Suffering and Satisfaction

Sisyphus by Franz Ritter von Stuck

We must consider both the ultimate end and all clear sensory evidence, to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.

Epicurus – Principal Doctrines, 22

The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end.

Confucius – The Great Learning

In his many lectures and books on the subject of Buddhism, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama identifies the four noble truths of Buddhist philosophy as the common foundation of all schools of Buddhist teaching. They are:

  • The fact of suffering
  • The origin of suffering
  • The cessation of suffering
  • The path to the cessation of suffering

Notice that each of the four noble truths is concerned with dukkha – suffering.

Given the fact of suffering, if you want to understand how to improve the conditions of your life – that is, to eliminate suffering – it makes sense to start with the origin of suffering. Buddhism identifies yearning – a result of the impermanence of what is termed the conditioned world – as the origin of suffering.

The impermanence of the world is a very general observation – it is certainly true that the fact that the world is not static must be one of the factors in why we suffer.

We can look to the animal kingdom and note the suffering of other animals to set a frame of reference. Other animals suffer. They get diseases. They get injured. They experience dread when they are confronted with the prospect of their own imminent death. Unlike humans, they have no medicine beyond instinct and no philosophy with which to frame their own existence. They suffer yet there is little they can do to bring about the cessation of suffering.

Nevertheless, there are important differences between the suffering of humans and the suffering of animals: its potential intensity and duration. Medically healthy human beings can spend their entire lives suffering from severe psychological problems such as depression, dread and dissatisfaction with life. Other animals are to be envied for their incapacity for stress, worry, chronic fear, imagined dread and so on. For other animals, worries are either present dangers or absent from consideration.

At some point in our past, our pre-human ancestors were like all other animals in their capacity for suffering. At some point along the way, humans acquired a capacity – and the reality – of suffering that other animals do not experience.

This is not to say our ancestors did not suffer. All animals suffer. The “stability” of the Ancestral Environment is only relative – impermanence is an ever-present enemy of all living things. And we know that we would not rather trade places with our ancestors, either. We know this because there are still tribal cultures in existence today that live in conditions not significantly different from those that obtained ten thousand years ago in the African savanna. Yet there are no people from developed, industrialized cultures queuing up to cash out their condos in order to return to the paradise of hunting-and-gathering.

Buddhism has it right that it is the impermanence of the world – and the yearning to which this impermanence gives rise – that is to blame for our suffering. In the terminology of evolutionary biology, we are maladapted in many ways for the environment we find ourselves in.

Epicurus held that the limit of pleasure is reached in the elimination of suffering, “Bodily pleasure does not increase when the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation.” (Principal Doctrines, 18) I will attempt to defend the Epicurean view and show its connection to action in general.

Ludwig von Mises has literally written the book[1] on the subject of means and ends, that is, the subject of human action, the study of which he terms praxeology. Mises defines human action in the first paragraph:

Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.

Ludwig von Mises Human Action, Chapter 1

Frederic Bastiat provides some preliminary insights into the nature of action:

The soul (or, not to become involved in spiritual questions, man) is endowed with the faculty of sense perception. Whether sense perception resides in the body or in the soul, the fact remains that as a passive being he experiences sensations that are painful or pleasurable. As an active being he strives to banish the former and multiply the latter. The result, which affects him again as a passive being, can be called satisfaction.

From the general idea of sensation come the more definite ideas of pain, wants, desires, tastes, appetites, on the one hand; and, on the other, of pleasure, enjoyment, fulfillment, and well-being.

Between these extremes is interposed a mean, and from the general idea of activity come the more definite ideas of pain, effort, fatigue, labor, and production.

An analysis of sensation and activity shows one word common to both domains, the word pain. It is painful to experience certain sensations, and we can stop them only by an effort that we call taking pains. Thus, we are apprised that here below we have little else than the choice of two evils.

Everything in this complex of phenomena is on the personal level, the sensation that precedes the effort as well as the satisfaction that follows it.

Frederic Bastiat – Economic Harmonies 2.22-2.26

There is little to add to the writings of Mises and others who have already treated this subject at length. Mises discusses here the relationship between means and ends in the course of human action:

The characteristic feature of man is action. Man aims at changing some of the conditions of his environment in order to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for another state that suits him less. All manifestations of life and behavior with regard to which man differs from all other beings and things known to him are instances of action and can be dealt with only from what we may call an activistic point of view. The study of man, as far as it is not biology, begins and ends with the study of human action.

Action is purposive conduct. It is not simply behavior, but behavior begot by judgments of value, aiming at a definite end and guided by ideas concerning the suitability or unsuitability of definite means. It is impossible to deal with it without the categories of causality and finality. It is conscious behavior. It is choosing. It is volition; it is a display of the will.

Ludwig von Mises – Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, Ch. 2 Sec. 1

Having divided human action into two concerns – means and ends – we see that economics is the study of the correct choice of means for a given end under conditions of voluntary interaction. Technological science can be thought of as the study of means qua means, that is, means without respect to ends[2]. And moral philosophy is the study of the correct ends to attain satisfaction, that is, the end which lies behind all other ends.

In the opening of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle investigates the nature of the universal end:

Since there is evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there is more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

AristotleNicomachean Ethics, Book I, Section 7

Ludwig von Mises provides a modern perspective on the issues:

The ultimate goal of human action is always the satisfaction of the acting man’s desire. There is no standard of greater or lesser satisfaction other than individual judgments of value, different for various people and for the same people at various times. What makes a man feel uneasy and less uneasy is established by him from the standard of his own will and judgment, from his personal and subjective valuation. Nobody is in a position to decree what should make a fellow man happier.

… There are people whose only aim is to improve the condition of their own ego. There are other people with whom awareness of the troubles of their fellow men causes as much uneasiness as or even more uneasiness than their own wants. There are people who desire nothing else than the satisfaction of their appetites for sexual intercourse, food, drinks, fine homes, and other material things. But other men care more for the satisfactions commonly called “higher” and “ideal.” There are individuals eager to adjust their actions to the requirements of social cooperation; there are, on the other hand, refractory people who defy the rules of social life. There are people for whom the ultimate goal of the earthly pilgrimage is the preparation for a life of bliss. There are other people who do not believe in the teachings of any religion and do not allow their actions to be influenced by them.

The idea that the incentive of human activity is always some uneasiness and its aim always to remove such uneasiness as far as possible, that is, to make the acting men feel happier, is the essence of the teachings of Eudaemonism and Hedonism. Epicurean ataraxia is that state of perfect happiness and contentment at which all human activity aims without ever wholly attaining it. … It is true that the writings of many earlier champions of Eudaemonism, Hedonism, and Utilitarianism are in some points open to misinterpretation. But the language of modern philosophers and still more that of the modern economists is so precise and straightforward that no misinterpretation can possibly occur.

Ludwig von Mises Human Action, ch. 1, sec. 2

Some people will still object that, within this value-free description of the human psyche as it relates to the nature of purposive action, there is a hidden agenda to prove that the individual should always be self-seeking. Such a doctrine – that man should always be selfish and self-seeking – is obviously incompatible with the vast majority of moral instruction contained in the world’s cultures and even a basic sense of moral decency.

But this objection misses the point that – even on a duty-ethics view of the world – the individual’s sense of well-being is still the ever-present medium by which he becomes aware of his duties. A failure to do your duty gives rise to anxiety and it is this anxiety that acts like a beacon or sense – like the sense of sight – that rouses the individual to action. The need to eliminate the anxiety that arises from a failure to do one’s duty is the impetus of action. Without an appetitive awareness of the duty, the individual would be blind to it.

The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. What ought to be required of this doctrine, what conditions is it requisite that the doctrine should fulfill, to make good its claim to be believed?

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.

John Stuart Mill On Virtue and Happiness

The fact that happiness is the desired end is not proved any differently than the existence of any object of the senses. Mill further discusses happiness as the final end:

[It is] necessary to show, not only that people desire happiness, but that they never desire anything else. Now it is palpable that they do desire things, which, in common language, are decidedly distinguished from happiness. They desire, for example, virtue, and the absence of vice, no less really than pleasure and the absence of pain.

The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, is to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness. [Emphasis added]

Mill On Virtue and Happiness

He argues that things that bring us pleasure – such as music or good health – are not merely a means to the end of happiness but actually become a part of the end itself – health is happiness, music is happiness. Other things that are not “naturally and originally” part of happiness, such as virtue, are capable of becoming so, that is, we can learn to value them and they thereby become a part of our happiness. Anything that people learn to desire as an end in itself – such as virtue – may be understood as having begun to partake in the final end, happiness. Hence, virtue – to the virtuous man – is happiness. In this way, we see that it is indeed the case that no one desires any other end except happiness, that is, satisfaction.

Mill’s theory of the relationship between virtue and happiness is partly psychological. As the individual fully internalizes the causal relationship between virtue and happiness, the “interestedness” of the end (happiness) is eventually discarded, leaving virtue itself as a source of disinterested happiness. To be virtuous is to be happy.

On the basis of the reasons given – that all ends are but means to the ultimate end of happiness (Aristotle), that desirability is the impetus to action (Mill), that human behavior is always and intrinsically purposeful (Mises), that human action is always in the direction of banishing pain and multiplying pleasure (Bastiat), that no intelligent being ever knowingly chooses its own pain and suffering (Dalai Lama), that happiness reaches its limit in the absence of suffering (Epicurus), that virtue and other mediate ends can partake in the final end of satisfaction, that is, can become happiness-in-themselves (Mill) – we can safely claim the following: For every human choice, what is chosen is satisfaction and what is renounced is suffering. This may seem to be false because people sometimes choose things that lead to their own suffering or because people seem to value things precisely because they do not bring pleasure (ascetics) or even cause suffering and pain (masochists). These objections are outside the scope of this post but I will address them in a future posting.


[1] Human Action

[2] Note that technological science is not necessarily restricted to voluntary interactions; the science of weapons, for example, concerns the perfection of the means of coercion


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