Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone

For a long time now, rich countries have been getting richer. As countries get richer, a lot of good things happen on the back of it. The population’s health improves, life expectancy rises, education improves, more people can get an education, and unemployment rates lower.
At a certain point, this pattern stops. A lot of rich countries today are now so rich that economic growth and increasing the average material living standards no longer directly impacts health, education, and unemployment. As countries reach this threshold there’s something else that starts driving these important metrics, and it’s the level of equality among their citizens.
More equality is better for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a country, a state, a city, or a company. When inequality among citizens of a country lowers, the health expectancy rises. Not just among the poor and not just on average. Even the life expectancy of the rich rises. In The Spirit Level, the authors compare data about 21 developed countries, as well as the states of the US. They looked at several indicators of health and well-being. The most interesting ones for me being:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental Illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • Life expectancy
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? None of this has been a conscious choice. We didn’t set out to become this rich. We are continuously trying to improve our situation. That’s true for people but also countries and companies. When you add up all these small incremental improvements you eventually end up in our current world of plenty.
Because we never made a conscious decision about this growth, we also never considered the impact of all this material wealth. Nor did we think about how it should be spread out across the world population. Everyone is making their own small improvements and because of that feels that the results of these improvements are theirs. We fail to recognize that we are lucky. Living in a part of the world without any major natural disasters is lucky. (Mind you, this could change when sea levels rise as my house is already below sea level.) Having a good education is lucky. Being able to learn in the way the education system demands is lucky. Living in a mostly functioning democracy is lucky. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of this. I just got lucky.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that it caused has made it even clearer how much luck is involved in leading a good and easy life. Many people who had a very good job 6 months ago are out of work today. If your job was in the tourism or event branch the pandemic has pretty much killed your line of work. If you are working as a contractor the economic crisis might mean that you lost your assignment without much notice. None of us have chosen our line of work thinking “what job would be the safest bet during a pandemic?”. If you still have a job you’re lucky. And we have to share that luck or at least the income that we are enjoying because of it, with the people who aren’t as lucky.
Intuitively it makes sense that more equality is better for everyone but when it becomes personal it’s less straightforward. A majority of people want society to move away from greed and access towards a way of life more centered around values, community, and friendship. But to adjust your own life is a different thing altogether.
Personally, I’m happy paying all of my taxes and I regularly give money to charities but voluntarily giving away large amounts of money or accepting a lower income would require me to take several long hard looks at myself. I can only assume that this feeling doesn’t change when you have millions or even billions (although I can’t say this from personal experience).
So how do we ever get to a society with less inequality? The earlier in the process we start, the more impactful and less painful it is. The best place to start is education. Ensuring that everyone has access to quality education, regardless of the color of your skin or the amount of money your parents earn is a good start. Investing in pre-school for all kids can be a huge equalizer. Primary schools that are funded based on the average income (or tax being paid) in the neighborhood where the school is located significantly increases inequality. Schools and pre-schools should be properly funded by governments. Unfortunately, few governments make this a priority. In the end, it might be a choice between paying for social benefits to limit inequality and using public expenditure to cope with social harm like increased health problems and larger prison populations.
Another option is to limit inequality in salaries or redistribute money through taxes. You can argue that some jobs should make a bit more money than others but the differences that we see today can’t be defended, nor are they beneficial for the well-being of anyone, rich or poor.
Structural policy changes will be hard to achieve but the first step is to raise awareness of the impact of inequality on our societies and the people living in it. This starts with all of us. I encourage you to look into the impact of inequality in general and the level of inequality around you. Think about it and talk about it with others. There won’t be a quick fix but everywhere we are able to limit inequality we will improve the well-being of everyone involved.

This Life – Why Mortality Makes Us Free

This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free has two parts that could have been two books. It feels a little bit like Hägglund had two strong ideas and a one-book deal. The book is split into two parts where each part describes one of the ideas. Both ideas are thought-provoking, very well researched, and clearly described and explained. It was easy to stay engaged in the philosophical text.
In this post, I’ll focus on the first part of the book, which is about why mortality makes us free. The second part explains why capitalism can never lead to equality and why redistribution of wealth under capitalism can’t work in the long run. I might come back to that in a later post.

Our mortality might be the one thing that we can all agree on in this world full of division and false dichotomies. We don’t know when or how, but eventually we’ll all die. We are fragile and our lives are finite. Hägglund argues, successfully in my opinion, that the transience of our life is what makes it valuable.
Death makes life meaningless, because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because the finitude of our lives makes every moment precious. Knowing that it can all end makes us care. Hägglund calls this secular faith. I would prefer to just call it caring, but that might be why I’m not a philosopher.

Most religions consider our finitude a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. Our lives on earth are considered a necessary prelude to eternity after death. An explanation of what eternity means is seldom included. It’s often considered to be similar to our lives on earth, except it will last forever. We’ll be together with our loved ones and there won’t be any pain or suffering. This premise means that it can’t be like our life on earth. The happiest day of our lives is so enjoyable because it sits in contrast to other days. Just try and picture the happiest day of your life (or just a happy day) and imagine it will last forever. The lack of contrast would make it bland and even boring. An eternal now would deprive us of a past and a future. There is no risk and no failure and thus no growth.

When we think about eternity after death this not what we have in mind. It turns out that we don’t want eternity. We want to continue to live our lives as we do on earth. When we wish that the lives of those whom we love will last, we do not wish for them to be eternal but for their earthly lives to continue.
The thought of our own death and the death of our loved ones is painful. We don’t want to die and we often don’t want things to end. At the same time, we shouldn’t want things to be eternal. Eternity would take away all reasons to care and be passionate. A life worth living must be finite and include secular faith or reasons to care. If your ultimate goal is to exist until you die, just so you can move on to eternity in heaven, you have no reason to deeply care about anything that happens during your life.

We enjoy spring because of the contrast of the cold and dark winter. We savior a summer day because we know that fall will be coming to fade the bright colors to a more demure red and yellow and brown. Life can be beautiful because it can be tough.
It is often asserted that life without spirituality suffers from disenchantment. However, it’s the transience of our lives that gives us a reason to care. If only one tiny circumstance in evolution or the lives of our ancestors would have been different, we would not have been here. There is no pre-determined meaning to life, but it can be beautiful. The most meaningful things in our lives often turn out to be the small things. A smile, a laugh, or sharing a spontaneous moment. We can make living worthwhile by caring and trying to make a difference to other people. Perhaps even to future generations. While our death is unavoidable, our legacy might live on.

It’s also a commonly held belief that religion is required to lead a moral life. The atrocities committed and wars fought in the name of religion should make it abundantly clear that religion can also have the opposite effect. The books and stories that are at the core of many religions are said to explain what it means to lead a moral life, but their interpretations differ wildly and some of them are used as excuses for bigotry and cause immense suffering. Leading a secular life, there isn’t a single dedicated text that tells us how to lead our lives. It’s up to us to create our moral compass. I like the humanist concept of trying to live your life in a way that does the least amount of damage and the most amount of good for both people and the planet. Not being sweetened by the idea of heaven or threatened with punishment in hell, leading a moral, secular life depends on intrinsic motivation. Knowing that life is short and death unavoidable provides this motivation for many.
Of course, some non-religious people feel that the meaninglessness of our existence is a reason to not care at all. But religion is certainly not a requirement for leading a good and moral life.

Seeing things in perspective as they happen is almost impossible. Looking back at past events it’s often easier to see them as precious. Time takes the edge of any hurt or worries that you encountered at the time. Appreciating the present is more difficult as it’s raw and unprocessed. Memories are also often isolated, not taking into account the full context of everything else that was going on in your life and the world.
This is especially challenging today. With a raging pandemic that’s causing pain and suffering and that’s increasing inequality, a sociopath in the White House, and the very urgent problem of climate change moved to the background it can be hard to find joy and happiness. If you feel this way try focusing on the small things. I can feel intense happiness when I’m running or when I’m sat on the sofa with a cup of tea after a long day. It’s ok to allow yourself these moments of happiness despite the state that the world is in. Denying yourself the little pleasures isn’t going to make the world a better place and might make you depressed.

I’m not religious and I believe that when I die my existence ends. While I’m not afraid of death I’m also not a fan, so I mostly don’t think about it if I don’t have to. While this book might not have changed my beliefs significantly I found it interesting and uplifting to read and think about why the finitude of our lives is a good thing. I liked both the writing and ideas. The second part of the book on the subject of democratic socialism is just as interesting as the first part and also worth a read.

Something else that fascinated me about the book was the confidence with which Hägglund asserts that the common interpretations of the works of some famous philosophers are wrong and how his interpretation is right. I understand that he has spent a lot of time studying all of these works as well as the broader concept. I don’t mean to say that he is wrong. A lot of Hägglund’s interpretations sound at least plausible. I simply don’t know and I’m not convinced that I would be bold enough to reject the norm and present my own interpretation as the right one. It’s interesting.