I recently read this article: Peace Corps Guilt. It articulates a lot of things I’ve felt here and part of the motivation for why I joined PC. As a philosopher, though, I obsess over these sorts of issues, and I wanted to work through some ways of dealing with these issues together with my audience (of 1? 2?).
I think that the morality presented in the article carries with it a residue of the concept of “sin”: that we really are supposed to be morally perfect, but fall short of that. But I don’t subscribe to any religion that endorses sin, and neither does Peter Singer from what I know. It certainly is not a necessary part of utilitarianism, Singer’s ethical project (in sum: seek the greatest happiness and least pain for the greatest number). So why not say that we start off with a bunch of drives and desires and whatnot, some conducive to human flourishing (of ourselves and others), and some not? We start off somewhere low, then make it a task to morally cultivate and improve ourselves.
So maybe our ultimate ideals should be shaped by moral perfection, but there’s no reason to expect it of ourselves now.
In line with that, I constantly struggle with the fact that I am basically a biological machine. I cannot command myself to do any task I see to be rationally fit. I break down, I get crabby, I have bad days and even weeks. I get horribly depressed and occasionally well-nigh useless when I see just how much is wrong with the world. I need to learn how to hack the system, as it were, and get it to work for me, within the constraints I’ve been given. And these constraints will differ from those of different people. I personally do not care about Lady Gaga concerts, but I sure need my downtime – and when I don’t get it, everyone around me knows. Some people need optimistic affirmations; Pollyanna-ism makes me want to claw people’s eyes out, since they obviously aren’t using them to look at the world. (No frustration or anything.)
Of course, we should stretch our limits. And moral ideals do give us goals to work toward. When I get complacent, I do need someone to shake me up and maybe make me feel a bit guilty. But once I get moving, I also need to recognize that reality is what it is. I don’t have free will untrammeled by nature. I do not have some primal perfection I should already have.
Reality is imperfect and often blind. I often think of the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe as a metaphor: It climbs 15 feet up the neck to come back to where it started. Why? Because orignally it had a straight route, way back in fish. As necks started to evolve, the nerve started to move step by step with the vertebrae, as at each given step it was easier for the nerve to grow a little than to reroute (of course, I am being somewhat imprecise for the sake of exposition, but the readers who care can clean it up as an exercise). By the time we reach giraffes, this inefficiency has reached comical proportions; but evolution still can only make small changes one step at a time rather than to switch to the overall best route.
That’s nature. That’s human society and human beings, and our own individual battles with our nature and upbringing. Everything comes in little bits, and no one ever sees the big picture clearly, if at all. And so of course we royally screw things up. It’s tragic. But it’s what we got, so let’s make the little changes that we can actually see in front of us – because that nerve might be inefficient, but the giraffe would be dead if the nerve didn’t change something at least.