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How Good Do We Have To Be?

With so many serious problems in the world, Jean Kazez asks whether there’s any excuse to buy ourselves new toys, or even take up more worthy pastimes like playing the violin. Her reflections take in Paul Farmer, Peter Singer, Susan Wolf and Nietzsche.

In a recent shopping trip to Circuit City electronics store, a thought kept running through my head: how could it be right to spend money on a television when I already have one that works, and there are millions of people around the world with urgent problems?

It sounds like a cliché, but questions like this have bothered me since I began reading Princeton philosopher Peter Singer some fifteen years ago. When I’m about to go out for an expensive meal or buy new clothes, I often feel like I’m wearing an invisible WWSD (What Would Singer Do?) bracelet.

Singer’s argument is disarmingly simple. A choice to buy a $2000 television set is a choice not to buy the food and medical care that would save scores of lives. How then could the TV purchase be justifiable? Applied to every situation, Singer’s argument would change my life in a thousand ways. Even choosing to help my daughter learn to play the violin is morally iffy, considering that in the same time I could be a reading tutor for a hoard of less privileged children.

It’s no fun comparing flat panel, projection, and plasma models while contemplating one’s responsibility for death and disease in far away places. One part of my brain continued working on the problem of which TV, while another part worked on whether any TV ought to be purchased at all. Fortunately, my husband was willing to join in on both forms of masochism, and so over the course of many weeks we talked about our TV needs and our moral responsibilities. Both problems came to seem excruciating.

TV or not TV?

There’s no easy rebuttal to Singer’s arguments, but a couple of exit strategies come to mind. The most nefarious involves finding fault with very good people who would never even step into a Circuit City. I’ve heard unpleasant rumors about all of my moral heroes. Gandhi, I am told, used to test his capacity for chastity by sharing his bed with teenage girls. And even Mother Teresa is slammed in Christopher Hitchens’ slim 1997 volume, The Missionary Position.

If every purported hero isn’t really all that great, perfect morality might not be anything I ought to aim for. So perhaps I could cynically discard the whole idea of trying to be better. On the other hand, if I’m going to acquit myself by finding fault with very good people, I’m better off searching for a fundamental flaw in all of them instead of unearthing lapses and misdeeds. There might not be any scandalous stories about some of my heroes, and then where would I be?

Nietzsche, that 19th century bad boy of philosophy, says that morality, with all its insistence on selflessness and self-control, stifles human potential. When released from such Sunday school rules, ‘higher beings’ – that’s me, right? – have a chance to be strong, adventurous, creative, exuberant, affirmative. In a Nietzschean mode, contemporary philosopher Susan Wolf also diagnoses a lack of passion, an impaired ability to enjoy life, a feeble sense of self, in people who take the moral high road every single time. With this perspective in mind, could I possibly justify the TV purchase as an expression of Nietzschean passion and exuberance?

Just as we had decided to buy a wide-screen Sony, our problem became even worse. As a reward for working with his company for twenty five years, my husband was offered the choice of any item from what we called the ‘swag’ catalogue. We could have a grandfather clock, a set of very sharp knives, or any one of a number of electronic products. We could have a TV, free. So now we could both express exuberance and spend our TV budget alleviating the problems of the poor. It wasn’t the TV we’d chosen: it would be a conventional screen, not a wide-screen. Yet how could we pass up such a near-perfect solution to our problems? Would Nietzschean exuberance really require we purchase the wide-screen model?

The swag catalog was an obstacle to buying the TV I wanted, and so was a wonderful book I happened to be reading – Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. It turns out you can combine doing good for the poor and sick with an awful lot of passion and exuberance. For a year, Kidder followed around Paul Farmer, the Harvard-affiliated infectious disease specialist and medical anthropologist, who spends most of the year running a hospital for the poorest Haitians. When he’s not flying around the world supporting other health initiatives, Farmer lives in a tin-roofed shack, like his patients. Kidder writes, “He had traveled more than anyone I knew, and seen fewer of the brochure sights. He’d never been to Machu Pichu in Peru. He’d never gone to the Bolshoi in Moscow.” Farmer explains,“The problem is, if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to.”

Is Farmer a dull, passionless, nay-saying conformist? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he seems to bring an intense passion to every aspect of his work. Anything but dull, he has a biting sense of humor. A mother is angry at her son for supposedly using sorcery to kill his brother, who died of an illness. Farmer reassures the woman that sorcery wasn’t involved in this particular case – admitting to Kidder that he feels “eighty-six percent amused.” Farmer is a man Singer would approve of, but perhaps also a man Nietzsche could admire. I don’t think Farmer would buy the wide-screen TV. I don’t think he’d even browse through the swag catalog.

Saint or Slave?

I’m in awe of Paul Farmer, but to live like him I’d have to give up an awful lot more than the TV of my dreams. I’d have to give up teaching philosophy, devoting time disproportionately to my children, and the trip to Alaska I’m about to take. If everyone tried to live like Farmer, nobody would go to art school or music school; nobody would spend time training for marathons or climb Everest; nobody would lavish attention on their children or friends. From an external standpoint, it wouldn’t be so bad if a generation devoted itself exclusively to ending poverty, fighting disease, addressing injustice. Would it really hurt if we waited twenty years, or fifty years, to go back to producing art, Everest expeditions, and spoiled children? But from an individual’s point of view the wait would be too long. I’m probably not going to be alive in fifty years, so if I didn’t follow my muse and do what I really find satisfying, I’d be giving up my life. Only figuratively, of course; but there is a parallel with the person who actually sacrifices his life. A good samaritan who saves ten people in a burning building does what’s best from the external standpoint. How can ten lives not be worth more than one? We’re all in awe of him, but he certainly doesn’t improve his own life, and we could easily sympathize with a bystander who couldn’t follow his example. That’s a lot to expect from yourself, and following Farmer’s example is a lot to expect as well.

I doubt that Singer would buy my analogy. He claims we can find a robust sense of purpose and greater happiness if we devote ourselves to ‘transcendent’ ethical causes – endeavors that dislodge our focus from ‘me and mine’ to everyone. If I emulate Paul Farmer, Singer implies, I’ll be profoundly happy, not dead like the self-sacrificing rescuer.

No, I won’t be dead: but it’s not so obvious I’ll be happy, or even close to happy. It would be nice if it were true that the route to happiness for everyone is to help others. But I suspect that the route to happiness for mountain climbers is mountain climbing, and the route to happiness for artists is making art. The route to happiness for many parents is lavishing attention on their own offspring. Those who find the greatest pleasure in helping strangers are wonderful – literally: They fill us with wonder. I’m glad they exist. I would like to be a person like that. But I’m not.

Paul Farmer can live with Nietzschean affirmation, and exuberance, and joy, while tending the sick in Haiti. Forcing myself into his mold, I think I’d wind up more slave than saint: a slave to completely worthy ideals, but still a slave.

Transcendence or Toys?

Singer is right that saving lives is more important than just about anything. So choosing something else is always fraught with moral difficulty. At times the demand for altruism is so urgent that it would seem odd to focus on your own good at all. You don’t finish a painting knowing that your next-door neighbor needs to be rushed to the emergency room. But in reality there is an emergency somewhere every moment of every day. Millions of people around the world suffer from poverty, injustice, and inadequate health care.

We cannot turn our backs on the daily crisis. But I can’t go as far as saying nobody should go to art school or climb mountains or learn to play the violin. Our personal ambitions are thus in tension with living an fully ethical life. Unless you are cut out to be Paul Farmer, or you are willing to sacrifice your life like the good Samaritan, this is a tension you’ll have to live with. The question must continually be asked; am I doing all I should be doing? Have I stepped too far away from a perfectly ethical life?

I’m sticking with my upcoming trip to Alaska, with the inordinate attention I pay to my children, and with my career teaching philosophy. But what about the wide-screen TV? Benjamin Franklin pointed out that the advantage of rationality is that it “enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” So have I rationalized – simply cooked up a reason to get the model I really want?

I’ve got to be honest. Surely I can pursue my dreams without a wide-screen television set. I’m not going to devote every moment to a transcendent cause. But I can’t see any excuse to pamper myself with lavish toys.

It would be in my best interests to end this essay right here. That way you’d think I passed up the TV I really wanted and sent a big fat check to a relief organization. The fact is that I didn’t. I bought the TV. In the world we live in, resisting the latest amusement is no easier than sticking to a diet.

I also feel guilty. And I should.

© Jean Kazez 2006

Jean Kazez lives with her husband and two children in the materialistic suburbs of Dallas, where no one ever has second thoughts about shopping. She teaches philosophy as an adjunct at Southern Methodist University. Her book The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life will be published by Blackwell in February 2007.

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