A group of people together

What Is It That You Owe Your Loved Ones?

​My mother’s heart attacks, a TV show, and an ethics book showed me how we can get what we most want.

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

My mother almost died yesterday.

She didn’t, thanks to an incredible bout of luck, the German healthcare system, and a bunch of awesome medical practitioners.

Even though she's recovering well from her two heart attacks, I'm still shaken up by it. 

It doesn’t help that I’m living on a different continent than my parents (in the US, to be specific), that my brother lives on yet another continent (in Malaysia), and that we all agree that it doesn’t make sense for us to fly over right away (we offered).

(Update: I wrote this article in February 2020... back when flying was more of an option.)

No matter how bad I feel, I can imagine how much worse it would be if she hadn’t received surgery in time.

I likely would have lost her.

It’s a very scary thought and I don’t want to think about it.

So, I did what humans do in these situations —  we go for distraction and escape. 

When a distraction isn’t a distraction

I distracted myself from that thought by watching Netflix.

Specifically, I ended up watching the show The Good Place which raises a number of interesting questions about ethics, morality, what it means to be a good person, etc.

It’s also hilarious.

In case you don’t know it, this show is very loosely based on the whole idea of a Heaven and Hell-type of afterlife which, given the situation I was trying to escape from, perhaps didn’t make it such a great choice…

In this show, one book plays a crucial role: What We Owe Each Other by the American philosopher T. M. Scanlon.

While I haven’t read the book yet, I love its thought-provoking title.

The thought of losing someone I love and, well, a TV show that turned out to be less of a distraction that I hoped it would be, got me to ponder a rather big question.

What do we all owe each other? What do we owe our loved ones?

Do we owe it to each other to take exquisite care of ourselves?

For instance, do spouses owe it to each other to do regular check-ups with a doctor?

Do children owe it to their parents to not travel to dangerous places?

As long as we have at least one person who cares about us, do we have a moral duty to do what we can to stay alive and well?

Presumably, the answer to that question varies greatly, depending on the culture and system you live in. Broadly speaking, we can differentiate between collective and individualistic societies.

What we owe to each other in collective societies: everything

I can only make assumptions on how that question would have been answered in collective societies that humans used to live in (and still do, in many places).

Presumably, back when all humans lived in small (or large) groups, they experienced a lot of mutual reliance and paid little attention to more individualistic pursuits.

If you need each other for survival, it seems fair to get involved in each other’s business. Or, more precisely: your business is my business.

If Joe (not his real name) is not on his A-game during a buffalo hunt, that might mean that grandma Smith will go hungry later that day. Which is a great outcome if you’re a buffalo…but not if you’re grandma Smith.

So, what should the group do if Joe has been feeling off for days now and doesn’t appear to be getting any better?

Well, you’d get your friendly neighborhood healer involved.

Now, what could we expect from that and how would it be different from how individualistic cultures (including the one I live in) treat healing?

Someone I know practices “post-tribal shamanism.” You may wonder what on earth that is (fair question!) and why it’s even necessary to have something like that.

Well, here’s how tribal shamanism was explained to me: when our ancestors lived in collective societies and a member of the group wasn’t feeling well, the tribe’s healer (or: “shaman”) would try to heal that member — whether the individual in question wanted to be helped or not.

That might not seem like a big deal until you imagine that the healer is a medical doctor in the 21st century who ignores whatever patient Joe has to say about his treatment, choosing instead to opt for what is best for the group (including grandma Smith and her dinner plans).

What we have here is a potential lawsuit in the making.

In collective societies, the needs of the group (or the collective) matter more than the desires of the individual.

Which is why Joe would owe it to grandma Smith to get better…and which is why the local healer can attempt to heal Joe — even if Joe doesn’t want to be helped.

What we owe to each other in individualistic societies: nothing

In a way, we could think of modern medicine (where the wishes of individuals matter to a great extent) as a version of post-tribal shamanism.

After all, a post-tribal healer works at the invitation of an individual, not on behalf of a group.

And, if you’re Joe, doesn’t it sound like heaven to know that grandma Smith can’t bully you around and sic the local healer on you?

It does but there’s a flip side to it.

The flip side is the bonds we have with each other.

While my husband couldn’t tell me what to do if I was feeling depressed (well, he could but, extreme situations aside, he wouldn’t be able to force professional help on me without my consent), it also means that I couldn’t intervene if he was in a rough spot.

That means that someone you love might be shortening their lives through bad habits (such as smoking)…and there’s nothing you can do about it.

In an individualistic society, if people choose to harm themselves it’s none of our business (within limits).

With the potential exception of parents of young children, as someone in an individualistic society, we don’t owe it to each other to do what we can to be around for as long as possible.

Sure, from a rational perspective, being around for as long as possible should be in our own best interest…but when have humans ever been rational? Just because Joe wants to live longer doesn’t mean that he’s willing to forgo the junk food and the cigarettes and the sleep deprivation that might help him get there.

So, what should we do with all that? Which perspective is right?

Does Joe have the moral right to live his life however he sees fit, even if that includes self-destruction?

Does his group have the moral right to make sure he doesn’t do so, because of the impact it will have on everyone else?

These are big questions, and presumably not ones that can be answered in a simple article. As H. L. Mencken put it:

“…there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

I think it behooves us to avoid giving simple answers to complex issues. And, make no mistake, the question of what we owe each other is a profoundly thorny issue.

As someone with an international law background, I think individual human rights are one of the best things that humans have ever created. After all, to some extent, our lives are the only thing that we can truly call our own.

At the same time, I think a purely individualistic approach ignores the bonds that we have with each other and the ways in which our lives are not fully our own. As David Mitchell so beautifully put it in his quote I used at the start of this article, “we are bound to others, past and present,…” (emphasis added).

So, who’s right?

I will leave you to ponder that question in your own time and instead bring up something else. Because here’s another question in all this, and I think it’s actually the more important question: what do we do with all of this in our everyday life?

My solution that can help everyone get what they most want

When presented with a complex problem, you can find a solution by “de-complexifying” the problem (and no, I’m not sure that “de-complexifying” is actually a word).

So, here’s a simple, practical way to solve that philosophical dilemma, not on a grander scale but in the contexts of our lives.

We do what humans have always done: we trade.

Here’s what that can look like:

  1. Summon a human you love who loves you back (otherwise, this process doesn’t work very well).
  2. Tell the human you love that you both have the same interest: making sure the other person sticks around for as long as possible.
  3. Ask the human you love to make a change that is alignment with that goal (for instance, ask them to stop smoking).
  4. In exchange, offer the human you love to also make one change that they’d like you to make (for instance, to exercise more often).
  5. Make an agreement about these changes.
  6. Stick to the agreement.

To give you a practical example of what that could look like:

Me: “Hey dear, so we both have the same interest: wanting the other person to be around for as long as possible.”

Husband: “Okay?” (He probably wonders where the hell I’m going with all of this.)

Me: “How about you stop eating cereals with added sugar, and in turn I go for a walk earlier in the day?”

Husband: “Erm…sure.” Walks over to me and puts his hand on my forehead. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Alright, that was a bit anti-climactic but you get my point.

Why this works

My husband and I could argue until the end of days about what we owe or not owe each other from a philosophical perspective.

Or we could use a simple tool to make sure we get what we want: an agreement.

If my husband and I make an agreement about certain things, we clearly do owe it to each other to stick to what we committed to.

The takeaway

What I learned from my mother’s heart attacks, a surprisingly good TV show, and the title of a moral philosophy book is that we do owe each other.

Greatly.

Or at least we should.

If you live in an individualistic society (for instance, pretty much anywhere in Western countries), the best way to put that into practice is through mutually beneficial agreements, such as my “no sugar cereals in exchange for morning walks” example above.

Trading something you don’t want to do (but that’s good for you) for something that the other person doesn’t want to do (but that’s good for them) is the ultimate win-win.

Now go and trade your little heart out.

Thanks to my mother for giving me permission to share this.



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