Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A peek in to the future

So I've been rolling a few ideas around in my head for a while now, because I need to write a chapter for a book I'm co-editing (For those of you who are curious).

I've got a few ideas, but I'm not sure which idea I'm going to run with, or if I'm going to need to mash a few of these together.  But one I've been thinking about is why bad things are so bad, and good things not nearly as good as bad things are bad. 

It might be easier to think of this in terms of money, assuming that money is a good thing.  The more money that we have, the less useful it becomes.  If I have a million dollars, I can satisfy all my needs, and desires...  Getting another million then won't make me nearly as happy as the first million, because the second million would only be going to satisfy more whims and fancies, not necessities or basic comforts.  This is known as the declining marginal utility of money, but I think this can be applied to happiness in general.  At some point, we reach a pleateau of happiness.  Any happiness beyond that is just excessive happiness.... not that we don't want it, but we're already happy.  I think this is what Epicurus was trying to aim for in his aim for satisfaction, and in some ways, what the buddhists aim for in relieving suffering.

On the other hand, bad things, don't diminish in badness as you get more of it.  Quite the opposite really, they become more tragic and induce more suffering as we pile on the misfortunes.  So lets call this the Syngeristic Compounding of Suffering (can anyone come up with a better name for this?).  It's synergistic in that it creates more suffering than the sum of its parts, it only happens when "bads" are compounded upon each other (this can be taken in many different ways... they don't have to be compounded next to each other in time necessarily).

This explains why we might want to pass laws that protect minority rights, since minorities in our society are already suffering harms in terms of discrimination.  To compound that harm with being victimized in a crime, just makes the crime worse.  Maybe a good analogy would be being punched.  If I punch you in the same spot twice, its worse than if I punch you twice in different spots.  If I had the choice between victimizing two people, it would be worse to victimize the person who was already beaten up, than the one who was not. 

I think this would explain why sometimes we believe that it would have been better for X never to have had happened in our lives, even though it leads to a better state of affairs in our lives.  Take Cindy Sheehan for example.  I'm pretty confident in saying that she would be happier had her son not died than died, even though because he died, she has had doors and opportunities open up to her that she could have never imagined before (and lets simply stipulate that these are good things).  Although this is one instance of harm to Sheehan, it is compounded with all of the harms that we experience in life overall and perhaps compounded with the injustice of the war that he was fighting.

So why would Sheehan trade a better life for a less good life?  The question forces us to compare the declining marginal utility of happiness and the synergistic compounding of suffering together.  This comparison, by its very nature is always going to favor eliminating the SCS, rather than in favor of the DMUH.  When people chase after happiness, attempting to maximize their happiness, they inevitably compound their suffering.  Thus we get the paradox of hedonism.

I think this is telling of how we should go about living happy lives.  Epicurus and the Buddhists are right.


  1. Its all a matter of our perception. We take for granted all the good things, and focus on the bad. Misery/suffering/pain defines our existence… as per the Matrix. Agent Smith describes to Morpheus the Utopian Matrix where the subjects kept waking up, they couldn’t believe that life was this good, they rejected the program.

    Though I’m going to off the bat disagree that money is a good thing, I will concede that it works as an effective measure of possessions and therefore creature comforts. If possessions are what satisfies a person and a lack of them causes less satisfaction, then the amount of money and possessions someone has would be a good measure. Again, I disagree with that principle, but for now, I’ll accept it as an example of the theory of the declining marginal utility of happiness.

    Synergistic Compounding of Suffering works to some extent, when dealing with similar types of pain. But, I would argue that severe and dissimilar trauma, pain or suffering nullifies the effect or at least the sensation of other lesser pain. If I broke my leg, a scratch on my arm wouldn’t bother me a bit. The relative severity of one pain to another matters in which pain one will focus on.

    I think the punch is a poor example, for the same reason as the broken leg and scratch. Say you punched me in the arm twice. I’d prefer than to once in the arm and once in the face or other sensitive area. Severity of the crime or suffering makes it worse.

    Though I don’t disagree that sometimes we believe our lives would be better if certain things not happened, I’ll take the Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence stance and say that this is a sign of weakness and non-acceptance, not overcoming one’s situation. It’s not realistic and it’s looking-back instead of overcoming the obstacle and growing from it. This brings me to my position about the entire argument; pain is necessary to develop character. One learns best through avoidance or endurance of pain in the search for pleasure and greatness. There are some activities we do which pain us that we do to achieve greatness, which, I suppose in a sort of narcissistic way, is a form of pleasure. Example: exercise. I work out to maintain a good physique. Immediately, it would feel better to just lay around and watch TV, but in the long term, I gain more satisfaction from the result of working out than from watching TV. It is through pain or discomfort than one develops strength, either in a moral, mental or physical sense; consider Buddhist monks. Tragedy or suffering in this sense is relative to what experiences the person has already faced in life.

    I don’t understand your phrasing of the question regarding Sheehan trading a better life for a less good life. Nor do I understand why chasing happiness inevitably compounds suffering, short of a view of the universe as balance or Enantiodromia (Jung/Heraclitus). Are we all as Sisyphus, consistently climbing toward our goal of happiness while inevitably doomed to failure as the rock rolls to the other side? I don’t think so.

  2. I was trying to say that Sheehan's life is in some way better because of her son's death, even though she would want her son not to have died.

    Most activities the bring us happiness involve some amount of suffering. Since suffering compounds, its less pleasureable in the long run.

    As for being hit, sure you wouldn't want me to hit more sensitive areas... but you wouldn't want me to hit you twice in a sensitive area as opposed to once in two different sensitive areas.

  3. Depends of the sensitive areas... for example, the gonads are by far the most sensitive. I'd rather take one hit there and one in the face. But, if I had the choice between the two, twice in the face is better.
    I'd agree that Sheehan's life is better because of her son's death, but not for the reasons you're not describing. I'd ascribe it to the fact that she is being faced with an obstacle. She is facing adversity, with the chance to grow, the opportunity to avail herself of a state of stasis. This of course comes from my partiality to Heraclitus and Nietzsche... it doesn't mean I'm right, but I tend to think so. She is hurting so, she is growing, she is still alive, so, she is learning. Therefore, she is better off.