The Cost was partly intended to set up a second post. If you haven’t read that one, do so now. I will reverse the order on the site in few days, so that it will read top to bottom, rather than internet style of latest first. I would appreciate it if anyone linking to the posts put them in that order.
The answer “We can’t fix this in our current world. The best one can do is adjust to the bad feelings as best you can” is unsatisfying. Not the old can-do American spirit, is it? Surely if we all tried just a bit harder we could make it somewhat better, right? Things do change. Things do get fixed, albeit slowly at times. What should we do? We tend to regard going into the “helping professions” (a strange phrase) the most natural choice. Might that not keep our despair at bay, feeling that we were doing all we could to relieving suffering?
A friend asked a few years ago what career one should consider if one wanted to improve the world. He asked it in the context of what we all might do differently if we were starting over. I went the Norman Borlaug route. I would be a food engineer. Plants, fish, quail, algae – something. That might seem to work only for specially gifted people, but such efforts usually have a considerable supporting cast. If you want purpose and meaning to your days here, you could do worse than saving a billion people from starvation.
There are similar avenues in mental health. Genetic manipulation to eliminate some conditions altogether seems in reach, and treatment techniques for those who already have an illness are always improving. You can relieve a lot of suffering that way. There may be unforeseen downsides and damages, but that’s true of direct care as well. That’s the risk you take with anything in life. There’s a nobility to the attempt, and the hope of great benefit, right?
Okay, you want to be the Jonas Salk of schizophrenia research, and eliminate the disease altogether, devoting your life to it. Let’s add in a twist here. Let’s say you’re not doing it for compassionate reasons at all. You just want to be famous and important, or playing around with genes and the brain is just fascinating to you, and you care little for your fellow man. The other people who have to work with you, in fact, will gladly attest to the fact that you are a rotten selfish person who doesn’t play well with others. Problem? What’s the moral calculus here?
I have intentionally left the God part out of this. I may do a part 3 exploring exactly that, but for now I’m just sticking to the vague Law of General Beneficence. In practical morality, selfish Salk is the same as selfless Salk, right? That’s a slightly uncomfortable idea, but hardly a new one in theory. We ignore it in everyday life, though. However much we assent to the principle, we want professional helpers to sound like they care. We have had social workers in my department who were very good at listening, looking sorrowful, and showing empathy, but screwed up things like getting necessary followup appointments, getting the benefit applications right, and keeping up the nuts and bolts. We have had social workers just the opposite. Which do you think gets the grateful letters and assurances that they have changed people’s lives? Right. The people who make you feel like they care are more highly regarded than those who actually help you. This is more pronounced for doctors, I believe. It is certainly true for politicians. Actually fixing something counts for much less than giving people the impression that you care deeply about the same things they do.
The friend who asked me what I thought I would do had decided that if he had to do over he would build a business that created lots of jobs. It’s hard to argue with that one, either. The mill owner was a stock villain – but it was thousands of jobs for those communities, wasn’t it? When you have a job, creating jobs doesn’t seem to be much of boon to society. Once you don’t have a job, or someone close to you can’t get one, the importance of jobs sinks in. When people think of noble professions that help the downtrodden, they don’t think of mill owners, they think of jobs like mine. I certainly did when I started out, with secret contempt for anyone who wasn’t down in the trenches with us. I don’t think that anymore.
So you want to relieve human suffering. How are you going to do it? I’m not trying to prove any point here, I’m just asking the imagination question. In the context of The Cost, where suffering will always haunt us throughout our short lives, what do we do, and encourage others to do?
For the humorous side, there’s always PJ O’Rourke’s commencement address.