Grasping the Key to the Good Life
“The Happy Life” by Bertrand Russell, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” by Peter Singer and “Lifeboat Ethics” by Garrett Hardin are all different works that dictate how one can live the “good life” well. To an extent, these three essays are fairly similar in what they are addressing; however, when scrutinized and analyzed, these essays contradict and challenge each other in many ways. After much thought and dissection of these three works, one comes to an overall understanding. A thesis of how the good life ought to be lived and how to live it well is formed. This conclusion that is finally reached is that to live a good life, an individual must fulfill their own needs to be “happy”. An individual achieving happiness is for them to have their basic desires fulfilled and for them to be satisfied. For the good life or happy life to be lived well, the desire to fulfill others should be included in the desires one holds necessary to achieve happiness. In entirety, these three works come together to prove that one should not place other’s happiness before their own, but other people’s happiness should bring one happiness.
Both Russell and Hardin state in their writing that before helping others, one must ensure that they themselves are happy. Russell stresses the theory that one should not at any cost commit the act of “self denial”. Russell says that “Professional moralists have made too much of self-denial” and that “self denial leaves a man self absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed” (317). This suggests that if helping another person is at the cost of one’s own happiness, then the said individual should not assist the other because it will actually have a negative effect on their own lives and on their fulfillment. This may sound selfish or even egotistical, but when one thinks about this theory deeply, a clearer understanding is developed. Not only will “self denial” result in self harm, it will also lead to the inability to continue helping others. For example, if one privileged individual keeps donating funds and supplies to less fortunate people at the cost of their own health or happiness, they will reach a point at which they will no longer be able to help anyone, including themselves. This theory is discussed at length in Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics”. He uses the analogy of a lifeboat in which only 60 people can fit. This lifeboat has 50 people in it, and 100 people drowning under it. If the 50 people let all the drowning people into their lifeboat, then “the boat would swamp” (Hardin, 324), causing everyone to drown. It is clear that this would be “complete injustice” and “complete catastrophe” (325). It is morally unjust to have everyone drown instead of saving those who can be saved. Therefore, it is only logical to let another 10 people onto the lifeboat. Although it may be seen as immoral by society to let the other 90 drown, it is impossible to save all of them effectively. This leaves the privileged lost and “adrift in the moral sea.” (325) To impede on one’s own chance survival by trying to save all individuals in suffering is self denial. Russell explains in his essay that “self denial” is a negative thing. To deny one’s own feelings or necessities for happiness and focus entirely on satisfying and helping others is unhealthy and immoral. Therefore, one must consider their own needs before shifting the entirety of their efforts and attention to others. When juxtaposed to Singer’s beliefs of what the individual’s contribution to society should be, this standard for fulfilling one’s own desires is in stark contrast.
In his essay “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” Peter Singer escalates his stance in the “good life” to a whole new level. Singer states that it is unethical for one to keep more money or materials than are necessary to purely survive. With this excess money and these excess supplies, Singer suggest that each of the “hundreds of millions of people who can give” (321) donate what they can to the millions of people in poverty. Not only does he suggest this, but he blatantly tries to guilt his readers into donating any money that is not necessary for their survival to UNICEF or another charity that helps those in poverty. This is very effective in making readers feel as if they should donate because of guilt, but does not provide logical support for why the act of donation will result in a “good life”. Singer says that it is “gravely wrong” (320) not to donate all than one possibly can, but does not explain why keeping luxuries will result in a bad life, other than purely causing guilty consciences and shaming a the characteristic of greed. Singer presents his argument in a way that makes it seem like one cannot be happy if they don’t donate all of their excess wealth to the less fortunate. This plan is an extreme that most of society is not prepared to follow. It completely contradicts what is said in Russell’s essay, for it encourages the practice of self denial. In fact, Singer attempts to convince his reader to “think morally” and start totally disregarding their own needs on the behalf of the less fortunate. Unlike what Singer is arguing, one does not achieve happiness by simply giving all that they have to charity. Instead, one must fulfill their own, unique necessities to maintain the good life.
These arguments made by Singer, Hardin, and Russell can be seen as the most extreme sides to the (until now) unsolved question of what the individual’s role in the community should be. When trying to find a good balance between these polars, it is possible to come up with several conclusions. Some may say that from these three essays, they have derived the message that life should be about creating a balance between helping yourself and helping the rest of the community. Others may agree solely with one author or the other, taking the extremes as an ethical standard. Although there are many ways to puzzle-piece these three texts together into one moral motto, there is one cohesive, rational conclusion that is undoubtedly the most moral and sensible of them all. The result is that although one should look to fulfill one’s own desires before others, it is only moral to have the personal desire to help others. This way, there is no order in which things must be done. An individual does not have to feed others before eating, or eat before others. While eating, an individual should also feed others, since it brings them joy to see them eating happily, and remorse to see them starving. The act of gluttony while watching others starve would not bring happiness, but neither would starving while giving all of your food away. This is the true ethical standard about one’s contribution to community that should be set in society . One should want to help others, since it makes themselves happy to see others happy, as well as a “result of a direct impulse to bring help” (Russell, 317). No single individual should feel as if they need to help the community because they are obliged to or because it is “part of virtue to succor the helpless” (Russell, 317). To live a truly good life and to live it well, one should fulfill their own desires of assisting others.