Charles Murray is a writer I’ve mentioned previously, and he’s had his share of controversy over the years. One of his works that struck me with force was a lecture he delivered last year at the American Enterprise Institute. In this lecture, he suggests that the social democracy practiced in much of Europe (and admired by many on the American Left) is unsustainable. Part of his argument is fiscal, and it’s an argument that has been rehearsed in a number of places (and that the current situation in Greece seems to exemplify.) However, it’s another part of his case that had folks like Matthew Yglesias and Damon Linker calling him a “Donner Party Conservative” and (in the case of an Yglesias commenter) “neo-Calvinist,” and since a day spent annoying people like that isn’t wasted, I thought I might take a look at that portion.
Basically, Murray argues that the welfare state is spiritually enervating. Why?
I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.
And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.
To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.
He suggests that the welfare state alienates people from the consequences of their actions and offers the idea of a life with less effort (if not an effortless life). He continues, saying that in the absence of effort and consequence, life itself loses some value. This gets the knickers of the Yglesias crew into a serious twist: “Surely we shouldn’t want people to suffer!” they cry. Well, what would it take to achieve a world without human suffering?
Princeton ethicist Peter Singer offers an answer in the NYT. What he suggests is a form of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. His premise is that of Housman‘s Terence Hearsay, who tells us “Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure.” But while Terence will take what comfort he can, however cold, Singer considers the answer proffered by South African philosopher David Benatar, which Philip Larkin anticipated in the last stanza of his famous poem, “This Be the Verse“: “Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.” While Singer suggests that there may still be some hope for humanity, he seems willing to give Benatar at least two cheers.
Over at What’s Wrong With the World, Michael Liccione considers Singer’s piece, and argues that Benatar (via Singer) is making an argument based in a form of utilitarianism:
[T]he premise, plain throughout Singer’s work, [...] makes it possible to raise his post’s question: the premise, that is, that the principal good of life is the experience of pleasure and the principal evil of life is accordingly that of pain. Now it’s possible to hold, as Singer does, that most people hitherto will have experienced more pain than pleasure in their lives; and if that’s right, then a utility calculus could lead one to conclude that most people’s lives at this stage of history haven’t been worth living. That is what Singer appears to believe.
While I don’t think Murray’s critics would necessarily take their argument as far as Benatar and Singer, I do think it’s the same premise. It’s basically hedonistic, without the moderating influences found in, say, Epicureanism.
But even in a milder (non-Benatar) form, the contempt Yglesias, Linker, et al. show for Murray’s argument is both immature and unhealthy. Where they accuse Murray of an ethos of cruelty, they are themselves guilty of the ethos of the primacy of sensuality, the ethos of the lotus-eater. Even if we had an infinite supply of the lotus flowers (but as I said, that’s a different discussion), a life spent under their influence is a life of sleep, however comfortable. Back to Liccione:
[The disdain for Murray's position] assumes that the unique and supreme criterion of goodness is undergoing subjectively pleasant experiences rather than doing something of which such experiences, when they occur, would be objectively fitting byproducts. The latter would be the life of love; the former could suffice simply as a life of sensation. But the superiority of the latter cannot be explained in Singer’s philosophy. That shows that what we’re dealing with is a spiritual disease, not just a philosophically flawed argument. Those who think the superiority of love to pleasant sensation is not evident, or those who think the value of love can be reduced to that of pleasant sensation, share the same disease.
This pursuit of comfort as an end in itself is what Murray and opponents of the Social Democratic welfare state warn us about. We certainly recognize flaws in its practice — the pleasures of food, untempered by the pain of exercise, can lead to unhealth and obesity — even if one can afford the food indefinitely (a fact I know only too well.) To deny that there is an equivalent spiritual unhealth strikes me as shortsighted. Yglesias and Linker wouldn’t deny that obesity can be fatal — why can’t they admit the same of their philosophical flabbiness?