Say, if I already passed away and after a few years time, all of my relatives and friends passed away too and any mark of my existence would have been lost, would I cease to have existed? How come my life is so important if there’s about 7.8 billion of the same species as myself? I don’t believe humankind will reach a point when its disparity reduces into a thin line.
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
A joke recounted by the poet W.H. Auden goes, ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.’ According to the W.H. Auden Society the quote originates from a 1923 recording from music hall comedian John Foster Hall (1867-1945), who called himself ‘The Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth’.
I don’t know why I am here on Earth. So how far should my needs and interests be taken into account when deciding on any course of action? The point made by the Revd. Vivian Foster and W.H. Auden is that to live a meaningful life there has to be something worth doing beyond merely sacrificing oneself for the needs of others, whatever that may be, because the same principle applies to them.
Assuming a reasonable state of health, I am the person best placed to look after the physical and mental state of GK, and it is reasonable to assume the same for others – excluding children and infants, or non-human pets that require humans to care for them.
If we expand the range of ‘things that are important’ beyond my own interests, there are friends, family, nation. where I am better placed to help than those outside that sphere. It is also true that I care more for these people than others, but that is far from being a tautology. Not everyone loves their country, for example.
So we are concerned here with two kinds of constraint on my actions and projects: the practical and the ethical, and the same applies to everyone else. There are things I can do for others, with lesser or greater difficulty, and things I ought to do for others, for lesser or stronger reasons.
Consider also the belief that some human beings, by virtue of their personal qualities, are more important than others, but at the same time ‘importance’ is relative to the needs and interests of the agent. The classic argument to this effect is the ‘Archbishop Fenelon’ objection to utilitarianism. The good Archbishop’s house is burning down and you have the choice of saving him, or a humble female servant. His death will bring pain and sorrow to many people. But the humble servant happens to be your mother. But why is that ‘important’? Isn’t she just another of the billions of people inhabiting this planet?
As Bernard Williams has argued, a utilitarian is forced to accept that even if utilitarianism is in some sense ‘true’, or ultimately the ‘best’ criterion for right action, the greatest happiness for the greatest number requires that people do not base their actions on a disinterested utilitarian calculation. Letting your mother die would be despicable. In general, it is better for the good of all, that human beings are encouraged to pursue interests that are important to them, that are, as Williams describes it, part of their ‘personal integrity’ (Smart and Williams Utilitarianism For and Against, 1973).
I am important to me, for practical and ethical reasons, and the same applies to every other human being. But other human beings are important too, not to forget non-human animals, the environment, etc.
But I sense that there is more to your question: granted all this, there does seem to be a sense in which most of us our very strongly attached to our own life. How many lives would you be prepared to sacrifice in order that you should continue to live? Clearly, if, from an objective standpoint, ‘importance’ is equally spread, then I should be happy to lay down my life in order to save the lives of, say, two complete strangers whom I was not connected to in any way. Why not?
My response is that I would not like to be the kind of person who would do that. That would be insane. Or imagine a world where you can donate your living body in order to provide your heart, liver, kidneys in order to save the lives of more than two people. It would be, in some sense, ‘inhuman’, to care so little about one’s own life.
OK, then, you say, let’s up the stakes. Suppose that, by laying down your life, you could save the lives of a hundred people, a thousand, a million, or everyone on the planet? Where do you draw the line? And on what basis?
There is an answer to this question, but it is based on what I care for, not on arithmetic. Consider a soldier in battle. One might very well care more for one’s honour and the lives of one’s comrades than a life of shame and dishonour knowing that you have betrayed them. If I am not important, if it is not ‘my honour’ that is at stake, then none of these reasons are especially important.
Or, consider a ‘Titanic’ scenario. Wouldn’t it be shameful to put your own life ahead of a lifeboat full of people, assuming you were in a position to save them by your own self-sacrifice? Should you first do your best to save them before considering your own safety? What counts as ‘doing your best’? Real life is rarely so simple as an example concocted for the sake of philosophical discussion.
Beyond that, there is something else, something metaphysical: the very mystery of my existence. Given that there is a world, there is no mystery to me why you exist, or Donald Trump or anyone else. But aren’t I just another ‘human being in the world’? For sure, that is true of the person ‘Geoffrey Klempner’, seen from an objective standpoint. What is utterly mysterious – and this is the question I am totally unable to answer – is that I am that person.