BY JOSÉ OLIVEIRA | 24 MAR 2022
A dreadful life is like carrying a huge rock up a mountain just to see it roll down the other side. And then start it all, over, and over again. All this trouble and pain, with no purpose, just endless frustration. Greek mythology tells us this was Sisyphus’s terrible punishment for betraying the gods. But sometimes we feel our day to day lives are as meaningless as watching, powerlessly, that falling rock (just going back to square one!). Maybe on your way to work, you sometimes ask: “What’s the meaning of this endless routine that seems to accomplish nothing?”. I guess that is the moment you realize your rock is falling. But you might argue that placing the rock at the top of the mountain has a meaningful purpose: it ends this awful ordeal. So we should try, and try again. Well, what about if we knew, right from the start, that such a feat was impossible to accomplish (that is, no matter what, the rock will always fall again). How could we find meaning in all that? But even if we could hold the rock at the top, stopping this ordeal wouldn’t, in itself, give meaning to our lives. Surely not having to do something (as awful as it might be) might allow us to do something else (maybe with some meaning), but it doesn’t necessarily put us on the right track to a meaningful life. What would that track be anyway?
Ok, it seems that having a purpose is a good start. But it’s not the finishing line. Either carrying the rock, or puting it at the top of the mountain is not enough (just being busy, or just completing a task to have some free time, is not enough). So one would need a purpose that could be achieved (not just to work on it endlessly with no significant results) and a way to really achieve it (and to have some compensation by the results). Still, this is not enough; unless that purpose itself is really valuable, to achieve it would be pointless. So apparently what we want to accomplish has to have some objective value.
So let’s go back to the mountain, to that moment we walk down to fetch the fallen rock. It might be a moment of anguish, when we realize the absurdity of it all. But maybe not for all of us, or maybe not most of the time. For many of us, it’s like we have spent 5 days carrying the rock up the mountain, and now, when we go down to fetch it, we have 2 days to rest and enjoy ourselves (even if we know, every Monday, it all starts again!). If carrying the rock in itself doesn’t give us any (or enough) enjoyment, then we must depend on our free time. And so we might ask: is that enjoyment all the value we can aim for in our lives? What could a life of selfish enjoyment accomplish?
What about the things other people value? Are those people even in a position to pursue their values? If not, how can we help them? Let’s reflect on that: Normally we say that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us (that’s the golden rule). But, what if they wanted, or needed, to be treated differently? Then, should we not treat them in ways that we would not like to be treated? (That’s the silver rule). But, again, what if that’s exactly how they would like or needed to be treated? Perhaps we should take into account what they really value. Well, although some values might be hard to determine, even those only arise if the essential values are met.
So, again, what is of value to us all? Well, we are biological sentient beings. And we need things like water, food, shelter and basic medical care to survive, let alone to thrive. So, even if we have doubts about certain types of values, surely we can agree that providing the essentials for someone to survive is something of irrefutable value. And that might provide a strong enough reason to help others in a way they certainly would appreciate, because it allows them the possibility to survive and even thrive as they please.
If that is the moral thing to do, should we do it, or not? Does it depend on our moral obligation to those in need? Well, to answer that, consider these 3 people: Peter, Paul and Mary:
- Peter does good to others only because he thinks it’s his duty (maybe he thinks his god is watching, and might punish him if he doesn’t help, or maybe he just abides by some abstract notion of obligation to help others, without any proper consideration for them).
- And then there’s Paul, he doesn’t do good to others because he thinks it’s not his duty (maybe he thinks his god doesn’t allow him to help those who don’t believe in his religion, or maybe he just abides by some abstract notion of obligation to cooperate, but not to voluntarily help others if he has done nothing wrong to harm them — and that excludes those who don’t, or just cannot, cooperate with him).
- And finally, there’s Mary, she believes that helping others is the moral thing to do, just out of concern for them. And she thinks that Peter and Paul are just playing with words, and their actions are not really moral: After all, could a moral life derive from moral duties that have no consideration for the sake of others? Or could a moral life derive just from cooperation if that even neglects the survival of those who cannot cooperate with you? If something is wrong but not an injustice (I have committed no harm towards those dying in Africa from a preventable disease), shouldn’t I help, if it’s in my power to do so?
And then Mary asks: If I can save a child drowning in a shallow pond without putting myself in danger, and just by ruining my clothes, is that too much of a sacrifice compared to a life being lost? Does it matter if the child is not my responsibility or if I didn’t push her into the pond? Does it matter if she can’t help me in return? Does it matter if she is not from my country, or of my race?
So isn’t Mary the only one here doing the moral thing to do, and for the right reasons, for the sake of others? Regardless of the feeling of duty, or the somewhat exaggerated concern with such a demanding sacrifice, you might consider the amazing opportunity of giving meaning to someone’s life, if not giving them life itself.
So here’s what comes to Mary’s mind when she thinks about the tough question we raised about how to accomplish something meaningful with our lives (combining both an achievable purpose and something of value to achieve) and living a fully moral life (especially not neglecting those in need):
“What about the lives of strangers in need, what is their value? The same as the lives of those we love, for those who love them, therefore, the same.”
Would that necessarily imply that you’d have to be a moral saint? To abandon everything you’ve built, and your loved ones, to go and save strangers in need in a faraway land? Here’s what Mary thinks: “Being a good person implies generously sacrificing, in the most effective way, what I might otherwise spend on things that don’t provide my life with as much meaning as helping those in extreme need.”
Even if you don’t (totally) agree with Mary, I invite you to help me write the final part of this story, and then think about how you should act on it. So here it goes:
If I stop buying some extra stuff [think of a luxury of yours — my examples here were beer, cigarettes and coffee], that costed
US$ per , in one year I would be able to:
- protect ____ people from one of the deadliest diseases in the world: Malaria,
- or treat ____ children from debilitating intestinal worms that could seriously compromise their future,
- or even cure ____ people from blindness.
There are many other things of tremendous value you can achieve by sacrificing some things that don’t give special meaning to your life.
But in turn, if you earn US$ per year*, that luxury you sacrificed, amounts to ____ times the pledge The Life You Can Save recommends, and that will allow you to have a life-saving impact on those you help, and a barely noticeable impact on your standard of living.
Please enter a value for the luxury you sacrificed in #1 above.
Now you can rewrite your story every month, changing lives (besides giving meaning to your own), and at one point you might say, like Mary:
“I too am Sysifus, but I’m on top of the world, because whenever I go fetch my endlessly fallen rock, I stop to save the drowning child.”
So, please consider joining many others in the fight against extreme poverty:
* If donations to foreign aid organizations are tax deductible in your country, enter your gross income. If they are not, enter your income after tax. The Life You Can Save does not record, collect or share your personal income data. To learn how we calculate our suggested pledge amounts, read our FAQ.
This post was written after attending two online Philosophy courses (“The Meaning of Life” and “Moral Life”) by Professor Desidério Murcho, to whom I owe many of these ideas (but any mistakes are my own).