Dr. Robert Cowan
It is common to hear that “everyone wants to be happy”. Maybe they do. At the very least, people who don’t want happiness strike us as strange or in need of help.
Whenever someone wants something, it is plausible that it seems good to them. For example, if I want the UK to remain in the EU then that prospect must, in some way, seem good to me. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a case of someone wanting something where they don’t regard the thing wanted as in some way good (can you think of a case?).
So: if everyone wants to be happy, then being happy must seem good to everyone.
However, even if my happiness seems good to me, it is a further question whether yours seems good to me (and vice versa). My happiness isn’t yours, and yours isn’t mine. If there is overlap it will only be because your happiness has somehow become bound up with mine. But that needn’t be the case.
To illustrate, suppose that you come across someone – an egoist – who claims to have no reason to take into consideration the happiness of other people when they act. Instead they say that they only have reason to do what will promote their own happiness.
You might say to the egoist:
“other people’s happiness seems good to them in just the same way that yours seems good to you.”
The egoist might nevertheless shrug their shoulders:
“that may be true, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. Only my happiness seems good to me. Whether or not your happiness seems good to you doesn’t matter a jot to me.”
Even if you are convinced that the egoist is somehow making a mistake – surely they really do have reason to take into consideration the happiness of other people – it is difficult to show why. A major concern in moral philosophy has therefore been with trying to show that this sort of egoism is mistaken.
An example (at least on one interpretation) of this can be drawn from the work of the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill (at least on one interpretation). Mill thought that more-or-less everyone wants to be happy, and that this involved happiness seeming good to us. Crucially, however, he thought that when we want happiness it is happiness itself (or something about it) that seems good to us. It is not merely that the happiness is ours that it seems good to us. Indeed, if happiness only seemed good because it was ours, then it would be hard to explain why it seemed good (lots of things that are ours aren’t good – can you think of examples?). On the other hand, if happiness is itself good then we could explain why we want to get it for ourselves: because it’s good.
If Mill was correct about this, then we could give the following response to the egoist:
“You desire happiness, so happiness seems good to you. That’s why you want it for yourself. But then you must admit that when someone else gets happiness then that is also good. In desiring happiness you are in a sense committed to the goodness of happiness no matter who gets it.”
If that’s right, then it would seem that an egoist does indeed have a reason to take other people’s happiness into consideration when they act. Happiness, by their own lights, seems good.
However, Mill didn’t actually provide reasons for thinking that when we desire happiness, happiness itself seems good. Maybe this is a plausible assumption to make (what do you think?). But I think we can imagine the egoist responding in the following way:
“Nice try. But I’m afraid to inform you that when I desire happiness it’s only my happiness that seems good to me.”
At this point we may have reached an impasse.
Rather than try to break it, I want to switch focus to the case of pain. Specifically I want to consider whether undergoing a pain involves the pain feeling bad – which we can assume is way of it seeming bad – to the person who feels it in a way that is independent of it being theirs. If pains seems bad not just because they are your pains, then maybe pains give you a reason to care about the pain of others.
As before, it is plausible that – as the song goes – “everybody hurts”. A less poetic, but nevertheless accurate, way of putting things is that everyone agrees everyone agrees that pain feels bad. If I have a pain in my thumb, the pain feels bad. Asymbolics – people whose pains don’t hurt, and don’t feel bad – are rare. Even people who have taken morphine, or have undergone a lobotomy can agree that pain, at least normally, feels bad.
As initially seemed true in the case of desire and happiness, there may be a gap between my pains feeling bad to me, and my thinking that your pain or the pain of others is bad. My experience isn’t yours, and yours isn’t mine. Although we might talk of ‘feeling each other’s pain’ – perhaps through empathy –that doesn’t obviously amount to me actually feeling the badness of your pain. In any case, many people seem to have limited capacities for empathy.
At this point we might bring in the same assumption that Mill appeared to make about desire and happiness. Remember that he seemed to think that when we desire happiness it is happiness itself that seems good, rather than it merely being our happiness. Applying this to the case of pain: when pain feels bad it must do so independently of it being our pain. When pain feels bad it is pain itself that feels bad.
However, as we saw before, this sort of assumption seems open to challenge. Someone might insist that what really feels bad is that it is their pain. We would again seem to have reached impasse.
Are there additional considerations that we could appeal to in order to break this?
In what follows I very briefly discuss the case of Alien Limb patients, whose existence might be taken to support the idea that when we undergo pains they feel bad independently of their being our pains.
Alien Limb subjects don’t regard their limbs as belonging to them. That is, they don’t regard their limbs as being theirs. Here is a recorded exchange between an Experimenter (E) and an Alien Limb subject (P):
“E: Close your eyes and tell me what you feel when I’m touching your hand.
P: That’s not my hand!!… It’s not mine…Someone left it there. I don’t know who he was…I don’t know who attached it to my body.
E: Isn’t it a little bit weird to have a foreign hand with you?
P: No! My hand is not like this!
E: If this hand is not yours can I take it away with me?
P: Of course! If you want it, I will give it to you as my gift, since I have no need for it.
E: Do you want to move this hand away? Wouldn’t you be sad without it?
P: Yes, if it was mine, but it’s not.” (de Vignemont, 2015, p. 546)
Yet despite not regarding their limbs as belonging to them, Alien Limb subjects appear to experience painful pains in their limbs. Here is another exchange with a patient:
“Patient: I still have the acute pain where the prosthesis is.
Examiner: Which prosthesis?
P: Don’t you see? This thing here (indicating his left arm). The doctors have attached this tool to my body in order to help me to move. But it’s completely useless and very painful…Once home could I ask my wife, from time to time, to remove this left arm and put it in the cupboard for a few hours in order to have some relief from pain?” (de Vignemont, 2015, p. 547)
Why might cases of Alien Limb be relevant? It seems that these cases might support the idea that when subjects undergo pain, it feels bad in a way that is independent of it being theirs. After-all, Alien Limb subjects don’t identify with the body part where the pain is felt. Yet the pain feels bad.
Perhaps, then, appealing to cases of Alien Limb provides a way of breaking the impasse.
However, I doubt that this is conclusive for two main reasons.
Firstly, the line of argument requires the assumption that Alien Limb cases are relevantly similar to the ‘normal’ cases of painful pain. Although this may be a reasonable assumption to make, I don’t think we can rule out that ‘normal’ cases of painful pain are different from these odd cases.
Secondly, even if Alien Limb subjects are similar to normal cases, and even if they don’t identify with their body parts, they might nevertheless identify the badness of the pain as theirs. That is, the pain might simply feel bad for them rather than feeling bad (compare with happiness seeming good for me with happiness simply seeming good). This alternative account is difficult to rule out.
Note why that is a problem: if pain only felt bad for me then it would be open to me to say that pain doesn’t seem to me to be bad for you. After-all, it only feels bad for me (compare: if happiness only seemed good for me, then it would be open to me to say that happiness doesn’t seem to me to be good for you).
We’d have arrived at a new kind of impasse.
To move beyond this, we may need to identify cases where subjects have lost a sense of self (in a literal sense), yet are still capable of experiencing pains that feel bad. They would provide stronger evidence for thinking that when we have a pain the pain feels bad. I’m not aware of empirical research on that, but it is interesting to think about whether such cases of loss of self are indeed possible and what they might show about the badness of pain.
However, even in the absence of that, perhaps we think that Mill was right that happiness seems good to us not just because it’s ours. If so, we’d have reason, by our own lights, to care about the happiness of others. Applying to pain: we might think that pain seems bad to us not just because it’s ours and, if so, we have reason, by our own lights, to care about alleviating (and not causing) the pain of others.
John Stuart Mill (2015). On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Oxford University Press
Thomas Nagel (1986). The View From Nowhere. Oxford University Press.
Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (2001). “Mill’s “Proof” of the Principle of Utility: A More Than Half-Hearted Defense”. Social Philosophy and Policy 18 (2):330.
Frederique de Vignemont (2015). “Pain and Bodily Care: Whose Body Matters?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 93 (3):542-560.