Pessimism

(Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, September 2002)


            Le jeu vaut-il bien la chandelle?

                                                   From On the Affirmation of the Will to Live

                                                                Arthur Schopenhauer

If we picture to ourselves roughly as far as we can the sum total of misery, pain, and suffering of every kind on which the sun shines in its course, we shall admit that it would have been much better if it had been just as impossible for the sun to produce the phenomenon of life on earth as on the moon, and the surface of the earth, like that of the moon, had still been in a crystalline state.

                                      From Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of Suffering

                                                   Arthur Schopenhauer

Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.

                                      From Essays on Faith and Morals

                                                   William James

The poor you shall have with you always.

                                      From The Gospels

                                                   Jesus Christ

 

          By way of a thought experiment, make the following pessimistic assumptions about the near and far future. Assume that within the next century we will gradually lose the struggle to sustain the environment and that moderately scarce natural resources will become extremely scarce, due both to increased levels of expectations by the privileged and to increased population. Assume that within the next fifty years the world’s population will double but begin to level off. The best scientific assessment of our prospects for saving the environment in a way that will sustain even a quarter of that population over time (say, several centuries) turns out to be that it cannot be done. The damage to the environment by industry and other sources of pollution will have taken us past the threshold of possible recovery on the most optimistic projections of voluntary population control. The decline will be slow, but it is clear to everyone that the course is irreversible. Assume also that we will gradually lose the battle with disease and that it will be clear to everyone that medical research cannot compete with the deteriorating conditions of scarcity and the mutation rates among the viral and bacterial sources of disease. Gradually, what cannot be accomplished through voluntary population control can and will be accomplished through disease, regardless of the best scientific efforts to prevent it. Scientists reliably tell us that the earth will slowly begin to recover at a rate that will sustain the remaining population, and that in the far distant future there will in all likelihood be centuries with patterns of human flourishing and suffering that resemble our past. Finally, it becomes clear that hopes of finding other intelligent life in the universe and other habitable environments are futile. Scientists confirm that the speed of light and the distance between here and other possible sources of life preempt any rational hope in extra-terrestrial solutions. What we can be sure of is that after a number cycles of human flourishing and suffering, there will be a cataclysmic end to the earth and all its history. We and all our relationships and accomplishments will be destroyed without a trace, as if we had never existed.

          Now assume that you have at your disposal a bomb, the detonation of which could end it all very painlessly and instantly for everyone. Would you now have reasons for not detonating the bomb, and what would those reasons be? If you would not drop the bomb now under these assumptions, at what point in such a cycle of developments would you, if at all, and why or why not? My primary concern here is how those of us who are secularists would answer these questions and what the answers tell us about our values and our sense of tragedy. Would it be a greater tragedy to end it all now than to wait for a later point in the development of history on the pessimistic assumptions?

          A secular version of the problem of evil is the problem of pessimism, which takes the form of a positive comparative that A is better than B. Given the facts of human suffering, says pessimism, it would have been better that human life as whole never evolved. The nonexistence of humanity, in other words, is better than its existence. One might endorse a personal version of the thesis without endorsing the impersonal version just stated. I endorse the personal version if I believe that given the suffering of my life it would have been better that I never existed. Personal pessimism leaves open the possibility that impersonal pessimism is false, and, of course, personal pessimism could be false and impersonal pessimism true. My chief aim here is to argue that the positive comparative at the heart of impersonal pessimism is, on a certain construal, true, but that many of us have, with a modicum of good luck, reasons for being personal optimists.

          The positive form of the comparative, however, can be misleading. Frequently when we say that A is better than B, we mean to assert that A has an intrinsic value that B either lacks or has in a lesser degree. Though not all comparisons take this form, those that grade along a single dimension do. For example, pure perfectionism does when it asserts that goodness is a unitary development of human capacities and that there is no intrinsic evil. Augustine, Aquinas, and the British Idealists believed this, which is why they asserted that on the perfectionist view evil is the privation of goodness. Footnote Pessimism, then, is distinct both from nihilism and perfectionism in that unlike nihilism it recognizes positive intrinsic value, and unlike perfectionism it recognizes intrinsic evil, the intrinsic evil of suffering. When pessimism asserts that the nonexistence is better than the existence of human life, it is asserting that the intrinsic evil of a life of suffering is worse than that life’s intrinsic value is good. So to say that A in this case is better than B is not to say that there is an intrinsic value to nonexistence or that life lacks intrinsic value. Rather, it is to say that there is not enough intrinsic value in life in comparison with the intrinsic evil of suffering to underwrite the affirmation of life. It is to say that the greatest tragedy is that we are alive at all and that the ultimate grief that comparative reason must bear is to prepare for humanity’s funeral.

          Can this gloom be a reasoned response to the human condition?

          Any theory of practical reason must meet the challenge of philosophical pessimism, because if philosophical pessimism is true, then the proper recognition of humanity’s tragic condition leaves us with nothing with which to project ourselves into the future. If to be practically rational is to act in accordance with our deepest values, the only way we could endorse philosophical pessimism and allow ourselves and others to go on living would be by believing that the only means to ending human life are worse than life’s continuance. The question, then, is how do we meet the pessimist challenge. One way is to provide a successful argument from the impersonal point of view that pessimism is false or unwarranted; another is to argue that practical reason does not proceed from an impersonal point of view. I shall argue for the latter and that there are grounds for personal optimism, but first I want to argue that impersonal optimism is, at least on a certain construal, irrational and unwarranted.

          The first task is to get clear on what it is to take the impersonal point of view. Rather than survey the vast literature on this topic, I will try to get to what seems to me the heart of the matter. Some have identified the impersonal point of view with the view from nowhere or from the point of view of the universe. Footnote In so far as I can make sense of these suggestions, I take them to be that there is a point of view that we are capable of taking but that it is not a point of view that involves any of our wants, desires, or sentiments, yet it somehow allows us to make value judgments. That we can ask what ought we to do or what ought to be the case no matter what we want or desire and no matter what our sentiments are is supposed to yield evidence that there is such an evaluative point of view. I do not believe that this question makes any sense except grammatically, despite the fact that we sometimes talk this way about our moral convictions. We recognize that indeed there might well be sadists who want very much, even after full consideration of the facts, to impose as much pain as possible on others without any anticipation of regret. Still we find ourselves insisting that he ought not to do so, no matter what he wants or desires. Feeling as strongly as we do about this, we insist that it must make sense that there is available even to the sadist an evaluative point of view that is independent of his own wants, desires, or sentiments and that he should take that point of view and act in accordance with it. But the reason that our insistence does not make sense (no matter how much we pound the table about horrible immorality) is that there is no possible psychology that lacked the affective and conative dimensions of wants, desires, and sentiments that would include a sense that there are things that matter. Practical reason deals in things that matter, and the challenge for constructing a conception of the impersonal point of view is the challenge of constructing an account of a psychology that includes a sense of things that matter in an impersonal way. It is utterly mysterious how things could matter for a being who had only a cognitive psychology but no affective or conative psychology. The insistence on wants, desires, and sentiments is just an insistence that the psychology of a practical reasoner must include an affective and conative dimension along with whatever cognitive dimensions are required. Valuing something is always some form of caring about something, and caring about something is always more than simply believing and knowing about something. The reason the universe has no point of view is because it is not the kind of thing that cares in any way about anything. The ultimate point of view any of us can therefore take as a practical reasoner is the point of view of what we can ultimately care about.

          So if there is an impersonal point of view it will have to be a function of our valuing and therefore of our myriad ways of caring. One possibility is that rather than being the point of view from nowhere, it is the point of view from everywhere. The thought here is that the impersonal point of view is that point of view of caring that we all share. Whether there is such a point of view is itself a hotly debated topic in moral philosophy, and one might think that until that issue is settled no progress can be made on other fronts. I believe this is a mistake. First, it does not follow from there being a common form of caring that the impersonal point of view is the best way to think of it. Suppose, for example, that the only common form of caring that we share is that we all love our families. This would not mean that we share an impersonal point of view. Just the opposite. Familial love is one of the most personal forms of caring. Second, there is a way of framing the issue of the impersonal point of view that is neutral about whether it is common to all humans.

          We can say that the impersonal point of view is that point of view one takes that is uninfluenced by one’s personal wants, needs, and sentiments. This is possible because there are forms of caring that are not, in an important sense, personal. When I am concerned about the suffering of a complete stranger, the concern is impersonal in the sense that it is not a special concern due to my personal involvement with the stranger. The same can be true of other forms of caring as well. Because of my sense of respect, I can care about the dignity of a complete stranger, and because of my sense of excellence, I can care about the esteem conferred on various achievements even where I have no personal connection to those involved. The impersonal point of view, then, is best thought of as a function of forms of caring that are impersonal and independent of our special personal relations and connections. And thinking of the impersonal point of view in this way allows us to avoid contentious metaphysical or psychological claims and begging the question regarding relativism.

          It is important, however, to bear in mind two different kinds of contexts in which the impersonal point of view can be taken. The first is a transcendent context, and the second an immanent context. A transcendent context is a context in which a practical reasoner stands outside what is being judged and what de does will bring certain things of value into play. Think of someone designing a game. If the rules of the game are designed in one way, playing the game will be lighthearted and hilarious. If they are designed in another way, playing will be serious but challenging. The crucial thing about transcendent contexts is that they raise the issue of what kinds of values to bring about. Immanent contexts, on the other hand, are those in which values are already in play and the task of the practical reasoner is to set priorities among them. Government labor negotiators are often faced with immanent contexts: given what labor and management want and that the larger society is affected by the outcome, their task is to determine the best way to accommodate all the values that are already in play.

          The response to impersonal pessimism might turn on whether it takes a transcendent or an immanent form. The transcendent form is the one presented by Schopenhauer in the quote at the beginning. The transcendent pessimist views the world, its suffering, and its other values from the outside and wonders if it would have been better had life never evolved. Wouldn’t it have been better, says the transcendent pessimist, had the natural variables been such that instead of producing the kind of life there is on earth they resulted only in the kind of biologically austere state of the moon? Put this way, the issue of pessimism is very much like the problem of evil in theism. The transcendent pessimist takes the issue to be what it would be right or good to do if we were faced with the god-like task of creating two possible worlds: one with the suffering of this world and its other values and the other without the suffering and without the other values.

          One very interesting thing to note here is that anyone who thinks that the evidential form of the problem of evil is a decisive objection to traditional theism must also think that transcendent pessimism is a decisive objection to at least some forms of impersonal optimism. Footnote For this reason, transcendent pessimism is to some forms of secular moral theory what the evidential form of the problem of evil is to traditional theism. Yet there seem to be a significant number of secular moral philosophers who think that (i) the evidential form of the problem of evil is decisive against (or at least a major obstacle to) traditional theism but who nonetheless insist that (ii) taking the moral point of view is taking a god’s eye point of view of consequences and that (iii) what we should be doing is maximizing the good. How can all these beliefs–beliefs that are common to secular consequentialism--be rational? Secularism has its own problem of evil to contend with, and not just any response will do.

          The secular consequentialist might respond that there is a crucial difference between the perspectives of traditional theism and impersonal consequentialism on suffering. The difference is that traditional theism takes a retrospective point of view but impersonal consequentialism takes a prospective point of view. The question is whether this makes any difference in whether it is rational from the impersonal point of view to be an optimist or a pessimist. Is there any real difference between looking back over the history of suffering and human values and weighing them up and looking forward to a projected history on such calculations that would make any real difference?

          The answer might turn on what appears in the columns of the ledger. According to hedonistic utilitarianism, the negative column will list suffering and the positive, happiness. What reason is there to think that the past included a surplus of suffering but the future promises a surplus of happiness?

          It is a natural thing in some sense to think of the world in terms of what one perceives in one’s immediate surroundings, in terms of what one is used to in one’s everyday dealings. Most of us in the developed countries (twenty three percent of the world population) think of history as a kind of progress that involves among other things the gradual reduction of people who are suffering. The less we see of suffering, the less we think it is there, and our faith in moral progress is sustained by our ignorance. But if the trajectory of moral progress is gauged by the reduction of human and animal suffering, such faith is anything but clearly justified.

          It is true that (counting only humans) world life expectancy is increasing, but this does not mean that there is less suffering in the world. The fact is that in absolute numbers there are more people suffering in the world today than ever before, and there are more people suffering under primitive conditions now than ever before. According to a report from the World Health Organization, three billion of the world’s six billion people now suffer from malnutrition. Footnote The total population of the world in 1950 was 2.52 billion, which means that if the numbers regarding malnutrition are accurate there are more people now suffering from malnutrition alone than the total world population of only fifty years ago. Footnote If this trend continues, there will be as many people suffering from malnutrition alone by the middle of the next century as there are now on earth. And even on the most optimistic estimates, the total number of people suffering in this way alone will increase significantly. Currently, more than eleven million children die each year of pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition before the age of five. Footnote Discounting all other forms of suffering, that toll itself would have been two fifths of the world population in any year between the beginning of the Christian era and 1000 AD. What seems clear is that the more material conditions improve for some, the larger the number of those who suffer as a result. Why? Because poverty does not diminish the number of hungry mouths to feed but multiplies them.

          Consider also that as material conditions improve, populations decrease but demand on the environment increases. The good news is that the rate of population in the U.S. has gone down; the bad news is that the U.S. uses far more of the world’s natural resources than any other country. Is this due to something peculiar to U.S. citizens? If the technological balance suddenly shifted away from the U.S. to, say, Canada, would there be less grounds for worry? Canadian virtue notwithstanding, I doubt it. People, even Canadians, are inclined to use their technological advantages to improve their lives. So what if we became complete technological egalitarians (which there is not the slightest of reasons for thinking that we will)? Would this result in progress? The evidence suggests that the population would decrease but the environment might very well be destroyed. Moreover, the destruction of the environment would probably accelerate faster than the rate of the distribution of available technology to under-developed countries. But the slower we distribute technology to under-developed countries, the more people starve.

          I do not pretend that these observations prove that transcendent pessimism is warranted, but anyone who has actually reflected on the historical facts regarding the suffering of human and nonhuman animals and who has studied the effects of demography on the environment and the prospects for the future can hardly avoid taking seriously the probability that the next century will include more suffering than ever before. The problem is compounded by the fact that the leisure produced by improved material conditions brings its own form of suffering to the privileged. The psychological suffering of modernity is the reward for having overcome the physical sources of discomfort. Criminologists can tell us how much crime in advanced countries is due to poverty and how much is due to boredom. As Schopenhauer was all too ready to show us, nature is not kind. It seems to have designed us to live a life of frustrated dreams. Dreams unfulfilled bring the frustration of desire; and dreams fulfilled, the frustration of boredom. All too often, freedom from material constraints on our dreams is just another word for nothing left to do. Though some may be able to handle such freedom and turn it to good purpose, the evidence suggests that many, perhaps most, cannot.

          Then there are the bacterial and viral infections. Consider retrospectively how much human and animal misery has been the result of such infections prior to the development of antibiotics. Reflections on the bubonic plague of the 14th century alone should give the theist pause. But then why think that something similar does not await humanity in the future? Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in bacterial and viral adaptations that threaten to put us back to where we were before antibiotics were discovered. Some experts have estimated that we may be only a few decades away from such a reversal. Footnote Even if they are wrong about the near future, what makes it reasonable to believe that research and development will always allow us to stay one step ahead of the deadliest virus? Contrary to what James said about pessimism being a religious disease, it seems to take a religious faith in the inevitability of human dominance to justify such optimism. If the competition for survival is between ourselves and the ordinary roach, the roach will win. Why? Because its powers of adaptation are better. And viruses are yet more adaptive than the roach.

          In the light of this, it is puzzling how one can be a theistic humanist. If god could not have improved on the past, why think that we can improve on the future? Yet this seems to be just what some theistic optimists believe. To think that if we would only use our free will rightly to do the good we could reverse things is to presuppose a solution we are unwilling to implement. What is it?

          The truth is that in all probability we will exhaust the earth long before the sun exhausts itself and the solar system of which we are a part. Lower organisms will view our tombstones with a sense of history even less informed than that of the average college graduate. To be envied are those who can believe that God will step in and save us from ourselves and the forces of nature. What seems right headed about theistic interventionists is that they recognize that viewed impersonally, if there is no God to intervene in this process, there are little grounds for optimism in the long run. If this is right, then transcendent secular optimism in a utilitarian form is even more puzzling than the theistic version.

          Of course, we might change what is listed in the columns of the ledger in our book of calculations. What if human suffering is weighed off, not against human happiness, but against human dignity? Imagine retrospectively from the god’s-eye point of view whether all the suffering of both human and nonhuman animals that predated and accompanied human dignity was worth the emergence of human dignity. Then imagine prospectively from the god’s-eye point of view whether all the suffering of both human and nonhuman animals that will accompany human dignity in the future will be worth the continuance of human life.

          One possible response is that happiness and dignity are incomparable in the literal sense that they cannot be compared. If so, and if practical reason tracks comparability, as I believe it does, then we simply cannot make a rational judgment about the future or the past in this regard. I suspect that most moral philosophers who think that the evidential form of the problem of evil is decisive against traditional theism are hardly ignorant of Kantian claims about human dignity and its worth. What Kantians believe is that human dignity is strictly superior in its worth to the worth of human and animal happiness. If this is true, then there is no amount of happiness that can provide a reason for violating human dignity. Does it follow from this that the production and maintenance of human dignity is worth any amount of suffering? Would God have been justified in bringing about any amount of human and nonhuman animal suffering in order to create humans and their dignity? If so, it is hard to see how the evidential form of the problem of evil for theism could even get off the ground. Why? Because on this conception of the value of human dignity nothing could count as evidence that enough is enough when it comes to the costs of human dignity.

          I doubt seriously that anyone really believes this upon reflection. What if there were a literal hell, an everlasting fire and all of that? And what if the cost of the earthly life of a single human came to the fact that all nonhuman animals would have to spend an eternity in a literal hell suffering miserably? Would the cost of human dignity then be too high? If so, we do not believe that the worth of human dignity is strictly superior to the worth of happiness and the avoidance of suffering.

          Now the theistic optimist has the resources to respond that human dignity will live on in eternity and that this makes all the difference. Even Kant seems to have thought so, which is why both the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are according to him postulates of practical reason. Footnote One of the problems with this move is that it is inconsistent with the claim about the strict superiority of dignity over happiness. If human dignity must last forever to be superior to some quantity of happiness or suffering avoided, then there is some quantity of dignity that is not superior to some quantity of happiness or suffering avoided. How could this be any clearer? Secular Kantians, however, do not have the resources of traditional theism. What, then, are we to think of their comparative judgments about the relative worth of dignity and happiness or suffering? From the transcendent perspective, what are the scales the secular Kantian employs to judge from the evidence regarding the history of suffering and dignity that traditional theism is unwarranted but that the continuance of human history with its dignity and suffering is a good thing? In other words, what is the covering value for the comparison? This is not a rhetorical question, so platitudes regarding human dignity will not suffice as a response.

          What the Kantian should say is that practical reason does not proceed from a transcendent context but from an immanent one. Our respect for human dignity does not rationally compel us to produce humans but to respect humans once they exist. Footnote Respect, then, is the recognition of a value that is already in play, which reveals that respect for human dignity emerges only in immanent contexts. Taking this view, the secular Kantian could deny that the goal of producing human dignity justified the suffering that has attended its production and could maintain that the evidential form of the problem of evil is decisive against traditional theism. At the same time, he could maintain that we must be impersonally optimistic about the future because respect for human dignity renders the future worthy of pursuit as long as dignity lasts. So the ultimate claim here is that secular Kantian moral theory allows us a response to impersonal pessimism that does not require a defense of traditional theism. It does this by rejecting the impersonal point of view as arising from a transcendent context and by insisting that the value that supports optimism is the value of human dignity, which is a value already in play.

          Is immanent, impersonal optimism of this sort compelling?

          Consider a question asked by William James:

...if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? Footnote

The point pressed here applies most to those who think that there is some quantity of happiness that can justify the production of such suffering. One might also take the point to be that when suffering and happiness are compared, the avoidance of suffering is the far more important, so important that very large amounts of happiness cannot compensate for even small amounts of torture. Finally, one might take the comparative not to be about happiness and suffering but about happiness and dignity. On this view, what is so repulsive about such utopia is that it comes at the cost of human dignity. It is the fact that a human rather than another animal is suffering that blocks the endorsement of utopia for the many at the cost of a lone sufferer.

          But what if we change the utopia from a utilitarian one to a Kantian one--the Kingdom of Ends--and the lone sufferer from a single human to large numbers of several species of animals? How much difference would this make? Do we really believe that from the impersonal perspective the production of the Kingdom of Ends would be worth any amount of suffering of lower animals? Of course the comparison is unrealistic, but the reason it is unrealistic is not because of an exaggeration of the amount of animal suffering that accompanies the maintenance of human civilization. Surely the actual amount of such suffering is and will continue to be enormous. Rather, the comparison is unrealistic because there will never be such a utopia. Those who think so simply have not been paying attention to history. How anyone can have utopian hopes and expectations in regard to the future and yet believe that traditional theists are naive about suffering has got to be one of the mysteries of the intellectual world. It is just hard to see how faith in utopian conceptions of moral progress is based on anything like evidence, and it is easy to see the dangers of utopian aspirations. Footnote So if we are to justify continuing with human civilization, we will have to do it without projecting utopia, whether Kantian, utilitarian, or Marxist, as the final destination. Immanent Kantian optimism cannot plausibly project utopia as the benefit that will justify the costs in terms of animal suffering of the probable autonomous choices of humans who now and will exist. The real comparison, then, is between the amount of suffering, both human and nonhuman, that will in all probability attend the lifestyles of human choice that fall woefully short of the Kingdom of Ends. Moreover, the comparison really is not like the one suggested by James’s question. Rather than the many benefitting while the few suffer, the actual likely result of continued respect for human choice is that the few will benefit while the many suffer.

          So viewed impersonally from where we are now in history, I cannot see how the value of human dignity has the status to rescue us from pessimism and to redeem the future. Nor can I see how to distinguish those secular Kantian optimists from traditional theists who think that God was justified in creating the world with its actual probabilities. If traditional theists are naive about how much animal suffering preceded the evolution of human beings, immanent secular Kantians are naive about how much suffering will likely attend the future of human history. 

          Are other utopian aspirations more promising? The question seems almost silly. I say almost only because the issue is so serious. It would be silly if so much were not at stake. How, then, are we to avoid pessimism? The only way, I believe, is to see that practical reason does not proceed from the impersonal point of view and that it does not project indefinitely into the future.

          That none of us will seriously entertain ending the history of sentient life on earth should tell us a great deal about practical reason and our values. While we might in the light of the previous observations admit that the existence of human and animal suffering is itself a tragedy, it would be a greater tragedy still to end it all. How can we account for this tragic sense, the sense that something important would be lost with such a termination? This sense, I believe, reflects one of the most important comparative evaluative judgments any person, philosopher or not, can ever make, and any developed answer to the question must yield a view of the human condition.

          It is by shifting emphasis to the personal point of view that we can begin to make sense of the human condition and the tragic sense that it would be even more tragic to give up on life. For those who have a modicum of good luck, the problems that confront practical reason arise in the first place in the context of an ongoing meaningful life. The relevant comparative, then, is between the disvalue of prospective human and animal suffering and whatever the values are that give a person’s life meaning from his or her own point of view. It is the values that give meaning to a person’s life that gives her a reason to go on, and it is only in terms of these values that a person can be optimistic or pessimistic. Footnote

          What is it that gives meaning to life for most of us? What is it that we care about that might give us reasons for living and taking some joy and passion in it, even in the clear knowledge of the facts about suffering and the prospects for the future? If we cannot answer this question from the personal point of view, then it seems we are just propelled into the future by habit or weakness of will.

          I believe that for most of us our loved ones, our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, and our neighbors, their well-being and good fortune and sharing life with them, are perhaps the most central elements in terms of which life is alluring to us. This is an aspect of our social nature. We are the sorts of creatures for whom a life without love is devastatingly lonely. It is not that we love in order to avoid loneliness; rather we are prone to loneliness in the absence of intimacy because we are loving creatures. If we think of suffering as an affliction of feeling, as an overall state of feeling bad to a significant degree and happiness as an overall state of feeling good, consider how much of the good feeling of happiness we are willing to forgo for the sake of our loved ones, and how much suffering we are willing to endure for their sake. Footnote This should tell us that for a loving person, the meaning of her life from her own point of view is far more determined by how well things are going for her loved ones than by how she feels, either good or bad. Indeed, one of the noble things about love is that unless the lover’s suffering is completely unbearable, it factors very little into the her practical deliberations when it comes to the central well being of her loved ones. Viewed from this perspective, much of the suffering in a loving person’s life is taken as a matter of course. Comparatively, then, the overall meaning of much suffering in a loving person’s life is relatively insignificant when compared with the meaning and direction provided by her loving commitments. To be sure, we should not overstate this. If a person suffers enough, even love can fade, wither, or simply die from fatigue. Footnote But outside very austere and extreme conditions, love does not so much as blink in the face of a good bit of suffering, let alone does it take a pessimistic view of what life is about.

          It is also important to keep in mind that love involves a form of suffering. So much so that love could be described as a form of suffering itself. Granted, it is more than that, but part of what it is to love others is to suffer their ill fortune. Yet, knowing this, we continue to find our lives most meaningful in terms of our loved ones. Viewed in this way, the meaning of what love adds to what we take life to be about can be gaged by how little significance we give to considerations of such suffering in our practical deliberations. Rather than taking such suffering to be grounds for pessimism, we look with suspicion on those who go on and on about it. We take them to be gaging the meaning of their lives by ignoble values. In fact, we often think it a tragedy that a person cannot love in a way that does not hesitate in the face of much suffering.

          So how do things stand when we compare the meaning of our own suffering and the meaning of our loved ones in the overall meaning of our lives? We cannot say that the value our loved ones is strictly superior to the value of the avoidance of our own suffering, but we can say that it is vastly superior. This is just part of what it is to be a loving person.

          Consider also the comparative value of excellence at something on the one hand and the value of the avoidance of one’s own suffering on the other. The truth (rather than the romantic rhetoric) about the pursuit of excellence is that it is often nothing short of brutal in its demands. Of course, it is not always that, but to pursue excellence is to take the chance that one is not up to the challenge. For this reason, we do not expect to see the fainthearted or those whose deliberations are highly sensitive to their own suffering engaged in such pursuits. One of the admirable things about Freud was his refusal to take pain medication because he thought it would interfere with the concentration required for his work. Footnote Had his own suffering factored into the meaning of his own life from his own point of view in a significant way, he could not have thought it rational to go on as he did. The reason he was not infected with pessimism was not due to how his working (or not working) might make him feel but to the meaning it played in his practical deliberations. His willingness to suffer showed how much more important the quality of his work was to him and the meaning of his life from his own point of view than how he felt.

          Consider also the comparative worth of the love of knowledge and the value of the avoidance of one’s own suffering. Here I do not mean knowledge in the abstract sense of the collective knowledge of humanity. What I am referring to is one’s having knowledge rather than ignorance. Of course, some knowledge is relatively trivial. Few of us would undergo any suffering at all to learn how many names are in the local phone book. Curiosity about matters of that sort are not enough even to kill a cat, but the price of the passion to know has dealt those who possess it a large share of pain and disappointment. People have literally worked themselves to death in its pursuit. John Stuart Mill thought the way to account for this was in terms of a difference in pleasures, the intellectual versus the physical pleasures. But it is anything but clear that this is a plausible account. I doubt seriously that the feeling of believing that one knows is any different in either intensity or in tone than the feeling of ignorance. The dissatisfaction with one’s own ignorance seems to grow proportionately with the increase in one’s knowledge, which shows that the love of knowledge, too, is a form of suffering. This criticism of Mill not withstanding, however, I do believe that he was right that in the absence of the most austere conditions, the will to know pushes hedonic considerations, especially considerations of one’s own suffering and discontentment, far into the background. This is just what it is like to have a deeply inquiring mind and a love of knowledge.

          What can be said about knowledge can also be said about the pursuit of art and the love of beauty. The value of creative activity is at least as important to most of us as the value of knowledge, and no less demanding. Acquiring the fundamental skills that went into Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel was no less tedious than acquiring the mathematical skills that went into Einstein’s discovery of relativity. So whether you want to play the Moonlight Sonata or understand the principles of thermodynamics and how to apply them, there will be hours and hours of work to do in preparation. Those who think that to justify the effort the work must on balance be fun reveal a kind of soul in which a certain kind of love does not reside. And for every scientist and philosopher who has endured the disappointment and frustration of misleading lines of inquiry, there is an artist broken by an aesthetic vision beyond the reach of her skills and dedication. Yet we toil away at the vision, thinking little of how we feel, good or bad. Or, at least the artists among us do. To live well seems to be this: to be caught up in something besides our feelings, even some very bad feelings, so that we do not care about them in a way that distorts the meaning of our lives. One form of tragedy was Beethoven’s deafness and how being deaf made him feel; another would have been his taking his feelings as a reason to give up. The value of creating great music was so important to him that he would not be deterred by the disappointment of knowing that he would never be able to hear it.

          In all these cases, the value that we actually place on personal goods--the value of our loved ones, the value of excellence, the value of knowledge, the value of art and beauty--and the way we care about them show that when compared to the value of the avoidance of our own individual suffering these personal goods are vastly but not strictly superior to the value of how we feel. To be too attuned to how one feels in this sense is to be cut off from some of the goods that make life most meaningful, even if not the most pleasant or pain free. This says something very deep about the nature of our valuing and our tragic sense. To value how we feel, to care about our feelings to a certain degree and in a certain way, is itself a great tragedy. It is the tragedy of missing out on certain nonhedonic values.

          So far, however, I have spoken only of the comparative value of one’s own suffering and these other values. What about the comparative value of these other values and the suffering of others? For this question to reflect the issue at hand, we have to care (and care very deeply) about the suffering of others, not just our own. Moreover, we have to know about the suffering involved; we cannot simply hide it with talk about the value of personal love, the commitment to excellence, and the pursuit of knowledge and art. To talk about these values in ignorance of suffering is to convert such talk into platitudes.

          As a way of focusing attention on the awareness of suffering in the comparative judgments to follow, return to the pessimistic assumptions we made at the outset regarding prospects for humanity’s future. You have the bomb at your disposal by which you can end it all for everyone both instantly and painlessly. Would you now have reasons for not detonating the bomb, and what would those reasons be? Could you be a secular personal optimist, even with your concern for the suffering of others? If you would not drop the bomb now under these assumptions, at what point in such a cycle of developments would you and for what reasons? Would it be a greater tragedy to end it all now than to wait for a later point in the development of history on the pessimistic assumptions?

          Perhaps different people will have different answers to these questions even after careful reflection. For myself, I can only say that I would have reasons not to detonate the bomb, as long as I thought that there were reasonable prospects for my loved ones to live a meaningful life from their own points of view, that there were excellences left to aim for, that there were important things yet to learn and accomplish, that there was some beauty yet to be experienced in life, and that there was something significant left for me to do short of detonating the bomb to help some other people with their suffering. Moreover, I believe I could live my life with some passion and joy, though it would also be filled with a great deal of sadness. None of this makes any sense from the impersonal point of view. Some will say that it makes no sense at all, or that it only reflects the attitude of someone indifferent to the plight of others. I can only say that it makes all the sense in the world to me, and that I live with a keen awareness that there is and will continue to be great suffering in the world. My life and the lives of my loved ones come at a cost, namely, that there are others who could take our places among the relatively privileged. This will always be so for others, until there is no one left.

          So Jesus was right that we will always have the poor and the suffering with us. But what instruction should we take from this fact? I believe that we, those of us who have a modicum of good luck, should either detonate the bomb or do what we can for those who are suffering, consistent with our taking some delight in what gives our lives their central meaning. If we do neither, then we seem to waste the opportunity for what makes life worth living only to prolong the agony others. So which should it be? I believe that detonating the bomb under these circumstances and wasting the opportunity for a meaningful life in terms of loving relationships, the pursuit of excellence, and the love of knowledge and art and beauty would be a much greater tragedy than endorsing life and its prospects.

          A person who takes this attitude will care very deeply about the suffering of others and will act on that concern, but he will not allow the suffering of others to eclipse his view of what makes his life worth living. It is for a person of this sort, a person whose outlook on life is primarily personal and positive, who can sustain optimism that is not naive. Naive optimism blinds itself to the suffering, but the personal optimism I am defending is dominated by joy even in the sorrowful recognition of suffering. For persons of this sort, not only is it true that these personal goods are vastly superior to the value of avoiding their own suffering; they are also vastly superior to the value of avoiding the suffering of others. To endorse life in the face of this is to realize that there is no escaping tragedy, but some forms of it can be avoided by those who have the courage to give themselves to the sources of value that are, with a modicum of good luck, available.

          Finally, it is important to point out that the temporal horizons of practical reason are never extended in the way the thought experiment suggests. We do not extend the scope of our deliberations into eternity, nor do we extend them so far into history as to outstrip our capacities for making sense of our lives from where we are now, from where we are now in our personal lives. We would not have the slightest idea of how to do such a thing. Why? Because the meaning of the future is framed by the meaning of the present, and there is nothing about the meaning of the present that extends so indefinitely into the future as to allow for certain kinds of calculations. I can no more calculate what it would be rational for future generations to do if they undergo a radical change in cultural values than Achilles could have anticipated how to cast a rational vote in a contemporary U. S. presidential election. What this should tell us is that the ultimate grounds for pessimism or optimism are first and foremost to be found in our personal values, the values that give us reasons for living from our own points of view. Which attitude we take will be a function both of luck and of character. We will need the modicum of good luck to be given an adequate chance at a good life, and having the chance we will need the courage to seize the day. If we have both, then life can be better than death.


Endnotes