Wednesday, April 18, 2012


John Lennon on Being a Genius

Jann Wenner, the founder and editor in chief of Rolling Stone, interviewed John Lennon in late 1970 (Rolling Stone published the interview, titled "Lennon Remembers," in two parts in early 1971). Wenner asked Lennon, "Do you think you're a genius?" Lennon could have answered that question any number of ways but he chose the best approach--brutal honesty. Here is Lennon's reply:

"Yes. if there is such a thing as one, I am one."

Wenner asked, "When did you first realize it?" Lennon gave this blunt, thoughtful answer:

"When I was about twelve. I used to think, 'I must be a genius, but nobody's noticed' [laughs]. Either I'm a genius or I'm mad, which is it? 'No,' I said, 'I can't be mad, because nobody's put me away; therefore, I'm a genius.' Genius is a form of madness and we're all that way. But I used to be a bit coy about it, like me guitar playing. If there's a thing such as genius, which is just what? What the fuck is it? I am one. And if there isn't, I don't care. But I used to think, when I was a kid, writing me poetry and doing me paintings--I didn't become something when the Beatles made it or you heard about me, I've been like this all me life. Genius is pain, too. It's just pain...Listen, people like me are aware of their genius, so-called, at ten, eight, nine. I always thought I was--why has nobody discovered me? In school, can't they see that I'm cleverer than anybody in this school? That the teachers are stupid, too? That all they had was information, which I didn't need, to give to me? I didn't become aware of it in the Beatle thing. I got fuckin' lost in that, like being in high school or something. I used to say to my auntie, 'You throw my fuckin' poetry out, and you'll regret it when I'm famous!' And she threw the bastard stuff out. I never forgave her for not treating me like a fuckin' genius or whatever I was when I was a child. It was obvious to me! Why didn't they put me in art school? Why didn't they train me? Why would they keep forcing me to be a fuckin' cowboy like the rest of them? I was always different. Why didn't anybody notice me? A couple of teachers would notice me, encourage me to be something or other, to draw or to paint, express meself. But most of the time they were trying to beat me into being a fuckin' dentist or a teacher!"

Wenner asked Lennon if Lennon would take it all back, not be a Beatle and just live a normal life. Lennon declared, "...If I could be a fuckin' fisherman, I would. If I had the capabilities of being something other than I am, I would. It's no fun being an artist. You know what, it's like writing, it isn't fun, it's torture. I read about Van Gogh and Beethoven, any of the fuckers. And I read an article the other day: 'If they'd had psychiatrists, we wouldn't have had Gauguin's great pictures.' I know it sounds silly, and I'd sooner be rich than poor and all the rest of that shit. But the pain, I'd sooner not be--I wish I was...ignorance is bliss or something."

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Thursday, April 5, 2012


Is it Ethical to Have a Child?

This world can be a cold, cruel and violent place; millions of babies are born who--because of genes, environment or some toxic combination of both factors--are doomed to suffer mentally, physically and/or emotionally. Is it ethical to bring an innocent, defenseless child into such a world? The answer to that question only seems obvious to people who hold one of two extreme viewpoints--either that life is very beautiful and meaningful or that life is very ugly and meaningless--but if this question is examined in a logical, detached manner it is not at all simple to provide an intelligent and ethically sound answer.

In the April 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews three books that discuss the ethics of having children. Christine Overall, author of Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate, dismisses the notion that because having children is a natural biological function there is no need to justify doing so: "There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon." Kolbert describes how Overall systematically rejects several of the most common reasons that are offered for having children:

Some people justify the decision to have children on the ground that they are perpetuating a family name or a genetic line. But "is anyone's biological composition so valuable that it must be perpetuated?" Overall asks. Others say that it's a citizen's duty to society to provide for its continuation. Such an obligation, Overall objects, "would make women into procreative serfs."

Still others argue that people ought to have children so there will be someone to care for them in their old age. "Anyone who has children for the sake of the supposed financial support they can provide," Overall writes, is "probably deluded."

Finally, lots of people offer the notion that parenthood will make them happy. Here the evidence is, sadly, against them. Research shows that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don't. If anything, the balance tips the other way: parents are less happy. In an instantly famous study, published in Science in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asked nine hundred working women to assess their experiences during the preceding day. The women rated the time they'd spent taking care of their kids as less enjoyable than the time spent shopping, eating, exercising, watching TV, preparing food, and talking on the phone. One of the few activities these women found less enjoyable than caring for their children was doing housework, which is to say cleaning up after them.

But none of this really matters. Procreation for the sake of the parents is ethically unacceptable. "To have a child in order to benefit oneself is a moral error," Overall writes.

The title of David Benatar's book--Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence--makes his opinion very clear. Kolbert explains:

Benatar's title refers to the passage in Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" in which the chorus observes:

Never to have been born is best,
But once you’ve entered this world,
Return as quickly as possible to the place you came from.

It also alludes to an old Jewish saying: "Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand."

Kolbert summarizes Benatar's thesis: "Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone—that is, had the life never been created—no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it."

Benatar offers a very harsh conclusion: "One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all." Obviously, if the human race followed his prescription then our species would disappear. Benatar realizes this and has no problem with that conclusion: "Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth. The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more" people on Earth.

Bryan Caplan makes the case for the opposing viewpoint in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Kolbert notes that Caplan's approach is rooted in the economic concept of cost/benefit analysis:

According to Caplan, a professor at George Mason University, the major mistake that parents (or prospective parents) make is overvaluing the present. This is a common enough error. Workers in their twenties and thirties don't save enough money for retirement because it seems such a long way off. Then their sixties roll around, and they wish they'd spent less on S.U.V.s and HDTVs and put more into their 401(k)s.

Couples, he argues, need to think not just about how many children they might want now, when they have better things to do than microwave Similac, but how many they will want to have around when they’re old and lonely and watching "The View."

Not surprisingly for someone who attacks this question from an economics angle, Caplan is certain that he has a formula that precisely calculates the optimal number of children for each couple to have based on the prospective parents' ages, future plans and so forth; Kolbert provides a wry parenthetical comment: "Unfortunately, he does not explain what parents should do if their ideal number of children includes a fraction."

Most people would probably agree that it is not ethical to place someone in a situation that might cause suffering without first getting informed consent from that potential sufferer. An unborn child cannot offer such consent, so from that standpoint it is hard to argue that it is an ethically sound decision to have a child. That brings us to Benatar's argument; clearly, if no one had children the human race would become extinct. Benatar thinks that this would actually lead to less suffering (presumably not just for humans but also for other species that suffer or even become extinct due to the actions of humans). This issue is more complex than the first one but it essentially requires providing an answer to this question: Does the overall amount of happiness in the world equal or exceed the overall amount of suffering? Only if the answer to that question is "yes" can it possibly be justified to ignore the informed consent issue in the interest of preserving the human race, though it could still be asked if the "greater good" of overall happiness supersedes the tremendous amount of individual suffering in the world.

What about the great achievements in art, literature, science and other fields that human geniuses have created? Don't these justify the existence of the human species, don't these bring beauty into the world? Humans have undoubtedly accomplished many great things but we have also inflicted great suffering on other humans and on the planet as a whole--and we have inflicted great suffering on many of the very same geniuses who created our species' greatest works of art, literature and science! Is it in any way fair or justifiable that geniuses such as Vincent Van Gogh suffered for decades and battled suicidal thoughts? Why should geniuses have to pay such a high price--emotionally and financially--while others enjoy the fruits of their talents? The large number of geniuses who have committed suicide indicates that many brilliant people have decided that they agree with the previously cited Sophocles quote; I suspect that many, if not most, people who rank above the 99th percentile in intelligence have at least once seriously considered committing suicide (one could darkly joke that only an idiot thinks that life is worth living!).

As for Caplan's perspective, if the best case that can be made for having children is provided by an economist who is sure that he knows how to calculate exactly how many children each couple should have, then any sensible person should be inclined to agree with Benatar's verdict!

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