Tibor R. Machan
It is a running joke, of course, concerning Jewish mothers that they relentlessly try to instill guilt in their children along lines of, "You owe me since I brought you up." Never mind now that bringing up children is something parents usually sign up for freely and it is a fair assumption that they do so for reasons of their own. There is no gratitude required when they carry out what they themselves decided to do, only if they did it exceptionally well, super-conscientiously. (My own children owe me no more than ordinary respect and some thanks for extras. The rest was all my idea!)
In times like these, when a good many of those in some parts of the globe are hit with massive catastrophes, most decent people not experiencing plight ponder just what they might be able to do to help out. Sending some supplies or money is the usual, normal and sensible answer.
Yet there are those among us who jump at the chance to indict all who are doing reasonably well in these times of confusion and uncertainty, by claiming that we owe everything to those in dire straits; that any joy we experience during these days must be denied a place in one’s life since it would be an insult and affront to those who suffer and who have perished.
I was reflecting on this not just in my usual role as a student of ethics or morality but also as an ordinary person, as I am sure quite a few of us have been doing. I had been on my morning constitutional, walking past some homes in my neighborhood, and I heard laughter coming from some porches or kitchens and thought that this is a welcome sign that the world isn’t quite going to hell in a hand basket, that people go on about with their lives even when some others are having a really bad time of it. And that is, I figure, just as it should be, except for some outreach with effective assistance by those who can handle it.
But I can tell you, from having read the writings of some very influential people, including academics, that that is not what some people in prestigious places would want from us all. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, for example, that "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity." And academic philosopher Peter Unger wrote–in his provocatively titled book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusions of Innocence (Oxford University Press, 1996)–that "On pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others." If one takes these proclamations seriously, one will never have any peace at all and defeat the very thing in one’s own life that one is being urged to help support in the lives of others people, namely, personal well being and happiness.
The other side of the coin, however, isn’t to stick one’s head in the sand and pay no attention at all to how others, even total strangers, are faring. In clear emergencies, such as what happened during the Southeast Asia tsunami a few winters ago and what is happening right now in Haiti, decent human beings will take some of their time or resources and chip in not because they may not be happy without doing so but because no such individual ignores the plight of other people who are facing sudden drastic circumstances.
It would be absurd to begrudge those who are living reasonably satisfactory lives what they have in light of the fact that there are others who aren’t so well off. After all, what is one lamenting but the very fact that these others are lacking in what some of us do have (whether deservedly or fortunately)? The idea that just because there are other persons who are disabled or lacking in what they would want, no one may take pleasure in what he or she does have, may have a noble ring to it but it is complete folly. It is contrary to the very point of feeling sorry for those who are in a bad way. It suggests, implicitly, that the best state of affairs would be for everyone to be badly off, for us all to suffer. Sheer nonsense!
Clearly a proper concern for the bad lot of one’s fellow human beings does not entail by any stretch of the imagination the adoption of an ascetic life of one’s own. Showing care for the mishaps of others cannot even be effective if one proceeds to join them in their misery!