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Conflicting interests

How can we balance our needs with those of others? Read philosopher Richard Norman explain how the flourishing and moral life need not be in conflict.
‘The whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves.’
Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Last week we identified two different senses of the good life: a flourishing life for the individual, and alife in which we are good to others. A humanist view can help collapse that distinction. Here, Richard Norman writes on the matter.

We are all familiar with situations where our own interests conflict with what we know we ought to do to meet our responsibilities to others. You’re settling in for a relaxing evening at home when a friend phones begging you to come over and keep them company because they’re feeling upset and depressed. You’re on your way to work and in a hurry when a stranger is knocked down and urgently needs your help to get to hospital. It would be tempting to think of such cases as representing the very stuff of moral conflict, especially as our own needs and interests are often experienced as urgent and obvious whereas what we owe to others can feel more remote and less motivating.

If we generalise from such experiences, we are liable to think of ‘morality’ as something which has to be wheeled in from outside, as it were, to overcome our lower natures. We then get the picture of human beings as basically selfish, acting to meet our own desires, and needing somehow to be induced to subordinate those desires to the demands of morality. That is the picture which many philosophical and religious thinkers have tended to assume, and it pervades a lot of everyday thinking.

One problem with that picture is that it is not at all clear how ‘morality’ can perform the trick which is required of it. If that is really what we are like, as creatures driven by selfish desires, how can we ever be motivated to act differently? There are two strategies which are frequently resorted to. First there are philosophical arguments aiming to make an instrumental case for morality. If you respect the needs and interests of others, they will be more likely to do the same for you, and so in the long run you will be better able to satisfy your own desires. The trouble with this strategy is that at most it provides not reasons for doing the right thing, but reasons for appearing to do the right thing. What really matters is making others think that you are showing concern for them, so that they will reciprocate. It follows that if you can conceal your actions and get away with lying and cheating and stealing without being found out, then you have good reason to do so. And even if we see that as unrealistic, this account seems to miss the point. It offers no reason why other people can and do matter to us.

The second strategy is to invoke a super-human agency, seeing morality as needing the backing of religion. If we recognise moral principles as the commands of God, and if we look to God to give us the strength to overcome our worldly desires, then and only then, it is said, can we be motivated to do what is right. Quite apart from the fact that this view presupposes the existence of a deity, this account again seems to miss the point. It substitutes obedience to the divine will in place of a genuine concern for others for their own sake.

We need to question this whole picture of an opposition between the ‘self’ and ‘others’. To put the point first in negative terms, if we really were like that, driven by selfish desires and treating others as means to the satisfaction of those desires, our lives would be hugely diminished. We would be lonely, mistrustful, turned in upon ourselves, and unable to genuinely share our feelings, our hopes, and our fears.

The positive point is that our lives are in large part constituted by our relations to others, relationships of love and loyalty and allegiance. Bear in mind that the worst wrongs are motivated not by selfish interests but by misguided devotion to others – an overwhelming love which gives rise to jealousy and crimes of passion, or a fanatical allegiance to a particular group or nation which leads people to persecute or slaughter outsiders and foreigners. The problem here is not self-interest, but narrowly partial allegiances.

We need to look at our lives as a whole. We need to recognise the whole range of relationships which make up who we are and give meaning and purpose to our lives – intimate personal relationships of love and friendship, satisfyingly cooperative relationships with others in shared endeavours, and the enrichment of our experience through the sharing of our common humanity. The morally good life is not something set apart, but one dimension of a life well lived, because it is a life that is shared.

Question: Can a humanist approach help to collapse the distinction between living an individual flourishing life and being good to others?

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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