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Moral Landscape – can suffering be good?

January 17, 2014

A crucial problem in the conception of the moral landscape is the ‘requirement’ or benefit of suffering i.e. we may experience forms of suffering which leads to greater well being – ‘the experience was was character building’. Given that some forms of suffering can be beneficial in the long term, how does this affect our measurement of well-being? Harris deals with this problem on pages 21 and 22.

He draws an analogy with physical health – some medication or surgery leads to short term discomfort and suffering, but over the long term leads to better health. Harris also concedes that the process can improve our lives e.g. depression can lead to creative insights. Harris expands this to a social or civilization level. However he fails to offer any satisfactory way of integrating this into his landscape. He just accepts it, ‘So be it’ (p. 22), without further analysis or discussion. It is very disappointing that Harris fails to really treat this problem in any depth. Harris’ brief and cursory treatment of this very important issue effectively ignores the problem.

This problem creates huge barriers to accepting Harris’ moral landscape paradigm for it ultimately returns to the crucial problem we’ve already identified, namely measuring ‘well being’. Given that it is difficult to measure ‘beneficial suffering’ this creates ambiguity about how we should view certain ‘facts’ that the brain apprehends. Which calls into question the overall validity of the moral landscape as a complete paradigm for determining values.

I wrote a quick series of questions which come to mind and casts doubt on the practical effectiveness of Harris’ moral landscape in this area.

  • Should we treat depression at all given that it can have beneficial outcomes?
  • How can we measure if the pain was worth it?
  • How can we measure if the pain isn’t worth it? i.e. how can we properly assess the future benefits given that some might be unknown?
  • How can any scientific experiment in this area avoid condoning suffering?
  • Which suffering is acceptable and which isn’t? (Who determines this?)
  • In a societal sense, which people should bear the pain ‘for the greater good’?
  • How can different types of suffering be compared and measured? e.g. inconvenience, economic, physical, emotional, character etc. Which should be preferenced, i.e. environmental pain for economic good, or environmental benefit for economic impoverishment?
  • Can science quantify ‘wisdom’ or ‘experience’? i.e. can our experience and empathy be reduced to some scientific ‘experiment’?
  • Are the results of suffering uniform? i.e. do all types of suffering lead to increased well-being? If so, we ought to advocate reducing well being in the short term to increase it, this seems slightly contradictory and also potentially quite cruel. It also makes the assumption that we must maximise long term well being and not short term well being.

This problem should have warranted an entire chapter. To treat it in less than a page is disappointing.

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