How happy should you be?

I’ve never considered myself a strict Utilitarian in the narrowest sense of the term, but I always believed that suffering is generally a bad thing and that relieving suffering when possible is morally laudable. I still believe this for the most part, but lately I see myself in a dilemma of sorts. I have rejected all arguments for the necessity of suffering offered by theodicists, for I do not find belief in God to be more plausible based on the idea that suffering is the product of love and mercy from a being who only wants to motivate spiritual development and love for the good in people. I would be more able to imagine a merciful God who neglected to create life at all out of concern that life would entail suffering.

Given the fact that life with its attendant suffering is here (and unnecessary, in my opinion), I find myself agreeing that suffering does seem to be an essential element in developing any sort of moral worth. When I’ve met people, usually quite young, who have never faced financial difficulty, disease, or loss of a loved one, I generally find these people to be underdeveloped. They also seem unaware of the basic truths of life. The lack of suffering in their own lives makes them indifferent to the suffering of others. While most people believe we can’t take all the problems of the world on our shoulders, we also believe it is wrong to be “too happy” in the face of pain and suffering, but it is our own suffering that brings meaning to our experience of the suffering of others. We can never know the pain of others, but our own pain can make us care about what others may be experiencing. I realize some people experience pain and remain stubbornly egocentric, but I believe those who never experience any pain are likely to be incapable of placing any value on the pain of others. At least, they are unable to develop a fully empathic individuals.

All of this is said really to argue against the idea that we should be as cheerful as possible at all times. An old movie asked what is so bad about feeling good at a time when gloominess was trendy. Now, especially in the U.S., we have banished sadness, even when sadness is appropriate. We rush to the pharmacist when we experience the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or even more minor life changes. We are attempting to deny the experiences that make us human.

My feeling on this surprises me. When I was much younger, I read many of the existentialist philosophers. I knew then that the brute force of one’s own existence could lead only to anxiety and, in the words of Sartre and others, anguish. I remember now that Heidegger would have us find an authentic existence by contemplating our own death, an experience that pushes the superficial features of life out of our consciousness. Camus would have us constantly justify our existence by defending our choice to not commit suicide every day. For Sartre, the happy people could not be said to even exist in any meaningful sense–just automata going through the motions of life.

When I think of what it means to love or care about someone, I can’t imagine this emotion without pain. (I must add that I wish I could write this without hearing the strains of “Love Hurts,” but so be it.) We love our parents, our children, and, of course, our lovers, and each relationship is laced with deep pain, fear, worry, and uncertainty. The joy we get from these relationships can’t possibly outweigh the pain, but we find it worth the effort. Perhaps the pain intensifies the joy. It may be that the more pain we feel, the more we love. The more we love, the more we care for others. The more we care for others, the less pain we hope they will feel.

I’ve led myself to a paradox I cannot resolve. And I feel vaguely peaceful about it.

Some basic ideas regarding knowledge

This is information for students and may be less than entertaining, provocative or illuminating for others. The following are some ideas related to knowledge and how philosophers regard knowledge:

Realism–This is a belief that there is a “real world” outside of our minds that has features corresponding to certain facts that are not dependent on our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices.

Anti-Realism–While it may seem that this would claim there is no such world as described by the realist, the anti-realist claims that whatever world exists outside of our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices, whether it exists or not, cannot be known.

Verificationism–Some feel that we should attempt to improve our knowledge by verifying what is true and what is not true. Verificationism typically involves testing our knowledge against our experience through observation, mathematical analysis, or, in some cases, our emotional responses to things (this last one is quite controversial and will be discussed later if I get around to it). While the attempt to verify knowledge seems an attempt to discover the “real world,” one may claim that any form of verificationism is a form of anti-realism, given that verification relies on our perceptions, observations, language, and beliefs to be practiced.

Relativism–Relativists believe that our beliefs and knowledge claims are formed by our individual or cultural experiences and that there is no unifying conception of reality shared by all humans. In its crudest form, relativism claims that no claim to knowledge is superior to another. If someone from one culture believes that disease is caused by angry gods and someone from another culture claims disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, then it is a kind of arrogance, or worse, cultural imperialism to claim that one view is better than another. A more nuanced view would claim that cultural perceptions form our descriptions of things and those descriptions form our thoughts, given that thoughts are expressed through language.

Skepticism–Skepticism is a view that it is impossible to know what is real or not real outside of our own minds. Skepticism manifests itself in a variety of ways. The skeptic may approach life with a great deal of humility, recognizing that claims to truth are ephemeral and fleeting. The skeptic may be committed to verifying truth claims with the understanding that any truth claim may be modified. Or, the skeptic may decided to focus on the only thing any individual can truly claim to know, the contents of one’s own experience. This last approach leads directly to something called phenomenology, which is not the subject of this blog.

As for myself, I attempt to approach life from a standpoint of skeptical humility. I think that beliefs should be based on the best available evidence, but I also believe that modifications to such beliefs are always possible and, indeed, necessary. With hard work and attention, we can improve our lives by discovering beliefs that enhance our lived experience rather than impeding it.