right and wrong are real. Or perhaps he just knows it's taboo: to declare morality to be non-rational is social suicide. Nobody trusts the man who has no law.
Wednesday, April 1. 2009
One part of the whole "helping the poor" thing that bothers me is that it seems to leave unanswered the whole question of why we are alive to begin with. I have dialogues with myself that run something like this:
Noble Me: "What is my purpose in life? I know – I'll be a saint. I will dedicate myself to alleviating the suffering of the poor."
Skeptical Me: "So . . . the purpose of your life is to help those poor people."
SM: "And the meaning of your life will be manifested in the sorts of lives they have, because of you."
SM: "And . . . what's the purpose of their lives?"
NM: "Well, um . . . to be happy, I guess."
SM: "Happy how, exactly?"
NM: "Well, that's for them to figure out, isn't it?"
SM: "Yes, but what do you imagine they will do with their lives?"
NM: "Well, they'll work. They'll make things. They'll do things. They'll have families, and love their children. They'll live."
SM: "So the purpose of living is . . . being alive?"
NM: (hesitating) ". . . Yessss"
SM: "Sounds kind of tautological, doesn't it?"
NM: "Well, being alive beats the alternative, doesn't it?"
SM: "Well, yeah . . . probably. But if being alive is the point, why worry about having a purpose at all? Why don't you just live?"
NM: "Well, that would just be selfish, wouldn't it? There's much more to life than just enjoying yourself. What's the point of just living for yourself?"
SM: "So, what about the people you help? What if they're selfish? Does that mean their lives have no purpose? And, since you said the meaning of your life is tied up in their lives, does that mean by extension your life would be meaningless?"
NM: "Well, no . . . they'll find their own ways to have a meaningful life."
SM: "How? By helping someone else? Does that mean you have to have someone less fortunately than yourself to give to, to make your life meaningful? Do we need the poor in order to make life meaningful?"
NM: "No, not necessarily helping other people. They'll find other ways."
SM: "So helping others is just a way to pass the buck – to make someone else figure out what a meaningful life is supposed to be?"
NM: "No . . . they'll find other ways to make people happy."
SM: "So happiness is the purpose of life?"
SM: "Sounds kind of selfish."
I could go on with this sort of thing, but it tends to bite its own tail, repeat itself, and generally gets boring long before any kind of conclusion is reached. I come away with the same conclusion: I must be missing something, because none of this fits together quite right. If happiness is the point, then why bother with helping other people? Why bother helping other people, if happiness is not the point?
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