Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Happiness for me in a world of suffering for others - thoughts provoked (in part) by seeing the victims of the tsunami via a €700 flat-screen TV

"Il n'y a pas de honte à préférer le bonheur" - Albert Camus

There's no shame in prefering happiness, so Camus told us. But the quote surely begs the question: prefering happiness to what?

The pursuit of happiness: has it not become the only really serious duty in our secularised and depoliticised consumer societies? And doesn't the presently dominant mode of the pursuit of happiness entail in large measure a turning away from the overwhelming suffering and injustice in the world, a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders - there's no point depressing yourself by dwelling on the unhappiness in the world, the poor will always be with us... - and get down to the business of at least leading a happy life yourself?

Those of us who live such extraordinarily privileged lives, so full of material excess, have ethical duties towards those who suffer for want of material wealth. This duty is of course political - the sticking plaster solution of "charity" can only alleviate the worst excesses of such suffering (as well as aleviating the worst pangs of guilt in Western consciences). Systematic change and real progress will come only from political action. Even within the category of throwing crumbs from the rich men's table towards the wretched masses of the Third World, government aid is, as the Americans say, where it's at.

The ethical duty is, however, also personal. Could there be anything more hypocritical than to denounce rich governments from a continuing position of comfort and privilege? Isn't genuine and difficult sacrifice the real test of our good faith - the opposite of hypocrisy?* So how can I justify to myself spending money on beer when it is surely undeniable that I could use it (via charities, aid agencies etc.) to soothe (even marginally) the agony of others?

All this, of course, implies a relatively heavy ethical burden - relative at least to the ethical burden at present generally accepted, let alone that currently fulfilled. My thoughts here are in part provoked by my having recently read Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence and Morality" the chief import of which is that "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." ( I was directed to this paper by Chris Young the last time I discussed Singer, an ethicist who clearly makes a layman like me think). This is a short and easily understood essay, and I urge you to read it.

But it is also inspired by my general political and philosophical thinking. The religious are right - man cannot live on bread alone. Beyond our basic material needs (we do, in fact, need bread in the first place), humans always seek something more, something greater. For those who realise that this "something more" cannot be found in supermarkets and car dealerships, the void of "meaning", "spirituality" etc. might mean turning to churches. For those, such as myself, whose committment to rationalism and truth rule out this last solution, political, philosophical and thus ultimately (if honesty, good faith etc. are presumed) ethical engagement are the means of giving human existence, if not "meaning" at least a higher dignity, and perhaps even a deeper more durable happiness than that offered by consumerist hedonism.

I might also say it was inspired by my having yesterday seen Sky News' coverage of the Tsunami disaster in an electrical goods store - and thus the always weird spectacle of seeing the same images on a dozen different TV's became obscene as well. Was I the only one in the store to think this? It clearly didn't even occur to the manager that such a juxtaposition might disturb his customers as they considered whether to hand over €700 to Sony for a trendier TV, or to find some other use for the money.

* I am aware of the religious, and indeed specifically Catholic, connotaions here - virtuous suffering and sacrifice to prove good faith - but obviously this is all a propos of a secular ethics. I trust that the coincidence of my having read Singer's essay - which takes as its starting point the East Begali humanitarian catastrophe of 1971, during which it was written - a day or two before the present humanitarian catastrophe came to dominate the news, was equally secular, if nonetheless striking.

(Amended slightly at 8.30 PM)

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Necessary illusions

Since his response to my ruminations on the question of religious disillusionment from a rationalist and atheist viewpoint, Norm has been hitting the theological question bigtime, obviously inspired by the various efforts to integrate the arbitrary and meaningless nature of the tsunami disaster into our understanding.

The question, it appears to me, is this: what illusions, if any, are pschologically, emotionally, existentially indispensible given the inevitability of human suffering and ultimately death? Two possible existentially necessary illusions - if illusions is what they are - come to mind: free will and personal identity. The belief that "I" am in some sense free to make my own decisions seems to me as though it may well be necessary for psychological equilibrium, even if "I" is an illusory category and/or "I" no more have free will than does a computer.

Religious belief on the other hand, I am confident, is not universally necessary - I feel a certain rationalist liberation from my own atheism. But it may well be necessary for some people, and perhaps even the greater part of mankind - at least as it is currently constituted.

The question, in other words, is whether the pain which the opium dulls derives from an incurable disease - if so, it might be best to stick with the painkiller*. If the disease is, in Marxian terms, "social" - i.e. historically situated and thus open to amelioration - rather than "material" - i.e. an integral part of human existence in any age and any social formation - it would be better to dispense with the painkiller and put right the disorder of which the pain is but a sign.

*Or, rather, a painkiller - there are alternative illusions and distractions that can help us cope with pleasant realities. But can they be effective for all? This is the question one needs to answer before actively seeking to dispel people's religious illusions.

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