The meaning of life (seriously- well, almost seriously)

Mother and son

A year or so ago a friend of mine asked me a series of questions, to each of which I happened to know the answer.  After I’d told her everything she wanted to know about whatever trivial subject she was asking about (it must have been a trivial subject for me to have had all the answers,) she asked, “okay, what’s the meaning of life?”  I laughed.  She pressed me on it.  I decided to play along.

My wife, Mrs Acilius, has cerebral palsy that affects her arms and legs in a big way, but her cognitive abilities hardly at all.  So a wheelchair and a trained dog can fill in for everything she needs to make her way in life as an independent person with a professional career.  At about the time my friend insisted that I craft an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?,” I’d been spending more time than usual involved with her dog and his training, and was thinking that there might be some kind of deep cosmic significance in it.  So I took a shot at the question based on that.

Maybe, I said, it’s something to do with a reciprocity between care and need.  Mrs Acilius’ relationship with her dog has a meaning to her that a relationship with a human whom she or some social services agency paid to perform the same tasks wouldn’t have.  She and the dog both need each other and both care for each other.  A paid human attendant might need a job, but might not need her; she might need the help the attendant provided, but might not need the attendant.  In other words, the need that goes toward making a relationship meaningful isn’t just what the parties in it need from each other, but that they need each other.  And what completes that meaning is that those who need each other care for each other.

This came back to mind this afternoon as I was reading an article on 3 Quarks Daily about the value of children’s lives relative to other people’s lives.  The author, Thomas Rodham Wells, tries to fit children into a utilitarian moral scheme where they are “special, but not particularly important.”  I am not a utilitarian, for many reasons, some of which I explain here.  I do think that Mr Wells’ article is well worth reading, not only because he is a most sophisticated utilitarian, but also because his article can help to flesh out the idea that the meaning of life can be found in a relationship between care and need.

For Mr Wells, children are special because of their extreme neediness:

Children are special in one particular, their extreme neediness. They have quite specific often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children’s care and protection a moral priority in any civilised society – there are lots of things that aren’t as important and should give rightly way to meeting children’s needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn’t mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children’s neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby’s cries.

However, the special priority neediness confers on children’s needs is not to be confused with extraordinary value.  Indeed, children are, other things being equal, less valuable than are adults:

People’s lives get more valuable as they ‘grow up’ because part of growing up is having more life to live. The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, and so on. Persons are able to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally rises over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children’s lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world the more important they are held to be and the greater the tragedy if one should die. Of course I don’t deny that the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents, I’m quite convinced of the depth of their anguish. But the fact of their grief that doesn’t address the issue of relative value. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of that middle-aged accountant?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child, is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one, the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents’ lives.

I suspect that the idea that lives are to be valued because of their narrative content is more defensible than the idea that actions are to be valued because of their net contribution to the amount of pleasure (minus pain) in the world, and so I say that Mr Wells’ utilitarianism is more sophisticated than is the garden variety of that school.  Still, like other utilitarians he ends up putting lives in order by the rank of their worthiness to live.  In the Book of Genesis, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specializes in this sort of ranking and presumably carries it out according to some rational plan, but I think it is safe to say that the job of the God of Genesis is unlikely to come open any time soon.  Failing that, the only scenarios in which it is at all necessary to rank particular lives by worthiness of life that are at all likely to befall any of Mr Wells’ readers may be battlefield cases where time is extremely short and highly-developed ethical codes are of little use.

Still, reciprocity of need and care, the potential for such reciprocity, need for a person rather than for anything one might get from that person, these are all narrative concepts, and all involve the kind of growth and strength upon which Mr Wells places such a premium.  Even a utilitarianism much cruder than his, which would be blind to these concepts, would still highlight the requirement that the needy person also have the ability to answer the other’s need for such a relation to have importance.

One of the weaknesses with the idea that The Meaning of Life is to be found in a reciprocal relationship between need and care is that people’s actual experience of moral reasoning in cultures around the world has many more than one dimension.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently attracted a good deal of attention with a model of what people are actually talking about when they talk about right and wrong, a model that operates on 6 dimensions.  One of these dimensions, an axis running from care to harm, is predominant in the thinking of many in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) circles.  Indeed, classical utilitarians do not recognize any other component to morality than care and harm.  Looking beyond the WEIRD world, though, we find that, while humans in all times and places tend to agree that it is usually good to care for others and bad to harm them, they also place great importance on other concerns as well.  Professor Haidt arranges these other concerns in five further dimensions of moral reasoning: loyalty vs betrayal, sanctity vs degradation, fairness vs cheating, liberty vs oppression, and authority vs subversion.

To go back to the example of my wife and her service dog, I think we can bring all of these dimensions to bear in explaining the superiority of a canine companion over a human employee.  Compare the direction of loyalty in the relationship between dog and handler with the direction of loyalty in the relationship between client and employee.  Dog and handler are loyal to each other.  Unless something has gone very far wrong, that loyalty is typically deep and untroubled.  Between client and employee, however, there is a complex network of competing loyalties.  The client and employee may or may not develop a loyalty to each other.  The employee, however, must also be loyal to whoever is paying his or her wages, who may be the client, but more likely is a social services agency, an insurance company, etc.  And in a capitalist economy, an employee cannot avoid being both cheated and oppressed unless s/he throws aside all loyalty to his or her employer and clients when negotiating wages and conditions of employment.  That isn’t to deny that this suspension of loyalty, like the suspension of disbelief when watching a play, can sometimes in the long run strengthen what was once suspended, but the sheer complexity of loyalty as a phenomenon within the marketplace does mean participants in the marketplace have a harder time building up loyalty as a virtue than they do when participating in other institutions.

In the matter of sanctity vs degradation, the reciprocity of care and need that the dog offers the handler brings sanctity into settings where a client and a human attendant might have to make a special effort to avoid degradation.  Sometimes a dog helps a handler to dress and undress, to bathe, and to do other things during which the handler is exposed and vulnerable.  The handler does the same for the dog, and the dog looks to the handler for every need.  Therefore there is nothing degrading about receiving such service.  Human attendants are usually trained to be respectful and inclined to be so, but even so, there is something demoralizing about the helplessness one feels when asking for help from someone to whom one can offer no comparable help in return.  Again, a qualified professional with the average amount of human compassion will minimize that demoralization, but some trace of it is always there.  With the dog, you are building a loving relationship in which both canine and human find something that can only be called sanctity.

As for fairness vs cheating and liberty vs oppression, the dog avoids the problems inherent in an adversarial economic system to which I alluded above.  This is especially the case in a program like that which has provided Mrs Acilius with her current service dog and both of his predecessors, Canine Companions for Independence.  CCI is funded by donations and operated largely by volunteers; clients pay only their own personal expenses.  Of course, it functions within the USA’s economic system, so it isn’t altogether a utopian scheme.  For all that Mrs Acilius is given to telling her dogs that they are “angels from heaven,” they are in fact bred and trained using wealth produced in our capitalist system, with all its characteristic virtues and vices.  But I would say that CCI’s philanthropic structure maximizes those virtues and minimizes the accompanying vices.

As it does with loyalty and betrayal, the market introduces complexity into the experiences of authority and subversion.  So an employee is under the authority of an employer and sometimes under the authority of the client, but occasionally is required to give the client direction.  This need not be an especially frustrating complex of roles, but it does make it difficult to see how there can be any great moral significance in any particular phase of it.  The relationship between dog and handler, however, is one in which the lines of authority are crystal clear.  And it is the mutual need and mutual care that keeps those lines of authority functioning.

So maybe my response to my friend wasn’t quite as silly as any response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” must initially sound.  I’m not planning to work it up into a scholarly project of any sort, because I’m not actually the sort of person who wants to have an answer to that question, but I’ve posted it here for what it’s worth.

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1 Comment

  1. Relationship advice

     /  March 5, 2015

    Yes…you are absolutely right ….A paid human attendant must need a job, but might not need her; she might need the help the attendant provided and relationship is very important for a emotional life..thank you for nice post.. click here for relationship meaning

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