We are living in a new age of austerity, but could all this enforced abstinence be good for us?by Nigel Warburton / December 16, 2010 / Leave a comment
Across Europe, austerity is the buzzword of the day. Greece and Ireland have already banked billions in bailouts and other nations may have to follow suit. We’re all having to curb excess and do more with less. Further cuts will bite deep in the months to come: Happy New Year.
But can all this enforced abstinence be good for us? Friedrich Nietzsche believed that suffering aids self-mastery: he declared that whatever does not destroy us makes us stronger. Unfortunately, his own psychiatric decline (a final decade wracked by mental illness) refudiated that.
In contrast Britain’s Jeremy Bentham argued that withholding pleasure from ourselves will create a kind of hell. The best world for him was one that maximized blissful mental states for the greatest number of people. Not unreasonably, he saw moral progress in terms of eliminating suffering and increasing the chance of happiness. Any attempt to justify pain needed to be weighed in the scales of his “felicific calculus”—a formula based on such variables as intensity, duration, certainty, proximity in time, how many people would be affected, and what the likely sequel to an action would be. If by these strict criteria the downside of the treatment outbalanced the resulting beneficial outcome then, like medical treatments that do more harm than good, it should probably be avoided – unless, of course, there were no better options.
Today’s cuts, we are told, are justified because short-term pain is the most reliable route to long-term contentment for the greatest number, or, perhaps more realistically, because they are likely to produce the least worst outcome. Whatever the end result, though, that special form of blissful mental state induced by extravagant spending may be harder to come by for many in the next few years.
But why stop with the government’s austerity measures? We, all of us, could go much further if we had to. In fact, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has suggested, if we’re serious about the consequences of our spending, we should consider how easy it is to save the life of a child in a developing country. You’d jump into a shallow pond to save a child from drowning, Singer argues, even if it ruined your Gucci shoes. So why aren’t you prepared to spend the price of a pair of loafers on medicines that would produce a similar effect for a child at risk from tropical diseases? Austerity…