Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cost - Part II

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.


Dubbahdee said...

I worked for 9 years a the largest family owned furniture retail company in the country. The owner was harshly criticized (by some) when he built a 25000 sq ft home. "Why" cried the offended busybodies, "That money could have been used to feed the poor."

What they did not realize was how much money he actually did donate to support a variety of charitible works in a city that needs it more than most.

And of course, the fact that the business he created from scratch employed 2500 people, including many of the complainers.

I always thought that a particularly egregious oversight on the part of the Great Indignant Mob.

Retriever said...

I don't know about the genetic manipulations to eliminate the conditions...Awful tho they are, some, including bipolar at least may be a bit like sickle cell disease in that they convey both advantages and disadvantages (depending on how much of a genetic load you get of it).

I'm intrigued by the idea of preventive measures relatives or descendants of people with various conditions can take. In other words, plenty of people may have a genetic predisposition to certain conditions, but we know that it often takes environment, sometimes viruses, stress, etc. to bring on full fledged illness.

If I had to do it over? Easy. What I was about to do when I met my spouse (and got carried away to start a family): go to the Bryn Mawr pre med program to finish up pre med requirements, go to med school, become an adolescent psychiatrist. Either that or an ObGyn working with pregnant teenagers or family practice. Believe it or not, I used to be better at math and science than all the wordy nonsense I waste time with now...

David said...

Malcolm McLean, who created the container shipping industry, did more to reduce poverty in the Far East than all the foreign aid workers ever born.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Great commencement address from PJ O'Rourke. I wish PJ had spoke at my youngest daughter's commencement a few years back. Instead we had this guy named Obama. Something about "hope" - I think.

james said...

If I want to relieve human suffering, I suppose the first thing I have to do is forget about my career. Particle physics is what you might call a 4'th order job.

First order jobs are the farmers, police, truckers, teachers, doctors, pastors, machinists and whatnot who actually make or provide the goods or services people need. Second order are the engineers who design things, the people who make the tools, or managers who keep things going. Third order are the applied researchers who find the new drugs or processes, lawyers who keep the overall machinery working, advertisers to let you know what you need :-) , etc. 4'th order folks are the basic researchers, mathematicians, and others who, truth to tell, most of us wouldn't notice the absence of for decades. I leave as an exercise figuring where artists fit in, or politicians/community activists. Or monks.

We can't all have careers as first-order helpers--somebody has to do the more abstract stuff--but is there anybody who doesn't have the opportunity to be a first-order helper to his neighbor? (Well, maybe folks like Bill Gates who probably don't have a lot of neighbors--lots of would-be hangers-on but not neighbors)

Absent a clear directive from God that I should be doing X, I figure that if I seek out opportunities to help my neighbors (I'm not really very good at that: my wife is better), if I am working at something that is worth doing, and if I am doing good work when I do, then I'm probably OK with a career in Y. Lot's of "if"s in there....

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james, I think the key phrase in there is "for decades." Your 1st-4th order of usefulness is time-dependent. If you follow that trail, you will see that it's the time for payoff, not the amount of payoff, that is different. Basic research pays off zero in the short run, but very well in the long. Considered that way, the 4th-order people might be better poised to do what 1st-order helping comes before them than the 2nd- or 3rd-order.

Reading CS Lewis's "The World's Last Night" and "Learning In Wartime" provide fascinating perspective on this.

Dubbahdee. And let's see, give every one of those employees a $.10/hr raise and the place goes broke and no one has any jobs at all.

Anna said...

Sponge, as my commencement speaker we had some short sandy-haired dude named John Edwards (pre-love child of course). He (of the $$$ lifestyle) talked about "giving back" to the "poor" etc. Barf.

Although I appear to have a second-order job, which is good I guess???

bs king said...

AVI, I think you might find the book "Joy at Work" a bit intriguing (if a bit on the self aggrandizing side). It's by the (Christian) former head of AES (Dennis Bakke), who felt that building a large values based business was his calling. By values he meant that each and every person who worked there should love working there and feel they were making a difference. A decently light read, but a few major good points about regulation prohibiting some of the best solutions and some fascinating outlooks on our "calling".

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

BS King - My boss must have read that book, or one like it. A few weeks ago he started off a management meeting saying he wanted our company to have a new vision statement. It started, "Company X is a happy place..." Hooo boy, isn't it good enough that we all just do a competent job?