Where’s the value in what you do? What is the purpose of your work? Why do you live the life you lead?
These are the questions that regularly occur, in varying word formations, in many of the conversations I have.
Each of those questions assumes an answer, and carries with it the implication that it must be a noble one.
And therein lies the problem. Is this assumption of worth, that all actions must be preceded by a noble intention, an enabling or a crippling one?
It’s one of the main subtexts of conversations I have with social and physical scientists in particular.
Researchers are increasingly pressed to justify their projects with evidence of the anticipated results (a challenge in itself), not just because funding is getting harder to secure, thereby creating a competitive climate, but because they have a duty to account for how they spend the public funds that support their work.
For most, this is an acceptable request. It’s part of the methodological process that lays the groundwork for a well-considered investigation.
The word ‘impact’ though, has become loaded with negative connotations. Research is not considered valuable unless it’s going to make a socio-economic difference, change the way we think, or the way policies are enacted to change the way we behave.
Added to that, the word impact is underscored by notions of forceful and imposing damage.
What happened to research for research’s sake, the pure quest for information out of curiosity, and the innate human desire to seek knowledge, to generate understanding, to become wise?
Not what, but why?
This weekend, I’ll be attempting to complete the 2017 Trailwalker, a 100km trek over 30-hours straight that’s primarily aimed at supporting the causes and people with whom Oxfam works.
As with any of these charitable, semi-athletic challenges, the core messages can too easily get lost in the quest for a personal sense of achievement.
Without going into the murky waters of what lies beneath charitable endeavours (which I’ve pondered before in terms of photojournalism and the pernicious effects of celebrity activism), I have to admit I continually struggle with the disconnect between what we do and why we say we do it.
The environmentalist and essayist, Henry David Thoreau, similarly struggled with the notion of philanthropy. In his seminal work, Walden, reflecting on accusations that his retreat to the wilderness was a selfish act lacking in any social concern, he wrote:
"The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own cast-off griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion."
So is there any good in doing good?
The philosopher Alan Watts argues, with compelling effect evidenced by centuries of history tainted by imperialist movements, that our insistence that others receive the benefits of our culture, religion, technology and politics is anything but wise:
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. All do-gooders in the world, whether they’re doing it for themselves or doing it for others, are troublemakers. On the basis of ‘kindly let me help you or you’ll drown, said the monkey, putting a fish up a tree’….Sometimes doing good to others or doing good to oneself is amazingly destructive because it’s full of conceit. How do you know what’s good for other people?”
We’ve come a long way in our thinking since Watts’ time, in one sense at least.
Many of the social scientists and charities that I have the pleasure of working with, actively involve the people and communities that interest them in discussions about the nature and the desirability of change.
Rightly so. The sharing of knowledge should be reciprocal.
Learn and apply
We cannot get away from the fact that everything we do causes a ripple effect, large or small.
Part of my motivation for doing the Trailwalker challenge was because I believe that in a world that’s in continual motion, and as individuals with agency, we have a responsibility to make choices based on an evaluation of the consequences.
And to be frank, I exercise a lot and do less than I probably could for charity, so this was a good way of combining two intentions. If I’m going to move, I may as well go in a direction that leads somewhere other than self-improvement.
I’d also recently re-read some of Peter Singer’s philosophy and was usefully reminded of the fact that when thinking of our ethical obligations, most of us would be hard pressed to say we do or give as much as we can when it comes to redressing the social imbalances of the world in which we play a privileged part.
Essentially I figured that it’s all well and good to read this stuff – you have to do more to act. Or as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it more eloquently:
“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?”
That’s a question always worth considering.