Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Breaking the Ice

After reading V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, I decided to re-read Teju Cole's Open City.  (Open City includes some Naipaul-esque elements, and I was reminded of this account of an evening shared by the two authors.)

I'll have more to say about Open City.  But one thing I didn't notice so much the first time I read it is the omnipresence of injustice and suffering.  Civilization seems like a fragile and contingent accomplishment, everywhere threatened and in most places an impossible dream.

And then, even at its best, life is mediocre.  How muted are the pleasures and how acute the pain!  Life is like an iceberg, with most people condemned to desperate misery, while a few are elevated a modest distance above break-even (and usually at the expense of the others).

And so then I gained a tremendous amount of sympathy for the hedonists and the anti-natalists.  By what deranged math could you ever conclude that human life is a net positive for the world?  And if you happen to be lucky enough to be in a position to gratify your own desires, then why not make that the center of your life?  What else is there?

I think the answer is that self-gratification is not actually a good way to maximize long-term utility.  Another answer is that it's simply unjust to direct society's resources toward your own pleasure when there are better uses to which those resources can be put.

But then, a part of me says, fuck it.  For those brief moments when the iceberg rolls over and you are above water, enjoy it as much as you can.  You'll be plunged back beneath the waves soon enough.


Blogger Sarang said...

I've never been clear on the right way to think about "utility" across people _and_ over time. Clearly one would not be hurting one's future self if one killed oneself. Similarly one can't hurt people that aren't there, and it seems to me that (in an unrealistic hypothetical) if people could keep going for another 50 years at the current level of luxury, and then die out completely, that would be better than having the species continue indefinitely in reduced circumstances. But there is a collective action problem here: enough other people are going to breed, and as those lives _will_ come into existence, and are not to blame for doing so, one has some degree of moral obligation towards them...

I am not, of course, entirely convinced that life is above break-even for anyone.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will claim the existence case of at least one person for whom life is above break even (though not being dead yet I can't be sure it will remain so). Still, if someone really cared about clarifying this point there are ways to be sure about that.

Agreed. Utility of non existent or not yet existent people is a hard question.

8:20 AM  
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8:01 PM  

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