Issue #3: happiness

A life worth living

Comments Off on A life worth living
by Patrick Stokes on June 4, 2014

In 2006, scientists found a quahog clam living off the coast of Iceland that, on examination, turned out to be over five hundred years old. They named the clam “Ming”, after the Chinese dynasty in place at the time of its birth. Ming was born when Henry VIII was around eight years old. To date, Ming’s is the longest individual animal life we know of.

But was it a good life?

As Thomas Nagel famously pointed out, we don’t even have a real sense of what it’s like to be a bat, let alone what it would be like to be such a neurologically simple animal as a clam – assuming there’s anything like experience going on in such a mollusc at all. But let’s imagine, for a moment, that being a quahog clam feels OK. Not great, not ecstatically wonderful, but just OK: a constant, mildly pleasant, very simple state of low-level consciousness.

Now, imagine your own life, in all its complexity, with all its ups and downs, triumphs and suffering. Say you could quantify all the pleasure and pain in your life. A good meal might be worth, say, 30 pleasure points, popping bubble wrap 5 points, the first moment of falling in love 1,000 points, and so on. You also quantify all the pain: -10 points for stubbing your toe, -3,000 points for losing a loved one, and so forth. Then you sum up all the pleasures in your life, sum up all the pain, and subtract the pain from the pleasure. What you’d be left with is the total net quantity of pleasure your life contains.

Say we do the same with Ming. In Ming’s case, there’s only constant very low levels of pleasure – say, 0.1 pleasure points per day. But even if you live beyond the “three score years and ten” the book of Proverbs promises you, Ming’s life is many times longer than yours, and contains none of the negatives. Accordingly, Ming’s life could end up containing a higher net amount of pleasure than yours.

So, would it be better to be you, or Ming? And if you’d prefer to lead your life rather than that of a mildly-satisfied clam, bobbing around the North Atlantic for half a millennium, why?

You might be thinking that the very idea of trying to evaluate your life by summing up pleasures and pain like this is silly. But this sort of arithmetic was a key part of Jeremy Bentham’s foundation of utilitarianism – still one of the most influential and widespread ethical frameworks in the world today. Bentham invented a “felicific calculus”, an algorithm that was meant to quantify the amount of pleasure any given course of action was likely to produce. Once we’ve worked out the total net pleasure for each possible course of action, we just go with whichever one that yields the biggest number.

Bentham saw no need to prefer some sorts of pleasure over others: “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.” This was among the principles drilled into John Stuart Mill, the son of Bentham’s friend James Mill, who was subjected from an early age to an intensive – brutal, in fact – utilitarian study program. Under Bentham’s guidance, the young Mill was crammed full of knowledge, raised to be an ideal standard-bearer after Bentham’s death. He learned Greek at three; by ten he was reading Plato in the original. All the while his father scrupulously kept him isolated from other children.

Something eventually had to give. At twenty, Mill suffered a nervous breakdown. What got him through this dark period wasn’t Bentham’s teachings, but an encounter with the poetry of Wordsworth. Through poetry, Mill came to realise that there were forms of value that Bentham’s mathematics of pleasure simply couldn’t account for. Some kinds of pleasure were simply better than others: “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” A competent judge, Mill argued, will always choose even a smaller amount of higher pleasure than any amount of lower pleasures.

That might seem to settle our Ming problem: if the pleasures of being you are higher pleasures than those of a clam, then they will outweigh any amount of clammish pleasure. But Mill is cheating here. To stipulate which pleasures are the higher ones, he has to appeal to the testimony of “competent judges” – who turn out to be competent because they agree with Mill about which pleasures are higher.

Across the North Sea, Søren Kierkegaard was also grappling with questions of pleasure, meaning, and what constitutes a good life. His early masterpiece Either/Or is a remarkable first-person exploration of the limitations of the aesthetic life, a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. Either/Or presents itself not as the work of Søren Kierkegaard, but as the papers of two different authors: a jaded young man, who chases pleasure and avoids commitment, and his older friend Judge William, who admonishes him to give up his aesthetic ways and live a life of (rather bourgeois and self-satisfied) ethical commitment.

This young aesthete is no lover of the base or vulgar. His tastes are decidedly in the realm of Millian higher pleasures; he gives us treatises on opera, theatre, poetry. Even the notorious “Diary of a Seducer” section of Either/Or treats sex as an afterthought, focussing instead on the delights of recollection, anticipation and psychological manipulation.

Kierkegaard’s descriptions of the aesthetic life are lively, sympathetic and show real familiarity. But they also smell of doom. He sketches characters who spend their lives chasing pleasure, but who realise on some level that such a life is not so much pursuit as flight. For all his witty nonchalance, the young man is terrified – of boredom. In the chapter called “The Rotation of Crops” he outlines his elaborate method for keeping boredom at bay, by never really committing to anything. See the first act of a play, read the middle part of a book, and above all, never let yourself be caught up in any relationships that might tether you to the ground.

Why the focus on boredom, that peculiarly modern ailment? Because boredom is a disease born of temporality. Boredom is the feeling of being at the mercy of time, of not being in control of the flow of events. When we’re bored, time itself is the problem. Boredom reminds us that we’re thrown into a spatio-temporal world not of our making. And a world not of our making might contain tasks not of our choosing, and values not bestowed by us.

Though radically different thinkers, both Mill and Kierkegaard are ultimately grappling with the sense that the world presents us with meanings and values that come to us from the outside, and that demand a response from us that we might find inconvenient, difficult or unpleasant. In spite of Mill’s utilitarian commitments, the poetry of Wordsworth reveals a kind of value and beauty independent of and deeper than our desire for entertainment. The demands of ethical commitment, such as marriage, suggest that how we live should be dictated by more than just whatever happens to give us the greatest net pleasure. Both suggest that we are called to do more than live for ourselves and our own enjoyment. They call us out of ourselves, call us to become more than simply sovereign, self-contained curators of pleasant experience. They suggest something at once both exhilarating and terrifying: that we are here for more than just a good time.

All honour and respect to the late Ming, but that is a kind of calling no clam will ever hear.

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