Friday, August 26, 2016

Ignoring suffering for self-indulgence

Recently I have adopted a neat little personal slogan, which I think captures my intuitions about a lot of ethical issues quite well:

"If you care about suffering, you will do something about it."

Of course, this is also rather vague in prescription - to what extent should you go to do something about suffering?

I have mulled about this general idea for a long while now, I basically have come to realize that I see no way of justifying self-indulgent actions while others are worse off.

For me (and I think for most everyone else who isn't lacking in compassion and empathy - i.e. sociopaths, psychopaths, selfish individuals, most politicians, etc.), it seems wrong to ignore someone who just broke their leg down the block and is screaming in pain as their femur extends out of their leg at a gross angle. Almost everyone, I think, would feel obligated to aid this person, and also expect others to do the same in such a situation. You could at least call 9-11.

But this also leads to a very slippery slope - at what point do you no longer have a reasonable obligation to help someone? What if this person lived two blocks down, would you still need to help them? What if they lived in a different city, and you saw them through binoculars? What if you theoretically could help them if you drove your car over to the city - is your annoyance with driving a few miles really comparable to the pain this individual is in?

We cannot help those whom we do not know need help. But, in fact, we know a great deal of people, even if it is impersonal, that require aid. And we also know of general facts of society and life in general - the poor get fucked by the rich, the prey gets its neck torn out by the predator, we never seem to be satisfied and in fact often feel pain, etc. And so if we do not know of anyone who needs help, certainly it is possible for us to go out and find those who need help, for we know that someone, somewhere, is in need. We need not sit here and wait for those in need to find us.

This is, of course, largely a consequentialist argument. But I think it is a very strong argument, for at the very least we can appeal to egoism and show how, if we were in extreme pain ourselves, we would like it if someone helped us. I'm sure anyone's reluctance to help someone in need pales in comparison to the pain this person is experiencing.

So in general I think there really is no other position to take other than to accept that those who are worse-off than we are should be sought out and helped to the best of our abilities - in other words, if the cost of us helping them is reasonably lower than the relief the victim experiences, we have a moral obligation to do so.

I've made my own pessimistic views known. But definitely one thing I disagree strongly with when it comes to living as a "pessimist" is the general tendency to advocate isolation, asceticism, and/or the intellectually self-centered, self-indulgent life advocated by these cherished melancholic thinkers. It just doesn't make any sense - if you really believe that there is this much suffering and decay in the world, the worst thing you could do is to propagate this suffering and decay. Having a negative outlook and yet continuing to live an affirmative life is logically contradictory. And, I think, a legitimate understanding of suffering (by compassion and empathy) leads to the dissolution of the doing/allowing distinction, which leads to the conclusion that standing idly by is equivalent, or at least no-more praiseworthy, than intentionally causing harm.

This leads to uncomfortable/guilty conclusions that I think modern ethicists have made an entire speculative field out of to try to mitigate: essentially much of modern ethics ends up being apologetics for not doing enough, or being a lazy, selfish individual, i.e. justifying inherent human dispositions as if they are on par with our apparent moral obligations.

Some of these conclusions would be as follows: the complete abandonment of non-effective-utility intellectual enterprises, including but not limited to much of theoretical physics, evolutionary biology, astronomy, psychology, as well as much or all of the arts and humanities, and especially professional sports and entertainment. For when placed on utility scales, they are largely worthless and exorbitantly wasteful in that they self-indulge while ignoring the plight of others. It also means a radical change in lifestyle, including but not limited to: veganism (or at least vegetarianism), ethically-mandatory political action, and most of all the complete abandonment of one's own personal desires in order to help others.

If you think this is too much to ask for, you need only imagine yourself in the situation of a person in need. And to tell yourself that you are "lucky" for being better off is incredibly selfish.

But I'm under no delusions that this is actually feasible. We are human beings after all, and won't be motivated to abandon all our dreams and desires for moral duty. But I think it's something rather important, and saddening, to point out how incredibly narcissistic we all are, how incredibly immoral we are, at the expense of everyone else. Because once we identify a problem, we can at least try to be better.


  1. "if the cost of us helping them is reasonably lower"

    I'm still toying with the view that it's fine to procrastinate on much of this, assuming ones earns more than one spends. If not, and the only way to help is in a hands-on sorta way, then "reasonably lower" bars are ones operating in urgency, since it's impossible to assist anyone personally/non-monetarily from beyond the grave. With savings/assets there's always the "transfer-on-death" post-mortem donation option, so avoiding burnout is easy and the beneficence results are (ultimately) the same. You just have to not be a typical prick who leaves everything to friends or family who are already well off.

    Still, there remains a strong moral impulse (not necessarily a reason) for me to donate all or most savings ASAP. It nags on me more & more, even though it's unpersuasive on a purely logical level, I think.

    I increasingly worry about burnout, at the same time. It's psychologically difficult to justify massive pre-mortem donations given the uncertainty of the labor market in a decade or so. If no UBI, we're looking at an economic race to the bottom for all but the most highly skilled/decorated. Even in the West. We just might end up joining 'the worst-off' club at that point.

    "for at the very least we can appeal to egoism and show how, if we were in extreme pain ourselves, we would like it if someone helped us"

    To which the fortunate egoist can smilingly go: If ifs & buts were candy & nuts...

    At least, that's what I get from them when I attempt to engage by appealing to causal luck or the Just World Fallacy. Probably doesn't help that I engage shit-tier egoists on YT, and never the academic proponents. Something tells me, though, that the best response would be similar enough.

    "dissolution of the doing/allowing distinction"

    I'm trying to find out what percentage of moral philosophers agree with us on this. Even estimates are proving to be difficult.

    1. "Still, there remains a strong moral impulse (not necessarily a reason) for me to donate all or most savings ASAP. It nags on me more & more, even though it's unpersuasive on a purely logical level, I think."

      I agree, it is a strange impulse. Our intuitions on these matters are quite convoluted.

      Perhaps it has something to do with prioritizing those who are suffering right now, instead of those predicted to suffer in the future. If you donated all your actual and future savings right now, presumably about the same amount of people would be helped had you waited until you died to donate everything.

      The difference here, though, is that if everyone did this, then nobody in the present would be helped. Only those in the future would be helped, and sooner or later the Sun will expand and kill everyone, and also destroying all the savings meant for future generations (savings that would have helped those currently alive at the time, which would have meant that previous donated savings would have helped those currently in need at the time, all the way back to where we are today).

      Not sure if this is entirely coherent though - this is assuming an ideal world, and in an ideal world, nobody would reproduce... But I think that those who can be helped right now should be helped, and those who will need help in the future will be helped later on a need-to-know basis. There's something definitely nagging about the idea that some people are not worthy of aid, that they are insignificant compared to others, especially if these others aren't even alive right now.

      Maybe we should donate our savings for the future when we die, but while we are alive be politically and socially active. But we have to be careful with this as well - giving money to a homeless man may seem like a good thing to do, but it may only reinforce his behavior and make him believe his lifestyle is good, good enough perhaps to have children for example.

      So we gotta find a balance between humanitarianism and misanthropy, to make sure we don't harm people by following either extreme.

      "We just might end up joining 'the worst-off' club at that point."

      We're fucked, yo. I also worry about burn out. I'm in college right now, pursuing an engineering degree that I both enjoy and will pay well and allow me to help others. I didn't particularly have any noteworthy skills that would have put me in a lucrative job outside of high school, not to mention even a job that I like. So for me at least, university is a bit of a necessary excursion, for the benefit of others but mostly for my own goddamn sanity.

      "I'm trying to find out what percentage of moral philosophers agree with us on this. Even estimates are proving to be difficult."

      I'd wager that we're in the minority. Even consequentialist sometimes have the distinction in place. I think a big reason why this is the case is because there is an ever-persistent notion that our morality aligns with our abilities, when I don't see why this needs to be the case or how it could even be so.

  2. Brilliant discourse. I'm not sure that money actually can even begin to solve anything;broad it's limitations are. No, the nail in the coffin of such noble enterprises may be the malaise that has plagued humanity since the dawn of time, the inability of people to work effectively together. Notice I said may, as it is consequential ly unproductive to state otherwise.