Happiness and suffering

What Ought We To Do?

According to the discussion from the previous chapter, it can be stated that if a particular moral goal is adopted, we can seek actions that will tend to fulfill that goal. Put differently, we could say that the optimal action is the one that ought to be performed in order to achieve the chosen moral goal.

However, while it is possible to state what actions are needed to fulfill a certain moral goal, can we determine which goal is the best one? And if not, is this a problem for morality?

Science as an Analogy

Let me begin by considering a different area of human study: Science. With science, it is also possible to list behaviors that tend to fulfill a certain goal, but it is also difficult to determine what that goal should be. We certainly observe that the goal of science is to determine facts about the natural world (and this goal is achieved by the application of the scientific method). But why should science have this particular goal? Why should science not set as its goal the construction of myths about the natural world or, for that matter, the propagation of deliberate lies about the natural world? The answer is that scientists could indeed, set themselves these goals, if they so wished. (In fact, many individuals do spread lies and myths, we just don’t call these people scientists.)

The fact is, people are curious about the world they live in, and it is this curiosity that drives science. Yet curiosity is not a motive that carries some fundamental, ultimate truth or importance to it. We don’t have to be curious about the world. Curiosity is simply a need that is part of our evolutionary legacy.  And we have constructed a method – the scientific method – by which we satisfy that need.

Morality as a Human Construct

I suggest that morality, too, is a human construct designed to fulfill a human need. But which need? The idea of selecting one need over another seems difficult to justify. I therefore make a claim which, if true, would simplify matters greatly. My claim is that all the various needs people have are ultimately motivated by one, universal, underlying need given us by our evolutionary heritage: The need to be happy, or at least content. Everything we wish to accomplish in life, be it to have a bowl of ice cream or to obtain a Ph.D., is ultimately motivated (sometimes unconsciously) by our desire to be happy or content.

Neuroscience has not yet shown conclusively that happiness is our most fundamental need, but someday perhaps it will. I fully acknowledge that my chosen moral goal will appear more or less worthwhile depending on the results of such research. If it turns out that we are not generally motivated by our own desire for happiness, then I will happily modify (or reject) my moral goal accordingly.

Our desire for happiness has an important additional dimension, namely our aversion to suffering. Indeed, the latter often seems more powerful than the former. This makes a lot of sense in an evolutionary framework, which stipulates that the fight for survival is the most important task a creature can engage in. If an animal does not survive, it will not reproduce and pass on its genes. And the fight for survival is essentially an exercise in evading suffering. Suffering, one might even say, is nature’s way of telling us that our survival is being threatened.

The universality of the desire for happiness (and the aversion to suffering) is seen once again if we return to the practice of science, which is motivated not only by curiosity but (especially in the case of medical research) by a desire to eliminate the causes of suffering. Our aversion to suffering and our desire for happiness are therefore even more general than curiosity. Perhaps this is why people are less concerned with non-scientific ways of thinking than they are with immoral ways of behaving.

Let us assume, then, that well-being – which I define as the rejection of suffering and the embrace of happiness – is, practically, the most universal, fundamental motivator for goals concerning human interactions, even if it cannot be defended in any theoretical sense as the best motivator.

Why We’re Not Used to Seeing Morality as a Self-determined Project

Religion has, for millennia, taught us that morality has much larger significance than any man-made tool. The claim is that there is only one proper way to behave, and that this way, instead of being formed and shaped on the anvil of human experience, is somehow written by gods into the fabric of the universe as an incontrovertible law of nature. Perhaps it is this historical setting that has caused the motivation for moral behavior to be discussed in such excruciating detail over so many centuries. David Hume’s “is-ought” problem arises only because we have been fooled into thinking that behavioral prescriptions must be justified at some more basic, fundamental, level than human needs and desires.

(If you are unfamiliar with Hume’s is-ought problem, it is probably best explained in his own lively words, as penned in A Treatise of Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.)

For this reason, many theists see an unsavory moral relativism as the only possible foundation for secular ethics. What, might they ask, makes one secular ethical system “right” and another “wrong”, when a single fundamental standard for comparing these systems does not exist? And if an ethical system is not based on some fundamental standard, but on the opinions and beliefs of the ethicist, what gives this ethicist the right to impose his or her moral prescriptions on others?

The easy way to get around these questions is to concede that a god must exist, and that this god has created some sort of transcendent source of morality. Unfortunately, it is not clear what exactly this means. Why is a particular set of rules for human behavior more profound or meaningful simply because it was thought up by a deity? Surely rules for behavior should be judged by their effects rather than the identity of their author? And how do we reconcile our distaste for a single human imposing her moral views on others with our approval of a single deity imposing his moral views on others? Does might make right?

Further problems exist with theistic morality (and Divine Command Theory in particular), especially its inability to answer the Euthyphro Dilemma. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Theists are loath to accept the first horn of the dilemma – God commands us to do good things because they are good – because it implies some standard of good external to God. And if this is the case, secular ethicists cannot be accused of moral relativism, since they have access to the same standard God uses without actually having to believe in God.

If, on the other hand, theists select the second horn of the dilemma – whatever God commands is good simply because God commands it – then theists are in the uncomfortable position of holding an essentially arbitrary view of morality: Good behavior is whatever God chooses it to be, and there is no standard which motivates his choice. It also requires Christians, in particular, to defend as morally good every act of violence and destruction claimed, in the Bible, to have been commanded by God, since all of his commands are, by definition, good.

Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig have reformulated their views of God and morality in an attempt to escape the Euthyphro Dilemma and other arguments. A bevy of “counter-apologists” have, in turn, attempted to refute such modifications. A more detailed discussion of this debate is not within the scope of this book.

If we decide in the end that the existence of God is unlikely, then the theists’ questions about moral relativism cannot be ignored. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence for a transcendent moral standard, a concept which is not logically coherent to begin with. The best evidence we have to go on, namely an observation of human history, suggests that morality is a tool for human use. In some forms, it has benefited the few at the expense of the many. In others, it has led to enlightenment and freedom.

The evidence also suggests that our moral instincts – our aversions to certain behaviors – are the product of evolution, which is a fallible, imperfect process.

So, just as the handyman has no “transcendent” hammer, wrench, or screwdriver at her disposal, we have no transcendent morality. All we can do is devise the best possible rules of behavior for the job at hand. And what better job for morality than something fundamental and universal? Something like the desire to live a life free of suffering – a life filled with happiness and fulfillment?

As for the right of the ethicist to impose his moral views on others: He has none. Society must decide for itself, preferably in a democratic fashion, which rules of living it thinks is in its own best interests. The best the ethicist can do is present a clear and compelling argument for why his ideas should be (voluntarily) adopted by the wider populace. This book is my attempt at such an argument.

Morality and Mental Health

In his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris frequently draws another analogy to morality using the concept of health, rather than science. He argues that we need no more justification to promote a well-being-based moral system than we need to promote good health. As with morality, there is no transcendent law telling us that we ought to pursue good health. Just because a person is unhealthy, doesn’t mean that she is obligated to seek better health. That is entirely her choice. Yet good health is universally valued nonetheless.

I suggest we can take this comparison a step further by recognizing that well-being is actually an aspect of health, not simply an analogy to it. Specifically, I’m referring to mental health. Good mental health is sustained not only by medications and other therapies designed to ameliorate diagnosed conditions. Good mental health requires certain basic social needs to be met: A supportive family, for instance, or a stimulating job, or freedom of expression. All of these issues are aspects of well-being in social settings. They determine how happy we are. A morality based on well-being, then, is a therapy for ensuring good mental health. It therefore follows that to question the use of well-being in morality is to question the value of good health.

Desire vs. Happiness

Some moral systems, such as desire utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism, seek to fulfill people’s desires rather than make them happy. This might seem like a very subtle difference, and for the most part it is. I would argue that the value of fulfilling people’s desires lies precisely in the fact that doing so makes them happier.

Consider the strange situation in which people were actually happier when their desires were thwarted, and more miserable when their desires were fulfilled. If this were the case, they would surely desire to have their desires thwarted. Yet if we fulfilled this desire, then by definition we would be making them more miserable. This contradiction can be resolved only by realizing that the true relationship between desires and happiness is that the fulfillment of desires increases happiness, not the other way around. As a result, we lose nothing by using happiness as our basis for morality, since making people happy will necessarily fulfill their desires.

If we can agree that the pursuit of happiness and the rejection of suffering together make up a suitable moral goal, let us consider how to achieve that goal. In the chapters ahead, I will formulate a moral system geared toward this purpose.

In the next chapter, I will look at the concept of utility.

Return to the previous part of this essay.

Return to the table of contents.


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