I’m pondering an idea which is certainly not original, though it is an idea powerful enough to make a mockery of any moral system that looks to the consequences of actions to characterize the moral quality of those actions.
Here’s the thought: Every so often something really bad happens to me. I’m in an auto accident. I lose my job. My marriage fails. My children ignore me. Something expensive breaks. Someone I care about dies. My attempts to impress someone important go completely unnoticed. I spend endless hours on a project and it does not turn out the way I had hoped.
Each of these things are the types of things we would easily categorized as “bad.” They are so obviously bad that we can predict that our friends, upon hearing of these things, will console us. But are “bad” things really bad?
After all, while I’m healing from that auto accident, an incredibly important thought occurs to me and I change my life for the “better.” Even though I’ve lost a job I cherished, I then find another job which I like even better. After my marriage fails, I make some changes in my life and I encounter a new love. When my children ignore me, I learned to pay more attention to them and then I benefit from an improved parent-child relationship. That thing that broke is something I didn’t need in my life anyway. The death of my close friend inspires me to be a better person. When that person I was trying to impress ignores me, I realize that I should have been spending my time doing other sorts of things anyway.
On countless occasions, a “disaster” turns out to be a great excuse to do something we should have done anyway. When one door closes shut, three other doors open wide. And I’m not talking only about tiny disappointments. I’m talking about major disasters. The sorts of things that you are absolutely certain are horrible. But in the long run, they often aren’t. Fifteen years later (far enough removed that you don’t feel the intense mental or physical pain that you felt in the past), you realize that that “bad” thing was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to you, even though you hated it at the time and you were certain that it was ruining your life. You did something really stupid, for instance, but you learned a big lesson and never again screwed up in that way again.
Someone might object that natural disasters, all genocides and at least some wars are absolutely bad, given the horror, the permanency of death and the lasting pain. That is certainly true from the perspective of many individuals. Such events, however, are often catalysts for widespread change that prevents future events of even greater magnitude. Perhaps a hurricane provokes officials to implement a new warning and rescue system. Perhaps the horror of a genocide causes society to reevaluate bigotted attitudes and helps stave off future genocides of even greater magnitude. Wars always provoke episodes of heroism within the insanity of the violence and they do sometimes cause the defeat of a malignant regime (e.g., the defeat of Hitler in WWII). There is the possibility that even a senseless war will teach long term lessons that might avoid future senseless wars (though this often doesn’t happen).
The other side of the coin consists of acts which seem “good,” that result in widespread horror. I would put rampant consumerism in that category. How can people argue that having lots of “nice” things isn’t good. What if the long term result is parents working too many hours and not knowing their own children, or citizens scrambling around acquiring comforts and amusements to the extent that they become mentally dulled, apathetic about their government or morally obtuse?
Utilitarianism holds that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome—that the ends justify the means and we should strive to act in such a way as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As though we can calculate outcomes beyond our immediate frame of reference. As though we have any idea about the long-term utility of short-term acts and omissions. How many things have we been wrong about in our lives? We don’t have time to count them, of course. Yes, we often do remember some outcomes that we did predict, although we are subject to the confirmation bias when we do that. And we are often hopelessly ignorant of all of the consequences of those “good” acts. The only way to really know is to wait for a long period of time and then reevaluate. Then again, if you wait another decade you might change your mind again.
Does this failure to foresee the the long-term effects of our actions mean that we should just throw our fate to the wind? Does that mean that we don’t need to try hard to plan? Of course not. Planning often does work, at least in the short run. And some choices actually do have predictable long-term detriment. For instance, getting in a serious accident can result in chronic unrelenting pain, so it’s a good idea to pay attention while driving and to make “good” choices. Failing to hold the hand of your young child on the parking lot can result in the death of your child, from which many parents never come close to recovering. By all means, try, even though we so often fly blind. And often enough, “good” choices result in “good” outcomes both in the short run and the long run. An example that comes to mind are widespread choices that are environmentally sustainable to avoid living our lives in a crapped up environment. Some “good” acts are better bets than others to result in “good” long term results.
Then again, even unimaginably horrible events can result in happy outcomes. A friend of mine contracted a horrible disease and slipped into a month-long coma. To save his life, the doctors amputated both of his arms and both of his legs. Fast-forward five years. This friend is an incredibly happy and thoughtful fellow who inspires everyone around him with his post-sickness accomplishments (and those accomplishments are considerable). Was his sickness a “good” thing? It’s not at all clear in the long term, though it seems heartless to suggest that it might have been a good thing. In point of fact, questions like these expose the inherent vagueness of terms like “good” and “bad.” I avoid using these terms, if at all possible.
Nietzsche spoke to the importance of “bad things” in that they create who we are. He argued that to fully appreciate our lives, we need to embrace all that has happened to us, all the things we would characterize as “good” or “bad.”
The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
[from Nietzsche's The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.]
Perhaps terms like “good” or “bad” force life into a frame that is too judgmental and short-sighted. Perhaps they tempt us to think in terms of short-sighted morality rather than long-term ecology.
Is it a good thing for me to avoid using terms such as “good” or “bad”? I don’t know. Ask me again in ten years. Perhaps, in ten years, I’ll defer that question for another ten years after that.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
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- A terrifyingly wonderful gift | Dangerous Intersection | October 13, 2010