I have studied a little Philosophy and done a lot of thinking about moral duty, individualism and communities. I have come to the belief that it is one person's duty to assist the community event at risk to himself. This doesn't include dying or suicide, because I believe in Kant's definition of intrinsic dignity that every human individual possesses. However, general well-being may be sacrificed in an effort to the right, moral thing.

I will try to explain this using two similar scenarios.

In the first one, a friend of mine knows someone suffering from lethal anorexia- as in, most doctors and psychologists expect her not to last another year. My friend told me that the pain of watching one of her friends slowly killing herself was too great to bear, and even though she knew that this person needed her help, she distanced herself in order not to get hurt.

In the second example, I know a friend with severe depression. I have tried my best to stay in contact as close as possible, trying to give comfort and advice to the best of my abilities. I studied some books about cognitive behavior therapy and general psychology in order to provide more help. However, it didn't work too well and she attempted suicide once- it's an incredibly difficult experience when you are the last person they want to talk to.

Even though it caused a nervous breakdown and that my own depression has worsened over the many months in trying to deal with hers, I believe it is my duty not to distance myself, even if I notice my own quality of life worsening. It's simply the right thing to do.

Sadly, I have neither a name nor any philosophers to back up my beliefs. It makes discussing philosophy with others fairly difficult as they just find it weird.

I have two questions now: are there any philosophies that share or are similar to my personal philosophy? Is the quest for happiness overrated, i.e. are moral duty and happiness mutually exclusive? Is there an actual duty to do the morally right thing at the expense of happiness?


I was requested to write down some literature I have used that have helped me define or shape my philosophy:

Bentham on the pursuit of happiness; utilitarianism.

Kant and categorial morality, the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human.

Islam and Kant in the importance of intent, rather than consequence or effect, that shape the morality of an action.

Buddhism, or early Buddhist philosophy, on determinism and free-will that describe which choice really constitutes free will and which are simply the satiation of desires.

  • Humanity is a mix of people who, with respect to society at large, have wildly different strategies and morality. I strongly suspect that this diversity is NEEDED, in a wider perspective. I think that even the strongly criminal element is needed for the progress and avoidance of devolution of our species. Discussing this could be fruitful, I think. But it is true that we ADMIRE those who incur personal costs in their fight to help others, and have a more dim view of the criminals and psychos. It's just that, e.g. killing all wolves is not good for the deers in the long run. So on. May 12, 2015 at 19:50

8 Answers 8


Are there any philosophies that share or are similar to my personal philosophy?... Is there an actual duty to do the morally right thing at the expense of happiness?


The philosopher who first occurred to me when I thought about this question was Plato. In The Republic, Plato describes a city in speech to examine "what is just," along with other major ethical (and sometimes metaphysical) questions. To rule this city, he assigns certain particularly educated and wise people called "guardians" to lead over their people and maintain justice with totalitarian authority.

However, Plato points out that these guardians must never be corrupted. Thus, he determines that they must give up all private property and live in community bunkers so that their sole interest is in their people (an obvious parallel with Communism here, just an interesting note). They will have live with no luxury and the bare minimum of supplies. To this declaration, Adeimantus complains:

What would your apology be, Socrates, if someone were to say that you're hardly making these men happy, and further, that it's their own fault—they to whom the city in truth belongs but who enjoy nothing good from the city as do others? (419a)

This is a valid and intuitive complaint to many; even if the guardians have some satisfaction in completing their duty to justice, they still won't be very happy at all. Plato's main rebuttal follows:

In founding the city we are not looking to the exceptional happiness of any one group among us but, as far as possible, that of the city as a whole. (420b, and another parallel - utilitarianism)

Now then, suppose we're fashioning the happy city—a whole city, not setting apart a happy few and putting them in it. We'll consider its opposite presently. Just as if we were painting statues and someone came up and began to blame us, saying that we weren't putting the fairest colors on the fairest parts of the animal—for the eyes, which are fairest, had not been painted purple but black—we would seem to make a sensible apology to him by saying: "You surprising man, don't suppose we ought to paint eyes so fair that they don't even look like eyes, and the same for the other parts; but observe whether, assigning what's suitable to each of them, we make the whole fair. So now too, don't compel to us to attach to the guardians a happiness that will turn them into everything except guardians."(420c-d)

The rest of his argument is similar in style, his point being that happiness can actually drive one away from their duty of doing justice. Guardians that are too happy will be distracted from being guardians and tempted into gratifying themselves. Likewise, all who have the duty to be just must avoid being distracted by happiness.

I think this affirms your question of whether any philosophies are similar to your personal philosophy—Plato makes it pretty apparent that he believes people have a duty to do what is right (what is just, which is equivalent to him) even if it means they won't be very happy, although he does assert that the overall happiness of a city (and by his analogy, the soul) is best when it is just. This does not mean that the just person is always happy. As a matter of fact, he considers the path to justice very difficult, but sort of a happy ending story.


Another philosopher who occurred to me is Nietzsche. His views are similar to yours, but only marginally so because he differs in terms of what one has a duty to. A big theme in Nietzsche is the "will to power" and the "free spirit." He considers the best men to have a free spirit and exert their will to power as a demonstration of their superiority. As a philosopher, Nietzsche values knowledge and truth, although what he means by those terms, some argue, may be a little different from the common interpretation.

Regarding truth itself, Nietzsche says the following in section 39 of Beyond Good and Evil (Part Two, The Free Spirit):

Nobody is very likely to consider a doctrine true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous—except perhaps the lovely "idealists" who become effusive about the good, the true, and the beautiful to allow all kinds of motley, clumsy, and benevolent desiderata to swim around in utter confusion in their pond. Happiness and virtue are no arguments... Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree. Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much "truth" one could still barely endure—or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.

This idea that the truth is often depressing is repeated often by Nietzsche, and something that suffuses his works is his idea that the free spirit is unhappy much more than the normal person. Although there is no mention of moral duty (Nietzsche would probably balk at the idea) or duty of any sense, there is a clear theme that Nietzsche's ideal man is far from happy (although he can experience times of pleasure). This is sort of similar to your personal philosophy, though I admit it seems much less noble (again, not really in Nietzsche's style).


Thomas Hobbes was a political philosopher who is often seen as the successor to Machiavelli; he focused on a practical and effective state as opposed to the ideal utopias of the past. In De Cive, Hobbes set the foundation for his theory of state, from which he determined what would be morally correct:

The Law therefore, in the means to Peace, commands also Good Manners, or the practise of Vertue: And therefore it is call'd Morall. (Chapter III, Article XXXI)

This is an important part of Hobbes' principles (you'd have to read his first three chapters to really get an complete understanding), and in short, it demonstrates how Hobbes considers anything in the pursuit of peace (as opposed to "warre") as moral, and that these pursuits are listed in his "naturall lawes".

Now, the second of these natural laws (derived from the first, which is simply that one must pursue peace or prepare themselves for war if peace is not possible) represents your very question of sacrificing happiness for moral duty:

But one of the Naturall Lawes deriv'd from this fundamentall one is this, That the right of all men, to all things, ought not to be retain'd, but that some certain rights ought to be transferr'd, or relinquisht : ... he therefore acts against the reason of Peace, (i.e.) against the Law of Nature, whosoever he be, that doth not part with his Right to all things. (Chapter II, Article III)

Thus, it is Hobbes' belief (expanded upon in his writings) that it is morally required for us to relinquish some of our rights (specifically, the right to whatever we want) in order to preserve peace. If anything we desire could cause conflict, it is our moral obligation to give up our desire and pursue the greater good of peace.

I think these philosophers would be useful in comparison with your personal ideas.


I feel like this question is somewhat broad and difficult to answer concretely, so I will try to break down a few things for you so you can see that. You ask, "Are moral duty and happiness both achievable?"
My answer is, "Sure, they can be, but it depends on your particular life circumstances." If you were raised in a peaceful part of the world with few conflicts, you could live your entire life in happiness having been morally dutiful as your life required. But if you grew up and lived in a rougher place, which require great personal sacrifice to help those you love, then obviously there is some conflict there. So no, there is no intrinsic conflict, but there is potential conflict.

But it doesn't stop there. Happiness for each person means different things. One of my friends, for example, says all he wants in life is lots of money. He never donates to charities, does not care in the slightest about anything like that, politics, world issues, etc. And he's totally cool with that. Myself, on the other hand, I have a strong desire to help others, to reduce suffering where I can, to make people happy. Doing these things makes me happy, so in the case you describe above, I wouldn't necessarily find the situation to be a "sacrifice", in fact in helping the other person that would fill me with great happiness, to know that I did whatever I could to make someone's life just a little bit better.

So your question does not really have a simple 'yes or no' answer. There are many variables to consider, as you can see, and you'll have to consider these variables on a person to person basis.



Philosophy to be of any value must take root; froom the Analects of Confucious:

Confucious: Junzi works on the root; once the root is planted the dao is born. Filiality and respect for elders are these not the roots of ren?

Where the untranslated terms mean:

Ren - virtue: benevolence, humanness, goodness

Junzi - ethical and capable

Dao - an art, self-perfection

For it to take root, it must be drawn out and that takes work; traditionally, as demonstrated by Platos dialogues and by the Analects this was done by speech; today this is done by books; and by various forms of mass education; less effective because a book cannot interrogate, turn-over and discuss; it doesn't have the form of the dialectic; and mass means dispersal of attention; so ineffective; and substituting instead sociality and gregariousness.

Confucious might be useful in thinking through your concerns; especially when one might re-interpret filiality on terms of community and friendship; and simply not kin. The translation by Robert Eno is done very well; with good and clear commentary.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil was a French philosopher from an assimilated Jewish background who had strong Christian leanings; as a philosopher she leant towards Plato, in the way Keats did 'truth is beauty'; in her book On the need for roots she writes on how modernity as a revolution removes the individual from the thickness of traditional society to a kind of mass anomie; that the future is made up of the past - so unlike the futurists she does not fetid he the future nor technology; she was a Marxist (when Marxism was fashionable amongst the French intellectual elite - her class-mates at the ecole normalien included Beauvoir and Sartre); but she turned away from it by transcended it towards a mystical Platonism.

Her lectures on philosophy (actually notes taken by a student) lean towards truth not in the logical form so successfully leveraged by the positivists; but towards more towards disclosure in the Heideggerian sense; you might find them useful in terms of how philosophy is traditionally concieved in the Western tradition; she has a concept of atarxia (attention) which she theorised on in her book Gravity and Grace:

Attention is the purest form of generosity

and metaxu (separation which paradoxically allows connection); that is distancing is at times the right thing to do; as an aspect of Sorge; to self and others.


Heidegger is famously difficult with a difficult style; but his notions of Sorge (care), Mitsein (being-with) are important in his philosophy; as well as his conception of language not as parole theorised by the semioticions and structuralists as an object of knowledge; but as a house of many mansions; it constitutes the Being of beings; in a way not transparent to us; I've found the commentary by John Tietze most useful.

Hannah Arendt

She was Heideggets protege; and really a political philosopher; but in a much wider-ranging way than would be normally thought; you might find her theory of human action; and differentiating between la vita laborans (life ruled by neccessity) and *la vita activa (the engaged life) useful; she writes about this in her book The Human Condition.


Foucault wrote an essay on 'the technologies of the soul'; where he draws together Greek, Christian and Roman conceptions of rendering the soul visible; you can find this in the third volume Ethics.

Of which a good example are the Meditations of Marcus Aurelios, who later was an emperor of Rome and which renders visible stoicism as an ethical discipline - of which friendship, or philia is an important concern; as is simplicity; it is a life made simple but not bare; it is about work that actually takes work; that is laborious but not la vita laborans - the bare life of neccessity.

Finally to return to the notion of rootlessness the book - *Black Elk Speaks transcribed by the anthropologist Niehardt from Black Elk is a good example in demonstrating what Weil was speaking of.

A much older tradition of thinking through ethical problems is poetry; in Ancient Greece this took the form of tragedy - for example Euripedes Antigone; a more contemporary example is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran which allies itself with the traditional wisdom literature of the Middle East; like that of the Biblical proverbs.

And good luck.

In the niche of the night, your lamp

And I rowing taking soundings in the dark.


Many philosophers have spoken on the necessity of a certain level of self-sacrifice to moral duty. However, to take that point of view, it is important to distinguish between self-indulgence and happiness. Let us consider Plato. In his system, the highest happiness is to do the right thing --and as it happens, that door is often only opened through forgoing lesser pleasures.

This is also a strong strain in Christian theology. True joy is found in service to God and humanity, the fact that this may bring about physical pain or death is insignificant in comparison. Similarly, in Islam, true happiness is absolute submission to God.

If you do the right thing, it may bring some discomforts and difficulties, but if it brings you misery instead of happiness, it may be that you are misunderstanding or misconstruing your moral duties --at least from such a perspective.

  • Does Plato say, "that door is often only opened through forgoing lesser pleasures"? I remember something like, "be a good man in order to live (or have) a good life", but ... does he say anything about foregoing lesser pleasures?
    – ChrisW
    May 12, 2015 at 21:40
  • 1
    @ChrisW That phrase is not a quote, but the entire theme of the Republic is how pursuit of pleasure does not lead to happiness and can in fact destroy it. May 13, 2015 at 0:34
  • Thank you for the reference. I had only read the Symposium which says e.g. (quoting Diotima ), "the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things". But you're right in that it also says that people should prefer "fair (i.e. beautiful) practices" to "fair forms", and "fair notions" over "fair practices", and a "notion of the essence of beauty", "a life lived in contemplation of absolute beauty".
    – ChrisW
    May 13, 2015 at 7:37

Buddhism, or early Buddhist philosophy

To try to answer from a Buddhist perspective:

  • Morality is important, but basic morality is usually defined as "Not to do evil"
  • Kindness and compassion are important but so is your own equanimity
  • "Skillful virtues" have "freedom from remorse" as their purpose and reward (and then "freedom from remorse" has "joy", etc.)
  • Lasting happiness is difficult to attain
  • What you say to people can be helpful but there's a limited extent to which you can help another: people purify (or enlighten) themselves.

Even though it caused a nervous breakdown and that my own depression has worsened over the many months in trying to deal with hers, I believe it is my duty not to distance myself, even if I notice my own quality of life worsening. It's simply the right thing to do.

The title of the question is "are both achievable?" but by the end of the question you're asking whether they're mutually exclusive.

Can you help and maintain (not 'instead of maintaining') your own happiness?

Your question sounds a bit like, "My friend is drowning and I'm not very good at swimming; am I morally obliged to drown too?"

A lifeguard is taught to save people without drowning themselves. That can't continue to help if they drown too!

Professional counsellors and doctors too have a certain detachment as well as compassion.

Can you remain close (helpful) without becoming 'attached'? Can you remain happy, or retain equanimity, or at least learn how to always regain your equanimity after whenever you lose it? Can you change the equation somehow: persuade your friends to swim for themselves, call a professional lifeguard for them, throw them a flotation aid, instead of simply drowning yourself?


Note: I'm treating virtue and ethics as synonyms here....

Is there a philosophy that counsels ethical behavior, even at personal expense? Many philosophies that stress altruism do this -- Stoicism, Buddhism and Cynicism come to mind. Specifically, Buddhism has the concept of the Bodhisattva.

Are moral duty and happiness incompatible? Not necessarily. If one's moral duty is a condition for one's happiness, then they are compatible. This isn't a vacuous reduction; this is Stoicism's strategy. Here is a quote from the IEP:

The Stoics held that virtue is the only real good and so is both necessary and, contrary to Aristotle, sufficient for happiness; it in no way depends on luck.

Is there an actual duty to do the morally right thing at the expense of happiness? If by this you mean to ask if moral codes require us to observe them, even if they make us unhappy, then I think the answer is yes. In fact, very often, morality is opposed to (certain) things that people think will make them happy. How many moral codes deal with temptations? How many deal with things few care about? Why would you need a rule prohibiting things people don't want to do or requiring things people want to do?

  • I disagree with your last paragraph: "the right thing at the expense of happiness" implies you ought to be good and miserable, whereas in truth perhaps you ought to be good and happy. As for your last question "why would I want to act immorally" a possible answer to that is "ignorance: you want to act immorally because you don't know better, e.g. you don't know how to be good and happy."
    – ChrisW
    May 12, 2015 at 21:07
  • @ChrisW I read the question differently as not implying that morality would lead to misery, but should be pursued even if it led to misery. I'll update my answer to reflect that. Also, I would think that ignorance should be treated as qualitatively different as it isn't an intention that can be consciously opposed to morality like happiness can. Still, I think I may have overstated with "greatest". Edits coming, thanks for the comment!
    – R. Barzell
    May 13, 2015 at 13:37
  • In the context of the question my answer was along the lines of, "you're unable to be moral (e.g. to be a helpful role model to someone who's depressed) if you're unhappy." So asking either/or is the wrong question: perhaps, in this case, you have to be both or neither.
    – ChrisW
    May 13, 2015 at 13:55

In general, others have pointed out nothing prevents happiness to come with moral duty fulfillment. On the other side, we pick up a life risk to analyze, other kinds of risks vary at great scales and should not be treated the same. To risk someone's life to perform moral duties is counter-intuitive and counter-instinct. It roots from the question: what is/are more (valuable) than a life? An easy answer might be "many lives are"!!! Hang on a minute, are you serious? Based on what metric system or criteria? are those many lives of the same kind of the referenced life and how same? who is/are the judge?... such kind of questions will push the initiator back at the wall with noway out. Life is the most complicated concept in any areas of study. Therefore to discuss or make statements about it requires a lot more than just a few quotes.


Many Eastern and Western philosophers alike would argue that the key to happiness is found in a very individual and personal balance between chaos and order, between freedom and responsibility, between indulgence and abstinence, between flexibility and rigidity, between beauty and ugliness, ...

What makes this balance both complex and ironic, is that these opposites as somewhat illusionary concepts and tend to be entwined in fractal patterns. What that means, is that that which makes us happiest and that which makes us the least happy are typically the same thing, but with slightly different parameters.

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