G. E. M. Anscombe criticizes the following happiness principle of utility in Modern Moral Philosophy as an adequate judgement for moral behavior (midway, page 7 of the link):

"The greatest happiness principle ought to be employed in all decisions."

This made me wonder whether the happiness principle of utility really is a good thing? How would we learn without some pain? How would anything change if we were always happy with the way things were, if the greatest happiness principle were attainable?

Stephen Nathanson writes this about utilitarianism:

Utilitarians believe that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness).

He further explains what utilitarians believe about suffering and unhappiness:

Likewise, on the negative side, a lack of food, friends, or freedom is instrumentally bad because it produces pain, suffering, and unhappiness; but pain, suffering and unhappiness are intrinsically bad, i.e. bad in themselves and not because they produce some further bad thing.

But are suffering and unhappiness "intrinsically bad" if they motivate improvements? That is the motivation for my question. Perhaps unhappiness is also a principle of utility.

What moral philosopher explores various unhappiness principles as good? I would like to read a philosophical account of such a perspective, so a reference would be useful.

References from comments:

Other references found indirectly from the above sources:

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    Eugene Thacker comes to mind...
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 19:22
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    Motivating improvements does not contradict "intrinsically bad", it just means that expected utility down the road can outweigh the bad. Making unhappiness into the utility would mean pursuing unhappiness for its own sake, not for motivating something else. This does not quite apply even to Sacher-Masoch, and moral masochism is considered more in the medical literature, see e.g. Depression and Moral Masochism by Markson.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 22:37
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    I doubt you will find notable philosophers openly endorsing what is still largely seen as a disorder or perversion. But see Trigg's Pain and Emotion, and Hookom's 2011 dissertation on the ethical significance of pain.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 22:37
  • @Conifold Hookom's thesis was exactly what I was hoping to find. Thanks. Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 10:58
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    The Perennial philosophy takes the view of unhappiness you describe. Without it we would be in the position of the gods and never have the motivation to escape life and death. A problem arises for your idea that pain is the opposite of happiness, however, since for the skilled practitioner of Yoga pain would not affect happiness. They seek the cessation of suffering but this is not the end of pain, just the end of our ownership of it, and in the end both happiness and unhappiness are transcended, This view does not see suffering as intrinsically bad or even intrinsically real. . . .
    – user20253
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 12:45

1 Answer 1


Goodness, Aristotle defines as that beyond ends. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/)

Suffering is not intrinsically bad, as it doesn't always hinder or prevent the Good, that is, the fulfillment of Man. As man is a composite being, both of matter and form, and as the spirit is the form of the body, it is Good for man to suffer if doing so is Good for his soul, which is superior.

However, unhappiness, if taken as the opposite of happiness, which is Good, as defined by Aristotle, is intrinsically evil. If, however, it is taken as simply the emotion of being unhappy, it is not intrinsically evil for an unhappy-feeling person can still gain the Good.

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas have explored the nature of Good, Evil, and Suffering in their works in the realist tradition, most notably, Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle and the Summa Theologica by Aquinas.


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