Monday, March 26, 2012
"Have A Sense Of Perspective": Bad And Unnecessary Advice
This post is about yet another of those well-meaning but ultimately pointless and even pernicious pieces of modern wisdom. This one goes: "It's really important to have a sense of perspective."
This is generally intended as a reminder to be less caught up in your particular life dramas, less emotional about your particular circumstances, and less focused on the people around you. It's the kind of thing you say to someone who is all upset because of annoying people at Starbucks to remind them that Hey, There Are People Starving in Africa, So Maybe You Should Just Chill.
I assume it is uncontroversial to point out the obvious: that everyone has a perspective. The teenager caught up in some Facebook drama clearly has a perspective on things: they have a perspective that focuses on their friends as very important and ignores a lot of other stuff. That's a perspective. The modern wisdom isn't really about having a perspective, it's about having a certain kind of perspective: the kind that represents "the long view" or "the point of view of the universe."
So: what is so great about the long view? Why should we take the point of view of the universe? I guess the answer is supposed to be that the long view is a moral view, because it is "impartial" and doesn't introduce "arbitrary" distinctions between people. If you care about X you should care about Y and Z and everyone else in the same way, and this means not being caught up in your own particular way of seeing things.
But as I see it -- and as philosophers like Bernard Williams have said before -- this just doesn't seem right. The whole starting point of morality is that some things matter and some things don't, and some things matter more than others. For most people there are lots of things that matter: abstract things like truth and justice and generosity, but also particular things like family members and friends, projects like learning to play the piano, fun, art, literature .. the list goes on and on.
If the point of view of the universe means thinking about what matters in a way that has nothing to do with all these different and highly partial values, then how does it get off the ground? How can you think about what matters and why without using, as a starting point, your own partial and particular beliefs about what matters and why?
In response we might try something like the following: we know what well-being is for each person, so from the point of view of the universe, we should do what brings about the most well-being overall, without distinguishing one person's well-being from another. This would be "impartial."
Let me just say this: this principle leads to a set of beliefs that is in some ways disturbing. The person who insists on killing one group of people -- or even one person -- in the name of the future well-being of another group of people is frequently thought of as a moral monster, not a moral visionary. Those who can't love anyone specially because they love everyone equally are not those we admire and are not those we teach our children to emulate.
So: it is not at all obvious -- I don't even think it's true, but passons -- that the long view, or the point of view of the universe is somehow better than the particular and partial view.
The real problem with most of us, I think, isn't that we have a perspective that is too narrow, but rather that we have multiple perspectives that take hold of us depending on our mood. Here I think the philosopher Thomas Nagel basically nailed it when he said that because we can take on different perspectives on our lives, we value various and conflicting things. Like, we value the collective good of everyone, and we value our particular projects and loved ones. And the difficulty is trying to bring these various values together -- to incorporate them into some way of life.
Because can be extremely distressing, for real, to find yourself feeling at one moment OMG there are people starving in Africa and feeling at the next moment that the biggest crisis of life is not being able to find a pair of comfortable summer sandals.
But the answer to that problem is not to "have a sense of perspective." If you have this feeling, you already have a sense of perspective. The answer to that problem is to become a try to make a life that reflects the things you care about, by making plans to do things and then doing them and not always being carried away by the mania of the moment in your mind.
But that's not having a sense of perspective. That's trying to bring together a bunch of different, conflicting values -- some of which reflect the point of view of the universe, some of which reflect the point of view of a teacher, mother, employer, whatever, and some of which just reflect the point of view of you, alone.
Of course, some of us just don't care enough about other people, but these people don't need to be taught to have a sense of perspective. They need to be taught to care about other people.
So next time you're tempted to think or say "have a sense of perspective" to someone, try to back off. It's an annoying thing to say anyway.