By Carol Glick
The other night, Shankar Vedantam from NPR’s Hidden Brain paddled down the iPhone-podcast stream and docked at my dining room table. I welcomed Mr. Vendantam. He demanded nothing of me other than an open mind and a listening ear. His digital presence removed the pressure to social distance. Best of all, the impromptu and virtual nature of his visit eliminated the need to de-clutter the premises. So, what if stacks of unread junk mail littered the table? Shankar, preoccupied with entertaining and enlightening me, failed to notice.
Shankar introduced his guest to me, a philosopher, Peter Singer. I never heard of him. So, what else is new? I have a shallow knowledge base, especially in esoteric topics like philosophy. This probably stems from scars I bear from Philosophy 101. I distinctly remember the professor asking, “What is pain?”
For once I knew the answer to his erudite and pointless inquiry. Pain in a nutshell revolved around this class. I knew better than to shoot my hand upward, begging to express my take on the subject. From a practical rather than philosophical standpoint, containing my remarks upped my chances of passing this mandated class with a D. Anything less meant failure and another round of Philosophy 101. No thanks.
So, although Shankar’s guest specialized in a subject I abhorred—it ranked a few notches below house cleaning—out of respect to Shankar, who played a role in broadening my shallow knowledge base, I listened.
That evening Peter Singer discussed his specialty, increasing happiness. Now that’s a topic worth considering and one never broached in my freshman class over 40 years ago. The skeptic in me considered anything having to do with philosophy anathema to happiness. But I trusted Mr. Vedantam to keep this light. So, with my curiosity piqued, I smoothed a napkin over my lap and welcomed my gentlemen callers to join me for dinner.
First off, Peter declared. “We’re all equal,” or something to that effect.
Hmm. My thoughts exactly. That tenet cinches me—just barely—to my Judaic roots. Over the last 40 or 50 years, I’ve attended less than a handful of Friday night seders. In one of those landmark encounters, the rabbi expounded on why effigies of Moses, Abraham, or other venerated Jews didn’t embellish houses of worship. “It’s because we’re all equal in God’s eyes,” he explained. That little tidbit—one I never even thought about or noticed—resonated with me. To think, I ranked right up there with all those accomplished heroes . . .
Okay, Peter Singer and I clicked on the issue of equality. I leaned into my iPhone so as not to miss a single syllable of Pete’s sage takes on life.
“Increasing happiness over misery is the best outcome,” Peter stated, although perhaps not in those exact words.
I’ll buy that.
Pete continued with this example: “A black man rapes a white woman. The suspects include six innocent black men, but all will be lynched for the crime unless . . . .”
This story, intriguing as a Special Victims Unit crime scene sucked me in. I’m curious about how Mr. Singer’s philosophical brand of justice will render a Christmas sack of happy for all.
“Unless . . .” Mr. Singer paused. “Remember, the goal is to achieve maximum happiness with the least amount of suffering.”
Okay. We know already. Now get on with it. My jaw suspended activity mid-chew as I anticipated the philosopher’s revolutionary dispensation of justice.
Instead, Singer prattled on. “We must rely on logic, not emotion, to drive our actions.”
Uh, huh. So how does that apply to this situation? How do six innocents walk away from a false accusation of rape?
At last Mr. Singer unveiled his master plan. “For happiness to override suffering, one rather than all six of the accused must die.”
My jaw dropped further.
What? Come on, Singer. That makes no sense. You said they were all innocent. I may have come close to failing Philosophy 101, but I do know one thing. To ensure an ethical outcome, you need to toss the bunk. This calls for a full-scale unbiased investigation.
Shankar, whose NPR contract must stipulate that he maintain a stoic and unruffled on-air persona, countered, “But this outcome is based on a lie.”
“Yes,” Singer, a promulgator of the absurd, conceded, “but in this case, the sheriff’s hands are tied. He can’t prevent the lynching. The math speaks for itself. Only one man has to die, not six.”
Shankar’s introductory lines for this evening’s episode made a pass through my mind. “Our guest has been referred to as a monster.”
Rather than emotion and common sense, this philosophical huckster stood proud and ready to implement logistics and mathematics as the way to resolve life or death issues. Just plug a random figure—in this case one innocent black man—into the formula to calculate the happiness factor.
As I stewed over that hot topic, Singer, unstoppable as a toboggan on a downhill grade, presented another bizarre example. “Consider this. Torturing one child to death, commutes happiness to all—forever.” Singer admitted to the repugnance of this action, but in theory, justified such behavior because it yields the greatest happiness.
Pete. I don’t have a Ph.D. but who’s gonna get any happiness or satisfaction from watching someone torture a kid—even a bratty one?
How does a nightmare-generating image like that, one I can’t imagine shaking—ever—bring eternal happiness?
Come to think of it, Mr. Philosopher, what constitutes universal happiness, huh? Answer that one. Does your mathematical formula include an objective scale to weigh happiness against suffering? What makes me happy or sad may not mesh with your ideas. I like chicken fat stuffing. My friends gag on the stuff. So, I ask, how do we stack all the happys and sads in our lives into your mathematical equation to achieve maximum happiness for all?
Vendantam, who has to kill about 45 minutes of air time, encouraged Singer to deliver more absurdities. I wondered how much of this twaddle Shankar believed. He’s a polite host, objective, but not side-taking, so I’ll never know.
In order to quell the broadcast-induced gurgling in my gut, I tuned out most of the remaining drivel while I finished my dinner.
My thoughts swung back to Philosophy 101. I came close to failing that course, and my math skills falter beyond balancing a checkbook. After listening to this program, though, I am grateful for my neural deficiencies. The gray matter that I sport at least enables me to see holes in presentations generated by gentlemen like Mr. Singer. I may not have all the answers, but I’m smart enough to assess flawed thinking and miscalculations.
Thank you, Shankar, for this evening’s enlightenment.
Carol, in keeping with her tradition of pursuing low-income professions, has launched a new career—writing. She has completed two tongue-in-cheek-memoirs, Tails Behind the Scenes: the Uncanny Parallels Between my Zoo Career and Family Life, Desert Deliverance: a Tongue-in-Cheek Memoir, and a multitude of short stories. Most of her work is accumulating dust in the computer’s hard drive, but retirement from parenting, zookeeping, and teaching the visually impaired has stripped her of an identity. That compels Carol to remake herself, this time—with any luck—as a world-acclaimed writer.
Her short story, Cleaning: How and Why to Avoid It, appears in the July 2020 Funny Pearls.