Updated: May 4, 2021
by Ashley Hardie
The sun is shining, and I’m sitting on my balcony reading a book. How guilty should I feel?
The book isn’t very salacious; I don’t cause a scandal by reading it, but no-one will be harmed if it goes unread. But I quite enjoy reading it. It is not the book that might cause me to feel guilty, but the enjoyment of it.
Occasionally, when getting through the hours in my enforced stay at home, I notice that I’m quite happy. And then I start to worry that feeling happy is rather selfish, in the circumstances. There are people whose lives are at risk, and who are dying, while I sit in the sun and read a book. Is it OK to be happy while there is a major international crisis going on? The answer to this question, I will argue, is sometimes, but not always.
There are two extreme answers to this question, both of which have to be wrong: that one is allowed to be happy, regardless of what goes on with other people, and that one is never allowed to be happy while others suffer. Let’s start with the first: that one allowed to be happy regardless of other people.
It certainly seems that we criticise people for being happy when others suffer. A funeral director with a big grin on their face would be rather offensive to someone seeking to use their services. We might distinguish between someone being happy atsomeone else – rubbing their nose in it, as it were – and merely being happy regardless of anyone else. Gloating that one’s life is good is pretty clearly an unpleasant thing to do; it suggests a delight in the suffering of others. But my reading my book in the sun wasn’t taking delight in the suffering of anyone, it was ignoring it.
Still, we might worry that may failure to regard anyone else’s suffering is a problem. It is callous, perhaps, not to care about the wellbeing of anyone but me. If I had news that a member of my immediate family were on their deathbed, and sat enjoying my book in the sun, one would suspect that I didn’t care about my family. It might indicate a failure to care appropriately about them. There seem to be at least some circumstances in which it would be inappropriate to guiltlessly enjoy my book in the sun.
There are some people, then, whose suffering renders inappropriate my quiet enjoyment of my book. But thousands of people are on their deathbeds, and here I sit, quietly enjoying the sun. Is this not also a failure to care about those thousands of people?
One observation here is that there are always people on their deathbeds somewhere. If I had to care for each other person in the same way as I care for my immediate family, then happiness would never be permissible. By itself that doesn’t show happiness is permissible, but the absurdity of the idea that we must have an equal emotional attachment to all people everywhere comes out when we realise that we couldn’t function, psychologically speaking, if we burdened ourselves that much. It is psychologically impossible for us to care that much, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for failing to do the impossible.
It is certainly psychologically possible for someone to care about others more than I do, and to care about them at this moment rather than indulging in carefree enjoyment of my book in the sun. Should I not feel guilty about not doing more? The answer to this depends on what I reasonably could be doing instead. I am not a physician, or a nurse, or a grocer, or manufacturer; there is nothing that requires my specific set of skills urgently to alleviate this crisis. In fact, government advice is that I should stay at home and not increase the risk of transmission by being in contact with other people. It is, if anything, easier for me to guiltlessly enjoy simple pleasures now, when there are restrictions placed on what I can do. The number of other things I ought to be doing is so much less!
Even if I were particularly in demand for my skills, we come back round to a limit on what demands can reasonably be placed on me. There are 24 hours in a day, and it is not sustainable to spend all of them working to benefit others. I would reach a state of emotional and physical exhaustion – ‘burnout’ – that would undermine my capacity to help others. And the pandemic will likely be with us for some time, with the aftermath of the pandemic lasting even longer. Having some time to get small pleasures from life is healthy, and allows me better to fulfil my duties to others.
When is it appropriate to sit in the sun enjoying a book, then? Firstly, when the sun is out. The circumstances in which sitting outside are enjoyable can be fleeting, especially in Britain. Secondly, when I have nothing else that I am morally required to be doing (always bearing in mind that I can’t be morally required to do the impossible). Thirdly, when those to whom I have a special connection – those whom I love – are safe and well. For even if there is nothing I ought to be doing, it is hard not to worry when those you love are suffering.
About the Author
Ashley has a BSc Psychology and Philosophy from Keele University, and is a freelance journalist.