Saturday, November 03, 2007

Berlinerblau on Living Large vs Living Right

Joques Berlinerblau reports that atheists face a dilemma between two alternative models for how we should live our lives. One is the ‘live right’ model where a person “is practiced by those who aspire to ‘leave the earth in better shape than they found it.’” The other he calls ‘living large’ and applies to those who live life to the fullest, getting as much out of the short time they live as they can.

After all, if there is no moral accounting in the world to come (and if there is no world to come) then why not overspend one’s passions in the present one?

Of these, he argues for the latter.

Among contemporary atheists, I regret to say, living right has vanquished living large. Too many nonbelievers seem intent on teaching the faithful a lesson. Namely, that they too can lead virtuous lives and that they can do so without recourse to God or religion.

The text in my profile on the right would seem to put me in the “live right” category. Furthermore, instead of being motivated by a sense of morality – by some concern for what is right and what is wrong – I am allegedly motivated only by a desire to teach the faithful a lesson. Forget kindness, duty, and a love of truth. Morality, for the ‘live right’ theorists, is a done merely on the pretense of behaving like a theist.

“Better Than I Found It” vs “Better Than It Would Have Otherwise Been”

In examining Berlinerblau’s suggestion, I want to note that there is a significant difference between “leaving the world better than one has found it” and “leaving the world better than it would have otherwise been.” When I decided on the goal I list in my profile, I did not simply pick a slogan that I liked. I paid careful attention to precisely what I was saying.

It is possible for a destructive person to leave the world better than he found it, as long as somebody else was introducing improvements that outweighed the destruction that the agent had caused. For example, if I shared a bank account with somebody, and he deposited $100 into the account per month, while I withdrew $50 per month, when I die, I will be leaving the bank account larger than when I found it. However, this does not in any way imply that I had made any contribution to the account.

At the same time, it may be the case that I am depositing $50 into the account every month, while others are removing $100 every month. In the end, I will have left the account with a lower balance than when I found it. Yet, I had still spent my life making a positive contribution to the account. It is still the case that the bank balance ended up higher than it would have been if I had not existed.

This is exactly why I selected the goal of leaving the world ‘better than it would have otherwise been if I had not existed’ rather than ‘better than I had found it’. The phrasing that I selected speaks towards a positive contribution, whether other forces in the universe make things better or worse. It gives me no permission to do evil as long as a sufficient number of others are doing good, and a reason to do good even if a greater and more powerful number of others are doing evil.

Living Large vs Living Right

Berlinerblau asserts that somebody who lives large must experience an ‘irreconcilable inner tension’ with living right.

The most interesting irreligious (and, come to think of it, religious) people I know lead lives in which they attempt, somehow, to balance the conflicting demands of living right and living large. To exist in such a manner is to experience the most irreconcilable inner tensions, the most profound contradictions—the atheist becomes a living, breathing and, ineluctably, dying work of art.

In fact, there is no necessary conflict between ‘living right’ in the sense that I have defended it in this blog, and ‘living large’ in the sense that Berlinerblau. Berlinerblau describes ‘living large’ as ‘overspending one’s passions’. I have described ‘living right’ as a way of evaluating the quality of different passions according to the degree that they are compatible or incompatible with the passions (desires) of others.

On this account, a person who ‘lives large’ with bad passions is one who ‘lives large’ with passions that interfere with the ability of others to ‘live large’ according to their own passions. These people live their lives pursuing pleasures that leave others in a state of harm – unable to pursue their own pleasures.

On the other hand, a person who ‘lives large’ with good passions is a person who ‘lives large’ with passions that promote the ability of others to ‘live large’ accordion to their own passions. These people live their lives pursuing pleasures that leave others able to obtain states that they would have otherwise been powerless to obtain – better able to pursue their own pleasures.

When it comes to neutral desires (desires that do not leave others even better off or worse off), it is still the case that others have less of a reason to promote the pursuit of these desires than to promote the pursuit of desires that produce benefits. The rational person will recognize the reasons he has to promote and reward the holder of desires that produce benefits, while being indifferent to the holder of desires that produce neither benefit nor harm. The pursuit of neutral desires, while it is better than the alternative of pursuing that which harms others, is still, at the same time, a wasted opportunity to live large in ways that benefit others.

Vanquishing Living Large?

Berlinerblau laments that living right has vanquished living large. A steady reader of this blog should not have drawn a similar conclusion. One of the things I have lamented is the shortage of atheists who are willing to do both – live large and live right. I have blamed the psychological abuse that atheists receive while growing up – 12 years of public education with daily lessons pounded into them that those who believe in God are morally superior to those who do not. This creates a group of people with an inferiority complex – who feel nervous and shy at the prospect of upsetting those who believe in God.

By all rights, a national pledge and motto that denigrates atheists (in the former case equating them with rebels, tyrants, and criminals and, in the latter, excluding them from the group of ‘we’ who are the only true Americans and who all share the quality of ‘trust in God) should be met with moral outrage. Yet, we find a large number of atheists (and atheists parents who send their children into this psychological abuse every school day) unwilling to speak up against it themselves, and condemning others who do so.

We see atheists meeting the Hitler and Stalin Cliché with apologetic appeals to unimpassioned reasoned rather than shouting back, “You ignorant, hate-mongering bigot! Would you say that those who believe the earth is round are mass-murderers in training simply because Hitler and Stalin believed the earth was round? Of course not. Only a person who loves to market hate and bigotry against peaceful and innocent neighbors would make such an argument, and that is just the type of person you have just proved yourself to be.”

Berlinerblau finds his list of heroes only in fiction. I, on the other hand, find my list of heroes – people who have lived large and lived right – in the real world. This list of people includes, but is not limited to, George Washington, David Hume, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Al Gore, Burt Rutan, Richard Bransen, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett.

It includes countless scientists and researchers who spend each day adding to the sum of human knowledge – not by engaging in safaris and seeing sites around the world that any can visit, but entering realms that nobody has yet visited and showing the rest of us what it looks like.

It includes teachers, doctors, emergency response personnel, and peace-keeping soldiers who have made it their passion to make the lives of others better than they would have otherwise been.

These people do not strike me as individuals who suffer some sort of irreconcilable tension between ‘living large’ and ‘living right’. Rather, they all seem to have found a way of doing both, by making it their passion to pursue ends that aim have the effect of making the quality of life better for others, rather than worse.

There is nothing that a person needs to feel any type of ‘inner tension’ over if he decides to become passionate about something that also, and at the same time, is something that tends to leave the world better off than it would have otherwise been. In fact, I wish more people would do exactly that.


Cameron said...

Quite a while ago, you made a post about the desire to count grass as a desire that is "neutral" - that is, it doing it can fulfill the desires of the doer, but morally cannot really be praised or condemned, because he's not hurting anyone.

Now if I, as a moral person, truly want the world to be a better place than it otherwise would be, it seems to me that these so-called "morally neutral" desires, ones that don't directly help or hinder the desires of others, should be the subject of condemnation.

Since many of these "neutral" desires have to do with personal well being (relaxation, health, etc), there's some flexibility. As a moral society, should we not direct that flexibility towards everyone's benefit?

For example, if both watching TV and planting trees are relaxing, should we not condemn those that choose to watch TV when they could be out planting trees?

Since both eating vegetarian, and eating meat can provide nutrition requirements, should we not condemn those that eat meat (due to the massive additional inputs required to produce it) instead of vegetables?

Since both donating to church and donating to a local homeless shelter ostensibly fulfill a desire for charity, should we not condemn those that choose to donate to church instead of the homeless?

Now obviously we should direct our praise and condemnation towards where it can do the most good (e.g. condemning truly bad desires to prevent things like rape, murder, etc), but should not some of our effort be directed towards encouraging people to fulfill their own desires with morally positive acts instead of morally neutral ones?

My apologies if any of these examples any critical flaws, I am writing "off the cuff" a bit as it were.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cameron I will be answering these questions on tonight's post (Monday, Nov. 12).

Cameron said...

One of my favorite things about your blog is how seriously you take and respond to reader questions.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

It seems to me, that regarding "leaving the earth a better place" is something that both the decent atheist and the theist can agree on, by simply commiting themselves to two standards:

Surely, the Atheist, Agnostic, and Theist
can all find common ground here,(and mutual respect) if they truly want to make a postive difference in the world.

The strife that exists between the two groups need not exist, if they would recognize these two primary habits are the highest form of human decency and are the foundation of progress and peaceful co-existence with everything in this world.

Robert M. Burns,

Martin Freedman said...

Anonymous these sound like versions of the Golden Rule and yes, in principle, if most subscribed to this whether atheist or theist it might appear that all are motivated to leave the world a better place. However this looks very naive if you don't mind me saying so.

There are a number of problems with and I will highlight what I think are the two major ones.

(1) Different people could implement the Golden Rule (assuming its the same version) in different ways that clash. For example, some, certainly some atheists, think the world would be a better place if no-one proselytized their religion or other beliefs, certainly some xians and muslims, would, on the contrary think that prosletysation was important to help leave the world a better place. Both think they are following the Golden Rule or the sentiments expressed in your post, how would you resolve this?

(2) Not everyone does want to leave the world in a better place. How do you deal with such people? Again there can be and is disagreement over how to treat those who, for one reason or another, do not act according to some Golden Rule or your sentiment (even if they claim to). An example would be capital punishment. (Abortion is another one applicable to both these points.)