First written: July 2017
In this paper, I introduce a way of thinking about well-being that lends support to the view that reducing suffering takes moral priority over promoting happiness. Our article on suffering-focused ethics lists several other positions that could inspire this conclusion, so agreeing with tranquilism – as the view I introduce is called – is not needed to agree with suffering-focused ethics. Tranquilism is not meant as a standalone moral theory, but as a way to think about well-being and the value of different experiences. Tranquilism can then serve as a building block for more complex moral views where things other than experiences also matter morally.
Disclaimer: This is a draft based on which I plan to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. Based on feedback from Simon Knutsson, I concluded that the current version can still be improved for this purpose (but I wanted to already upload this version so it can be read and discussed).
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Tranquilist Axiology
- 3 Non-consciousness
- 4 Common objections
- 5 Concluding discussion
I assume that an individual’s experiences can be finally (i.e., non-instrumentally) good or bad for her. There are different theories about which experiences are finally good or bad for an individual. One such theory is hedonism, which holds that pleasant experience or pleasure is what is good for an individual, and that unpleasant experience or pain is bad. This article proposes and defends an alternative theory of the value of different experiences: I call it Tranquilism. It is inspired by the Buddhist1 idea that not only pleasure, but also tranquility or contentment are amongst the best experiences.2 My theory also has roots in Epicurus’s description of the goal of a happy life as “imperturbability of the soul” (ataraxia).
In this paper, I give these ancient ideas a more precise and extensive formulation (section 2), so they can more easily be discussed in contemporary normative contexts. This is followed by arguments and intuitions in support of tranquilism. Section 3 discusses non-conscious states (unconsciousness, death, non-existence), and section 4 addresses possible objections to tranquilism. Finally, section 5 will conclude with some remarks on how Tranquilism could fit into discussions of population ethics.
My aim with this paper is to introduce and define tranquilism as a position that deserves further study. As a theory limited to the evaluation of experienced well-being, tranquilism is compatible with pluralistic moral views where things other than experiences – for instance the accomplishment of preferences and life goals – can be (dis)valuable too.
2 Tranquilist Axiology
It has been suggested that we can group different experiences on a spectrum from bad (or unpleasant) to good (or pleasant), with a neutral part of the range in the middle. Let us call hedonism the view that such a spectrum represents the value of different experiences. According to hedonism, pleasurable experiences are valuable not because we desire them, but because they are good (and thus desirable).3
Proponents of tranquilism however reject this interpretation. While it is true that we can rank how much we do or do not desire to have different experiences, or rank experiences according to how pleasurable they are, it is non-obvious whether such a ranking accurately expresses the way we value different experiences. Tranquilism is based on an alternative conception of value, where what matters is not to maximize desirable experiences, but to reach a state absent of desire.
Instead of having a scale that goes from negative over neutral to positive, tranquilism’s value scale is homogenous, ranging from optimal states of consciousness to (increasingly more severe degrees of) non-optimal states. Tranquilism tracks the subjectively experienced need for change. If all is good in a moment, the experience is considered perfect. If instead, an experience comes with a craving for change, this is considered disvaluable and worth preventing.4 Absence of pleasure is not in itself deplorable according to tranquilism – it only constitutes a problem if there is an unmet need for pleasure.
Tranquilism states that an individual experiential moment5 is as good as it can be for her if and only if she has no craving for change.
A craving in the tranquilist sense is a consciously experienced need to change something about the current experience. Section 2.2 below will present positive as well as negative examples for what qualifies as a craving and will distinguish two ways cravings may arise.
While tranquilism will seem counterintuitive to some people, it can hardly be said to be inherently counterintuitive. Tranquilism is based on the Buddhist perspective of suffering and happiness, and similar “absence of desire” theories are also found in Hinduism6 and the writings of Epicurus. This suggests that if we had grown up familiar with these positions, like hundreds of millions of humans have, something along the lines of tranquilism could be the natural way we thought about well-being.
2.1 Contentment as the perfect state
In the context of everyday life, there are almost always things that ever so slightly bother us. Uncomfortable pressure in one’s shoes, thirst, hunger, headaches, boredom, itches, non-effortless work, worries, longing for better times. When our brain is flooded with pleasure, we temporarily become unaware of all the negative ingredients of our stream of consciousness, and they thus cease to exist. Pleasure is the typical way in which our minds experience temporary freedom from suffering. This may contribute to the view that pleasure is the symmetrical counterpart to suffering, and that pleasure is in itself valuable and important to bring about. However, there are also (contingently rare) mental states devoid of anything bothersome that are not commonly described as (intensely) pleasurable, examples being flow states or states of meditative tranquility. Felt from the inside, tranquility is perfect in that it is untroubled by any aversive components, untroubled by any cravings for more pleasure. Likewise, a state of flow as it may be experienced during stimulating work, when listening to music or when playing video games, where tasks are being completed on auto-pilot with time flying and us having a low sense of self, also has this same quality of being experienced as completely problem-free.7 Such states – let us call them states of contentment – may not commonly be described as (intensely) pleasurable, but following philosophical traditions in both Buddhism and Epicureanism, these states, too, deserve to be considered states of happiness.
Whether meditative tranquility or flow are called hedonically neutral or not is a matter of interpretation. To most people, they may feel pleasurable in a way, or very positive somehow, though perhaps in a different sense than e.g. orgasms feel positive. This makes perfect sense according to tranquilism, where there is no neutral range for experiences to begin with and where conscious states completely free of cravings should thus elicit very positive associations when we think of them. The important difference between tranquilism and hedonism is whether all of these states free of cravings are equally positive, or whether they form a scale of increasing value, with some such experiences being distinctly worse than others.8
According to hedonism, where the optimal state corresponds to the highest possible pleasure, states of contentment would fall short: they would be judged (heavily) suboptimal because there could be richer states of pleasure in their place. By contrast, tranquilism proposes that all of these states are in a relevant sense flawless – different in their flavor from intense pleasure, yet equally perfect with respect to the immediate evaluation that occurs internally. While pleasure has great instrumental value according to tranquilism as one way to ensure that everyday conscious experience is problem-free, maximizing pleasure does not constitute an end in itself.
2.2 Cravings: Negative states
According to tranquilism, a state of consciousness is negative or disvaluable if and only if it contains a craving for change. This section will outline what qualifies as such a craving and why cravings, and not anything else, capture what makes suffering bad for individuals.9 To prevent misunderstandings, I will also explain how cravings relate to preferences (they are very different) and how they relate to desires (“activated preferences”). In short, cravings can be thought of as need-based, visceral desires, which are different from (purely) reflection-based desires.
A craving is a conscious need to change something about one’s current experience. Cravings can come about in two ways: The first way cravings may arise is when our attention is being directed towards some desired experience. For instance, a smoker may experience a craving for the rush that comes from smoking a cigarette; or someone in the heat of a summer day may crave the sensation of having a refreshing drink.
The second way cravings may arise is from attention directed at the current experience, when one notices something as unwanted or bothersome. This subjective judgment is then expressed by cravings to change something or end the experience. Cravings of this latter type concern the removal of (certain components of) the current experience. They range from mild cases of disturbance (e.g. when one is bothered by uncomfortable shoes in an otherwise comfortable situation) to cases of extreme suffering, where one may wish for the entire experience to go away regardless of the costs. The stronger the craving, the more disvaluable it is.
According to tranquilism, cravings are what make an experience bad for an individual. Interestingly enough, this view implies that there could be pain that is not disvaluable, i.e., pain without any craving for it to end. For instance, in the phenomenon of pain asymbolia, subjects report feeling the sensation of pain, but they startlingly are not bothered by it.10 Similarly, Buddhist teachings suggest that some people are capable of detaching themselves from their pain or somehow ending their identification with it, thus “ending the suffering without ending the pain.”11 If one agrees that there would be no moral reason to prevent pain in cases where it comes without the distinct craving to have it end, then these fascinating conditions – should they prove to work the way they are described – lend intuitive support to tranquilism. Tranquilism says that what is bad about suffering is that craving. (See this endnote12 for more points in support of this view.)
To prevent confusion, it is important to stress that cravings are not the same as preferences. Preferences are abstract constructs that are thought to be present for an agent at any time (even during unconsciousness). Preferences represent our goals, the hypothetical choices someone would make if presented with all possible options. Cravings on the other hand may be absent even when the individual in question is conscious. And in contrast to preferences or goals, where we may sometimes be subjectively uncertain as to whether they are in an achieved state or not, there is never an open question as to whether one’s cravings are satisfied or not. Cravings are always dissatisfied, as they express a (futile) need for the current experience to be different. For the experiential moment with the original craving, it does not make a difference whether the craving is lost because a suitable distraction is found in the next moment (for instance one that involves a different kind of pleasure than we actually craved), or whether the desired state of pleasure is actually instantiated the next moment, creating a fulfilled craving.
This inspires the tranquilist perspective that the particular content of a craving – the target state we longingly envision ourselves to be in – is not actually what matters and what needs to be achieved. A craving may arise when I am imagining how nice it would be to spend a day at the beach instead of at work, but if, in the very next minute, I begin an enjoyable conversation with my co-worker that makes me forget these thoughts, the fact that I'm not actually at the beach does not bother me – it is not a problem for me nor anyone else in that moment. According to tranquilism, cravings are bad for us not because the specific need they represent is unfulfilled, but because there is a need in the first place. That is to say because the current experience is not accepted as perfectly fine the way it is.
So cravings are not preferences because – among other reasons – preferences do not have to be consciously experienced, whereas cravings are conscious by definition. What about desires? Desires can be thought of as “activated” or “conscious” preferences, as “the states of consciousness that can motivate our intentional, goal-directed actions.” The terminology surrounding this issue is complicated, and it should be noted that people sometimes treat desires and preferences as synonymous and then distinguish between occurrent desires and standing desires. In my terminology, all occurrent desires are desires, and all standing desires are preferences.
Cravings are a subtype of desires, they are need-based, visceral desires that we often cannot help but develop, whether or not it is good for us and our goals. But not all desires are need-based desires: A desire to do something can also be based on forward-looking reflection about what is (instrumentally or intrinsically) good for our goals. Let us call these reflection-based desires. To have a reflection-based desire means to want something not because of a craving, but because it helps us fulfil our preferences or goals (e.g. wanting to eat healthy or wanting to get a university degree). Cravings may not always win in competition with our reflection-based desires, but withstanding cravings always requires mental effort. Because we are prone to developing cravings towards all sorts of things, it can often be difficult to act on our goals in the way we would want to.13
To summarize, cravings are need-based desires inspired by the Buddhist view of suffering and happiness. They are what tranquilism classifies as disvaluable or worth preventing. They are directed either towards an envisioned (pleasurable) state, or towards getting rid of (certain components of) the current state. Cravings of both types can be poetically pictured as arrows of volition urgently (and involuntarily, in the sense of not being based on reflection or deliberate endorsement) pointing away from the current experience.
2.3 Cravings are (part of) what moves us
According to the distinction introduced above, intentional actions result from two different motivational systems. Either we act on reflection-based desires (“reflection-based reasons for action”) or we act on need-based desires (“need-based reasons for action”). Tranquilism focuses on the need-based component of our motivation, and is inspired by the observation that pleasure does not seem central to need-based motivation in the same way (or on the same level) as suffering does.
Let us first discuss reflection-based reasons for action. Reflection-based motivation is not so much about our internal conscious experience, but more about updating world models we have formed and attaching value or disvalue to certain outcomes. We do not desire to believe that the world is going well according to our goals, we want it to actually go well.14 This gives us reflection-based reasons to keep our impulses in check so we can efficiently pursue our goals. Experiencing as much pleasure as possible may well be what many people upon reflection desire for their life, but other possible goals include adventures, accomplishments, helping others and many other things whose nature depend – at least to some degree – on a person’s temperament, beliefs and their past experiences. It is plausible that our disposition towards finding things pleasurable plays an important descriptive role in how we develop our goals, but as a moral anti-realist,15 I think it would be wrong to presume that everyone “has reason”16 to reflectively desire the same goal, let alone the specific goal of personal hedonism. And even if most humans will end up valuing pleasure for its own sake, some of us may set different goals (and neither party would be making any sort of mistake).
By contrast, while one may be able to affect whether need-based desires arise at all, once they do arise, there is no choice about the issue and we cannot help but be affected by them. Next to the preference architecture that forms our goals, we have a visceral and primitive (model-free)17 motivational system that operates through cravings. This system forms our need-based motivation and often produces impulsive behavior. Pleasure does play an important role in how cravings arise, as it seems that cravings are indeed (usually) triggered when we think about pleasure or are confronted with stimuli associated with pleasure. But the need-based reasons that motivate our pursuit of pleasure, moment-by-moment, are not based on intrinsic desirability of future pleasures acting at a distance, but the same process that makes up our aversion to (both physical and psychological) pain. According to tranquilism, cravings to get rid of pain and cravings to experience pleasure are bad for the same reason, because they represent non-acceptance of the current experience. This perspective is supported by us being equally tempted to end cravings for pleasure by actually attaining the pleasure in question, as by just distracting us with some other kind of pleasure (or even just sleep as a form of non-consciousness). For instance, if I have a craving for the state of being drunk but believe that this is not a good direction to take to accomplish my goals, I may instead engage in socializing to distract myself from my craving for alcohol. Similarly, I may try to distract myself from a headache, from back pain, or from ruminating thoughts about life’s problems by watching Netflix or going to bed early in the hope of being able to quickly fall asleep. All these acts have the same motivation: All need-based reasons for action are cravings, they all constitute suffering.
Cravings are famously near-sighted. Rather than being about maximizing long-term well-being in a sophisticated manner, cravings are about immediate gratification and choosing the path of least resistance. We want to reach states of pleasure because as long as we are feeling well, nothing needs to change. However, our need-based motivational system is rigged to make us feel like things need to change and get better even when, in an absolute sense, things may be going reasonably well. We quickly adapt to the stimuli that produce pleasure. As Thomas Metzinger puts it, “Suffering is a new causal force, because it motivates organisms and continuously drives them forward.”18 It is not pleasure that moves us; deep down and insofar as the need-based reasons for actions are concerned, it is always suffering. The way tranquilism looks at it, part of our brain is a short-sighted “moment egoist” with the desire to move from states with a lot of suffering to closely adjacent states with less suffering.
To end this discussion with a concrete example, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose it is three o’clock in the morning, we lie cozily in bed, half-asleep in a room neither too cold nor too hot, not thirsty and not feeling obligated to get up anytime soon. Suppose we now learn that there is an opportunity nearby for us to experience the most intense pleasure we have ever experienced. The catch is that in order to get there, we first have to leave the comfortable blankets and walk through the cold for a minute. Furthermore, after two hours of this pleasure, we will go back to sleep and, upon waking up again, are stipulated to have no memories left of the nightly adventure. Do we take the deal? It is possible for us to pursue this opportunity out of reflection-based motivation, if we feel as though we have a self-imposed duty to go for it, or if it simply is part of our goal to experience a lot of pleasure over our lifetime. It is also possible for us to pursue this opportunity out of need-based motivation, if we start to imagine what it might be like and develop cravings for it. Finally, it also – and here is where tranquilism seems fundamentally different from hedonism – seems not just possible, but perfectly fine and acceptable, to remain in bed content with the situation as it is. If staying in bed is a perfectly comfortable experience, the default for us will be to stay. This only changes in the case that we hold a preference for experiencing pleasure, remember or activate it and thus form a reflection-based desire, or if staying in bed starts to become less comfortable as a result of any cravings for pleasure we develop.
To conclude, an account inspired by hedonism might suggest that pleasure is intrinsically desirable, and that this either automatically makes us desire pleasure (perhaps also in a reflection-based sense), or that something would have to be wrong with us if we did not desire pleasure.19 However, tranquilism paints a different picture, emphasizing that our need-based pursuit of pleasure is always motivated by cravings, while preferences for pleasure seem to be contingent. It seems perfectly plausible that people can upon reflection decide to not want to pursue pleasure as a central goal in their life (or not want to pursue reducing suffering) without thereby committing any kind of mistake.
This section explains why, if one accepts tranquilism, all forms of non-consciousness should plausibly be thought of as equally valuable as craving-free experiences, say, (intense) pleasure or complete meditative peace of mind.
Theories of the value of experiences, such as tranquilism and hedonism, face the question of the value of states that are not experiences, such as dreamless sleep or unconsciousness. As Tännsjö (1996) points out, it has been natural for classical hedonists to equate the value of hedonically neutral experiences with non-consciousness – but this is ultimately a separate normative stipulation.20
3.1 The Epicurean Argument
Tranquilism lends support to the Epicurean position on death and non-existence. Epicurus is known for his “hedonism” (arguably a misnomer in this case), the position that all that is good or bad lies in conscious experience. He is also famous for an argument for why death cannot constitute an evil:21
“This, the most horrifying of evils, means nothing to us, then, because so long as we are existent death is not present and whenever it is present we are nonexistent. Thus it is of no concern either to the living or those who have completed their lives. For the former it is nonexistent, and the latter are themselves nonexistent.”
Critics object that Epicurus’s argument for why death cannot be of moral concern to us ignores that things can be bad for someone, not because they are in themselves negative, but because they deprive a person of positive experiences.22 This deprivationist critique appears strong if Epicurus is interpreted within hedonist axiology, for if the value of a happy person’s life is determined by the summed up pleasures minus all the pains, this sum is indeed lower if her life is cut short prematurely. However, under the assumption of a view like tranquilism (which actually seems to capture the way Epicurus was thinking about happiness and suffering very closely),23 the Epicurean position becomes perfectly consistent. Given a tranquilist conception of the relative value of different experiences, there are no experiences that are good in themselves, no experiences whose absence could constitute a form of disvalue.
This has interesting implications for non-experienced states of affairs, i.e., any states of non-consciousness. If something is only regarded as problematic if it is experienced as such, there lies no problem in non-consciousness. While the formulation of tranquilism (cf. section 2) contains no direct statement about the way to assess the value of non-consciousness, a straightforward extension implies the Epicurean conclusion that non-consciousness, too, is among the best states of affairs.
4 Common objections
In this section, I consider some common objections to the tranquilist account of the value of different experiences and provide my replies to them.
4.1 What about the role of happiness in motivation?
Tranquilism is based on the position that cravings play the central role in need-based motivation. Can we come up with similar reasons as to why happiness – defined loosely as “positive feelings” – also plays a central role in motivation, on equal footing with cravings so-to-speak? One could for instance argue that, if tranquilism says that suffering is bad for us because it corresponds to a first-person evaluation of an experience(-component) needing to end or change, perhaps happiness might correspond to a first-person evaluation of an experience as something to continue or intensify. And if cravings are pictured as an arrow of volition pointing away from the current experience, perhaps happiness could be pictured as an arrow pointing towards it, or as a loop of volition. And perhaps there is a case to be made for viewing happiness as satisfied cravings, based on which one could argue that simply distracting oneself from cravings does not produce an equally good or equally desirable result.
My reply to such objections towards tranquilism is twofold:
- To the extent that the above descriptions paint an accurate picture of the role of happiness in our motivation, there still remains a further question as to whether we regard this role as central (of final value) or secondary (of instrumental value). If all positive experiences were to, for instance, always consist of satisfied cravings in a descriptively satisfying sense informed by neuroscience and introspection, it remains an open question, normatively, whether we want to count the creation of a satisfied craving as more valuable than the mere prevention of a new craving.
- While many of the above descriptions of the role of happiness in our motivation seem to ring true for at least some instances of happiness, it seems false that they apply to all instances. If we reserved the label “pleasure” only for those experiences that introspectively feel like satisfied cravings or “wanting the experience to continue or intensify,” there seem to be interesting instances of happiness that fall outside the scope of this definition.
To elaborate on point two, let us first consider culinary or sexual pleasures: these versions of happiness may indeed be regarded as fulfilled cravings of some kind, a point that is supported by the example of people who – for no apparent reason besides anticipation of pleasure – postpone addressing their hunger cravings during the day in order to receive extra enjoyment from dinner at a fancy restaurant. But then there are also positive feelings where it clearly seems false that they come as satisfied cravings or come with an evaluative need or desire to have the experience continue. Take contentment induced by sleeping pills, for instance. This experience seems to decidedly lack such a component (even though many sleeping pills are dangerously addictive), illustrated by people rarely being tempted to fight falling asleep because of how well they are feeling. This suggests that many flavors of happiness, such as meditative tranquility or drug-induced contentment for instance, do not seem to vary in intensity depending on how strong our cravings were before the experience started, or how strong the cravings would be if the experience abruptly ended. Instead, these states of contentment seem to come with a sense – not in degrees, but either on or off – that no cravings can possibly arise, that no pains can possibly affect us. Inspired by tranquilism, one could argue that what all positive experiences – all instances of happiness – have in common is that they play a functional role that prevents or protects against the formation of cravings. Pleasurable experiences do so by flooding one’s attention with pleasure, and experiences such as flow, meditative tranquility or drug-induced contentment do so by making it harder for cravings to come up.
While it interesting that proponents of tranquilism seem to give different accounts of suffering and happiness than proponents of hedonism, it remains unclear to what extent this reflects different takes on introspection or different empirical predictions, or whether we are rather dealing with different interpretations of the same picture. Perhaps some versions of hedonism could agree with many or most of the descriptive points proponents of tranquilism make, but state normatively that we should regard happiness as more valuable than states of non-consciousness, and that being a little happy is much worse than being very happy. (Such a position would further have to stipulate how pleasure is to be compared to states of contentment, especially if one assumes that the two states relate to cravings in different ways.)
While it would be very interesting and possibly highly illuminating to learn more about the phenomena we introspectively label as pain, pleasure, happiness and suffering, it should be noted that neuroscience by itself cannot give us any direct answers to normative questions – it can only answer empirical subquestions (if they are formulated precisely enough). Neuroscientific findings can sometimes give us very strong nudges in certain directions, but there may be instances where different aspects of what is going on can be emphasized or de-emphasized by different people – in the same way people's taste or aesthetics can differ.
4.2 Pizza vs. potatoes?
According to tranquilism, the most intense pleasures are no better, intrinsically, than so-called “hedonically neutral” states which are completely free of cravings. This is an unusual perspective. After all, comparing the experience of eating pizza to eating potatoes, many people24 are likely to prefer the former: Pizza gives them the more pleasurable experience, and they are more likely to develop strong cravings for pizza.
Proponents of tranquilism are not denying that some experiences can give us more pleasure than others, but they would counter that this point is not always relevant. Namely, in the case of “Pizza vs. potatoes” it can be irrelevant if both meals are good enough to completely satisfy all our needs in a given moment. A blanket assessment on which is the more valuable eating experience is based on a comparison between the two experiences from an outside perspective, where the pleasures during both meals are being compared to one another and where we may develop cravings (or reflection-based desires) for one meal but not the other. For the experiential moments in question, there is no such outside perspective. During the meal, from a first-person point of view, the ongoing moment is all there is, and the person eating potatoes instead of pizza may not be thinking about any alternatives. Tranquilism zooms in on how each state is evaluated subjectively and directly. From this internal perspective, enjoying potatoes can – sometimes – be perfectly fine as well. Assuming that one forgets everything else around and is fully absorbed in an experience, with no need for anything about it to be different, no longing for richer or different taste, it is accurate to say that the immediate, subjective evaluation of the experience is that it is flawless. And the fact that the experience of eating something different might score higher on a scale of pleasure intensity simply does not play a role according to this perspective – it may be true, but it is as as irrelevant to the value of an experience as e.g. differences in a parameter such as endorphins released.
Perhaps it is helpful to point out that the intuitions in support of tranquilism are similar to the intuitions philosophers used to reject John Stuart Mill’s perfectionist axiology. Mill felt that the happiness of a pig is somehow worse than the happiness of a human, and that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”25 It is understandable that, to a genius26 like Mill, the prospect of being incapable of understanding sophisticated philosophical reasoning represented a catastrophe. And admittedly, goal and intelligence preservation are convergent instrumental goals for rational agents, so it makes sense to have an intuitive aversion to losses of this sort.27The alternative perspective, however, is that the fool himself does not notice that anything is lacking; nothing about being a fool bothers him in any way. The same goes for the happy pig in comparison with an ordinary human. Many people, in fact, believe that animals have it better than humans because they live in the moment. If our evaluation focuses on how a situation is experienced from the inside, then Mill’s arguments miss the point, as he is highlighting aspects of outside characteristics entirely irrelevant to the ongoing evaluation of the experience in question. The same intuitions used against Mill’s perfectionist axiology lend support to the idea that states of flow or meditative tranquility, evaluated with respect to the presence or absence of cravings, can be no less valuable than states of intense pleasure.
4.3 What about the very peak of human experiences?
Pizza is fine and good, but what about the wonder of holding one’s newborn child for the first time, the ecstasy of winning the world championship in a sport one has trained for one’s entire life, the bliss of reuniting with the love of one’s life after years of forced separation or the triumph over finally getting revenge on the bad guy? How can there be no relevant difference between these experiences and mere states of contentment?
Before giving an answer, it is important to point out what tranquilism is not saying. Tranquilism is not a standalone moral theory committed to the claim that nothing besides suffering (cravings) is of moral concern. Tranquilism is only saying that insofar as we focus our attention solely on experiences, we can conclude something about the relative value of these experiences. Again, tranquilism zooms in on an experience and omits everything else beyond it. Arguably, the examples above are powerful to a large extent because they condense purpose and meaning over the course of a person’s life. If we instead envisioned these experiences as doctored somehow, such that they would not have been part of someone’s biography, but were rather based on fake memories and trickery, they may lose a substantial portion of their appeal. We could still regard them as intensely pleasurable and (subjectively) profound experiences, but stripped from the context of truly achieving one’s goals, these examples arguably boil down to something more analogous to “Pizza vs. potatoes?” discussed above. If we only consider experiential moments in isolation, and not what they might mean to us in terms of purpose and life goals, the Tranquilist perspective becomes more intuitive. And to the extent that we want to honor what these experiences mean to us in terms of purpose and life goals, we should perhaps be talking about whether accomplishing these goals is intrinsically valuable – something that is outside the scope of this paper.
4.4 Does depression contradict tranquilism?
One way in which depression can manifest itself is through complete apathy or inertia. A person may feel as though “no change could make any difference to my misery” and, correspondingly, lack any intent to bring about change. Is this an example of a negative state that is nevertheless free of cravings – something that would contradict the tranquilist account?
The answer is “no” because there is a difference between drive or willpower on the one hand and cravings on the other. One may lack motivation to bring about change, but this does not mean one cannot experience the need for change. Inertia seems to represent a decoupling or erosion of our action module – whatever translates our feelings and beliefs into goal-directed action. But experiencing inertia or apathy, if it indeed comes as a negative experience caused by depression (and not e.g. a satisfied kind of inertia we might experience after eating tasty food to the point of complete satiation), comes with us urgently desiring to feel different and feel better. If that were not the case, we would not label the feeling as bad or depressed in the first place. Apathy from depression is therefore not a state that lacks cravings, but one that lacks components like hope, motivation, drive and/or willpower. Describing this state as "lacking any intent to bring about change" would be mistaken.
4.5 Anticipation is different from craving
The last objection I want to discuss concerns the nature of cravings and whether they can really be said to always be negative. Arguing the contrary, readers of an earlier draft pointed to the feeling of anticipation. When looking forward to a vacation for instance, a person engaged in planning exciting activities may find herself in an enthusiastic, very positive frame of mind. She is envisioning something she does not currently have. Does this not constitute an example of a craving being experienced as positive, contradicting tranquilism’s premise that cravings are what is bad for an individual?
I do not think the person in question can be said to experience a craving; she is not experiencing a conscious need to turn her current feelings into the positive feelings associated with the upcoming vacation. After all, she is already feeling good. Envisioning the exciting activity (and envisioning her progress towards this activity) puts her in the positive state of mind associated with it, which is notably different from craving a not-currently-experienced feeling.
This point seems to bring up a related line of objection against tranquilism. While I pointed out (cf. section 2.3) that we seem to be moved by suffering, could we not imagine a person being moved (or “powered” rather in this case) entirely by anticipation of a positive experience? This seems indeed plausible. During periods of high motivation (or mania), people seem to exhibit high productivity resulting from a kind of positively experienced restlessness. Interestingly, however, this state of mind seems to be associated with agency and (sometimes overly optimistic) planning or advancing towards a goal, and not with a short-sighted search for gratification. Introspectively, I would characterize this state of mind as being motivated by optimism about achieving one’s goals – in the sense that there is very much also an element of prediction in the experience and not (just) wishing or longing. To me, anticipation is not synonymous with being motivated by positive feelings; rather, it seems to consist of motivation fuelled by modelling the future as positive for one’s goals.
Arguably however, it is up for interpretation which aspect of our mental phenomena one wants to emphasize, and introspection and interpretation of what matters to us may not turn out the same way for everyone. It is therefore possible (though by no means obvious) that people who experience this anticipation-based drive or euphoria unusually often (or those who very rarely experience strong cravings for that matter) are less inclined to sympathize with tranquilism as a theory of well-being.
5 Concluding discussion
I introduced and explained tranquilism as a theory of well-being, contrasted it with hedonism and addressed plausible objections. Whereas the hedonist conception of well-being is about maximizing positive experiences and minimizing negative ones, the tranquilist understanding of well-being is about freedom from cravings. In some respects, tranquilism is perhaps better conceptualized as a theory of need-based motivation. Tranquilism assumes that experiences are not desirable or undesirable in themselves. Rather, our pursuit of pleasure and our aversion to pain both manifest themselves as a conscious need (craving) to change something about the current experience. These cravings are what qualify as suffering. According to tranquilism, suffering is of negative value because it corresponds to a first-person evaluation of an experience as negative, as something to change or eliminate.
Because flooding the brain with pleasure is an efficient way to make cravings disappear from our stream of consciousness, pleasure still carries great instrumental importance in tranquilism. But the absence of pleasure does not count as negative in itself. As long as a pleasureless state of consciousness remains free of cravings, it is still considered an optimal and happy experience.
Tranquilism is not committed to the view that cravings are all that matter. Our motivation is multifaceted, and next to impulsive motivation through cravings, we are also motivated by desires to achieve certain goals. People do not solely live for the sake of their personal well-being; we may also (or even exclusively) hold other goals, including goals about the welfare of others or goals about the state of the world. Thinking about morality in terms of goals (or “ends”) has inspired rationality-based accounts of cooperation such as Kantianism (arguably), contractualism, or coordinated decision-making between different value systems.28 Furthermore, if one chooses to regard the achievement of preferences or goals as valuable in itself, this can inspire moral axiologies such as preference-based consequentialism or coherent extrapolation, either as a complement or an alternative to one’s theory of well-being. (And of course, one’s goals may include many other components, including non-moral or non-altruistic ones.)
While tranquilism gives counterintuitive value judgments in cases where one’s goals or preferences play a large role (see e.g. “What about the peak of human experience?” above, or any thought experiments that involve killing happy people that want to go on living for the prevention of small amounts of suffering), it may be particularly relevant in the domain of population ethics. This is because in population ethics, populations are compared and evaluated according to the quality and (more relevantly) quantity of the individual lives they contain. When thinking about whether to reduce the size of an existing population, the goals of the individuals in that population seem relevant, at the very least, for reasons of cooperation, and perhaps also intrinsically (depending whether things other than well-being have final value). So even though tranquilism might say that there is a sense in which an empty world is better than one populated by a lot of happy beings and a few suffering ones (namely according to the value of well-being in that world), endorsing tranquilism is compatible with positions where this judgment can be overridden by other, stronger reasons (such as e.g. reflection-based reasons or reasons of cooperation).
On the other hand, when one considers adding new beings to the world, it looks as though reflection-based reasons for action are not straightforwardly applicable. Do we count what a person would desire after coming into existence, or do we only count the goals of individuals that will exist regardless of how we decide? What if someone deliberately creates a person whose preference ranks an infinite amount of suffering above non-existence? What about creating beings capable of suffering that cannot form preferences or goals? Moral views inspired by reflection-based reasons for action would (arguably) leave the decision up to the goals or preferences of those currently in power. However, it seems that this overlooks a relevant dimension of the scenarios discussed. Namely, what is missing is an axiological perspective inspired by need-based reasons for action. I find it plausible that tranquilism could be this perspective. Tranquilism would suggest treating such cases according to the Epicurean position that non-existence, here in the sense of not being born, cannot be a problem for anyone, that creating new happy beings is never intrinsically valuable.
In contemporary ethics, such ideas that non-existence may be unproblematic, or that there is a sense in which an empty world could be better than one filled with a tiny amount of suffering and a large amount of happiness, are taken as a counterintuitive non-starter by several philosophers.29 Considering however that judgments about population ethics are guaranteed to be counterintuitive in at least some respects,30
we should not dismiss otherwise appealing perspectives too quickly. Tranquilism and related “absence of desire” theories deserve, in my view, more consideration than they currently receive – especially if they are regarded not as standalone moral theories, but as approaches that complement the aspects of morality that deal with reflection-based reasons for action.
Adriano Mannino and I developed some of the ideas behind our version of tranquilism from 2011 – 2014 during lengthy discussions where we grappled with issues in population ethics, and eventually encountered similar, more elaborate concepts in Buddhism. Buddhism was initially an inspiration for me in the sense that I was passively aware of statements such as “desire is suffering.” However, I first started to think of suffering as cravings rather than as a solely undesirable experience from being inspired by certain views in the philosophy of mind. I thank Adriano and Simon Knutsson for contributions to an earlier draft of this paper, and Brian Tomasik, Kaj Sotala, Tobias Pulver, Michael Moor, and David Althaus for their valuable feedback on this topic over the years. Finally, thanks to Piti Irawan for comments that inspired the description of cravings as needs related to the non-acceptance of the current state, and to Ruairi Donnelly, David Althaus and Max Daniel for their feedback and suggestions on the current draft, as well as to Persis Eskander for feedback and help with editing. I would also like to give a nod to Bruno Contestabile (cited below) who independently came up with the term Buddhist axiology (the title of an earlier draft of this paper), and Dan Geinster, with whom I have not corresponded, but who seems to have come up with similar ideas under the label “anti-hurt.”
- Others have noted that Buddhism contains fruitful ideas for philosophy in general and moral philosophy and axiology in particular. Daniel Breyer concludes his description of Pāli Buddhism’s axiology with the appeal that “even non-Buddhists should take the view seriously;” see his “The Cessation of Suffering and Buddhist Axiology,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 22 (2015). Similarly, Bruno Contestabile (“On the buddhist truths and the paradoxes in population ethics,” Contemporary Buddhism 11 (2010):1, 103-113) argues that Buddhism’s four Noble Truths help shed light on problems in population ethics (a draft version can be read online here). I will address population ethics and how tranquilism may affect our judgments there in the last section, “Concluding discussion.” (back)
- For some background on the Buddhist conception of well-being, see Christopher Gowans, Buddhist Moral Philosophy, (Routledge, 2014), 109-119. (back)
- Not every proponent of hedonism might put it this way, but see for instance Sinhababu’s “The epistemic argument for hedonism” (unpublished):
“Just as one can look inward at one's experience of lemon yellow and recognize its brightness, one can look inward at one's experience of pleasure and recognize its goodness.”
Similarly, De Lazari-Radek and Singer in The Point of View of the Universe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) reference Sinhababu’s paper and conclude (in response to evolutionary debunking arguments against hedonism, p.267):
“Pain and pleasure are states of consciousness and we have direct knowledge of them. How could knowing something about the origins of these states undermine our judgment that, considered just as a state of consciousness, they are good or bad?” (back)
- Fehige’s anti-frustrationism presents a structurally similar view, applied to preferences rather than experiences: Fehige argues that an individual can at best be at a neutral level that occurs when she has no frustrated preferences. See Christoph Fehige’s “A Pareto Principle for Possible People” in Preferences, eds Christoph Fehige & Ulla Wessels, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1998), 509-543. (back)
- Tranquilism is about evaluating someone’s experience in a given moment, not about evaluating the value of an individual’s life and biography as a whole. A life spent in nothing but meditative tranquility, or a constant state of flow from playing video games, may from the outside seem as though it is missing something important, but tranquilism is solely concerned about the value of each experiential moment as it is by itself. (back)
- The Bhagavad Gita for instance says (verse 2.55):
“[...] when a man gives up all varieties of desire for sense gratification, which arise from mental concoction, and when his mind, thus purified, finds satisfaction in the self alone, then he is said to be in pure transcendental consciousness.” (back)
- Similar descriptions may also apply to dreaming (lucid or not) during periods where the quality of the dream is neither (particularly) pleasurable, nor nightmarish. (back)
- Thomas Metzinger makes the interesting point that what we envision when we think of "neutral" sates of conscousness may often be "slightly negative" in reality, and that this mistake could reinforce the assumption that pleasure is decidedly better than mere freedom from cravings:
"Almost all negatively valenced states involve only a mild emotional sense of preference frustration – perhaps some weak impairment of bodily wellbeing or a diffuse background feeling of boredom, possibly accompanied by an unspecific, generalised worry about the future plus a subtle phenomenology of uncertainty. In addition, as it is plausible to assume that these frequent and much more subtly negative states are forming the majority of our conscious self-model moments, most of us may have long ago begun to perceive them as inescapable and uncontrollable. We may therefore operate under a “domain-general” version of learned helplessness with regard to our own suffering: we become unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with such inner situations, because on a deep functional level we already believe that we cannot effectively control the total probability of their occurrence. Consequently, we do not take action to avoid more subtle forms of negative everyday phenomenology. Therefore, what we prematurely report as “neutral” states may often actually be the inner experience of subtle preference frustration plus learned helplessness. We report “neutral”, but what we actually mean is “default”. If one introspects carefully, truly neutral moments are something very rare, because some sort of affective valence accompanies almost all of our conscious moments."
See Thomas Metzinger’s “Suffering” in The Return of Consciousness, eds. Kurt Almqvist & Anders Haag (Stockholm: Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2017) 221-262. (The final draft can be read online here.) (back)
- Cravings represent the way proponents of tranquilism conceptualize suffering (in the sense of morally negative experiences), but suffering and cravings are not strictly synonymous: someone who conceptualizes suffering differently might say that there can be suffering without cravings. (back)
- For descriptions of the phenomenon, see Nikolas Grahek, Feeling pain and being in pain (2nd edition), (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 38-44. (back)
- See Christopher Gowans, Buddhist Moral Philosophy, (Routledge, 2014), 106-108. (back)
- In his Feeling pain and being in pain (p.73), Nikolas Grahek makes the point that pain asymbolia supports the view that the pure “what-it’s-like-ness” of pain is not what motivates our caring about pain or what makes pain painful:
“Actually, this most peculiar and bizarre reactive dissociation syndrome to be found in human pain experience, where only the sensation of pain is present, would strongly speak in favor of the Wittgensteinian beetle-in-the-box argument purported to prove that the quality of the sensations that one feels is quite irrelevant for determining whether somebody is in pain. In other words, what is in the box does not matter for pain: what does matter is what one believes, how one feels (affectively not sensorially) and acts.”
A related point is made by Gary Drescher in Good and Real (also with a reference to pain asymbolia), summarized here by Luke Muehlhauser:
“A common view among philosophers is that pleasure is intrinsically desirable, pain is intrinsically undesirable, and that humans act to pursue pleasure and avoid pain in recognition of this. Dr. Drescher suggests that, instead, humans are behaviorally hard-wired to tend to pursue or avoid certain sensations, and that the notions of “intrinsic desirability/undesirability” are reifications of those tendencies as observed in our own cognitive reactions and emotions.” (back)
- It is possible to have desires that are both need-based and reflection-based, or to have desires that one thinks of as reflection-based, but which are in fact subject to rationalization. For instance, someone may tell themselves that the only reason they drink alcohol at a bar is to have more courage to approach strangers, but that is unlikely to be the true reason if they end up drinking so much that it diminishes their chances. (back)
- This is the conclusion that follows from Nozick’s famous experience machine thought experiment – see his Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 42-45. For a more recent discussion, see also this subsection in Brian Tomasik’s “How Likely is Wireheading?,” Foundational Research Institute (2014). (back)
- For a brief summary of arguments for anti-realism, see the appendix of my “Moral reasoning under anti-realism,” Foundational Research Institute (forthcoming). (back)
- On the concept of “having reason,” Parfit writes:
“Like some other fundamental concepts, such as those involved in our thoughts about time, consciousness, and possibility, the concept of a reason is indefinable in the sense that it cannot be helpfully explained merely by using words. We must explain such concepts in a different way, by getting people to think thoughts that use these concepts. One example is the thought that we always have a reason to want to avoid being in agony.”
See On What Matters, Volume I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 31.
Different from Parfit, I restrict my use of the term “reason” to more narrow meanings, specifically to “need-based reasons for action” and “desire-based reasons for action,” both of which are defined in a way that directly pins down their relevance to the motivation of one’s intentional actions. Need-based reasons are the reasons we cannot help but be influenced by, and reflection-based reasons are arguments or implications that follow from us having certain goals, which we would endorse upon reflection. I am skeptical that we can speak of having reasons tout court, in a way that should somehow sway our judgment and decisions even when these reasons are not need-based, and when we would not reflectively come to endorse them. (back)
- For an explanation of the kind of distinction between motivational systems I am talking about, see e.g. Cushman, “Action, Outcome and Value: A Dual-System Framework for Morality,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 17(3) 273–292. It should however be noted that I am primarily describing an introspection-based account of what motivates us, and that I do not think tranquilism is committed to any specific neuroscientific theories (except perhaps skepticism about experiences being in themselves desirable or undesirable, cf. endnote 11). (back)
- See Metzinger’s “Suffering” in The Return of Consciousness (ibid.) (back)
- Though would it also be wrong to not pursue pleasure with the right amount of effort? Would everyone have to be willing to accept the same amount of suffering in exchange for a given amount of happiness? It seems that even on a hedonist account, different people could use different exchange rates between suffering and happiness, and there may not be an objectively correct way of telling which exchange rate to go with – see Simon Knutsson, “Measuring Happiness and Suffering,” Foundational Research Institute (2016). This point arguably becomes even more of an issue under a tranquilist conception of happiness, where happiness comes in different kinds (pleasure and contentment) that play different roles in need-based motivation, see also section 4.1. (back)
- Torbjörn Tännsjö, “Classical hedonistic utilitarianism”, Philosophical studies 81.1 (1996): 97-115, 103-104. (back)
- George Strodach, The Philosophy of Epicurus, (Northwestern University Press, 1963), 180. (back)
- The deprivationist account of the badness of death is defended by philosophers such as Jeff McMahan (“Death and the Value of Life,” Ethics 99 (1988):1, 32-61), Fred Feldman (Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, chpt. 8) and Shelly Kagan (Death: The Open Yale Courses Series, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, 213), who all rely on it in their critique of the Epicurean Argument. (back)
- Reading some of his critics, one might question whether Epicurus was thinking about happiness and suffering along the lines of tranquilism. However, when reading direct translations such as Strodach’s The Philosophy of Epicurus (ibid.), any doubts vanish:
“A steady view of these matters shows us how to refer all moral choice and aversion to bodily health and imperturbability of mind, these being the twin goals of happy living. It is on this account that we do everything we do – to achieve freedom from pain and freedom from fear. When once we come by this, the tumult in the soul is calmed and the human being does not have to go about looking for something that is lacking or to search for something additional with which to supplement the welfare of soul and body. Accordingly[,] we have need of pleasure only when we feel pain because of the absence of pleasure, but whenever we do not feel pain[,] we no longer stand in need of pleasure. And so we speak of pleasure as the starting point and the goal of the happy life[,] because we realize that it is our primary native good, because every act of choice and aversion originates with it, and because we come back to it when we judge every good by using the pleasure feeling as our criterion (p.182).”
The last sentence may seem contradictory to modern ears, but Epicurus goes on to explain his idiosyncratic use of the term pleasure:
“Thus[,] when I say that pleasure is the goal of living[,] I do not mean the pleasures of libertines or the pleasures inherent in positive enjoyment, as is supposed by certain persons who are ignorant of our doctrine or who are not in agreement with it or who interpret it perversely. I mean, on the contrary, the pleasure that consists in freedom from bodily pain and mental agitation.” (back)
- Certain food preferences are more in line with Epicurean teachings than others. While some people may always go the extra mile to get slightly better food, others may just settle for anything edible as quickly as possible. (back)
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, (London: Parker, Son, and Bourn, 1963), 14. (back)
- In his short biography of Mill, Fred Wilson notes that young John Stuart started studying ancient Greek at the tender age of three; see the entry "John Stuart Mill," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition). (back)
- Nick Bostrom, “The Superintelligent Will,” Minds and Machines 22(2012):2, 71-85. (back)
- There seem to be two distinct issues that often get lumped together (to some extent at least) when they are discussed under the umbrella of normative ethics:
1) What are my goals in life, what am I getting up for in the morning? Assuming my goals are e.g. about altruism/helping others, what follows?
2) Conditional on any goals that I have, to what extent is it rational for me to cooperate with other rational agents who hold different goals?
While the two questions are not always treated as completely distinct (a moral realist preference utilitarian could for instance argue that, contra Williams, it is somehow wrong to have any goals that are not about maximizing preference fulfillment, and that this is grounded in some sense of owing something to other rational agents), they do seem to me to be two questions that are best addressed separately. Moral theories such as Kantianism or Rawlsian contractualism seem to focus more on addressing the second question, while e.g. Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarianism – and also tranquilism for that matter – are more about (altruism-inspired versions of) the first question. (back)
- The assumption that there exists “a positive welfare level,” i.e. one that is decidedly better than non-existence, is briefly mentioned by Arrhenius in the introduction of his extensive treatment on population ethics, albeit without much discussion. See: Gustav Arrhenius, Future Generations: A Challenge for Moral Theory, (Uppsala University: University Printers, 2000). Similarly, Thomas Hurka (“Asymmetries in Value”, Noûs 44(2010):2, 199–223) dismisses views like tranquilism in one sentence. (back)
- Gustav Arrhenius proved some interesting impossibility results in his article “An Impossibility Proof against Any Welfarist Axiology” Utilitarianisme: Analyse et Histoire, Association Charles Gide pour l’Etude de la Pensee Economique and the University of Lille, 1996, as well as in Future Generations: A Challenge for Moral Theory (ibid.). (back)