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The Answer

….that no single key, no formula can, in principle, solve the problems of individuals or societies; that general solutions are not solutions, universal ends are never real ends….

…that liberty–of actual individuals, in specific times and places–is an absolute value; that a minimum area of free action is a moral necessity for all men, not to be suppressed in the name of abstractions or general principles so freely bandied about by the great thinkers of this or any age, such as … humanity, or progress…names invoked to justify acts of detestable cruelty and despotism, magic formulas designed to stifle the voices of human feeling and consience.

This is Isaiah Berlin describing the views of the great Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), although I think he was also describing the views of the great Russian thinker Isaiah Berlin. It’s from one of my all-lifetime-favorite books, Russian Thinkers. (HT Dennis Whittle for reminding me of the Herzen chapter.)

Berlin presents the lite version of Herzen in a direct quote from his autobiography:

‘Human life is a great social duty,’ [said Louis Blanc], ‘man must constantly sacrifice himself for society.’

‘Why?’ I asked suddenly.

‘How do you mean “Why?”-but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’ [said Blanc]

‘But it will never be attained if everybody makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’

Another version of this I heard a long time ago, not sure where:

The purpose of life is to live for others.

Then what should the others live for?

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  1. Doesn’t it all depend on how society is defined? Naturally there is a greater good but the concept of sacrifice became a tougher pill to swallow when people lost sight of what the sacrifices were for.

    When a society is quite small (ie tribal communities) the results of sacrifices are very clear and the enjoyment derives from that very sacrifice. Whilst this worlds society became more global our sacrifices seemed to bare smaller fruits.

    Exceptions to the rule might be situations like the revolutions in the middle east. Where oppression has led for people to form closer bonds and tighter communities that are united under one common tangible cause. In this case the sacrifice has a clear outcome.

    Naturally this is what, unfortunately, makes rallying around a global common goal (ie Climate Change) so hard. Most of those goals seem intangible (too few visible rewards) for people to sacrifice.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  2. Thom wrote:

    Shouldn’t it the first quote read: “that no single key, no formula can, in principle, solve the problems of individuals or societies; that general solutions are not solutions, universal ends are never real ends….

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  3. sam wrote:

    Ultimately, people – including governments and corporations – use their money to serve their interests. ‘Aid effectiveness,’ as it were, is a luxury, a collateral result. The main idea of aid money is to serve some interest – either stockholders of some big company or the citizens of some rich country. When the poor countries get rich, you’ll see them doing the same things. Of course there are single solutions, but it is pointless to discuss them – that’s not the point of aid money. I am constantly amused that people think it is; they actually buy that line. Positive effects of aid occur because the agencies using the money somehow manage to overcome the larger interests being served. The larger interests can be upended by the simple matter of having lots of money to spend. Then you are more likely to get positive results. When budgets are tight, things get clearer: you will hear people talking about getting our money’s worth. They are not talking about helping more people or improving things in some “sustainable” fashion; what they mean is the money spent will better advance their interests. This is the bottom-line thinking about development. I don’t know if it’s true – there are a lot of very passionate people working in development who do believe they are working for the greater good of all people. But the more I see, the more I think they are foot soldiers in some grander scheme mainly monitored and adjusted by the rich to, very assuredly, protect and promote their wealth and all that comes with it. Quelle surprise.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  4. Tracy wrote:

    I was once sitting in on a class where the title and focus was something to the effect of Natural Resrouces Conservation in International Development. For the most part, students in the class indicated that they were all planning careers in “development”. They spoke ad nauseum about the injustices in the world that they wanted to see come to an end. And, I believe, that in simple terms they do in fact want to see a more “just” world (whatever that means … it’s like equitable … equitable to whom? Certainly not to someone who feels they are losing power to this abstract concept.) In fact, I can say that in also very simple terms I want the same. Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. I left my job in “development” (heartbroken) because it seemed like such a game, such a joke once I was “on the inside”. I like to play devil’s advocate and I also do not believe that we can act purely out of altruism. I try to temper life with a reality check every now and then and have come to accept that there’s always something to be gained for the individual on some level in every sacrifice. So, I asked the students in the aforementioned class a simple question: if it were not for poor people in the world, what would you do for a living? Are they not seeking their own individual worth through the misery of others in some way? Amazingly, I made it out of the room alive, though became less popular. They spoke freely about the word “sacrifice” and that we all must be willing to make them, yet I don’t know that many of us in the room have made meaningful sacrifices (like the word equitable … so abstract that it can only be defined in the context of your own values) on a level such that we affect society (how do we even give this word a definition?) on the whole. A few seemed to believe that by choosing their career path in development they were making some type of sacrifice (by sacrifice they seem to mean working for what they consider to be the greater good). Interesting. So now poor people are lucky to have you on their side? I can at least appreciate the honesty. I admittedly felt a little cruel marching them down that logical slippery slope by asking q after q. Perhaps we are all enjoying ourselves then? Can making a sacrifice be a form of personal enjoyment? Can one exist without the other: the hedonist and the altruist? Regardless, I don’t believe that either exist in a pure form, but that we are all on a continuum between the two. Meh, I’m probably just getting old and jaded.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  5. Jacob AG wrote:

    Um… doesn’t the second paragraph in the first blockquote contradict the first one?

    It’s like,

    “There is no universal answer,”

    followed immediately by

    “A minimum area of free action is the universal answer.”

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  6. William Easterly wrote:

    Thom, thanks for catching the typo, now fixed! Bill

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  7. joe wrote:

    Never seen the point of pursuing happiness. Seems a monumental waste of time.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Roger McKinney wrote:

    I like your post, Tracy. Young people get very angry if you burst their bubbles, but isn’t that what growing up is all about?

    Hayek wrote that we must have two separate sets of values, one for the family/tribe and one for strangers in a larger organization like a state. If we try to apply one to the other we will destroy both.

    Altruism is a family/tribal value that works well in those circles and is necessary for their functioning and continuity. But it will destroy a nation if applied to strangers in a nation.

    A nation requires justice and equality before the law with no favoritism, which will destroy a family/tribe if strictly adhered to.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  9. Jacob AG wrote:

    Here’s Rabbi Hillel, with the reasonable voice of the center:

    If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

    The first part says it has to be at least a little bit about selfishness. The second part says it has to be at least a little bit about altruism. And the third adds urgency to both.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Tom Cushman wrote:

    If you find pursuing happiness a waste of time, what do you think is a worthwhile use of your time? I try to work on my personal happiness daily. I see it sort of like the announcement you hear on the airplane “put on your own oxygen mask before trying to assist others”.

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  11. Stewart Parkinson wrote:

    There is a very old story about a man going to heaven. When he arrives, he is asked if he has a request, and he decides that he would like to see hell. He is shown it – a room with a food-laden table in the center fenced around. On the other side of the fence sit the damned, armed with long spoons. The spoons are sufficient to reach the table, but they are so unwieldy that the damned cannot get the food to their mouths without dropping it. The damned are emaciated and suffering as a result.

    The man was surprised by this, and was taken to heaven. To his shock, the scenario was the same – the same table, the same fence, the same spoons. Yet in this case, the inhabitants were collecting the food and feeding each other; something that they could manage, though with difficulty.

    Which leads us to:

    The purpose of life is to live for others.

    Then what should the others live for?

    “The purpose of life is to live for others

    The what should the others live for?”

    The answer: us.

    I recognize that this is extremely simplistic, and subject to the vagaries of stupidity, greed, self-interest and confusion, but this is a moral choice. What choice should we make?

    (Full disclosure: I have spent 15 years in development in some of the toughest places in the world, and am cynical as the next person, by this is why I continue to do the job.)

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  12. joe wrote:

    @Tom Cushman – because the term ‘happiness’ is malleable and subjective. What happens if I am happy when I kill dogs? What if my happiness leads to your sadness? What if the things that make me happy today make me sad tomorrow?

    Moreover, if you’re aware of the world and not pissed off about the state of it, you’re probably not paying enough attention. For sure, we all need moments of ecstasy and joy to continue in this vale of tears. But happiness – no. And the pursuit of it even less.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink
  13. Reuben Waltz wrote:

    I’m glad to see that this website has openly become a libertarian blog. I’m sure we can take away the slogan: “just asking that aid benefit the poor”.


    Posted March 1, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  14. Melissa wrote:

    Reuben, a person who believes in these quotes can certainly still believe in helping people! I love working on food infrastructure projects, but I hate when I go to dev conferences and hear people spewing out blanket solutions. I like it when I am able to facilitate the needs of local farmers and consumers and correcting market failures rather than telling them what to do.

    Posted March 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  15. James Moore wrote:

    I believe that every person has the right to pursue happiness, within society’s established boundaries, but this does not mean that they have no concern for their fellow man. Helping others is not contradictory to enjoying success and can even heighten ones sense of accomplishment and purpose. A more cynical person probably could not agree with this outlook but I believe it is true for some people. Of course many people can live “happy” lives knowing that others suffer greatly around the world, but it should be the duty of those who have the means to heighten others awareness of people in need.

    Currently I think this puts the weight of assistance on the United States, Western Europe and other highly developed countries. These regions have the resources and the capabilities to help less developed countries merely out of the excess of their success, but only if the projects and efforts can be properly coordinated and therefore most effective.

    Posted March 3, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  16. Brilliant quotes from Berlin’s “Russian Thinkers”. However, I think that the “lite” version has multiple possible interpretations.

    One interpretation is a straightforward criticism of an individual choice to sacrifice one’s well-being to help others using a “what if everyone did that” argument. Such arguments are commonplace but are largely an excuse for self-interest when there is no prospect of everyone doing the same.

    A second interpretation is not a criticism of self-sacrifice per se but rather the suggestion that either it should be a minority pursuit or that it cannot be the whole purpose of existence.

    A third, related interpretation – which more closely accords with the views attributed to Herzen – is a criticism of attempts to impose Blanc’s beliefs on an entire society, such as in a communist or fascist would-be utopia where self-sacrifice is coerced. It is an argument in favour of individual freedom and against social engineering.

    The opening quote above is an argument for scepticism of universal and/or too-good-to-be-true solutions, not just, say, the Washington consensus, efficient-market hypothesis, unregulated markets or micro-finance but also human rights, liberty, equality and justice. However, Berlin described his view as “objective pluralism” rather than relativism. He did not argue that values are meaningless or useless but rather that they can be incompatible and incommensurable.

    In a State that valued its citizens’ freedom less than Britain, Berlin’s writings could have landed him in jail or worse.

    Posted March 5, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  17. Jim wrote:

    This is certainly an intriguing thought. However, I don’t believe that sacrifice and happiness are mutually exclusive. It’s true that we sacrifice some of our liberties in forming a society, but the network of human relationships that are born from these social contracts generate far more happiness than a life of anarchy ever could. When everyone selfishly pursues their own immediate desires, all are worse off. The aid industry is working to try and make people understand that this same concept applies to the global community. The core nations need to realize advocating aid and development in the South only when it is convenient and profitable, is unacceptable.
    “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is” – Mark Vonnegut (son of the acclaimed author, Kurt)

    Posted March 7, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

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