Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

A Brief Utilitarian Defense of Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 10, 2010

The Greatest Happiness Principle states that happiness should be increased to the greatest extent possible while suffering should be decreased to the greatest extent possible. Paradoxically, this principle may be used to justify suffering.

It is a common cultural concept that a life without suffering is a life without meaning. This could naively be posited as a refutation of Utilitarianism (how could happiness be the greatest end if suffering is necessary?). A deeper look reveals that the very reason that a life without suffering is meaningless is because a life without suffering is a life without happiness. Without suffering as a reference point, happiness is impossible to identify. Suffering, even pointless suffering, heightens one’s appreciation for true happiness. Someone who truly never suffers has no appreciation for happiness. Thus, for the man who does not suffer, there is no such thing as happiness.

Furthermore, suffering is often a conduit to a greater sense of happiness. One must pass through suffering to achieve more potent happiness. Consider education (a rather mundane example). It is often unpleasant and boring, even painful (intellectually); but most people are willing to endure this for the sake of education’s benefits. An educated person is capable of much higher pleasures than an uneducated one. An uneducated person will never know the delight of scientific discovery; an illiterate will never read a profoundly moving book; those who do not know mathematics will never understand the beauty of an elegant theorem.

For perhaps a more exciting example, consider the archetypal hero’s journey. The hero goes through a tremendous struggle and suffers greatly along the way. But in the end he becomes the most happy: he is capable of a much higher sense of pleasure, and he has a reference of true suffering through which to find true happiness.


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