“Dear Santa,” begins an Internet meme that’s been making the rounds, accompanied by some innocent-looking drawing of a small child or a woman decorating a tree, “I’m writing to tell you I’ve been naughty and it was worth it, you fat, judgmental bastard.”
Fair enough, I say. Who died and made Jolly Old Saint Nick the arbiter of all things good and bad, anyway? And frankly, the extensive surveillance that’s he’s gotta have going on 24/7, 365 days a year, is more than a little bit creepy.
But if I reject the authority of the guy in red to tell me what to do, does that mean I can do whatever I please? Just gather as many resources and as much power over my fellows as I can, by whatever means I choose, fair or foul, even becoming top ape of the tribe if possible?
Such a life, no matter where you end up in the pecking order, is frankly impoverished. I don’t have anything against material riches per se, but we humans are not merely animals; we are rational animals. This doesn’t mean we are always or automatically rational, but rather that we have the ability to reason instead of being swept along exclusively by impulse and instinct.
Yet reason is not merely a tool, our particular means of getting what we need to survive, akin to another animal’s claws or teeth or brute strength. It is that, but it is also much more. Having the faculty of reason, we also have a psychological need to use it not only to better our lives, but to determine what constitutes a good life. It may be going too far to say that the unexamined life is not worth living at all, but the unexamined life is surely less than optimally satisfying.
So, what makes a good life? Physical pleasure is one good thing, to be sure, but only one, and its pursuit can distract us from the more subtle and deeper satisfactions of being human. Acquiring knowledge and learning skills, making and appreciating art, and cultivating relationships with others all take us beyond the simple pleasures we have in common with the beasts.
Even this does not quite capture what it means to live a fully human life, though, because it ignores the issue of dealing with others. Given that other human beings, like me, tend to want pleasure and knowledge and art and relationships, I am more likely to get these good things for myself if I treat other people with respect, cooperating and trading with them. To say the same thing another way, there are instrumental reasons for acting in an ethical manner in one’s dealings with other people.
These reasons do carry a certain weight. But it’s conceivable that one could lie, cheat, manipulate, and force others to give one what one wants, or some close enough facsimile, especially if one is smarter or stronger or richer or otherwise more resourceful than the norm. Are there any deeper reasons, besides the instrumental ones, not to trample the rights of others if one has a fairly good chance of getting away with it?
The answer, of course, is yes. For one thing, like most humans, I care about other people and their interests. Admittedly I don’t care equally about all 7.3 billion of you. Some of you, I don’t even know. Still, I don’t want to do you harm if I can avoid it—and lying to you, cheating you, manipulating you, or initiating force against you are themselves harms, however I may try to disguise this fact and keep anyone, myself included, from recognizing it.
And even more fundamentally, from a certain perspective, it’s also a matter of self-respect. Using deception, manipulation, or force to get what I want from other human beings—instead of treating them as the rational animals they are, with interests and goals and plans of their own—is quite simply beneath me. Respecting others’ rights is intrinsically valuable to me because of what it does to me if I violate them: I become less fully human.¹ I lose face with myself, and all of my pleasures become shadows of themselves: sour when they should be sweet; pale instead of bright and bold; a little out of tune.
Living a fully human life does not mean foregoing the animal pleasures. It does not mean sacrificing your interests to those of others. But it does mean striving to live a rational life, which implies living with honour and recognizing the basic humanity of your fellow human beings—whether or not some dude at the North Pole, or anywhere else, is watching.
1. This idea, and indeed the inspiration for the present short article, is from the second half of Roderick T. Long’s “Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand,” Objectivist Studies, No. 3, The Atlas Society, 2000, p. 51: “To violate the rights of others, then, is to lessen one’s own humanity.”