December 14, 2006

BAD IS LOUDER THAN GOOD


Caption: For Seamus McGoogle, every day is utopia. Would to God that we were cats...

This is the fourth post in a series on what a just society might look like. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

The series is a result of a challenge from a Goat Rope reader to use "the vision thing" as a step on the way of trying to get there. I'm trying it even though my utopianism has been eaten by weasels over the last few years.

To recap briefly, El Cabrero would settle out of court for a messy political democracy where extremes of poverty have been eliminated and people are able to meet their basic needs and duke it out over everything else.

I agree with Aristotle that happiness in the sense of the full development of the individual's potential over a lifetime is a good goal for personal and political life. With the understanding that you can't legislate other people's happiness.

Anyway, El Cabrero sometimes thinks that people are wired for ingratitude. That is to say, we often don't notice when things are going fairly well but are keenly alert to the slightest increase in pain or discomfort.

People often have to look back to realize that certain periods of their lives were comparatively happy ones. Often we don't value or appreciate the positive things in our lives until they are threatened or gone.

Bad things are often "louder" if not stronger than good things in that we often tend to notice them more. Similarly, while we can't "make" someone happy, we can make them more or less miserable.

We do know, for example, that wealth may not make people happy although poverty generally makes people miserable and that it is well within our reach today to eliminate extreme poverty in the world and extreme relative poverty in the US. (See the link to the earlier series on happiness in Monday's post.)

Having access to medical care when you need it doesn't necessarily make anyone happy but doing without it can definitely make you miserable.

We'll all be less miserable in the future if we start taking serious action on climate change and environmental degradation.

"Making" people happy through political action is probably a doomed project although making people less miserable isn't. As Karl Popper put it in Vol. 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies,

...the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through the inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those who need our help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions.

Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the 'agenda' of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The 'higher' values should very largely be considered as 'non-agenda-, and should be left to the realm of laissez-faire.

In other words, the best way to (non) utopia might be to work step by step to reduce unnecessary misery. Once that's done, the patients can minister to themselves.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

1 comment:

farmergiles said...

That sounds reasonable...