Suffering-focused ethics and the importance of happiness

It seems intuitive to think that suffering-focused moral views imply that it is unimportant whether people live rich and fulfilling lives. Yet the truth, I will argue, is in many ways the opposite — especially for those who are trying to reduce suffering effectively with their limited resources.

Personal sustainability and productivity

A key reason why we need to live fulfilling lives is that we cannot work to reduce suffering in sustainable ways otherwise. Indeed, not only is a reasonably satisfied mind a precondition for sustainable productivity in the long run, but also for our productivity on a day-to-day basis, which is often aided by a strong passion and excitement about our work projects. Suffering-focused ethics by no means entails that excitement and passion should be muted.

Beyond aiding our productivity in work-related contexts, a strong sense of well-being also helps us be more resilient in the face of life’s challenges — things that break, unexpected expenses, unfriendly antagonists, etc. Cultivating a sense of fulfillment and a sound mental health can help us better handle these things as well.

Signaling value

This reason pertains to the social rather than the individual level. If we are trying to create positive change in the world, it generally does not help if we ourselves seem miserable. People often decide whether they want to associate with (or distance themselves from) a group of people based on perceptions of the overall wellness and mental health of its adherents. And while this may seem unfair, it is also not entirely unreasonable, as these factors arguably do constitute some indication of the practical consequences of associating with the group in question.

This hints at the importance of avoiding this outcome; to show that a life in short supply of true fulfillment is not in fact what suffering-focused views ultimately recommend. After all, if failing to prioritize our own well-being has bad consequences in the bigger picture, such as scaring people away from joining our efforts to create a better future, then this failure is not recommended by consequentialist suffering-focused views.

To be clear, my point here is not that suffering-focused agents should be deceptive and try to display a fake and inflated sense of well-being (such deception itself would have many bad consequences). Rather, the point is that we have good reasons to prioritize getting to a place of genuine health and well-being, both for the sake of our personal productivity and our ability to inspire others.

A needless hurdle to the adoption of suffering-focused views

A closely related point has to do with people’s evaluations of suffering-focused views more directly (as opposed to the evaluations of suffering-focused communities and their practical efforts). People are likely to judge the acceptability of a moral view based in part on the expected psychological consequences of its adoption — will it enable me to pursue the lifestyle I want, to maintain my social relationships, and to seem like a good and likeable person?

Indeed, modern moral and political psychology suggests that these social and psychological factors are strong determinants of our moral and political views, and that we usually underestimate just how much these “non-rationalist” factors influence our views (see e.g. Haidt, 2012, part III; Tuschman, 2013, ch. 22; Simler, 2016; Tooby, 2017).

This is then another good reason to seek to both emphasize and exemplify the compatibility of suffering-focused views and a rich and fulfilling life. Again, if failing in this regard tends to prevent people from prioritizing the reduction of suffering, then a true extrapolation of suffering-focused views will militate against such a failure, and instead recommend a focus on cultivating an invitingly healthful state of mind.

In sum, while it may seem counterintuitive, there is in fact no inherent tension between living a happy and rewarding life and at the same time being committed to reducing the most intense forms of suffering. On the contrary, these pursuits can be quite complementary. As I have argued above, living healthy and flourishing lives ourselves is helpful for the endeavor of reducing suffering in various ways. Conversely, being strongly dedicated to this endeavor, while admittedly challenging at times, can positively enhance the richness of our lives, providing us with a powerful source of meaning and purpose. It is okay to revel in the unspeakable profundity and significance of this purpose.

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