Skip to content

The Value of Happiness and Suffering

September 24, 2015

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.)

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

12 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    Just so you know, I haven’t dropped out of our discussion. I will be responding as soon as I’m able. Most likely to this post as well as the other. : )

  2. feel free to take your time! that’s the good thing about these blogs — you can respond whenever you want instead of having to come up with something on the spot.

  3. Agellius permalink

    ‘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.* … 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 sort of agree that it comes down to whether you can be happy with yourself as a result of your behavior. But whether you can be happy with yourself, doesn’t that boil down to whether you believe you are doing right or wrong? You can’t be happy with yourself if you’re violating your conscience, I think is what it comes down to for most people. But what informs your conscience?

    If your conscience informs itself, then it’s hard to see why you can’t do whatever you want, and make your conscience toe the line somehow. But I think most people are not able to do that. Their conscience thinks what it thinks, even if they would prefer that it think otherwise.

    Now, why is that? Why doesn’t the conscience get in line, and conform to what we wish? Why, instead, does it seem that the conscience wants us to get in line with it?

    It seems to me that it can only be due to the existence of an external standard of behavior. And by “external”, I mean not originating within ourselves, that is, not based on what we want or feel — since our conscience sometimes opposes what we want or feel.

    By the way, this is the basic argument that C.S. Lewis makes in the book “Mere Christianity”. Have you read it by any chance?

  4. Agellius,

    Firstly, I think that by appealing to conscience, you’re just moving my main point about the subjectivity of this back one step. Instead of the emotions of “being happy with yourself as a result of your behavior”, you put it a step back to “do you believe you are doing right?”. I would argue this is still subjective, because in an objective worldview, it doesn’t matter what you believe. You absolutely could “believe” you were doing right, be happy with yourself, but actually, objectively be violating a moral law. From this question, you talk about violation of conscience.

    It seems you’re saying that by moving things to conscience, you have something that can be anchored to something objective. But this still has not been established, any more than you have established that people’s feeling of happiness is anchored to something that is “objectively” happy (although I grant that this may just be part of an ongoing disagreement and that you may feel precisely that that is the case.)

    I do not think that it follows that because human beings have unconscious/non-voluntarily chosen functions (because that’s basically what you’re describing conscience as…but again, this is true for things like what people find beautiful, what makes people happy, etc., My subjectivity argument never says, “Because what makes someone happy is particular to an individual, therefore, anything an individual decides can make them happy.”) that therefore those functions align to an external standard of behavior. We could absolutely have a standard of behavior within ourselves, indirectly (but not consciously, directly, and voluntarily) adjusted by social norms, personality, learning, experience, etc., etc., that would therefore also fit that model of being resistant to direct/conscious/voluntarily chosen functions.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I think these functions say more about how an individual is built — their neurology, psychology, physiology. Since we do not choose our neurology, psychology, or physiology, it makes sense to me that there are certain things about our subjective experiences that we do not choose. We experience them particularly because of how we are built, but may not have conscious, direct voluntary choice on the matter.

    If your conscience informs itself, I don’t to see why you can’t do whatever you want and not make your conscience toe the line. As you say: your conscience informs itself: you (as whatever parts of you consciously, voluntarily choose things) don’t inform it.

    I still have yet to read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Maybe it’ll help make the point more effectively, but at this time, I still think this argument is a non-starter.

  5. Agellius permalink

    As usual I suspect some of our disagreement may revolve around definitions, and I’m not clear on how you’re defining “conscience”.

    You speak of conscience as an involuntary function that resists voluntarily chosen functions, though I’m not sure what you mean by “function”. You also call conscience a “standard of behavior within ourselves” which is “adjusted” by various inherent qualities that we possess, as well as things that we learn and experience.

    Thus you call conscience both a “function” and a “standard”, but I’m not sure how that would work. How would you say conscience works, according to your understanding of what conscience is?

  6. When I say “function,” I am referring to workings of the brain. Conscience as a “function” is a series of neurological workings (and their associated subjectively experienced results). As a product of our neurological, conscience is internal to us — because our neurology is internal to us.

    When I speak of “standard of behaviors,” I am trying to get at internally experienced responses to certain stimuli…where the stimuli are considerations of certain actions (whether from a future-looking perspective or from a retrospective perspective). When I say such a standard of behavior (e.g., internally, experienced responses to certain stimuli…e.g, a sense of anxiety to the idea of lying) may be indirectly impacted by various things, I mean to say something like: our internally felt anxiety over lying may be impacted by our own self-awareness of ourselves as beings who want to be honest, our community’s expectations of us as being open, honest people, our desire not to disappoint, years of study (of various philosophies, religion, etc.,) and so on.

    Let me try to show this through examples.

    Suppose that there is a brownie waiting on the shelf. From a voluntary/conscious choice standpoint, I perceive that I can both choose to grab the brownie or avoid the brownie.

    I may desire the brownie or not desire the brownie, but that seems unconscious to me. I can’t consciously, voluntarily, choose whether to desire or not desire the brownie. From my point of view, that doesn’t imply the brownie is “objectively” desirable or not…rather, it’s saying something about my neurology (what I refer to as “functions”).

    But this isn’t all.

    Regardless of whether I desire the brownie or not (or especially even if I *do* desire the brownie), I may have other internally experienced reactions to the consideration of eating that brownie. If I know that the brownie belongs to someone else, and I care about what the person thinks of me, and I can reasonably foretell that if I eat their brownie, they will not be happy with me, then I may have a negative response to the thought of eating the brownie.

    Or maybe I am on a diet, and I know that that brownie would disrupt that diet. I may have a similar negative response to the consideration.

    This series of responses is what I would probably call conscience.

    What’s important is that these responses are, like my desire, also not voluntarily, consciously chosen. And yet, that doesn’t mean they are objective…they all still relate to my neurological workings.

    I am not saying that this means they are static (as is the case for what I find beautiful or desirable.) When I talk about how it can be affected by outside things (so it’s not “just” internal), what I mean is that I may be socialized by society to believe that if I take something that’s not mine, then others will regard me less positively. On the other hand, my personality also comes into play — maybe I don’t care what society thinks about me, or I don’t care about just what the brownie owner thinks of me. In each of those situations, my conscience may give different signals and responses. I may consciously undergo a series of studies to change my perspective on these issues.

    Any of these or other things *may* change my views on this point, but if they do so or not is not my conscious, voluntary choice. It’s indirect, subject to neurology.

    To me, people’s consciences will differ to the extent that people’s neurologies are different, they have different experiences/socializations/educations/etc., and so forth. To the extent we speak of people having similar consciences, I don’t think that means there is something objective, but that we are similarly neurologically built, similarly socialized, and so forth.

  7. Agellius permalink

    I’m having trouble equating an automatic response to stimuli with a standard. It may be true that the standard/stimuli response (whichever it is) is formed by our own desires, community expectations, study, etc. But it’s either a set of concepts representing right or wrong, or it’s a configuration of neurons resulting in automatic stimulus responses. I don’t see how it can be both. A standard, to my mind, has to be something expressible in words, like “it’s wrong to steal, it’s wrong to lie, it’s good to give money to the poor”, etc.

    Turning to the dictionary again, I find “standard” defined as a specified level of quality, a norm of behavior or performance, a unit of measurement, and so forth, all of which (it seems to me) must be expressible in words, in order to fulfill those roles. A standard may result in an automatic subjective feeling (guilt or self-satisfaction) when we become aware of having met or violated the standard, but the standard itself is not a feeling or the mere firing of neurons. At least, I don’t see how it can be.

    So, if conscience is either a standard expressible in words, or an automatic neural response, which do you say it is?

    You write, “Regardless of whether I desire the brownie or not (or especially even if I *do* desire the brownie), I may have other internally experienced reactions to the consideration of eating that brownie. If I know that the brownie belongs to someone else, and I care about what the person thinks of me, and I can reasonably foretell that if I eat their brownie, they will not be happy with me, then I may have a negative response to the thought of eating the brownie.”

    What would this response consist of? An emotion caused by automatic neural firing? If so, is the automatic neural firing conscience itself? Or is conscience the thing that stimulates the automatic neural firing? Is conscience the standard which passes through your mind which you mentally hold up to yourself when weighing your decision whether or not to steal the brownie?

  8. But it’s either a set of concepts representing right or wrong, or it’s a configuration of neurons resulting in automatic stimulus responses. I don’t see how it can be both.

    When I type on this keyboard, the text you see is both a configuration of bits, 1s and 0s, resulting in automatic stimulus responses (e.g., the monitor produces pixels in arrangements that you recognize as letters). But the content of the text is also concepts…nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., strung together to express meaning.

    Everything I said still applies with humans, but our brains are quite a bit more complex than computers.

    I don’t see how it cannot be both.

    A standard, to my mind, has to be something expressible in words, like “it’s wrong to steal, it’s wrong to lie, it’s good to give money to the poor”, etc.

    Words, and the concepts we express in words, have to be expressible in neurons.

    I can see though that basically, our agreement is going even further down here. So, you say:

    A standard may result in an automatic subjective feeling (guilt or self-satisfaction) when we become aware of having met or violated the standard, but the standard itself is not a feeling or the mere firing of neurons. At least, I don’t see how it can be.

    But this statement basically just seems to be restating the same disagreement that we’ve been having at every other place: you view the standard as existing externally, and that we just subjectively respond to or recognize. We’re not actually getting anywhere lol. We can basically predict the rest of the responses to the comments based on this disagreement. But I’ll continue:

    So, if conscience is either a standard expressible in words, or an automatic neural response, which do you say it is?

    I think conscience is neural response.

    What would [the negative] response consist of? An emotion caused by automatic neural firing? If so, is the automatic neural firing conscience itself? Or is conscience the thing that stimulates the automatic neural firing? Is conscience the standard which passes through your mind which you mentally hold up to yourself when weighing your decision whether or not to steal the brownie?

    Yes, an emotion caused by the automatic neural firing. And I would identify conscience as the neural firing itself.

    Even if I were to concede that there were an outside standard (which we engage with with our minds and hold ourselves up to — although, I maintain that such an outside standard would still need to be engaged with by our neurological processes for it to be of any use to us), I would not identify conscience as such a hypothetical outside standard. I would identify conscience as the internal response driven by neurology.

    I think, however, that this is a consistent position with each of the other positions I’ve taken on the various analogous points. Like, on meaning (from the other discussion), I think we agree that there are “data points” (external) and an assemblage of the data points that is meaning (internal). The question is whether the internal reflects something new, or whether it simply reflects something recognized that already exists within the data points. I associate meaning with the subject internally assembling the data points, and think that the meaning is “new”…not just something recognized that already exists within the data points. And so it goes for beauty…and so on.

  9. Agellius permalink

    You write, “Words, and the concepts we express in words, have to be expressible in neurons.”

    And comprehensible in neurons as well?

    You write [quoting me] “’A standard may result in an automatic subjective feeling (guilt or self-satisfaction) when we become aware of having met or violated the standard, but the standard itself is not a feeling or the mere firing of neurons. At least, I don’t see how it can be.’ But this statement basically just seems to be restating the same disagreement that we’ve been having at every other place: you view the standard as existing externally, and that we just subjectively respond to or recognize.”

    I don’t see how this is a mere restating of the disagreement. What I’m trying to point out is that the negative feeling you get when thinking of doing something “wrong” (however defined), can’t be the *cause* of the negative feeling you get. A thing can’t be its own cause. So what causes the feeling?

    You write [quoting me], “’What would [the negative] response consist of? An emotion caused by automatic neural firing?’ Yes, an emotion caused by the automatic neural firing. And I would identify conscience as the neural firing itself.”

    You’ve lost me here. I thought the neural firing was the emotion. Are you saying that an emotion and the neural firing which causes the emotion are two different things? If so, then what does the emotion consist of?

  10. Agellius,

    Are you saying that an emotion and the neural firing which causes the emotion are two different things?

    As you yourself say, “a thing can’t be its own cause”. So, an emotion (which is still a neural firing) and the neural firing which causes the emotion are two different things.

    What I’m trying to get at is that the action of contemplating doing something has neural firings associated with it. Actions of doing something has neural firings associated with it. (e.g., for me to think about raising my hand has associated neurological activity to it. For me to raise my hand has associated neurological activity with it). Now, if when I contemplate doing something or I actually do it, I have an emotional response to it, that *also* is neurological activity. It’s *different* than the neurological activity of thinking about doing it, or of doing it, but it’s still neurological, and therefore still says more about *me* and *how I’m built*.

    Like, if I eat a donut, then my decision to eat, chew, swallow, etc., are neurological firings to activate physiology (e.g., hand to grab, mouth to open, close, etc.,). But my experience of sweetness is a different set of neurological responses tied with the physiology of my taste buds, etc., My experience of happiness or pleasure from sweet foods is a different set of neurological responses.

    However,

    1) it could be that I have had too much to eat, in which case I won’t have those neurological responses, but I will have different responses (e.g., disgust, sickness, etc.,)
    2) It could be that i don’t like donuts (where those preferences are also neurological), so I don’t have the same responses.
    3) It could be that I have no sweet taste buds, or my nose is stuffy, so I don’t recognize the aromas and taste of the donuts as sweet (all neurological and physiological).
    4) It could be that I recognize that donut was the last one and it was saved for my mother. If I care about what my mother thinks or feels (these are neurological), then I may feel guilty for taking the donut (neurological). But if I don’t (a different neurological disposition), then maybe I don’t feel anything (neurological.)

    I think we can challenge each of these settings (e.g., is sweetness inherent to the donut…e.g., an objective quality of its sugary composition? Or does it matter how I am built neurologically to engage with sugar through taste buds, nose, attitudinal disposition, and tastes?), but for here, I think we are focusing on that last one, for example.

    You might say there are standards outside of whatever any person thinks regarding whether people can “own” donuts, and whether it’s ok to take what others “own”. But what I’m saying is that really, a person’s conscience is internal. *Even if we conceded there were such outside standards*, what would really drive that individual is whether they *personally* experience the neurological response of guilt toward the consideration or action of eating the other person’s donut. And that depends on, yes, if the words and concepts we use to express moral standards are expressible or comprehensible in neurons. But I would say further that it doesn’t really make sense to talk of standards that don’t depend on what anyone else is thinking or feeling. If there is a moral standard called “ausdfoiausdfouwej” that I cannot engage in in any way (I use that random combination of letters to express that it’s unintelligible and undecipherable), then I won’t feel that moral standard, will not be affected by it, will not live by it.

    What I think you really want to get at is not a standard separate from anyone, but a setting where everyone is in fact built a certain way to feel a certain way about certain things — even if it takes a certain level of education, training, or whatever.

    But that’s still dealing with the subjective realm.

  11. Agellius permalink

    You write, ‘What I’m trying to get at is that the action of contemplating doing something has neural firings associated with it. Actions of doing something has neural firings associated with it. (e.g., for me to think about raising my hand has associated neurological activity to it. For me to raise my hand has associated neurological activity with it). Now, if when I contemplate doing something or I actually do it, I have an emotional response to it, that *also* is neurological activity. It’s *different* than the neurological activity of thinking about doing it, or of doing it, but it’s still neurological, and therefore still says more about *me* and *how I’m built*.’

    Let me ask you this: Do YOU consist primarily of neural firings? When you decide whether or not to eat the dreaded brownie, do you really choose, or do you just flow along with your neural firings? Or is that one and the same thing — is a choice nothing more than a chemical reaction which is inevitable due to being programmed into you somehow?

    When you contemplate doing something, and have an emotional response to that contemplation, what is it that is doing the contemplating and feeling the emotional response? Just more neurons?

    If so, then I guess our disagreement simply boils down to the fact that you’re a materialist and I’m not. Clearly if I am nothing but neurons, then only physical things can affect me, since neurons are physical things. Therefore there can’t be such a thing as a non-physical standard to which my neurons respond, since non-physical things cannot possibly have any effect on them.

    • These are good questions.

      When you ask,

      “When you decide whether or not to eat the dreaded brownie, do you really choose, or do you just flow along with your neural firings? Or is that one and the same thing — is a choice nothing more than a chemical reaction which is inevitable due to being programmed into you somehow?”

      I want to acknowledge that I recognize differences. I recognize and experience a level of freedom of choice with actions that I don’t recognize or experience with things like beliefs, feelings, and so on. But I also recognize that a lack of choice can in some instances feel like choice while in the moment (in dreaming, it feels as if I am voluntarily choosing my actions, but when I wake up, I realize that wasn’t quite the case. And even further, if I’m in a lucid dream, I recognize an experiential difference in the choice perceived because I am aware that I am in a dream.)

      Nevertheless, I do want to emphasize I perceive a level of freedom in actions that I don’t in, say, beliefs, feelings, etc.

      That being said, positing something outside of neurology and chemistry just seems strange to me. I am not explicitly trying to be a materialist here. As I have done throughout the conversation, I emphasize the subjective more. And yet, if you want me to get down to the brass tacks of it, I do think that the subjective experience says a lot about my neurology, chemistry, etc.

      But I would go further and say that on a theological dimension, the Calvinist discussion about nature and choice makes more sense to me. Even if our natures are not just physical, for those natures to be meaningful, they have to constrain beliefs, actions, and so on. I understand though that Catholics have theological disagreements with Calvinists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: