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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Objective Morality and Suffering: The gravitational force of being

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

Probably the most basic and universally accepted fact is that we exist. I don’t believe any fact could qualify as more basic or self evident than that. Being is real. But it actually goes deeper than that. For conscious creatures like ourselves, "being," seems to exist at all times in a tension between two poles: suffering and it’s opposite (let’s call this well being).

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The reality is that in every action, you, and everyone around you, is flapping their wings against the constant gravitational pull of suffering and trying to fly higher into the skies of well being. In fact, it would seem that literally ALL sane human action is always (either consciously or subconsciously) some move they are making to try and pull themselves up and away from suffering and toward some conception of increased well being (sufferings opposite).

Think about it: why did you eat lunch today? Because if you didn’t you would suffer. Why did you watch Netflix last night? To avoid the suffering of boredom. Why did you help that family down the street? Because your conscience would grind on you if you failed to live up to your expectations of yourself, or perhaps you know somewhere deep down that building relationships with others will eventually benefit you. Keep trying to find an example of when you did something that can’t ultimately be attributed to your quest for increased personal well being- I have yet to find one.

Some of the greatest philosophers in history have understood this.

"All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves."- Pascal

"Happiness, therefore, being found to be something final and self-sufficient, is the End at which all actions aim."- Aristotle

Some may try and point to examples of a person sacrificing their immediate well being for the well being of others to refute this. However, if you reflect on that you, will quickly realize that no one ever chooses suffering for sufferings sake. They sacrifice because they believe that doing so will ULTIMATELY bring them more well being even if it immediately brings some level of suffering. A mother will choose to lay down her life or her comforts for her children because her well being is ultimately increased by seeing her children well and she would rather die than live with herself in a world where she chose her own life and well being over theirs. If any action meets the definition of insanity, it’s to choose suffering with no expectation that suffering will lead to greater wellbeing in the future. Sacrifice makes sense because implicit in sacrifice is the idea that we sacrifice well being now for more of it in the future.

Job in his suffering

Suffering And The Basis For Moral Language

The reality of being and its nature as a struggle against the gravitational force of suffering provides a new paradigm for understanding what moral language is describing. Moral language describes what a person “ought” or “ought not” do. But what is this notion of “ought”. The “ought” is a statement about a direction toward an end or goal (otherwise the term would lose all meaning). For example, if I want to get to San Diego from LA, I “ought” to go South. If I want to get to San Francisco I “ought” to go North. The "ought" is the word we use to point to behavior we must take if we desire a particular goal.

So what if there was a goal that all sentient sane creatures shared universally as a matter of objective fact? It seems perfectly reasonable to think all sane people everywhere desire to move away from their own suffering. If this is the case then this would make sense of moral language and give it an objective basis.

Objective 1) expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretation 2) of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought (Webster’s Dictionary 2021)

Under the assumption that the person I am dealing with is sane and desires their own well being I could say they ought not do things that I believe would cause their suffering or that the ought to do things that I believe would likely lead to their well being. In the end there are actual right and wrong answers to moral questions because there are right and wrong answers to what brings about more or less suffering.

One objection some may have is that suffering and well-being are experienced subjectively. This is true. However all of reality is ultimately experienced subjectively. Does this mean that all of reality itself is entirely subjective? Just because I experience hot and cold subjectively, does not mean heat, or the lack of it (cold), are a subjective phenomena. When you place your hand on a hot stove the effects objectively exist physically, neurologically, physiologically, etc. Are we really going to act as though this was merely a “subjective” happening. No. We rightly say “You ought not put your hand on that stove” because we know that burns and the suffering they cause are at least as real as the gravity keeping you from floating away. It’s clearly a phenomena that is categorically different than your subjective cereal preference.

Also it should be noted that I am postulating an objective basis for moral statements that makes them more than mere statements of preference (which morality is not). I am postulating a rational basis for saying “you ought to do x” rather than “I prefer you do x”. One of these is based on my preferences (subjective), the other is based on the objective reality that the other person desires their own well being.

To summarize:

Premise 1: Every human action is ultimately rooted in a desire to move away from suffering and toward some implicit notion of an ultimate well being as a matter of objective fact.

Premise 2: The moral imperative “The Ought” describes ones opinion about what another should do to reach a desired end.

Logical Conclusion: The universal desire of sane humans to avoid their own suffering acts as the objective basis for moral statements.

The Problem? We don’t agree about the nature of being.

Now to be clear, what actually will reduce suffering (or effectuate well being) and what will not is a matter of much debate. Like the laws of health the laws of well being are complicated. Just because there is much disagreement about what brings about better physical health does not mean that physically better or worse health is a subjective phenomena. If you doubt this go down to your local hospital and meet people getting treatments for severe obesity and diabetes. Since any sane person desires to not have to experience these hellish treatments we can say you "ought" to eat healthy and exercise. It's clear that there are principles that govern physical health even if we don't understand them and disagree about them. The physical functionality of the human body is a matter of objective reality governed by laws that exist independent of ones' personal opinions about those laws. Suffering does not care about your subjective opinions, if you put your hand on a hot stove, suffering will result and a person who cares about you will tell you that you ought not do that.

Understanding what moral language is describing does nothing to say what moral system actually leads to ultimate well being because we don’t agree about what that actually looks like. First, I would like to define ultimate well being as the maximum possible well being a person can experience during their existence. The problem is that we don't agree about how long we will exist or even what things bring us the greatest levels of well being. If a person only thinks they will exist for 30 more years and that there is no consequences after death for their behavior they will likely view things very differently than someone who thinks they will live forever and that every action will be balanced eventually on scales of eternal cosmic karma. Every sane person has, at the very least, implicit assumptions about the nature of being that they manifest in their behavior. This manifestation is ultimately the best indicator of ones own implicit moral philosophy. Sadly, few ever analyze this or event attempt to grant it a coherent basis.

I am not trying to resolve any of these deep questions here. Instead, I am merely trying to frame moral language accurately and demonstrate that moral language is not just statements of subjective preferences but instead are rooted in our universal inherent desire to get as far away from suffering as we can and approach some implicit notion of ultimate well being. This framing provides and objective basis for moral notions and right and wrong answers to moral questions. So no, morality is not just a matter of subjective preference. It really was wrong for Hitler to murder millions of Jews.

(End note: I don’t claim these ideas as original as they largely are developed from thinkers like Sam Harris, David Hume, William Lane Craig, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle among other moral philosophers)


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1 Comment

Mauricio Molina
Mauricio Molina
Nov 04, 2022

I am wondering if you could separate the two elements in this article: the moral and the objective. The moral is beautifully described here. My mind felt the warm breeze touch it while reading about the well being and I could even find a new thought connecting the moral or the way to well being and our belief in everlasting well being or happiness (which is a more complex objective than mere well being). Ok, but I must say that I believe that the objective should be valued on its own. It could be a different article all together. In my language, Spanish, objective is understood as a measuring tool against which we can ponder our actions without being clouded…

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