There are two ways to have your desires fulfilled: you can either get what you want (if you're lucky enough) or change your desires.
During the pandemic, you may have been watching Schitt’s Creek. I just finished it, and its characters have inspired this month’s pandemic puzzle. ( I can write about it without spoiling the show beyond the first episode, but if you haven’t seen it and prefer to start a show completely ignorant, STOP READING NOW.)
Here’s the starting point: the characters Moira, David, and Alexis—this is not true of Johnny—all find things necessary that really aren’t. Moira has (and has to have) her expensive wigs; Alexis and David need their expensive outfits; they recoil at the thought of flying coach; etc. So their having ended up in modest circumstances—living in a run-down motel due to financial ruin—sets up one of the ongoing jokes of the show: they experience frustration at not being able to have the unnecessary things they feel are necessary. David’s “Oh, my God!” and Alexis’s “Ew” reliably get laughs.
But underneath the laughs, there is a serious ethical problem lurking that impinges on all of us. Let me set it up by introducing a few terms of art.
Feeling of Necessity: This is the background sense—often unarticulated—that a particular thing can’t be done without. For example, you might have the Feeling of Necessity about having a home with doors that lock, indoor plumbing, etc., as well as having some financial resources, a computer, and decent clothing. The “Necessity” in “Feeling of Necessity” isn’t strict necessity in the philosophical sense, which would mean you feel there’s no possible way for things to be otherwise. Rather, the idea is that this Feeling puts constraints on your deliberation: it prevents you from even considering doing things that would result in loss of anything to which the Feeling of Necessity attaches. (We could introduce various complications, like making the Feeling come in degrees, but let’s keep things simplified for now.)
Perceived Necessities: This is the set of things, for any given person, to which the Feeling of Necessity attaches. The list will vary from person to person. Shoes are among my Perceived Necessities, but for many people around the world they aren’t.
Perceived Necessity Privilege Level (for short, PNPL): This is hard to define. But the basic idea is that some people have a much larger (perhaps more lavish, more expensive, etc.) set of Perceived Necessities than others, and PNPL is a measure of this. Moira has a far higher PNPL than Roland; Alexis has a higher PNPL than Twyla; etc.
The factors that go into this are no doubt highly complicated, but let’s assume they can combine into a single measure. Importantly, two people can objectively live in the same surroundings, but one may have a higher PNPL than the other; this will happen when more of the things that surround them have the Feeling of Necessity attached to them. Moira, for example, has a higher PNPL than Johnny, even though they live in the same surroundings and have for a long time. Somewhat ironically, having a higher PNPL makes Moira's life feel less lavish, since fewer parts of her surroundings seem like a bonus—they’re just “necessary.”
And this brings us to our puzzle:
How do we figure out what PNPL is ideal? (Alternatively, how do I figure out what PNPL is ideal for my individual case?)
A secondary puzzle is this:
What should we do to get to that ideal PNPL, whatever it happens to be?
Having a very high PNPL—like the characters on Creek—is generally bad. As indicated, it easily leads to less enjoyment of your surroundings and more frustration when things don’t go your way. But a high PNPL can also lead to loss of grit, the ability to stick to plans even in the face of adversity. This is because the more Perceived Necessities you have, the more limits there are on what you can do—including as a means to achieving a higher goal. If A, B, and C are on my list of Perceived Necessities, there are far fewer ways to derail me than there would be if A, B, C, D,…, Z were on my list. The more ways there are to derail me, the less grit I have.
But having a very low PNPL would also be bad. Feeling okay living in squalor would amount to having lost (or never gotten) a sense of dignity. It can also lead to acceptance of circumstances in which you're being treated unfairly; without a healthy PNPL, you’re not aware that some impositions needn’t be accepted. And often, having a moderately higher PNPL gives you the fortitude to make just political demands, like decent laws regarding work safety. I wish, for example, that more Americans had decent healthcare among their Perceived Necessities, since this might lead to beneficial political changes. This would, given how I set things up, require a modest uptick in PNPL.
So you should strive neither for a maximal PNPL nor a minimal one. But that in itself is hardly helpful; it merely focuses the problem. What principles can help us figure out what a healthy PNPL is—at least in our own individual cases?
This problem is ethically important, because many of us—I suspect myself included—live in ways that gradually raise our PNPL, which means we might unwittingly be doing ourselves harm in the long run. Ironically, we may be ethically harming ourselves by “bettering” our circumstances, for often when we habituate to something, it gets added to our Perceived Necessities and thus raises our PNPL. This problem is so crucial and pervasive, it forms the basis of a hit Netflix show.
But does it have a decent philosophical solution?