Morality, Happiness and Suffering

There are few areas of human endeavour more difficult to fathom than our attempts to come to grips with the issues of ethics and morality. The traditional question of the ethicist is, “What ought one do?” It seems to me that there are many circumstances where there is no easy answer to that question.

It is a reasonable summary of the motivation of individual human beings to say that they act, in general, to maximise their happiness (or perhaps as I would rather frame it – their wellbeing). This of course assumes that an individual actually knows what advances their sense of wellbeing. This is a very dubious assumption as some of my previous blogs have argued.

But imagine how much more difficult it is to try to act to advance the collective wellbeing. Now our problem is further compounded. Not only are we misguided in our assumptions about what would advance our own personal wellbeing, when we attempt to act to advance the collective wellbeing we invariably assume that what we believe (often erroneously) will advance our welfare if applied to others would also be beneficial to them.

Many who have come to study human behaviour and make predictions on what, under the guise or ethics or morality, might advance human wellbeing have come down on the side of a utilitarian definition of morality. As I implied above, we are generally exhorted to make our decisions in such a way as to minimise human suffering and maximise human well-being. We soon come to realise that even with this utilitarian approach we will be forced to make subjective judgments.

If I commit to an action which will undoubtedly improve the lot of a dozen people but cause someone else to suffer, is the action justified? This is a difficult question to resolve.

Welfare Economics which was based on the principles developed by Vilfredo Pareto, tried to introduce some rigour into economics regarding this vexed question, but without much success.

The eighteenth century English legal philosopher, Jeremy Bentham invented a complex calculus which was designed to help us make rational decisions when choosing between alternative courses of action. The calculus purported to give us the capability of ensuring our decision did, in fact, optimise human well-being. The calculus never took on, because as you can imagine it was cumbersome, incomplete and was itself dependent on subjective elements.

It is impossible to avoid the effects of subjectivity. I can only see the world through my eyes. It seems to me that how I see the world is coloured not only by my personal experience but each and every one of those individual experiences that collectively make up my personal experience!

Let me give you a trite example. There are few things I like better than to dine with one or two of my friends that I can have an in-depth discussion with on issues that interest me. It is hard to beat good conversation accompanied with a good steak and a bottle of fine red wine. However I have no way of knowing whether the well-being that accompanies such occasion is shared by a vegetarian friend that also abstains from drinking alcohol. To the vegetarian aficionado it is feasible that the best tofu tastes as good as my sirloin and to the abstemious perhaps the green tea is as salubrious as my cabernet! But once I have partaken of a good steak my taste buds have been irreparably altered such that tofu will no longer do it for me. As for red wine, once having acquired the taste for it, tea seems but a pallid subterfuge on my palate! But again the point I make is that my experience has conditioned me. Whilst tofu will never be on my menu again, I have no way of knowing that my vegetarian friend doesn’t experience the same joy from its ingestion as I do from my medium-rare sirloin!

The psychologist Dave Gilbert, in support of this thesis maintains, “….that all claims of happiness are claims from someone’s point of view – from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as a context, a lens, a background for her evaluation of her current experiences. As much as the scientist might wish for it, there isn’t a view from nowhere. Once we have experience we are unable to view the world as we did before.”

All our experiences become relative to our other experiences. If I have been lost for a few days in the Simpson Desert, when my rescuer offers a sip of water from his water-bag it is the most delectable drink I have ever had. But if I have been recently communing with God and in our leisure partaking of the wines of the celestial vineyards, your offer of a glass of water might not excite too much!

Or take the story that I read once about an anthropologist. The anthropologist had befriended a pygmy who had lived his entire life in the African jungle. In the jungle, of course, because of the dense vegetation, the visual horizon is quite close, maybe no more than fifty metres. The anthropologist had inveigled his pygmy friend to come and see more of the world and consequently led him out of the forest and onto the grassy African plains. In the far distance were some buffalo. Because they were far away they were but small specks on the horizon. The pygmy asked the anthropologist what sort of insects were they? When the anthropologist avowed that the specks were indeed buffalo the pygmy roared with laughter and chided the anthropologist not to tell such outrageous lies. The pygmy with his restricted understanding of the visual horizon couldn’t comprehend that objects at such a distance should appear so small. Our limited experiences will also limit our ability to perceive the world. Bear this in mind when later I raise the issue of suffering.

The French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action or every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

We have however become a little too blasé about equating happiness with well-being. You might easily come to accept that our well-being is best pursued by avoiding sadness and grief. I don’t believe this is the case.

Let me suggest a thought experiment to you.

Imagine yourself in the future. In this future scientists have come to understand all the nuances of brain-chemistry and the neuro-pharmacological responses that stimulate our every emotion. In this ideal future there is no long term grief and suffering. If the merest hint of such emotional responses arises, through popping a pill or having an injection, equanimity can be instantly restored.

Now in this future your only child meets with a terrible accident and is, unfortunately, killed. Faced with this heart wrenching dilemma will you rush to take an anti-grief pill? Is there not an inherent moral rightness in experiencing grief under such circumstances? Would you not want to experience such grief?

When people don’t express appropriate emotions we give them labels. On the mild side we might say they were autistic. On the more dramatic scale of things we would say they were psychopaths. When a good friend dies, even when we rightly celebrate the joy they have delivered us through their worthy lives, surely it is also appropriate to feel some melancholia for a friend we will never see again and the passing of a relationship that we might never replicate.

Certainly we don’t want to fall into bitterness and rail against fate for that provides no benefit to anyone. It is too easy, as we see so frequently, to take up the mantle of victimhood. But all but the most fortunate of us will have to contend with sorrow and grief. Indeed some would say it is a reasonable measure of our competence as human beings how we choose to deal with this. (Indeed it is said that Buddhism was founded when the Prince Gautama who had been sheltered from suffering all his privileged life was finally exposed to human suffering and was therefore forced to make some sense of it.)

More than this, is it not a measure of our humanity how we might extend love and compassion to our fellows? Compassion surely stems from our empathy such that when another suffers, I suffer. If I rush to take my pill to alleviate my suffering am I then likely to be motivated to help my fellows in their time of need?

So then, whilst I might concur that on many, perhaps most occasions, human well-being is promoted when we seek to reduce suffering and grief, it seems to me that our humanity is benefitted by appropriate grief and unavoidable suffering. More than that, I would submit that many of the more exemplary examples of our species are those who have endured most and have become better persons because of it.

Perhaps it is useful to visit the argument I made above about how our experiences colour our lives. If I live such a fortunate life that my greatest grief has been doing my tax return or being forced to listen to “heavy metal” cacophony my grief horizon will be short indeed and I will probably be unduly concerned if my goose liver pate is not salty enough or I can’t find my favourite shirt that I would like to wear out or my wife’s maiden aunt has announced she is coming to visit. Because of my lack of experience in the grief compartment I will be unduly sensitive to the trite such that my robustness is undermined and any collision I have with a real disaster will be really disastrous!

I am reminded of an experience I had early in my managerial career. As was often the case in those days I was having difficulties with Industrial Relations. Those difficulties were aggravated by the fact that one of the union delegates I was dealing with, despite being in many ways a decent human being was both pedantic and overly demanding in his dealings with me. He went away for some weeks on leave. On our first encounter after his return I could see something had changed. When I commented that he seemed to be more conciliatory he agreed that he probably was. Then he explained, “While I was away my mother died and that made me think about what was really important in life. Consequently I came to the conclusion that most of the things I have been badgering you about don’t seem that significant anymore.”

Thus it seems to me that a life devoted to being “happy” in a simple way, and avoiding pain and grief entirely does not provide a fail-safe recipe for ensuring my long term wellbeing. It can easily fall into hedonism and selfishness where I have little concern for others. We need to appreciate as the Buddha learned that suffering inevitably accompanies life and how we deal with it is often our biggest test and is a major shaping factor in our lives, hopefully for the better but sometimes for the worse.

I know I have quoted him before, but it is worthwhile revisiting this famous quote by M Scott Peck:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

We ignore this at our peril.

10 Replies to “Morality, Happiness and Suffering”

  1. Many twists and turns to contemplate in this piece. A materialist may argue that while we do not currently have a scientific solution for questions of morality, it is science that can actually progress wellbeing (morality meaning the increasing of wellbeing for self and others). Bentham may have been onto something. While we always see a problem, or experience happiness, through our own eyes and cannot know how another sees the problem or feels happiness, something must be true about observation and communication. Science has progressed on this basis and increased wellbeing. This is true for medicine. Grief blockers may be an indulgence (and perhaps a disrespect to the deceased) for a person able to cope, while on the other hand, they may be almost necessary for a person not able to cope. Judging this is the problem.

    Further on wellbeing and morality in regards to a utilitarian view. What is the best approach – laws lean towards those which risk penalising the innocent, or those which risk letting the guilty run free? I think the latter approach is what we go by in our free society, however I detect a trend (under Newman) towards the former.

  2. Thanks Matt. You would be pleased to know that the neuroscientist Sam Harris agrees that morality is the proper province of science. He makes a fair fist of the argument in his book “The Moral Landscape” which is a pretty good read!

  3. Ted

    As always, thank you for continuing to challenge conventional wisdom and for making me, personally, reconsider not only my point of view but reconsider others as well.

    Much appreciated


  4. Thanks Ted, I should have made that reference to Sam Harris as I have read that book. Met him in person to. Also interesting is Sam’s view on free will, or should I say, his view that free will doesn’t exist.

  5. Ted – almost 22 years ago my wife and I lost a 15 year old son. A phrase from a priest that resonated with us at the time was “Happiness isn’t the absence of suffering, rather the presence of God”. I understand your position (and respect it) on religion from your previous blogs, but the phrase came to mind again today on reading your latest offering.
    The loss of our child had a dramatic (and we would both say positive) impact on us in that, like your union representative, we realised that problems we thought we faced paled into insignificance compared with our loss. We believe we are much more compassionate, balanced and content people than before. Our only regret is that we had to learn this lesson the hard way. Maybe our phrase should be ” Happiness isn’t the absence of suffering, but a balanced approach to life!!”

    As always, I really appreciated your efforts with this article



  6. Hi Ted,
    40 years ago, one of my fellow employees (he was a Control Room Operator!) was a very polite gentleman with a happy disposition. As an example, when I asked him “how are you today Aub?” (yes his name was Aubrey) his response was invariably “I am all the better for your enquiry, thank you.”
    One day however his response to my question was “I am a little down and sad today” to which I said “I am sorry to hear that.” Then he gave me a little smile and said “but for the shadows we would never know the sun was shining.”
    Soon after this encounter I left the company, moved interstate and it is a little shadow in my life that I have never seen Aubrey again. But I am sure his one profound little sentence has helped me to understand and cope with the small amount of suffering and grief in my life.

  7. Fascinating! In my meditations this morning, before reading your latest work, I was considering Heroism, Altruism and Game Theory in the context of Evolutionary Psychology.

    Could it be serendipity at work once again???

    To borrow Matt’s words, the twists and turns you have set as homework for us to contemplate are quite intricate, challenging and weighty.

    Having spent some time in the USA over the last few years, I am quite dismayed at the present reality of what you have described as a possible future scenario – medicating away the pain. It is happening now!

    I have been profoundly challenged of late when considering The Trolley Problem and its more macabre variation with The Fat Man.

    Still more challenged I have been to read the words of JFK, in his inaugural address. Two very short excerpts:

    “We choose to do the hard things.”


    “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe, struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

    Just how hard are we prepared, to make the hard decisions (as in The Trolley Problem), to do the hard things…and indeed, to what end?

  8. It seems generally agreed that you cannot see the world through another’s eyes. It follows that you cannot feel the way a truly depressed person feels unless you experience it yourself.

    We can only observes the effects of the treatment medication. If it has a positive effect, then it further follows that it may be the right thing to do. Similar to my point about the law – is it best to risk that some people are on medication that don’t really need it, or, is it best to risk that some people who would benefit from medication are denied it.

  9. Bernie Burke asked me to post the following for him:

    I want to say that I concur with your remarks on morality. The world has moved from a revengeful society eg the bible talks about revenge at (7 times 70) for actions committed against a person, Moses broke that down to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Pareto believed in the concept of being able to make all people better off without making anyone worse off. Revolutionary thinking for his time. While I am concentrating on the negative picture reflected in the old testament one takes heart in the current concept of religions of”love” and songs espoused by the Beattles; “All you need is love”. While it is still difficult to decide whether or not a Pareto optimality situation has been reached one might suggest that doing the best you can to love other people, few if any might be negatively effected.
    Bernie Burke

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