Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Absurd

Everyday we are surrounded by the absurd. It is the defining essence of our lives.Why do some of us get to pamper pets, which indeed we truly love, while African mothers watch their children starve? These mothers can’t afford to love their young children in the way Americans love their dogs, because the pain of watching them suffer or die, without the money necessary to get medical attention or even food, is psychologically crippling.

In this sense, being able to fully give your love to another being, human or animal, is a luxury.

This is but one example of the absurd. It underlies our existence. A middle class person can spend $3000 to have their elderly dog undergo a risky surgery, or $10000 getting whiter straighter teeth. Meanwhile, those sums, seen as vast in places like Africa, could save numerous 3rd world children from terrible pain or build them a school.

Unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of Americans giving their money away to Africans. Life is far more complex than that. I don’t mean to exonerate the middle class of our bellicose nation. Those of us with privilege should understand the absurdity of our privilege, work to heal the world, and recognize how lucky we are. And yet, I admit, it is also wonderful to love our pets, enjoy our pastimes, and so on. We the privileged suffer all kinds of difficulties and tragedies of our own. Life is not a cakewalk, even for those who can afford to get whiter teeth and live in safe neighborhoods.

(Let’s face it, these safe neighborhoods are usually racist neighborhoods at some level, and so those of us in safety are contributing to racism in some way--unless, maybe, we are very careful.)

So, life is absurd. It is inescapably unjust such that none of us can claim to be good in any fine sense.

How can we be good while lavishing a dog with toys while hundreds of millions of human beings go hungry and cry alone?

At the same time, dog lovers are not evil. Or are they?

One classic argument goes as follows: You’re driving home and you see someone drowning by the side of the road. Obviously the right thing to do is to get out, spend a minute, and save a life. In the same way, by analogy, it is obviously right that we should take the time to send money to Africa to save a life.

Usually this argument continues on: human life trumps your prerogatives, so you should send most all your money to Africa, and spend most all your time saving lives of Africans--just as you would save a person drowning by the side of the road. Everyone’s life counts equally, and if people are drowning, or starving, surely you should help as many as you can.

The above argument is common in philosophy. See for example the book, “Living High and Letting Die.” Or “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle,” by Peter Singer.

I have never been convinced by it, not even close. Real life is much more complicated and so the analogy between the drowning person and the starving African fails.

A more accurate analogy, reflective of our global society is this:

You’re driving home and you enter a valley where millions and millions of people are drowning. You can help them, but not directly: to help you have to send money to someone in a booth, then the person in the booth goes out and saves someone. You can see some of these “lifeguards” go out, having been paid by someone, not necessarily you, to rescue people; but sometimes the people rescued fall right back into the water again, or get pulled back by others in the mire. The lifeguards don’t seem to care much, or can’t do much about this problem. They like getting paid, though. To make matters worse, you can’t see what is going on in the booths, and you don’t know which booth your money is going to. In other words, you don’t know which lifeguard you are hiring, how efficient that person is, or whether they are acting on your payment at all. Sometimes, you notice, the lifeguards have to pay other lifeguards to even get close to the water. A corruption racket is going on as millions and millions of people cry out for help, struggling and drowning. Occasionally, a riot breaks out, total war, and even the people saved and many of the lifeguards suddenly die. Sometimes people get out of the water and proceed to throw other people into the water. In the end, these factors, and many others, make it unclear that you can do anything at all by sending money to the booths.

My purpose in offering this extensive analogy is to show that it is not easy to help starving Africans. Helping Africans, as some philosophers claim, is not at all like helping a drowning person next to your car. The above analogy, tedious though it may be, only begins to get at the complexity of the world.

And so: Life is absurd.

Those of us lucky enough to have pets and to be able to express love freely--knowing we can afford medical help for our loved ones, and food--should do so virtuously, recognizing the great gift we have been given.

At the same time, we should acknowledge how unfair our privilege is on a grand scale. Indeed, our Empire helped make us wealthy as individuals through its vicious crusades, including the exploitation of our fellow human beings.

This is just one of many absurdities we face as individuals who are part of gigantic collectives in which we feel sometimes like a single grain of sand in a dune.

Another kind of absurdity: A sudden car crash killing everyone we love. As I said, even for the middle class and the very wealthy, life can be incredibly cruel.

Ultimately, it is the absurd that will define each one of us. How does Ms. Smith deal with absurdity? How do I? How do you? I’m not coming to the table with simple answers, but I believe, in general, it is craven and immoral to plunge into denial and live selfishly.

Somehow, we have to find meaning in the grey, and also peace. I think human life is basically very hard, often more hard than wonderful. We all deserve a break. Maybe we can stare the beast of absurdity in the face, not back down, and still live well. Find some honest peace.

I myself have not found this peace in any stable measure. I shake my fist at the sky at least a few time a week, and I accuse whatever gods made us, and established us in such an absurd beautiful world, and gave us our basic natures.




  1. This is a very interesting post and an important issue. In the same way you think of pets, I've thought sometimes about jewellery and nice clothes.

    I lived in Malawi for two years and visited three other African countries. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world but when the average Malawian has enough food, then they will make jewellery, they'll buy nice cloth from the market and they'll maybe keep animals too (not generally as pets as such but as guard dogs or cats to keep the mice down) and they'll treat those animals well.

    So taking that as the normal situation in a country such as Malawi makes the actual absurdity less.

    When it comes to helping people who are starving in Africa, we need to look at changing the whole international systems of finance and aid. I recently read 'Treasure islands' by Nicholas Shaxson which exposes the scandal of tax havens and how they ruin the economies of poorer countries. There was also an article I read recently about how US aid (and aid from other countries too, but it concentrated on US) is often tied more to giving business to US companies than it is to relieving poverty in poorer countries.

    We can do our bit, by supporting good charities that help people in poorer countries to help themselves, we can also donate to disaster appeals. But at the end of the day, its governments who need to change the way they operate.

  2. Thank you so much for your analysis. It adds greatly to my comments, and expands my awareness.


  3. The albinos in Africa are victimized and have a hard time of it medically speaking. You can give money a doctor who goes there and tries to help them. But you have to give it to the doctor directly. Similarly in the Ukraine there are children, victims of Chernobyl, being care for by nuns. You can give money to the nuns but you have to give it directly. Money has to go from one honest hand to another honest hand. Otherwise much of it goes into the weapons and the criminal mafia pots and the situation becomes worse and not better.