The Value of Happiness and Suffering
I have recently been engaged in a rather lengthy discussion on the subjectivity or objectivity of things like beauty. I don’t think I’m necessarily convinced of Agellius’s idea that beauty is objectivity (but the same is probably likewise true for him with my own position on subjectivity), but one thing that has been profoundly interesting to me is the sense that these disagreements go very far downward. When one of us tries to use an analogy as an attempt to explain, the other has a very different way of processing that analogy that is coherent with our worldviews, but utterly ineffective at reaching out to the other worldview.
So, for example, in trying to tease out a moment where he would perceive a difference between his subjective perception of morality and his view of what is actually objectively moral, I asked him if he could give an example of an instance where he personally found one thing moral while recognizing at the same time that he believed it to be objectively immoral. As an example, I gave:
On the moral front, it would be to search for an instance like “Abortion is objectively evil, but I subjectively feel that it’s permissible/not evil. I recognize I am wrong on this, and yet I still feel in favor of allowing abortions, being a Democrat, etc., etc.,” Can you think of anything like that?
To which Agellius responded:
I don’t think I have ever thought of morality in terms of how I felt about things. For me it has always been an external standard to which I either assented or didn’t. At times I have wondered at how seemingly cruel and difficult morality could be. For example in Dickens, it seems like he often has his heroes in situations where they voluntarily undergo extreme, prolonged suffering rather than take some seemingly simple, easy step that could alleviate their distress and provide them with an easy, comfortable life. But they won’t because of some principle or other which they would sooner die than violate. But this I think is what makes you love his heroes and get that lump in your throat when things work out for them in the end.
I wrote in response:
See, the way I would interpret this is that the heroes would voluntarily undergo extreme, prolonged suffering rather than take some seemingly simple, easy step because they *felt* that violating some principle or another would be personally, subjectively unconscionable to them. But one person’s “core principle” will not be the same as another, so one person’s sacrifices and suffering may not make sense to another.
But he still zigged instead of zagging:
I think I get what you’re saying. But I could never stop at the feeling. I would have to ask myself, “how do my feelings know? What verifies the validity of my feeling that this is wrong or that is right?” And that has to lead to an objective standard. Otherwise there’s no reason not to do the opposite of what my feelings say to do, other than the fact that I might not like how it feels.
I have responded with the following:
For me, the reason not to oppose what my feelings say to do is precisely because *I have to live with myself and how it would feel to do such.* Like, it seems you’re saying that you would choose a path that would make you miserable, if that path didn’t compromise or violate an objective standard (and the happy alternative, to the contrary, would). You raise the Dickens characters up as an attempt to show this, I think.
But if you’re miserable where you’re at, AND you get no satisfaction or joy from following the objective standard, then what is the point?
I could see someone saying, “I will choose misery because I derive a different sort of satisfaction/joy/happiness/whatever from following standards I believe are true.” I could see someone saying, “I will choose not the violate this standard because I believe that would make me more miserable than any temporary happiness I could draw from it.”
But to me, that gets right back to the subjective aspect.
I await his response, but somehow, I feel like there’s a real possibility that Agellius will respond that he doesn’t care about his immediate happiness, joy, etc., And that really becomes the crux of the disagreement.
Anyway, while I think you all should keep up with the comments to that post, I will say there was an article I was reading that struck me to my core that heavily relates to this topic: this essay explores why people commit violence. I definitely recommend reading the entire article, but here’s the part that seemed most relevant to me (bolding emphasis added)
A Saudi man paralysed in a fight requests that his attacker be paralysed at the exact same position on the spinal cord — and the judge looks into it. A brother in northern rural India kills his sister because her sexual infidelity has contaminated and shamed their family; her death is the only way to restore the family’s honour and prove to their community that they can be trusted. A US college student rapes a female acquaintance to ‘get back’ at the women who have rejected him and because he believes women are subordinates who are morally required to do as he commands. A suicide bomber in the Middle East kills himself and others in the name of an authority he respects and out of loyalty to his compatriots who will also die. A US fighter pilot bombs an ISIS target, killing several terrorists along with nearby civilians because his commander calculated it was an acceptable loss in order to achieve a greater good, the death of their enemies.
One can multiply similar examples without end. In every case, the violent act is perceived by the perpetrators, observers – and in some cases the victims themselves – as just.
At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships.
In the examples above, parents are relating with children; recruits and fighters are relating with peers and superiors; boys and men are relating with their friends; families are relating with their communities; men are relating with women; people are relating to gods; and groups and nations are relating to each other. Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships.
Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.
For many, this will seem incomprehensible. Surely pain is terrible. The core of anyone’s morality should be to minimise it, only bringing it about when absolutely necessary. But this presumes that the ultimate moral goods in life are the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain. As reasonable as those might sound to us, they reflect modern, Western ideals. There have been many cultures and historical periods where people did not particularly value happiness, or where they actively sought out suffering because they saw it as morally cleansing. Late 16th- and early 17th-century Protestant religious manuals instructed readers that pain was a moral good to be pursued and delighted in. Public executions have often been popular spectacles, with families picnicking at hangings throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
We might be tempted to write off these practices as historical accidents or the acts of sadists. But in the spring of 2011, Americans celebrated in the streets following the killing of Osama bin Laden and, as recently as last summer, Israelis gathered on hilltops to watch and celebrate bombs dropping over Gaza. Violence is still celebrated by everyday people.
Does this mean that it necessarily ‘feels good’ or that people are never conflicted when they engage in it? No. People hate hurting others. It can be extremely distressing and traumatic, and can require training, social support and experience to do it. But that’s true of many moral practices. It can be difficult to tell the truth or to stand up for what’s right. People often resist or fail to do what’s required of them. Most of us would agree that it’s morally right to jump into icy water to save someone who is drowning, but that doesn’t mean we relish doing it.
(The article also later goes on to discuss moral performance when the objectivity of morality is brought into question, but you’ll have to read the article for more on that.)