I’ve noticed that the “About me” page on this blog has so far got more views than any other. So I hope it won’t be overly narcissistic of me to wax autobiographical for a moment, and expand (in this post and the next) on the story that I tell there, of how I came to the kind of philosophy I have now.
Philosophy intrigued me a lot in high school. My first real exposure to it was in grade 9, in 1990, in a mini-course at Queen’s University offered to precocious high-school students in my home town; I came to really enjoy it in a philosophy course that my high school offered in grade 12. What appealed to me most at the time was ethics, in a conventional sense (as opposed to the expanded sense that matters to me now): explanations of why we should do what we should do. But what those courses taught me above all was that I was a committed utilitarian; everything came down to acting for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill’s Utilitarianism was the first philosophical book I ever read in the original. It’s no coincidence that I was also a dedicated political activist at the time, participating in every left-wing cause I could get my hands on.
I started having philosophical qualms about utilitarianism soon afterwards, as I began my undergrad years studying sociology and urban geography at McGill; I couldn’t find a satisfying philosophical justification for it. I hadn’t read John Rawls at the time, but if I had, I probably would have become a worshipful devotee of his. (As I noted last time, while Rawls isn’t a utilitarian as such, and devotes much of his energy to attacking utilitarianism, the resulting worldview looks very much like utilitarianism’s: a life spent in political action to uplift the most deprived people.)
But while I saw problems with a utilitarian worldview, there wasn’t much to replace it, and during those years I remained more or less a utilitarian by default. Things really changed after graduation, when I went to work for the United Nations in Bangkok, trying to edit works that would help coordinate efforts for people with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific: a supremely utilitarian or Rawlsian job, aiming to help out millions of people in the direst of physical conditions.
And I found there was that I was terribly unhappy. Small things, like paper jams on printers, drove me to desperation. I wasn’t all that much more unhappy than I’d been in the previous years, but I was noticing it more. My unhappiness posed a significant problem for a utilitarian worldview, a problem that standard critiques of utilitarianism usually don’t get at. Namely: in the name of the greatest happiness, I was trying to help ensure that all these poor and deprived people could have the kinds of opportunities I’d had in my own privileged upbringing. But what good is it do to that, if someone with all these opportunities and privilege can still end up miserable?