Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Rich, Full Life

Among the throngs of shiny, happy people, there’s an upper tier in which are seated those renowned for their more monumental contentment: not only are these blessed few pleased with their lot and so unmoved by empathy for the suffering masses and undisturbed by knowledge of our existential predicament, but they’ve managed to accrue for themselves what we dub a Rich, Full Life (RFL). (See Happiness.) These champions of egotism are personally fulfilled, to be sure, but that understates the completeness of their triumph, since they’re happy many times over, as it were. The happiness of a hundred ordinary folks doesn’t equal that of a single hero who’s blessed with an RFL, who has traveled the whole world, garnered a bewildering variety of experiences, succeeded in numerous fields, loved and been loved by countless life partners.

Enduring their torments far beyond that upper tier and the herd of cheerful consumers and pragmatists, the inured losers moan in agony, crying in despair, trembling in horror. The worst of these are said to be cursed with the opposite of the RFL, namely with an Empty, Wasted one (EWL). Sometimes intentionally withdrawing from the race to flourish, these self-tortured existentialists, mystical ascetics, and assorted omega men and women are unhappy, to be sure; but time also passes them by, as do opportunities for advancement, and so their mind comes to resemble a barren echo chamber filled by their harping inner voice, bereft of memories of mountains climbed, friends and lovers enjoyed, conventional challenges met, or luxuries consumed. All the struggles of their ancestors have led, pitifully and tragically, to their withdrawal, to their dropping of the torch. (See Procreation for Ancestors.)

Such is my dramatic way of drawing the politically correct distinction between the happiest and unhappiest people. But let’s look closer at this pair of categories. Much of the meaning of an RFL and of an EWL is relative: the person with a wide variety of enjoyments and successes is deemed all the happier by comparison with the person with few if any of them. An RFL is praised and an EWL is pitied because they’re so far apart from each other: the happiest people have won the race only by leaving far behind the losers, and the unhappiest are those who can regret that they haven’t seen or done as much as the winners. Another way to frame the distinction is to rank each life next to the plethora of potential experiences that humans can have, in which case the happiest are those who have at least a representative sample of those total experiences, while the unhappiest are subhuman in that their accomplishments fall below that threshold.

However, if we broaden our perspective, we can compare the total number of types of experience for humans to the number of potential experiences of more powerful creatures who might roam solar systems or whole galaxies. Simplifying, we can stipulate that there are, say, a million types of experiences for humans, confined as we are to Earth and its near orbits, and that a person with an RFL accumulates a representative sample of that total, say, ten thousand types of experience (including pleasures and successes but also sorrows and character-building failures, of course). In that case, there must be, say, a trillion potential experiences for organisms throughout the natural universe.

With that bigger picture in mind, we can compare even the human RFL to the cosmic RFL and argue by way of analogy that just as the human RFL is supposed to render someone with less depth contemptible, by comparison, the human RFL must be likewise contemptibly vacuous and provincial compared to the cosmic RFL. Compared to British magnate Richard Branson, for example, the life of an omega man living in his mother’s basement or a poor farmer scraping by in Haiti is a void perhaps not even worth enduring. Likewise, though, compared to the manifold perceptions and challenges of a member of a technoscientifically advanced spacefaring species, Branson might as well be a hermit, since neither the human RFL nor the human EWL includes a representative sample of the total number of potential macrocosmic experiences.

Thus, we’re faced with a dilemma: either we follow the broader comparison which belittles the accomplishment of the human RFL, in which case praise of the latter is optional, at best, or else we spare the human RFL’s dignity and decline to engage in that cosmic comparison or in the analogous one, with the human EWL, in which case we should no longer despise the latter by its failure to measure up to the human RFL.

An objection should immediately come to mind: the analogy afforded by the so-called broader perspective is weak, because the human RFL is possible for all humans whereas the cosmic RFL is impossible for any of us. But the analogy appears strong after all, because the human RFL is actually impossible or at least highly unlikely for most unhappy people, whether because of their less fortunate outer circumstances or because of their inner character which lacks the arrogance, egoism, sadism, narrow-mindedness, or whatever conglomeration of vices is required to out-compete the hordes of human beasts. Of course, no human can presently journey to other planets, let alone galaxies or dimensions. But likewise, most people can’t afford a life as rich as Branson’s: they lack the drive, the resources, and the opportunities. True, many unhappy people likely have the chance to lead richer, fuller lives, thus approaching at least a few steps toward the human RFL; but likewise, there must be some potential even for present oligarchs to make great strides in space exploration. (See, for example, Branson’s Virgin Airlines which takes customers into suborbital space, and Planetary Resources Inc, the new business backed in part by James Cameron and Google founder Larry Page, which will attempt to mine nearby asteroids for precious metals and water.)

Suppose, though, my response to that objection doesn’t work and the analogy is weak in that sense, because the cosmic RFL is much less possible for any of us than is the human RFL. Still, the comparison that’s relevant to the normative difference between the happiest and the unhappiest humans may be between only the conceptual possibilities, not the practical ones. Intergalactic travel may be wildly impractical for any of us, but we can all still imagine the grandeur of such a macrocosmic life (the longer life span, the power of controlling whole worlds, the fellowship with other intelligent species, and so on). Likewise, unhappy people tend to be practically incapable of experiencing much more of the world’s copious offerings, but they can still be tortured by the knowledge of what they might have been and indeed--now that the internet has made the planet much smaller, in a sense--of how happier people actually live. We don’t yet know of actual extraterrestrials, but thanks to science fiction we can all imagine the cosmic RFL and thus compare such a life to the human RFL. That conceptual comparison still plucks the happiest humans, with their relative RFL, out of their heavenly tier and hurls them into the ranks of human sufferers, since next to even the imaginary cosmic RFL, a human RFL seems parochial and pathetic.

Of course, a human with an RFL can’t be morally blamed for failing to achieve what’s actually impossible, a cosmic RFL. But the conceptual possibility of the cosmic RFL should provoke us to think twice before pitying the unhappy person with an EWL. When we broaden our perspective, we all tend to become more pitiful, tragic, and absurd.

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