Monday, June 21, 2010

Putting oneself before another

On Thur, Jun 3, 2010 at 19:32:13
Lois asked this question:

There are situations where the pursuit of our own happiness and peace of mind conflicts with that of another. Must we always put the interests of others before our own? Is there any justification for pursuing one's own welfare at the expense of someone who stands in the way of our goal?

This question came in a while ago, and I wasn't going to answer it. Other Ask a Philosopher panel members have already had a go, and I couldn't really see that I had anything to add. (Lois didn't provide an email address so she'll have to wait — rather a long time, I'm afraid — until the next series of Questions and Answers is posted.)

But something happened to make me look at this question again. (It's not something I want to talk about here.) The thought occurred to me that pursuing this question from Lois can take you into a very dark place indeed.

But let's start off with the more obvious points that a moral philosopher would make.

I can think of two clear cases, which few would dispute, where in the one case it was perfectly reasonable to put oneself before another; while in the other case one has a clear obligation to put the other person before oneself.

Let's say you are one of two shortlisted candidates for a well paid executive position, waiting to be interviewed. This is the first time you have reached the short list after scores of unsuccessful job applications.

Your stomach churns as you realize how much depends on how you perform in this interview. A divorced mother of three. You are behind with your mortgage payments, and you and your children are threatened with eviction from the home they have lived in all of their lives. Your age is against you, and it was only pure luck that you managed to get this far in the selection process.

The other candidate catches your eye. 'How long do you think we're going to have to wait?' You mumble something in reply. But the other woman needs to talk so you listen. You listen with a growing sense of amazement to her story about her husband who cheated on her with his personal trainer, her subsequent divorce, her three young children and how far she is behind with her mortgage payments. She could be you. She has as much to gain, or to lose, as you have yourself.

What should you do? There's no question. You go for the job. In the interview you fight for your happiness and the happiness of your children. You fight for all your lives.

Our moral intuitions tell us — at least, my moral intuitions tell me — that in a situation of fair, or even not so fair competition such as the one I have described, there has to be a winner and a loser. You have every right to strive to win with all your might, even though as a necessary consequence the other must lose. Until human beings finally succeed in creating Utopia, that's the nature of the society we live in.

I've painted this in black and white colours, but it is not just an isolated, extreme example. There are many, many ways in which human beings have to fight for their happiness and peace of mind, knowing that there will inevitably be winners and losers in the game of life. Of course, you can do your best to help those less fortunate, give generously to charity and good causes. But if it was wrong to compete in the first place, then charity and good deeds would merely be a salve to ease one's guilty conscience.

In the example I have just given, it could be objected that I was unfairly raising the stakes as each candidate was naturally concerned for the well-being of her children. I don't think that's the crucial point, however. My original idea was to have two not-so young but single Philosophy PhDs competing for an academic post. (I can sympathize, but not that many would.) Exactly the same considerations apply. One is destined for a life in academia and the realization of all his or her dreams, the other will end up as a bank manager. And both believe this is the very last chance for either of them.

But what about a parent's duty to one's child? Isn't that the clearest case where one has an obligation to put the happiness of others before one's own? The very definition of a 'bad mother' or 'bad father' is a person who refuses to do this. Again, I'm relying on moral intuition, but I expect the majority of parents would agree. It's a cliché, but clichés are often true, that parenthood is a sustained and bloody exercise in self-sacrifice.

Well, I could go on to talk about all the cases in between, where we are pulled both ways, towards wanting to say that one has an obligation to put the other first, and saying that one is justified in putting oneself first. Or, I could delve into moral theory in order to account for these alleged intuitions: what would a utilitarian say? or a Kantian deontologist? or a virtue ethicist? or an evolutionary biologist?

But I leave that as an exercise.

What concerns me is a disturbing vibe that I get with this question. Our 'happiness and peace of mind' is at stake. What would one not do for the sake of one's happiness and peace of mind? As a parent, you can't be happy if your children are unhappy. And if there really is no prospect that one will ever attain happiness, wouldn't it be better just to end it all?

And to think that you could be happy, were it not for the one person standing in your way!

What you would say to the the mother of three who fails to get the job is that it isn't the end of the world. OK, so you get evicted from your home. That's terrible. But people survive worse, and they end up making good lives for themselves. Or to the disappointed PhD, one would remind them that they still have their life ahead of them, there are other ways to pursue one's interest in philosophy besides paid employment in a university.

When do we not think this? When are we absolutely and utterly convinced that unless XYZ happens, our happiness and peace of mind will be gone forever, never to return? Love would be pretty high on the list. But not the only item. It could be a political cause that you have dedicated your whole life to. Or something as banal and unidealistic as the mistaken belief that you can only be happy having lots and lots of money.

Which brings us to that dark place, which popular films and TV dramas love to explore.

In Lois' question, there was a nice vagueness in the idea of doing something 'at the expense' of another. One naturally assumes that we are dealing with a tit-for-tat situation. What one stands to win, the other stands to lose. But there's no logical reason for this assumption. — That is the way a murderer thinks too.

1 comment:

  1. Geoffrey, I'm not sure about this answer. Putting your interests above those of others isn't the same as putting the interests of you and your family before others, as your family isn't you.
    The PhD students are simply competing.