The following is a republication of a piece written by Mark Manson, who made a splash with his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (LINK). Mark calls himself an “author/thinker/life enthusiast”, which I think is nicely done. I’m just getting to know his style and his merit, but I was willing to sign up for the $6 a month subscription (aren’t you glad you get to read my stuff for free!?). I found the following essay about ethical dilemmas and how to deal with life in the time of lockdown interesting enough to request to republish.
Oh, here is a thing he wrote for Maxim about—you guessed it—not giving a f*ck about a lot of stuff that’s not important enough to do so.
You can tell that his life philosophy is not just some kind of solipsistic, anarchistic, nihilistic bull$hit—end of story. His point is actually subtle in that one shouldn’t concern oneself too much about things that are not important enough or which one is not able to affect. In his words, his book and philosophy are “all about coming to terms with all of the inevitable unimportant imperfections in life and then choosing to not give a f*ck about them. It’s about learning how to give a f*ck about the few things that truly matter.” It’s kind of, as I understand it, similar to the philosophy elucidated in “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and a modern strain of Roman stoicism“.
On the aforementioned page, for example, he suggests:
Here’s the irony about the “feel good” masses that we’ve all become these days – comfort is not the same thing as happiness, in fact, in many ways, too much comfort prevents happiness.
Want to feel good? Here’s an ecstasy pill. Off you go. Enjoy.
Want happiness? Well, that’s a whole different matter. Happiness requires purpose, meaning. It requires sacrifice.
So ya, it’s interesting stuff. Applied philosophy for sure. It has been helpful ever since the time of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to not get too worked up over stuff, especially the wrong stuff. Kind of in the vein of Zen Buddhism.
Manson might quibble with my imprecise categorization of these philosophies and sects he knows better than I do, but I should start practicing his approach and not give much of a f*ck if he approves of what I think, or not. Ψ
And now, his take on the heady tome, Reasons and Persons, and the ethical dilemma approach that is relevant to this blog:
Probably the most difficult book I’ve ever read cover to cover was Reasons and Persons by the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit. It’s a book that’s widely considered the most important philosophical work of the last 50 years.
The book is divided into four parts. Each part presents its own logical conundrum that leads the reader to unexpected and uncomfortable places. For example, the first part argues that it is impossible to act in self-interest. Similarly, the third part argues that the notion of an identity or “self” is irrational and incoherent to begin with. The logical arguments are meticulous and airtight. You come away from each section with your head spinning.
In the fourth and final part of the book, Parfit explains through a number of clever thought experiments that our basic ethical intuitions are often incoherent.
He imagines a number of scenarios where you are forced to consider questions like: would it be ethical to let one person die to guarantee a million people do not live in excruciating poverty? What about letting one person die to guarantee a million people go from feeling okay in life to feeling exquisitely happy and healthy? What about a thousand people? What about ten people? What if the person who dies is old and already sick? What if they are a violent criminal? What if they are an innocent child? What if they are picked at random?
Basically: what is the trade-off between quality of life and life itself? At what point does a life cease to be worth living? And at what point is the marginal increase in happiness of millions worth the profound misery of a few?
There is no correct answer to these questions, yet we all have deeply-held intuitions about what feels right and wrong about them. Parfit, of course, does his Parfit thing and shows how all of our instincts around these questions are self-contradictory and irrational. But regardless, we all have thresholds where we feel comfortable making certain trade-offs between well-being and life itself. Yet, we rarely think about that threshold because the question is incredibly uncomfortable and upsetting to think about.
But, if you do think about it, this ethical conundrum is at the heart of the most contentious political and economic policy questions. Do you go to war, sacrificing the lives of thousands of young people to promote and improve the lives of hundreds of millions? Do you institute policies that will ruin the lives of a few to improve the lives of the many? Does it matter who the few are? Does it matter who the many are?
In the case of COVID-19, it appears to many that there is a clear trade-off between economic stability for billions, and the lives of, let’s say, a few million. (I would argue that this trade-off is an illusion, but we’ll get to that.) People have opposing intuitions about these questions and cannot really be argued out of them. One camp is willing to sacrifice life for greater life. The other is willing to sacrifice life for greater life. You say tomato, I say… tomato.
Unfortunately, our information networks and media industry are set up to capitalize on these sorts of “us vs them” categories and exploit them. Therefore, people on one side of the ethical quandary find themselves repeatedly bombarded with certain studies, facts, and data that seem to justify their view. And people on the other side are exposed to the studies, facts, and data that seem to justify theirs.
But this is a false either/or argument to begin with. There are substantial public health risks. There are substantial economic risks. One triggered the other but that does not mean that they can be interchanged. An economic depression is not like returning an ill-fitted pair of pants to the store. You can’t walk in and say, “Hold up, I want my 26 million jobs back.” That ship has sailed. The economy is f*cked. Public health is f*cked. We do not know the extent or depth of the f*ckage of either. Nor do we know to the extent that they interact with (or should I say, “f*ck with”) one another.
We are mostly blind here. And even if we could see the trade-offs clearly, we still wouldn’t agree on what is ethical and appropriate. We would simply muddle on, each individually making the best of a terrible situation, each blindly believing they are right and just in their intuitions.
So, let go of the fight. Focus on yourself. Focus on your loved ones.
And assume the worst.
Assume nothing—not the virus, nor the economic downturn—is going to get resolved any time soon. That way, you will be prepared—mentally, emotionally, financially, and physically—for all possible scenarios.
And if things turn out okay sooner than you thought, all the better.
INTERESTING LINK: Stoicism
Snippet: “Stoicism holds that the key to a good, happy life is the cultivation of an excellent mental state, which the Stoics identified with virtue and being rational. The ideal life is one that is in harmony with Nature, of which we are all part, and an attitude of calm indifference towards external events. It began in Greece, and was founded around 300BC by Zeno, who used teach at the site of the Painted Stoa in Athens, hence the name Stoicism. The works of the early Stoics are for the most part lost, so it is the Roman Stoics who have been most influential over the centuries, and continue to be today.”