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Needs & Wants

Peg Tittle wonders if she can be happy alone without feeling guilty about it.

Quite a while ago, I set myself the philosophical question, ‘Is it wrong to be happy alone?’ My answer, now, would be a glib ‘Surely less wrong than to be unhappy alone’, but I know the problem I was getting at was this: isn’t it selfish to be happy alone – and isn’t it wrong to be selfish?

To that question, I’d say first, it’s important to distinguish between ‘selfish’ and ‘self-interested’. The former entails and goes beyond the latter: selfishness is self-interest at the expense of others.

For example, if it pleases me to live in a cabin on a lake in a forest quite a distance away from the nearest town or highway, and I buy such a place, that no one else even wanted, let alone needed, I’m acting out of self-interest. No one has been disadvantaged by my serving my own desires.

However, if I prefer to keep warm with easy electric baseboard heaters or an oil furnace rather than with the hassle of splitting and carrying firewood and building fires, that’s another story. With the former, I’m supporting a heavilysubsidized industry: the subsidies that support it could have gone instead into education, but didn’t – to the detriment of how many kids? I’m also supporting the nuclear industry; I’m thus responsible for perhaps one of those microscopic flakes of plutonium that will give somebody cancer. As for the oil furnace, well, the acid rain that’s killing our lakes? Some of it was formed by the SO2 and NO from my burning of fossil fuels.

But, you cry (especially if you heat with oil), surely I’m being extreme. In addition to pointing out that by heating with wood, I’m depleting our already-in-danger forests, the lungs of the planet, you tell me that if I’d chosen instead to live in a rented apartment, that down payment of several thousand dollars on my cabin could’ve provided housing for some Third World family. So actually, that initial selfinterested action was also at the expense of another – it was also selfish.

Very true. So perhaps the proper response to the original question is to point out that it’s a nonsense question: there is no such thing as ‘alone’; we are all connected. The Pareto Principle states that social welfare would be increased if the satisfaction of some individuals could be increased without decreasing that of others, but perhaps this is an impossibility.

So where does that leave me? Well, certainly unhappier than I was before I started. I have to face and accept the fact that all of my happiness is at the expense of others and therefore it is wrong to be so happy. If I want to be right, I have to give it all up, reduce my standard of living to the current lowest and never raise it until we all can raise it.

Now wait a minute, you say. Three things. Firstly, even if you did live in a rented apartment, well, maybe if that Third World family didn’t have so many kids, they could afford a home. Maybe if their country didn’t spend half of its money on weapons, they would have a home. Yes. I agree. But, and, maybe if they didn’t spend the other half paying off their debt to us First World countries who, admit it, are as well off as we are because we’ve exploited them… But why should we suffer for the past and/or present corrupt trade policies of our government? Why should they? I don’t know the solution to this problem: I know we’re connected but the connections are neither clear nor simple. How much happiness should I sacrifice for the very low probability that my deficit will be their asset?

Secondly, you were talking about finite resource kinds of things. What if you’re happy because you’re warm and you heat with the sun? That would not be at anyone’s expense – taking heat from the sun for yourself doesn’t reduce the amount available for someone else. Good point. So it’s okay to be happy alone insofar as that happiness comes from nonexhaustible sources.

Thirdly, you were talking about tangible kinds of things. What about things like peace and quiet? Well, it’s interesting that you mentioned those. I happen to be very happy when it’s quiet. My neighbour, however, seems to be happy when he’s making noise: he sings when he’s outside, loudly enough for me to hear him; he cuts his grass with a power lawnmower; he trims the weeds with one of those obnoxiously noisy weedeaters and so on. I’m sure that if I told him he was being selfish whenever he cut his grass, because it was at my expense (it destroys the quiet upon which my happiness depends), he’d simply not comprehend. He thinks he’s being a morally responsible person to cut the grass. He’d also claim, I’m sure, that he doesn’t want to cut it – it has to be cut. And I of course would deny that – he doesn’t need to cut his grass!

And here we get to the infamous ‘needs/wants’ distinction. Many people call a ‘need’ what is really a ‘want’. For example, contrary to popular opinion, one doesn’t need sex. Of course, the crucial question is “need for what?” My answer is pretty basic – ‘for survival’: if you can live without it, you don’t really need it, you just want it.

It is an arbitrary definition perhaps, but few would disagree that life alone, simply being alive, is a good. But so is being happy a good – why not say that whatever contributes to happiness is a need? Well, it’s a matter of logical priority. One can’t consider aspects of X until one has X; one can’t consider quality of life, happiness, until one has life.

Now this definition allows us to make the persuasive proposal that all things being equal, one shouldn’t satisfy one’s wants until all have had their needs satisfied; one shouldn’t take dessert until everyone’s had some bread and water. What if someone didn’t help with the harvest though? Well, that’s why I said ‘all things being equal’ – we’re really back to the Third World family home problem.

Eventually we get to the equally infamous difficulty of ranking wants (or needs, if you like). Whose want is more important, more to be respected? I would argue that since my desire for quiet is conscious and genuine, and my neighbour’s desire to cut the grass is a conditioned reflex and hence artificial (we live in a forest, it’s stupid even to have a lawn), mine is better and therefore more important. Or I could argue that my desire does no harm but his does (having a lawn that one maintains with fossil-fuelled machines adds to ecological degradation); but he’d probably say that his desire keeps people employed (all those lawnmowers to manufacture and repair). How do we judge?

I propose that we rank wants according to their proximity to needs, according to their relation to survival, both individual and collective. And so, since quiet is totally unrelated to food, water, and shelter, whereas cutting the grass is negatively related, as it contributes to environmental degradation, my want should have priority. In the case of two equally unrelated-to-survival wants (do we listen to Bach or Bon Jovi?), I think equal time to each would be fairest, unless some creative solution can be found – like headphones.

To conclude then, there’s no such thing as ‘alone’, so the initial question of ‘Is it wrong to be happy alone?’ got reduced to ‘Is it wrong to be happy at the expense of others?’ And the answer to that question depends on whether the stuff involved for one’s happiness is of limited or unlimited quantity. If unlimited, there doesn’t seem to be a problem: it would be impossible to have the stuff at another’s expense. If limited, then the distinction between needs and wants is crucial, with needs taking precedence; that is to say, one should not have what one wants if that causes another not to get what is needed. However, if the stuff is so limited that it would not even meet everyone’s needs, surely it’s insane for everyone to not get enough – that would be species suicide. In that case, then, it seems permissible to take what one needs. But no more. Those who die from lack of it don’t die because you took more than you needed, they die because there wasn’t enough. And as for the non-stuff things, the more related something is to a need for survival, the greater priority it gets. Failing that distinction, the more genuine the want, the more respect it should get. And failing that, equal time or a creative solution should do the trick.

Now, is everybody happy?

© Peg Tittle 2000

Peg Tittle really does live in a cabin on a lake in a forest, the forest in question being in a remote part of Ontario. And she really is happy, but not alone – she lives with an equally happy canine, chessie.

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