6 Questions You Seriously Need To Ask Yourself
What is a good life? We spoke to philosopher Mark Rowlands to find out.
Life, eh. What it's all about? We might not have the right answers, but we do have some of the right questions.
BuzzFeed spoke to Mark Rowlands, a Welsh writer, philosopher, and professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, to find out what we should be asking ourselves in pursuit of a good and moral life.
"We are all philosophers, whether we know it or not," Rowlands told BuzzFeed. "Life forces philosophical positions upon us. You can’t avoid them: Refusing to think is also a philosophical and ethical position."
Here are six questions to ask yourself. The answers are up to you:
Life's a bitch, so the saying goes. There's a lot to worry about, and it can be overwhelming at times. But as Rowlands argues, it's just that we notice the bad things more. Instead of getting bogged down, we should reframe our thinking:
"As I walk to the bus, do I notice what an outstanding job my heart and lungs, nerves, muscles and sinews are doing? Of course not: I just notice the shoe that pinches. When things are going well, I don’t need to do anything about them.
"But when something is going wrong, I have to take action before it becomes worse. We will always notice the bad things more than the good: It’s a basic precept of survival.
"Therefore, unless we are insanely lucky, our lives will probably contain more suffering than happiness. Schopenhauer pointed out this unfortunate facet of being alive. He is almost certainly right.
"Still, perhaps I’m delusional, but for some reason I’m glad to be around and don’t want it to stop just yet."
"But we're supposed to eat meat." "We're top of the food chain." "I can't live without bacon." There are lots of arguments for eating meat, but what if they miss the point? Perhaps the greatest argument against meat isn't ethical: It's environmental.
Indeed, your personal meat consumption may be relatively low. But when our collective demand for meat is environmentally unsustainable, is it time for a rethink? Rowlands thinks so:
"The animal industry produces more climate change emissions than the entire transport sector combined – that’s planes, trains, automobiles, and ships.
"And that’s before we get into the subject of water, forecast to be one of the biggest sources of geopolitical conflict in the 21st century. It takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.
"It also takes 16 pounds of vegetable protein to produce a pound of beef protein – which is why over 70% of cultivated land is used for growing plants for animals, rather than humans, to eat.
"And that doesn’t even address the issue of the horrible things that happen to the poor animals we eat."
You might not want to live without bacon, that's your choice. But can you live without meat one day each week? Food for thought, certainly.
None of us like "charity muggers" – paid workers who stand in the street with clipboards trying to sign you up to a direct debit. Even so, we can't argue that charity, in principle, is a bad thing.
But with the rising cost of living and austerity squeezing our bank balances, is it wrong to want to keep that spare change for ourselves? Rowlands struggles with this too:
"It's common to think that morality is all about bringing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If so, I’m in deep trouble. The problem is that money can produce so much more happiness in those who don’t have it than those who do.
"Suppose I take my wife out for the evening: a meal, some drinks, taxi, and babysitter. I’m not going to have much change out of £160. That £160 would pay for a child’s cleft palate operation. My wife and I had a nice enough time, probably, but the child's life is utterly transformed.
"The same amount of money does much more for the child because he or she had so little to begin with. If morality is all about producing the greatest amount of happiness, then it seems I should forego the evening out and donate the money to a cleft palate charity.
"And that budget sunshine holiday we’ve been planning is also in trouble: £400. In many places that will save a life. You see where this is going?"
In the words of Louis C.K., "life's too short to be an asshole". One look at most of the internet and you'll see his advice has gone largely unheeded. Why is that? Well it's easy to be an asshole. But you can't turn around and cry foul if people are assholes back to you.
As Rowlands explains, it works both ways:
"If I ever say the words ‘I’m offended by that!’ in any non-ironic sense, then please feel free to respond with: ‘And?’"
"John Stuart Mill argued that everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. What’s more: Hurting someone’s feelings doesn’t count as harm. Being offended is not, in itself, harmful.
"Sticks and stones – we tell that to children, or at least we used to. Of course, if offence is coupled with other things, such as institutional reduction of opportunities, that is a different matter. But, as long as it’s just offensive, then offend away.
"A free country means you have the right to be an asshole – although if you are, you don’t have the right to expect anyone to like you, listen to you, take you seriously, respect you in any way, or even be willing to urinate on you if you were on fire."
Your family pet. Your grandparents. Dobby. Death visits all of us, and it's never easy to live without a loved one. Many of us fear death, even though it's inevitable. So it's clear that death is definitely not a good thing. But is it bad?
"Of course it is," says Rowland. "But, then again, how can it be? Death is not an event in my life. It is a limit to life, and therefore can’t be part of life.
"Similarly, when I’m alive, my death hasn’t happened, and so can’t have harmed me yet. And when I’m dead, then I’m also gone, and so am no longer around to be harmed. So either way, death does not harm me: It either hasn’t happened yet or I’m no longer there to be harmed.
"This argument was first put forward by Epicurus, more than 2,000 years ago. Despite numerous efforts, my own included, I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a satisfactory response."
Most of us aren't interested in committing crimes. Not big ones anyway. But surely it's OK to download the occasional episode of Game of Thrones, isn't it? Does being moral mean being moral all the time, or just when it suits?
"This isn't the sort of question that can be answered," says Rowland. "Morality is somewhat inconvenient, after all, with the restrictions on what one can do, and the foregoing various pleasures in the name of the greater good."
"If ‘should I bother being moral?’ means 'is there a moral reason to be moral?', then the question is well and truly begged. I will only accept a moral reason if I have already decided to be moral.
"No moral reason can persuade me that I should be moral if I have already decided not to take any notice of moral reasons. It is not illogical to be amoral. Nor is being moral a matter of prudence – quite the contrary. So, it seems there is no reason to be moral.
"All these questions and problems are really just symptoms. That morality could appear so inconvenient and that there is no convincing reason to be moral: These are symptoms that we have forgotten what morality is and why it is so important.
"To remember requires returning to the ancient roots of morality. The most important question is not ‘How should I treat others?’ but ‘What sort of person do I want to be?’
"And if you answer that question, well, being moral follows naturally along behind, like a well-trained dog."