In his book How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, Peter Singer describes the sense of emptiness that people suffer if they invest all their energy in such things as making money, getting promoted, sports, and shopping. Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are people like animal activist Henry Spira and Paul Farmer, the extraordinary doctor and global-health leader so fascinatingly described in Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder,that:
Peter Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are not focused on their own children, but on all children – ideally, on all people and sentient beings. They deliberately limit their focus on their own children, at least striving to live by the notion that “each counts for one, none for more than one”. This is the real life practice of Paul Farmer. As Kidder tells it, he devotes most of his time to saving the lives of poor patients in Haiti and around the world, seldom even visiting his own daughter, who lives in Paris with her mother,(which makes Farmer sound terrible, I think, but how old is his daughter?, and how rarely is "seldom"? He might not be so bad at all, despite his saintliness), and that:
Kazez argues, against the suggestion that parenthood is the acme of human life, that many things can provide meaning in one's life:
I suggest that to have meaning in one’s life is (1) to have overarching goals that organise one’s time and energy, making life not just one damned day after another; and (2) to be wholeheartedly committed to those goals – durably, and without constant doubt; and (3) for those goals to be well enough grounded in reality to survive reflection.This is intended as no more than a rough definition, but it still gives me pause. What's wrong with taking life one day at a time? Why must one's time be organized to be meaningful (if that's the implication)? What do goals have to do with meaning?
I'm involved in raising children, but this is mostly a matter of doing what needs to be done at any given moment. If there is a goal it is ensuring that our children grow up happy, well, and decent, or something like that, but a) the goal is not something I have clearly in mind, and b) it does not organize my time or energy in any clear way. Maybe it dictates how much of my time and energy are spent, but it doesn't add order to my life in the way that the word 'organize' seems (to me) to imply. If anything organizes my time it is the school calendar (my own school and my kids'), not my overarching goals.
It seems to me that the two parts of criterion number 1 come apart. The first suggests something like a hobby or a book project, the second relies quite heavily, I think, on the word 'damned.' What is really at issue is that life not be hateful, not that it be organized. The second criterion, the one about wholehearted commitment, is pretty much the reverse of this: you need to love someone or something. The third criterion looks like a sanity clause: what you love must be a sane enough object of affection that your love will endure. All in all what Kazez seems to me to be talking about is love, and it is perhaps for this reason that her breaking it down into numbered parts or criteria seems off to me. And, yes, having children certainly does give you something to love. So really I think I agree with her, despite these misgivings.
I also agree with her that one can love things other than children. I really wonder how Singer knows that people who invest themselves in making money, going shopping, or sports, feel empty inside.
I hope that some of them do, but I don't see any inevitability that they all will. Nor does self-expression necessarily seem like such a great thing. Some artists are tortured, and some are not that good (although artistic failure might often be a result of failing to express oneself truly--who knows?).
I also wonder whether it is possible for human beings to focus on "all people and sentient beings." I'm sure one can feel a kind of love for all people and all sentient beings, but all the time? In a focused way? It seems more like a momentary experience or else a kind of background to everything else, amounting to something like being happy or being nice. But it doesn't seem possible to have that kind of generalized happiness as the love that gives meaning to your life, perhaps because it gives you no direction, nothing in particular to do. (Providing medical care to children in developing countries is doing something in particular, of course, but that one should do this does not follow from an unfocused love of all sentient beings.)
Surely most of us need other, more immediate, things to love, like particular individuals. And maybe something intermediate for the times when those individuals (they could be animals as well as people, I think) are not around or don't need your attention. This could be some other set of people, or a hobby, or an art, or a sports team, or anything else that you can love.
But by now I suppose I am getting very banal, which I take it is a sign that what I'm saying is probably about right. And if Singer and Maslow have got it wrong, then the banal truth is worth saying.
As for the banner above (suggesting that Manchester United Football Club is more important than one's children and that Douglas Kenrick's team was right about the relative priority of children and one's spouse), it's the kind of thing that people say is funny because it's true. But it's also a joke. It's doubtful that its owners would actually sacrifice their families for their team. But I suppose we don't really know our priorities until they are tested, and that happens, thankfully, rarely. One last thing that might be worth saying is that the idea of having to prioritize might be a mistake. That is, if loving all sentient beings is roughly the same thing as being happy then part of being a good parent might be having this love. An angry or hateful parent is probably not a good one. And loving one's partner is probably ideal if one is to be a good parent too. Equally, loving one's children, I would think, makes one a better partner. And so on. Life, United, Kids, Wife: in no particular order. And with whatever substitutes you prefer for kids and/or wife.