Using happiness as the measure of a moral life

Carter Haydu
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What is the moral way to live?

According to 18th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the good life is the life lived in the pursuit of happiness.

However, ‘happiness’ as Bentham considered it was not an entirely selfish notion. He believed in a moral happiness in which consideration of others was paramount and actions should be committed when they result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people — or animals.

Bentham believed the ability to suffer, not the mere ability to reason, should be the benchmark for which people consider the wellbeing of subjects. Therefore, although animals might lack the intelligence of human beings, their level of ‘happiness’ should be no less important. This made him an early advocate for animal rights.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, meaning the value of moral actions is determined by the outcome. It is an attempt to measure morality based on levels of pleasure and pain not just on an individual level, but taking into account all those who can experience such sensations.

But is avoidance of pain and maximization of pleasure really the greatest good for which one can strive?

There is a long-standing tradition of viewing suffering as a teacher of compassion, as well as a means by which people face the unpleasant and grow more dynamic through the experience. In the words of Nietzsche: “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

Fear, anguish, and dread — these are indeed ‘negative’ experiences, but also ones that offer wisdom to those who handle them. A person who goes through a devastating loss, such as a relationship breakup or family death, may indeed experience a great deal of emotional pain, but he or she is also attaining an incredible understanding of the nature of being.

Suffering is inevitable. Even the most sheltered of individuals cannot escape the universal experience of death. Perhaps the experiences of pain throughout one’s life are ways of preparing the self for its eventual destruction. Through illness, injury and old age, one understands the frailty and impermanence of existence and can prepare accordingly.

However, it seems somewhat wasteful to merely dwell on suffering because it is unavoidable. Somehow, a life where one is constantly growing acceptance of death seems really a pretty bleak row to hoe. There must be better ways of living than just always seeking meaning through suffering.

After all, is not part of the resilient human spirit that ability to find joy despite the anguish? Is not humour itself a defiant means of finding pleasure out of the pain? Maybe that’s why all the best jokes are so morbid in nature.

Suffering is unavoidable, so it’s unlikely any attempt at increasing happiness is going to eliminate what valuable teaching qualities arise from suffering. It’s like trying to stop the flow of a river — eventually water and gravity always win.

Therefore, it only make sense to attempt to increase pleasure and decrease pain within one’s own life and the lives of others.

Assuming one’s ‘happiness’ does not add a hefty load of suffering for others with the capacity to experience it, then really it is hard to argue utilitarianism is anything but a moral way to live.

How does one assure this way of living does not become a road to selfish hedonistic indulgence? Well for one, maximizing happiness overall means one would not live entirely for present gratification at the expense of the future. How can one truly be happy living for pure unhealthy immediate joy, knowing the future will bring sickness and regret as a result?

As well, the Categorical Imperative/Golden Rule basically ensures anyone with a reasoning mind will not take pleasure at the expense of other’s happiness, because then he or she would have to accept the world is such where other’s actions could take happiness away from him or her in return.

Expanding on that theme, it makes sense the best way for one to attain happiness is to work at making the world a place more welcoming to happiness in general. This, it would seem, would have the impact of making existence better for others as well. If one wishes to live in a community where people smile at their neighbours, then the best way to achieve this is to start smiling oneself.

With these reasonable restrictions in mind, living purely for the pursuit of happiness really does seem like the ideal way to a moral life.


Carter Haydu can be reached at 691-1265.


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