By far the most famous portions of Śāntideva’s work are his meditations on the equalization and exchange of self and other, found in chapter VIII of the Bodhicary?vat?ra. They appear in Western introductory readers on ethics, and are considered the foundation for an entire genre of Tibetan literature, blo sbyong or “mental purification.” Personally, these are not generally my favourite parts of Śāntideva’s work; his arguments against the existence of the self do not convince me, and the meditative exercises strike me as potentially damaging. That said, they do contain one line that sticks with me, that strikes me as extremely profound and valuable: All those in the world who are suffering are so because of a desire for their own happiness. All those in the world who are happy are so because of a desire for the happiness of others. (BCA VIII.129, my translation)
I discussed this claim once before but want to return to it. The claim is, I think, overstated for rhetorical effect. Even in Śāntideva’s eyes, merely desiring others’ happiness will not make you happy – especially if you are misguided about the causes of their happiness, so that you try only to provide them with external goods rather than addressing the inner mental causes of their suffering. And yet from my experience, I would still say the claim is more true than not. There’s something self-defeating about searching after one’s own happiness itself. If one keeps one’s eye on this goal above all, one becomes too acutely aware of failures at it, too focused on one’s lack of happiness – “I’m trying so hard to be happy and yet I’m not; something must be wrong with me” – and the goal is inhibited. (In his book Power Sleep, psychologist James Maas noted a similar problem with respect to sleep: subjects offered $20 if they fell asleep quickly would take longer to fall asleep than subjects who were not offered the money.)
This “paradox of hedonism” (as Peter Railton calls it) is what comes to my mind when I hear Jesus’s paradox expressed in the books of Matthew and Luke: “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” The alternative proffered to seeking one’s own life and happiness is different – following Jesus rather than seeking others’ happiness – but there is a commonality in the importance of looking to something bigger than oneself.
All this is another of the points that lead me to a foundational ethical point that I’ve been coming to more and more (and somewhat grudgingly): there must be more to the proper end of life than pleasure, and more even than happiness itself. One could argue (as Neil Sinhababu and other utilitarians indeed do) that a focus on others’ happiness is enough, but it strikes me that such an approach is still vulnerable to the paradox. Too much focus on others’ happiness can lead one to a despair just like that found when one focuses on one’s own happiness: one sees the billion miserable people out there, and seeing the fact only increases their number to a billion and one. (This problem was at the heart of my own conversion away from utilitarianism.)
As I noted before, Railton tries to save utilitarianism (or consequentialism more generally) by distinguishing between truth and justification: it could still be true that the only proper purpose of life is to be happy or to make others happy, but that for that very reason one is not justified in believing it is so. But I have a hard time accepting such a view. I’m reminded of Freud’s comment on a very similar viewpoint advocating useful fictions, Hans Vaihinger’s philosophy of the “as if”: Freud said that its demand “is one only a philosopher could put forward.” While ordinary unphilosophical people do indeed believe false things all the time, they usually do so merely because they haven’t thought about them; once they actually understand that something is false, that is sufficient reason for them to stop believing it. And we philosophers face a similar problem in the opposite direction: Railton’s or Vaihinger’s views seem to require that we not think too hard about our own philosophy lest we stop (or start!) believing it, which would appear to be the antithesis of what a philosopher does. Whether we’re philosophical or not, the call to deliberately believe false things seems to ring hollow. And therefore, for the reasons above, it seems to me that we can’t reasonably accept happiness as the sole aim of life.