Love is not the Answer

Coming up with some good “famous last words” is a real challenge.

For one thing, you’re working under pressure. You’re not sure when your final breath will come, and you want it to be worth taking.

For another thing, you’ve got a bunch of people standing around your bed, waiting for you to say something profound and then expire. Preferably in that order.

By the way, I’m not dying, lest I get a lot of worried emails.

It is true that the cashier at McDonalds this evening gave me a “senior discount” on my coffee, and I’m not sure if I should be insulted or just happy to have saved some money.

I’m going to go with “happy.” To an 18-year-old cashier, all people over 40 look like they have one foot in the grave. When I drew a secret-agent comic strip in high school, I made the main character 26 years old, which seemed middle-aged to me. It seems a lot younger now.

But “famous last words” are supposedly a clever way to get to my main topic: the limits of compassion. So please bear with me for another paragraph or two.

Ludwig Wittgenstein did pretty well with his famous last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!” James T. Kirk, not so well: If memory serves, his famous last words will be “Oh, my,” a phrase more commonly associated with Mr. Sulu.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous last words are in his Ninth Symphony, and they’re hard to beat even though he got them from Schiller:

“Joy, daughter of Elysium

Thy magic reunites those

Whom stern custom has parted;

All men will become brothers

Under thy gentle wing.”

Shakespeare’s version of King Henry IV did pretty well. Speaking to his son, Prince Hal, he said:

“How I came by the crown, may God forgive,

And grant that it may with thee in true peace live.”

However, it is the famous author Gertrude Stein who provides the segue to our main topic. When Ms. Stein lay dying, her companion Alice B. Toklas whispered to her:

“Gertrude. Gertrude. What is the answer? What is the answer?”

Ms. Stein opened her eyes and said: “What is the question?” And then she died.

So now, finally, we get to the point: Contrary to popular belief, love is not the answer: it’s the question.

“Do the loving thing” isn’t a helpful answer because it poses two further questions:

  • Why should we do the loving thing?
  • What is the loving thing to do in a particular situation?

Presumably, we should do the loving thing to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. That’s why.

But we’re not quite done yet. The what question depends on whose happiness and suffering we’re trying to affect.

If we can make some people happy without making anyone else suffer, then there’s no problem at all. Other things being equal, that’s the loving thing to do. It’s all good.

However, the opposite is more common: different people have different interests, desires, and moral values. If you help one group, you hurt others.

In those cases, you have to make some uncomfortable decisions. Who counts? Everyone? Then you’re in a bind:

  • If you do nothing, then you fail to increase the happiness of one group but don’t cause suffering to the other group.
  • If you do something, then you increase the happiness of one group by causing suffering to the other group.

How can you decide which alternative is better? There’s no provable answer.

Alternatively, you might decide that everyone doesn’t count. Some people are just so wicked that their happiness doesn’t deserve any consideration.

You might think that it’s a hard decision to make, but people make it all the time. The only thing that changes is the hated out-group whose suffering doesn’t matter. If you’re a thoughtful person, you need to be aware of issues like that. It won’t make the decisions for you, but at least you’ll know what you’re doing. You won’t be acting blindly.

Another problem with trying to do “the loving thing” is that it relies on our emotions. Propagandists know exactly how to bypass people’s cognitive faculties and inflame their emotions. When people’s emotions are aroused, they often can’t think clearly even if they try, which they usually don’t. It’s downright scary to see intelligent people reacting to images or memes just like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when they hear a bell.

If I had the solutions to these problems, I’d give them to you. I don’t. But I still think we’re better off being aware of the problems than if we’re totally clueless about them.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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