The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
XIII. The Value of Life
A counterpart to the question of the purpose and determinants of life (see page 172ff.) is the question as to its value. We meet two opposing views regarding this, and, in between, every imaginable attempt to reconcile them. One view says the world is the best imaginable, and that our living and acting in it are a gift of inestimable value. Everything presents itself as a harmonious and purposeful working together and is worthy of wonder. Even what seems to be evil and bad can be recognized from a higher standpoint as good; we can value the latter all the more when it stands out in relief against the former. Furthermore, evil has no true reality; we only experience a lesser degree of the good as evil. Evil is the absence of good; it is nothing that has significance in its own right.
The other view is the one which maintains that life is full of agony and misery, that pain everywhere outweighs pleasure, and suffering everywhere joy. Existence is a burden, and nonexistence would under all circumstances be preferable to existence.
We have to consider Shaftesbury and Leibniz as the main proponents of the first view, of optimism, and Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann as those of the second view, of pessimism.
Leibniz believes that the world is the best that could possibly be. A better one can not possibly be. A better one is impossible. For god is good and wise. A good God wants to create the best of worlds, a wise God knows the best; He can distinguish the best world from all other possible worse ones. Only an evil or unwise God could create a world worse than the best possible.
Whoever takes this view as his starting point will easily be able to prescribe the direction our human actions must take in order that they contribute what they can to the best of worlds. The human being has only to discover what God's ways are for him and then act accordingly. When he knows what God's intentions are for the world and for the human race, then he will also do the right thing. And he will feel happy in adding also his good to the general good. From the optimistic standpoint life is therefore worth living. It must stimulate us to coactive involved participation.
Schopenhauer pictures the matter differently. He does not think of the ground of existence as an all-wise and all-good being, but rather as blind urge or will. Eternal striving, ceaseless craving for a satisfaction which can never in fact be attained, is the basic thrust of all willing. For when we have attained one of the goals we have striven for, there arises a fresh need and so on. Any satisfaction can only last for an infinitely small time. All the rest of the content of our life is unsatisfied urge, that is, discontent, suffering. If our blind urges are finally dulled, then we lack any content; an endless boredom fills our existence. Therefore the relatively best thing to do is to stifle the wishes and needs within us, to extinguish our willing. Schopenhauer‘s pessimism leads to inaction; his moral goal is universal laziness.
Hartmann seeks in a considerably different way to establish pessimism and to make use of it in ethics. Hartmann seeks, in keeping with a favorite tendency of our day, to found his world view upon experience. By observing life he wants to determine whether pleasure or pain 1Die Lust oder die Unlust outweighs the other in the world. He lets pass in review before reason what seems good and satisfying to people, in order to show that all this supposed gratification proves, upon closer inspection, to be illusion. It is illusion when we believe ourselves to have sources of happiness and satisfaction in health, youth, freedom, adequate livelihood, love (sexual enjoyment), compassion, friendship and family life, self-respect, honor, fame, power, religious edification, scientific and artistic pursuits, expectation of life in the beyond, and participation in cultural progress. When looked at soberly, every enjoyment brings far more evil and misery than pleasure into the world. The unpleasantness of hangover is always greater than the pleasant feeling of intoxication. Pain predominates in the world by far. No man, even the relatively happiest one, if asked, would want to go through this miserable life a second time. But now, since Hartmann does not deny the presence of the ideal (of wisdom) in the world, grants it in fact equal standing with blind urge (will, he can credit his primal Being with the creation of the world only if he traces the pain of God Himself, for the life of the world as a whole is identical with the life of God. An all-wise Being can only see His goal, however, to be in the release from suffering, and since all existence is suffering, in the release which is far better, is the purpose of the creation of the world. The world process is a continuous battle against God's pain, finally leading to the eradication of all existence. The moral life of men becomes therefore participation in the eradication of existence. God has created the world so that through it He can free Himself from His infinite pain. This world is “to be regarded in a certain way as an itching eruption upon the absolute Being,” through which His unconscious healing power frees Him from an internal illness, “or even as a painful poultice which the All-One-Being applies to Himself in order first to divert an inner pain outward and then to cast it off.” Human beings are parts of the world. Within them God suffers. He has created them in order to split up this infinite pain. The pain which each one of us suffers is only a drop in the infinite ocean of God's pain (Hartmann, Phenomenology of Moral Consciousness).
Man has to permeate himself with the knowledge that the pursuit of individual gratification (egoism) is folly, and he has to let himself be guided solely by the task of dedicating himself with selfless devotion to the world process of God's deliverance. The pessimism of Hartmann, in contrast to that of Schopenhauer, leads us to devoted activity on behalf of a lofty task.
But is all this based on experience?
Striving for gratification is a reaching out of one's life activity beyond the present content of life. A being is hungry; i.e. it strives to fill itself, when its organic functions demand new life content in the form of nourishment in order to continue. The striving for honor consists in the fact that a person considers what he himself does or refrains from doing, worthwhile only when recognition from outside follows his actions. The striving for knowledge arises when something is lacking for a person in the world he sees, hears, etc., for as long as he has not comprehended it. The success of his striving creates pleasure in the striving individual; its failure creates pain. It is important to note in this that pleasure or pain depend only upon the success or failure of my striving. The striving itself can in no way be accounted as pain. If it turns out, therefore, that in the moment one's striving is realized, another one presents itself right away, I still cannot say that pleasure has given birth to pain for me just because enjoyment always creates desire that it be repeated or desire for new pleasure. Only when this desire hits up against the impossibility of its being satisfied, can I speak of pain. Even in the case where an enjoyment I have experienced creates in me the demand for a greater or more refined experience of pleasure, I can speak of pain being created by the first pleasure only at the moment when the means fail for experiencing the greater or more refined pleasure. Only in the case where pain occurs as a naturally lawful realm of pleasure, as for example when the woman's sexual enjoyment results in the sufferings of childbirth and in the cares of rearing children, can I find in enjoyment the creator of pain. If striving in itself called forth pain, then any removing of striving would have to be accompanied by pleasure. The opposite is, however, the case. A lack of striving in the content of our life creates boredom, and this brings pain with it. But since striving in the nature of things, can last for a long time before success is granted it and is content meanwhile with its hope for this success, so it must be recognized that pain has absolutely nothing to do with striving as such, but rather depends on its non-fulfillment alone. Schopenhauer is therefore in any case wrong when he considers desire and striving (will) in themselves to be the source of pain.
In fact, just the opposite is correct. Striving (desire) in itself creates joy. Who does not know the enjoyment which the hope brings of reaching a distant but strongly desired goal? This joy is the companion of work whose fruits will only be forthcoming to us in the future. This pleasure is entirely independent of our reaching the goal. When the goal is reached, then to the pleasure of striving, the pleasure of its fulfillment is added as something new. But if someone wanted to say that to the pain of not reaching one's goal there is added also the pain of disappointed hope which in the end makes the pain of unfulfillment still greater, one would answer him that the opposite can also be the case; the looking back on the enjoyment of the time of unfulfilled desire will just as often work to ease the pain of unfulfillment. The person who in the face of his dashed hopes calls out, “I have done all I can!” is living proof of this assertion. The happiness of feeling that one has striven to do the best one could is overlooked by those who maintain about each unrealized desire that not only is the joy of fulfillment unforthcoming, but also that the enjoyment of desiring is itself destroyed.
Fulfillment of desire calls forth pleasure and its unfulfillment, pain. One may not infer from this that pleasure is the satisfying of desire and pain the non-satisfying of desire. Both pleasure and pain can occur in a being, even without their being the result of desire. Illness is pain unpreceded by desire. Someone who wanted to maintain that illness is unsatisfied desire for health would be making the mistake of considering as appositive desire the wish, quite natural but not brought to consciousness, not to become ill. If someone receives an inheritance from a wealthy relative of whose existence he had not had the slightest inkling, this fact still fills him with pleasure without any desire preceding it.
Whoever therefore wants to investigate whether there is a predominance on the side of pleasure or on the side of pain must take into account the pleasure in desiring, the pleasure in the fulfillment of desire and the pleasure that comes to us unsought. Onto the debit side of the ledger will have to be entered the pain of boredom, the pain of unfulfilled striving, and finally the pain that comes our way without any desire on our part. To the last category belongs also the pain caused by work forced upon us, not of our choosing.
The question arises now as to the right means of determining from the debit and the credit side, what our balance is. Eduard von Hartmann is of the opinion that it is our reason which does this, in its ability to weigh things up. He says indeed (Philosophy of the Unconscious): 2Philosophie des Unbewussten “Pain and pleasure exist only insofar as they are experienced.” It follows from this that there is no other yardstick for pleasure than the subjective one of feeling. I must experience whether the sum total of my feelings of pain, when put beside my feelings of pleasure, show a predominance in me of joy or pain. In spite of this Hartmann asserts, “Although ... the life-value of each being can only be assessed according to its own subjective yardstick ..., this in no way says that each being, out of all the feelings in his life, can find the correct algebraic balance, or, in other words, that his overall judgment of his own life with respect to his subjective experiences is a correct one.” But this still makes rational judgment of our feeling into the evaluator. 3Whoever wants to calculate whether the sum total of pleasure or that of pain outweighs the other ignores the fact that he is undertaking a calculation of something that is nowhere experienced. Feeling does not calculate, and for the real evaluation of life, it is a matter of real experience, and not of the result of a calculation someone has dreamed up.
Whoever adheres more or less exactly to the way such thinkers as Eduard von Hartmann picture things, can believe that, in order to come to a correct evaluation of life, he must clear out of the way those factors which falsify our judgment as to the balance between pleasure and pain. He can seek to achieve this in two ways. Firstly, by showing that our desire (drive, will) acts disruptively upon our sober judging of a feeling's value. Whereas, for example, we would have to say that sexual pleasure is a source of evil, still the fact that the sex drive is powerful in us misleads us into conjuring up before us a pleasure which is absolutely there to that degree. We want to enjoy; therefore we do not admit to ourselves that we suffer under our pleasures. Secondly, by subjecting his feelings to critical judgment and by seeking to show that the objects to which his feelings attach themselves prove before rational knowledge to be illusions, and that they are destroyed the moment our ever-growing intelligence sees through the illusions.
He can think the matter through for himself in the following way. If an ambitious person wants to make clear to himself whether, up to the moment of making this calculation, pleasure or pain had had the greater part in his life, then he must free himself in this evaluation from two sources of error. Since he is ambitious, this basic feature of his character will show him his joys from the recognition of his accomplishments through a magnifying glass but will show him his hurt at being slighted, through a glass which makes things look smaller. Back when he experienced the slights, he felt the hurt, precisely because he is ambitious; to memory it appears in a milder light, whereas the joys of recognition, for which he is so receptive, imprint themselves all the more deeply. Now for the ambitious person it is truly a blessing that this is so. Delusion lessens his feeling of pain in the moment of self-observation. Nevertheless his assessment is still an incorrect one. The sufferings, over which a veil is now drawn for him, had really to be gone through in all their intensity, and he therefore enters them, in fact, incorrectly into the account book of his life. In order to come to the correct estimate, the ambitious person would have to free himself, during the time of his self-assessment, from his ambition He would have to look, without any kind of glass in front of his spiritual eye, upon his life until now. Otherwise he is like a merchant who, in making up his books, enters onto the credit side his own business zeal as well.
He can, however, go still further. He can say that the ambitious person will also have to make clear to himself that the recognition he pursues is a worthless thing. He will himself come to the insight, or be brought to it by other people, that to an intelligent person the recognition of men means nothing, since in fact, “in all such matters, other than questions of sheer existence, or that are not already definitively settled by science,” one can always swear by it “that the majority is wrong and the minority right.” It is into the hands of such judgment that a person puts his life's happiness when he makes ambition his guiding star.” (Philosophy of the Unconscious) If the ambitious person does say all this to himself, then he must label as illusion what his ambition has pictured to him as reality, and consequently also the feelings which are connected with the particular illusions of his ambition. For this reason it could then be said that in the ledger of what has value in life, there have still to be deleted the feelings of pleasure connected with illusions; what then is left represents the sum total, free of illusion, of the pleasure one has had in life, and this, compared with the amount of pain in life, is so small that life is joyless, and non-existence preferable to existence.
But while it is immediately intelligible that the error, cause by the interference of ambition's drive, in figuring out one's pleasure-balance, brings about an incorrect result, what was said about one's knowledge of the illusory nature of the objects of one's pleasure must still be challenged. To exclude from one's pleasure-balance in life all feelings of pleasure connected with actual or supposed illusions would in fact render this balance incorrect. For, the ambitious person genuinely did enjoy his recognition by the masses, quite irrespective of whether he himself, or someone else, afterwards knows this recognition to be an illusion. The happy feeling he enjoyed is not thereby decreased at all. The exclusion of all such “illusory” feelings from our life-balance definitely does not correct our judgment about our feelings, but rather eliminates from our life feelings which were actually present.
And why should these feelings be excluded? For the person who has them they are in fact pleasurable; for the person who has overcome them, there arises through the experience of overcoming (not through the self-complacent experience of what a great person I am, but rather through the objective source of pleasure that lies in overcoming) a pleasure, spiritualized, to be sure, but not thereby less significant. If feelings are deleted from our pleasure-balance because they adhere to objects which turn out to be illusions, then the value of life is made dependent not upon the amount of pleasure, but rather upon the quality of pleasure, and this in turn upon the value of the things which cause the pleasure. But if I want first of all to determine the value of life according to the amount of pleasure or pain which it brings me, then I must not presuppose something else through which I first determine the value or non-value of the pleasure. If I say that I want to compare the amount of pleasure to the amount of pain and to see which is greater, then I must also take into account all pleasure and pain in their actual magnitude, quite irrespective of whether they are based on illusion or not. Whoever attributes a lesser value for life to a pleasure based on illusion than to one which can justify itself to reason, makes the value of life in fact dependent upon still other factors than upon pleasure.
Whoever attaches less value to a pleasure because it is connected with a frivolous object is like a merchant who enters the considerable income from his toy factory into his accounts at a quarter of its actual amount because his factory produced playthings for children.
When it is merely a matter of weighing an amount of pleasure against an amount of pain, then the illusory nature of the objects of certain feelings of pleasure should therefore be left entirely out of the picture.
The way Hartmann has suggested for looking intelligently at the amounts of pleasure and pain caused by life has therefore led us far enough now to know how we have to set up our calculations, what we have to enter on the one side of our ledger and what on the other. But how is the calculation now to be made? And is our reason qualified to determine the balance?
A merchant has made an error in his calculations if his calculated profit does not agree with what the business actually has take in or still will take in. A philosopher also will definitely have made an error in his assessment, if he cannot show that the surplus of pleasure, or of pain, as the case may be, which he has somehow reasoned out, does actually exist in our feeling.
I do not for the moment want to monitor the calculations of the pessimists who base themselves upon a rational consideration of the world; but a person who has to decide whether he should go on with the business of life or not will first demand to be shown where the calculated surplus of pain is to be found.
Here we have touched the point where reason is not in a position to determine by itself alone any surplus of pleasure or pain, but rather where reason must show this surplus to be a perception in life. Not in the concept alone, but rather in the interweaving, by means of thinking, of concept and perception (and feeling is a perception) is reality accessible to man (see page 77ff.) The merchant also will in fact give up his business only when the losses which his bookkeeper has recorded are confirmed by the facts. If that is not the case, he asks his bookkeeper to make the calculations over again. And that is exactly the same way a person standing in life will do it. When the philosopher tries to show him that pain is far greater than pleasure, but he does not experience it that way, then he will say to the philosopher: You, in your delvings, have made a mistake; think the matter through once more. But if at a certain point in a business such losses are actually present to the extent that there is not enough on the credit side to satisfy the creditors, then bankruptcy occurs if the merchant has failed to maintain clarity about his affairs through keeping accounts. In just the same way it would have to lead to a bankruptcy in the business of life, if the amount of pain became so great for a person at a given moment, that no hope (credit) of future pleasure could get him over the pain.
Now the number of suicides, however, is a relatively small one compared to the number of people who courageously go on living. Very few people close down the business of life because of existing pain. What can we conclude from this? Either that it is not correct to say that the amount of pain is greater than that of pleasure, or that we do not at all make our continued existence dependent upon the amount of pleasure or pain we experience.
The pessimism of Eduard von Hartmann comes in a very peculiar manner to the point of declaring life worthless, because pain predominates in it, but of maintaining nevertheless the necessity of undergoing it. This necessity lies in the fact that the purpose of the world described above (p. 195ff.) can only be attained through the ceaseless devoted work of men. As long as men are still pursuing their own egoistic desires, however, they are unsuited for such selfless work. Only when they have convinced themselves through experience and reason that the pleasures in life striven for by egoism cannot be attained, will they devote themselves to their actual task. In this way the pessimistic persuasion is supposed to be the source of selflessness. An education based on pessimism is supposed to eradicate egoism through demonstrating its hopelessness.
According to this view therefore the striving for pleasure is originally founded in human nature. Only out of insight into the impossibility of fulfillment does this striving withdraw and make way for higher human tasks.
It cannot be said of the moral world view which hopes through the recognition of pessimism for a devotion to unegoistical goals in life, that it overcomes egoism in the true sense of the word. It supposes that moral ideals will only then be strong enough to master the will, when man has recognized that selfish striving for pleasure cannot lead to satisfaction. The person whose self-seeking craves the grapes of pleasure declares them to be sour because he cannot reach them: he leaves them and devotes himself to a selfless transformation of his life. Moral ideals, in the opinion of the pessimists, are not strong enough to overcome egoism; but rather they set up their rulership upon the ground cleared for them beforehand by knowledge of the hopelessness of self-seeking.
If men, out of their natural predisposition, strive after pleasure, but cannot possibly attain it, then annihilation of existence and deliverance through non-existence would be the only rational goal. And if one is of the view that God is the actual bearer of pain of the world, then human beings would have to make it their task to bring about the deliverance of God. The attainment of this goal is not helped by the suicide of the individual person, but rather harmed by it. Rationally, God can only have created human beings so that through their actions they could bring about His deliverance. Otherwise the creation would be purposeless. And such a world view does think in terms of purposes outside man. Each person must carry out his particular part in the general work of deliverance. If he evades his task through suicide, then the work intended for him must be done by someone else. The latter must bear the torment of existence instead of him. And since God is in every being as the actual bearer of his pain, the suicide has not lessened at all the amount of God's pain, rather, he has imposed the new difficulty upon God of creating a replacement for him.
All this presupposes that pleasure is the yardstick for the value of life. Life manifests itself in a sum of drives (needs). If the value of life depended upon whether it brings more pleasure or pain, then a drive must be designated as worthless which causes its bearer a surplus of the latter. Let us look now at drive and pleasure to see whether the first can be measured by the second. In order not to arouse the suspicion that we believe life to begin only in the sphere of the “aristocracy of the mind,” let us begin with a “purely animal” need, hunger.
Hunger arises when our organs can no longer continue their proper function unless new substance is given them. What the hungry person seeks first of all is to eat enough. As soon as enough food has been taken in for hunger to cease, then everything has been achieved which the drive to be fed seeks. The enjoyment connected with eating enough consists first of all in removing the pain which hunger causes. To this drive merely to be fed, there comes another need. A person does not merely want, through taking in nourishment, to restore the normal functioning of his organs, or, as the case may be, to still the pain of hunger: he seeks to effect this to the accompaniment of pleasant taste sensations. When he is hungry and a meal promising rich enjoyment is a half hour away, he can even avoid spoiling his pleasure in the better food by not eating something inferior which could satisfy him sooner. He needs his hunger in order to have the full enjoyment of his meal. Through this, hunger becomes for him a cause of pleasure at the same time. If now all the hunger present in the world could be stilled, this would result in the total amount of enjoyment which we owe to the existence of our need for food. Still to be added to this is the particular enjoyment aimed at by gourmets through a cultivation of the palate beyond the ordinary.
This amount of enjoyment would have the greatest conceivable value when no need, aiming at the kind of enjoyment now under consideration, remained unsatisfied, and when along with the enjoyment a certain amount of pain did not have to be taken into the bargain at the same time.
Modern science holds the view that nature produces more life than it can sustain, which means that it also brings forth more hunger than it is in a position to satisfy. The excess life that is produced must perish painfully in the struggle for existence. Admittedly: the needs of living things at every moment of the world process are greater than the means existing to meet and satisfy them, and this does detract from life's enjoyment. The individual enjoyment actually present in life, however, is not made the least bit smaller. Wherever the satisfying of a desire occurs, the corresponding amount of enjoyment is then present, even though there are still a great number of unsatisfied drives as well within the desiring being itself or in others. But what is diminished thereby is the value of the enjoyment of life. If only a part of the needs of a living thing are satisfied, then this being has a corresponding enjoyment. This enjoyment has a lesser value the smaller it is in proportion to the total demands of life in the areas of desires in question. One can think of this value as represented by a fraction, whose numerator is the enjoyment actually present and whose denominator is the sum total of need. The fraction has the value 1 when numerator and denominator are the same, that means, when all needs are also satisfied. It will be greater than 1 when in a living creature more pleasure is present than its desires demand; and it is less than 1 when the amount of enjoyment lags behind the sum of its desires. The fraction can never reach zero, however, as long as the numerator has even the smallest value. If a person, before his death, were to close his accounts, and were to imagine the amount of enjoyment accruing to one particular drive (to hunger, for example) dispersed over his whole life with all the demands of this drive, the pleasure he experienced would perhaps have only little value; but it can never become totally valueless. If the amount of enjoyment of a living creature remains the same while its needs increase, then the value of its pleasure in life diminishes. The same is true for the sum total of all life in nature. The greater the number of living creatures is in relation to the number of those that can fully satisfy their drives, the smaller is the average pleasure-value of life. The bills of exchange that are drawn for us in our drives with respect to our enjoyment of life decrease in value if one cannot expect them to be honored at their full value. If for three days I have enough to eat but then must go hungry the next three days, the enjoyment of the days on which I ate does not become less thereby. But I must then picture it to myself as apportioned over six days, whereby its value for my drive to eat is reduced by half. The situation is the same for the amount of pleasure in relation to the degree of my need. If I have enough appetite for two pieces of bread and can only have one, then the enjoyment I derive from the one has only half the value that it would have if I were fully satisfied after eating. This is the way that the value of a pleasure is determined in life. Pleasure is measured against the needs of life. Our desires are the yardstick; pleasure is what is measured. Value is attached to the pleasure of eating enough only through the fact that hunger is present; and the value attached is of a particular degree through the relationship in which it stands to the degree of hunger present.
The unfulfilled demands of our life cast their shadows even upon desires which have been satisfied, and detract from the value of hours filled with enjoyment. But one can also speak of the present value of a feeling of pleasure. This value is all the smaller, the less our pleasure is in relation to the duration and intensity of our desire.
An amount of pleasure has full value for us which in duration and degree matches our desire exactly. A smaller amount of pleasure, compared to our desire, reduces the pleasure-value; a greater amount creates an unasked for excess, which is experienced as pleasure only as long as we are able, while enjoying it, to intensify our desire. If we are not in a position to keep step, in the intensifying of our demands, with the increasing pleasure, then the pleasure turns into pain. The object which otherwise would be satisfying to us storms in upon us without our wanting it, and we suffer under it. This is one proof of the fact that pleasure is of value to us only so long as we can measure it against our desire. An excess of pleasurable feeling veers over into pain. We can observe this particularly with people whose demands for one kind of pleasure or another are very small. For people whose drive to eat is dulled, eating can easily become repugnant. It follows from this also, that desire is what measures the value of pleasure.
Now the pessimist could say that the unsatisfied drive to eat brings not only the pain of lost enjoyment, but also positive suffering, agony, and misery into the world. He can cite here the unspeakable misery of those suffering want, and the amount of pain which springs for such people indirectly through the lack of food. And if he wants to apply his assertion also to nature outside man, he can point to the agonies of the animals that starve from lack of food at certain times of the year. Of these evils the pessimist maintains that they far outweigh the amount of enjoyment which our drive to eat brings into the world.
There is indeed no doubt that one can compare pleasure and pain with each other and can determine the excess of one over the other, as this is done in profit and loss. But if the pessimist believes that an excess occurs on the side of pain, and believes he can infer from this that life has no value, then he is already in error, insofar as he is making a calculation which is not carried out in real life.
Our desire directs itself in a given case toward a particular object. The pleasure-value of its satisfaction, as we have seen, will be the greater, the greater the amount of pleasure is in relation to the intensity of our desire. 4We disregard here the instance where, through excessive increase, pleasure veers over into pain. But it also depends upon the intensity of our desire, how great the amount of pain is which we are willing to take into the bargain in order to attain the pleasure. We compare the amount of pain, not with that of pleasure, but rather with the intensity of our desire. Someone who takes great joy in eating will, because of his enjoyment during better times, more easily get himself through a period of hunger, than will someone else who lacks this joy in satisfying his drive to eat. The woman who want to have a child does not compare the pleasure which possessing the child affords her with the amount of pain resulting from pregnancy, childbirth, child care, and so on, but rather with her desire for having the child.
We never strive after an abstract pleasure of a particular intensity, but rather after concrete satisfaction in a very definite way. When we are striving for a pleasure which must be afforded by one particular object or by one particular sensation, then we cannot be satisfied by being given a different object or a different sensation that affords us a pleasure of the same intensity. With someone whose aim is to satisfy his hunger, one cannot replace the pleasure of doing so with one equally as great but caused by a walk. Only if our desire strove quite generally for a particular quantity of pleasure would it then have to grow silent at once if this pleasure were not attainable without a quantity of pain surpassing it in intensity. But since satisfaction is striven for in a particular way, pleasure still accompanies fulfillment even when pain greater than it has to be taken into the bargain along with it. Through the fact that the drives of living creatures move in a definite direction and go straight toward a concrete goal, the possibility ceases of bringing into our calculations, as a factor of equal validity, the amount of pain that has set itself in the way to this goal. When the pain is overcome — however great it might be — and the desire is still strong enough to be present to any degree at all, then the pleasure of satisfaction can still be savored in its full intensity. Desire, therefore, does not bring pain directly into relation with the pleasure attained, but rather of whether the desire for the goal striven for or the resistance of the pain opposing it is greater. If this resistance is greater than the desire, then the latter gives way to the inevitable, slackens and strives no further. Through the fact that satisfaction is demanded in a definite way, the pleasure connected to it gains a significance which makes it possible, after the satisfaction has occurred, to take the necessary quantity of pain into account only insofar as it has decreased the measure of our desire. If I am passionately fond of views, then I never calculate how much pleasure the view from a mountain peak brings me compared directly with the pain of the laborious ascent and descent. I do, however, consider whether my desire for the view, after overcoming the difficulties, will still be lively enough. Only indirectly through the intensity of the desire can pleasure and pain, when compared, give a result. It is absolutely not a question, therefore, of whether pleasure or pain is present to a greater extent, but whether the wanting of the pleasure is strong enough to overcome the pain.
A proof of the correctness of this view is the fact that the value of a pleasure is rated more highly when it has to be purchased at the price of great pain, than when it falls into our lap, as it were, like a gift from heaven. When pain and suffering have toned down our desire and then the goal is still reached after all, the pleasure in relation to the quantity of desire still remaining, is all the greater. But this relation represents as I have shown, the value of the pleasure (see page 208ff.). A further proof is given through the fact that living creatures (including man) unfold their drives as long as they are able to bear the pain and suffering which oppose them. And the struggle for existence is only the result of this fact. Existing life strives to unfold itself and only that part gives up the struggle whose desires are stifled through the force of the difficulties rising up against them. Every living thing keeps seeking food until lack of food destroys its life. And even man turns his hand against himself only when he believes (rightly or wrongly) that he cannot attain the goals in life which seem to him worth striving for. But as long as he still believes in the possibility of attaining what in his view is worth striving for, he will struggle on against all suffering and pain. Philosophy would first have to impose upon the human being the view that willing makes sense only when pleasure is greater than pain; by nature he wants to attain the objects of his desire if he can bear whatever pain becomes necessary in doing so, be it ever so great. Such a philosophy would be in error, however, because it makes human willing dependent upon a condition (excess of pleasure over pain) which is to begin with foreign to man. The primal yardstick of willing is desire, and desire presses forward as long as it can. One can compare the calculation which life, not an intellectual philosophy, makes, when it is a question of pleasure and pain in satisfying a desire, with the following. If, when buying a certain quantity of apples, I am forced to take twice as many bad ones as good ones — because the seller wants to clear out his stock — then I will not think twice about taking the bad apples as well if I can value the smaller amount of good ones highly enough that along with the selling price I also still want to take upon myself the expense of disposing of the bad wares. This example illustrates the relation between the amounts of pleasure and pain caused by a drive. I determine the value of the good apples, not by subtracting their number from that of the bad ones, but by whether the former still retain some value despite the presence of the latter.
Just as, in my enjoyment of the good apples, I leave the bad ones out of account, so I give myself over to the satisfaction of a desire after I have shaken off the unavoidable pain.
Even if pessimism were right in its assertion that more pain than pleasure is present in the world, this would have no influence upon our willing, for in spite of this, living creatures strive for whatever pleasure is left. Empirical proof that pain outweighs joy, if it could be provided, would indeed be able to show the futility of that philosophical direction which sees the value of life in an excess of pleasure (eudaemonism), but it could not show willing in general to be irrational, for willing does not pursue an excess of pleasure but rather the amount of pleasure still left over after the pain is discounted. This still appears as a goal worth striving for.
One has tried to refute pessimism by maintaining that it is impossible to calculate an excess of pleasure or pain in the world. The possibility of any kind of calculation depends upon the fact that the things to be calculated can be compared with each other in magnitude. Now every pain and every pleasure has a definite magnitude (intensity and duration). Pleasurable sensations of different kinds can also be compared with each other, at least approximately, according to magnitude. We know whether a good cigar or a good joke gives us more pleasure. Against the comparability of different kinds of pleasure and pain, according to magnitude, there can thus be no objections raised. And the researcher who makes it his task to determine an excess of pleasure or pain in the world takes his start from the suppositions which are altogether justified. One can maintain that the results of pessimism are in error, but one cannot doubt either the possibility of a scientific estimation of the amounts of pleasure and pain, nor that a pleasure balance can thereby be determined. It is, however, incorrect if someone maintains that the results of this calculation have any consequences for human willing. The instances where we make the value of our actions really dependent upon whether pleasure or pain shows itself to exceed the other, are those in which the objects to which we direct our actions are indifferent to us. If it is a matter, after work, of my enjoying myself with a game or in light conversation, and I am completely indifferent as to what I do for this purpose, then I ask myself what will give me the greater pleasure. And I definitely refrain from an activity if the scale dips toward the side of pain. With a child for whom we want to buy a toy, we think, in making our choice, about what will give him the most pleasure. In all other instances we do not go exclusively by the balance of pleasure.
When therefore the pessimistic philosophers of ethics are in of the view that by showing pain to be present in greater quantity than pleasure they prepare the ground for selfless devotion to the task of civilization, they do not bear in mind that human willing does not by its nature let itself be influenced by such knowledge. The striving of men directs itself toward the measure of satisfaction possible after all difficulties are overcome. The hope of this satisfaction is the basis of human activity. The work of every single person and all the work of civilization springs from this hope. Pessimistic ethics believes it must represent the pursuit of happiness to man as an impossible one, so that he will dedicate himself to his real moral tasks. But these moral tasks are nothing other than his concrete natural and spiritual drives; and the satisfaction of these is striven for in spite of the pain that falls to him thereby. The pursuit of happiness which pessimism wants to eradicate is therefore not present at all. But the tasks which the man has to fulfill, he fulfills, because, by virtue of his nature, when he has really known their nature, he wants to fulfill them. Pessimistic ethics maintains that man will be able to devote himself to what he recognizes to be his life's task only when he has given up his striving for pleasure. No ethics, however, can ever conceive life tasks other than the realization of those satisfactions demanded by human desires and the fulfillment of his moral ideals. No ethics can take away from him the pleasure he has in this fulfillment of what he desires. When the pessimist says: do not strive for pleasure, for you can never attain it; strive for what you recognize as your task; then the reply to this is: That is human nature, and it is the invention of a philosophy going off on false paths when it is asserted that man strives merely for happiness. He strives for the satisfaction of what his being desires, and he has his eye upon the concrete objects of this striving, not upon some abstract “happiness”; this fulfillment is a pleasure for him. When pessimistic ethics demands a striving not for pleasure, but rather for the attainment of what one recognizes as one's life's task, it hits upon the very thing that man by nature wants. The human being does not need to first be turned topsy-turvy by philosophy, he does not need first to cast off his nature in order to be moral. Morality lies in striving for a goal that one recognizes as justified; it lies in man's being to pursue this goal, as long as the pain connected with it does not lame the desire for it. And this is the nature of all real willing. Ethics is not based upon the eradication of all striving for pleasure so that anemic, abstract ideas can establish their rule there where no strong longing for enjoyment of life opposes them; but rather, it is based upon strong willing, carried by ideal intuition, that reaches its goal even though the path to it is a thorny one.
Ethical ideals spring from the moral imagination of man. Their realization depends upon their being desired by a person strongly enough to overcome pain and suffering. They are his intuitions, the mainsprings that his spirit winds; he wills them, because their realization is his highest pleasure. It is not necessary for him first to let himself be forbidden by ethics to strive after pleasure in order then to let himself be told what ought to be the goal of his striving. He will strive after ethical ideals if his moral imagination is active enough to inspire him with intuitions that grant his willing the strength to make its way against the resistances lying in his organization, to which pain necessarily also belongs.
Whoever strives after ideals of noble greatness does so because they are the content of his being, and realizing them will be an enjoyment for him compared to which the pleasure that pettiness draws from satisfying commonplace drives is trifling. Idealists revel, spiritually, in translating their ideals into reality.
Whoever wants to eradicate the pleasure of satisfying human desires must first make the human being into a slave who does not act because he wants to, but only because he ought. For, the attainment of what he wants gives pleasure. What one calls the good is not that which the human being ought, but rather that which he wants, when he unfolds his full true human nature. Whoever does not acknowledge this must first drive out of man what he wants, and then let be prescribed for him from outside what he has to give as content to his willing.
Man attaches value to the fulfillment of a desire, because the desire springs from his being. What is attained has value because it is wanted. If one denies any value to the goal of human willing as such, then one must take the goals that do have value from something that a person does not want.
The ethics which builds upon pessimism springs from a disregard of moral imagination. Only one who does not consider the individual human spirit capable of giving to itself the content of its striving can seek the sum total of all willing in the longing for pleasure. The unimaginative person creates no moral ideas. They must be given to him. Physical nature provides for his striving after satisfaction of his lower desires. But to the unfolding of the whole human being there belong also the desires originating out of the spirit. Only when one is of the opinion that man simply does not have these, can one maintain that he must receive them from outside. Then one is also justified in saying that he is obligated to do something which he does not want. Every ethics which demands of the human being that he suppress his wanting in order to fulfill tasks which he does not want, does not reckon with the whole human being, but rather with one who lacks the ability to desire spiritually. For the harmoniously developed human being the so-called ideas of the good are not outside, but rather inside, the circle of his being. Moral action does not lie in the extermination of a one-sided self-will, but rather in the full development of human nature. Whoever regards moral ideas as attainable only if the human being extinguishes his self-will does not know that these ideals are just as much wanted by the human being as is the satisfaction of his so-called animalistic drives.
There is no denying that the views thus characterized can easily be misunderstood. Immature people without moral imagination like to regard the instincts of their half-developed nature as the full content of humanity, and they reject all moral ideas not created by them so that they can “express themselves” undisturbed. It is obvious that what is right for a whole human being is not valid for a partially developed human nature. Someone who must still first be brought by education to the point that the moral nature breaks through the shell of his lower passions: of him one cannot expect what does, however, hold good for the mature human being. But the intention here is not to delineate what needs to be instilled into the undeveloped man, but rather what lies in the nature of a fully mature human being. For the intention is to show the possibility of being free; inner freedom, however, does not appear in actions performed out of sensory or soul constraints, but rather in such actions as are carried by spiritual intuitions.
This fully mature human being gives himself his own worth. It is not pleasure he seeks, handed to him by nature or by his creator as a gift of grace; nor is it some abstract duty that he fulfills, recognized by him as such after he has stripped away all striving for pleasure. He acts as he wants, that is, in accordance with his moral intuitions; and he experiences the attainment of what he wants as his true enjoyment in life. He determines the value of life by the relation of what he has attained to what he has striven to achieve. An ethics that puts in the place of what one wants, what one merely ought, and is the place of inclination mere duty demands to what he fulfills. Such an ethics measures man by a yardstick applied from outside his being. — The view developed in this book refers man back to himself. It recognizes as the true value of life only that which the individual person regards as such in accordance with his own willing. It knows just as little about any value of life not recognized by the individual as it does about any purpose of life not springing from the individual himself. It sees in the real individual looked upon and through from all sides, his own master and his own evaluator.
Addendum to the Revised Edition of 1918
One can misconstrue what is presented in this chapter if one gets one's teeth too firmly into the seeming objection that man's willing as such is in fact, irrational, that one must show him this irrationality; then he will recognize that the goal of moral striving must lie in final liberation from willing. This kind of a seeming objection was offered me, in any case, by a competent person, who said to me that it is in fact the task of philosophy to make up for what the thoughtlessness of the animals and of most people has neglected to do; namely to draw up a real balance sheet of life. Still, whoever makes this objection does not in fact see the main point: If inner freedom is to realize itself, then within human nature willing must be carried by intuitive thinking; but at the same time, it is a fact that willing can also be determined by something other than intuition, yet only in the free realizing, flowing form man's being, of intuition do there arise what is moral and the value of what is moral. Ethical individualism is able to present morality in its full worthiness, for it does not view that as truly moral which brings about, in an outer way, a congruence of human willing with some norm, but rather that which arises out of man when he unfolds moral willing as one part of his total being, in such a way that to do what is immoral seems to him as mutilation and deformation of his being.