I think most people intuitively agree that increasing their own well-being and minimizing their own suffering are the right things to do. Everyone wants to be happy, enjoy a good health, etc. The whole Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a thing for a reason. Some would go one step further and claim that not only our own well-being matters, but others' well-being matters too (thus supporting moral obligations toward other conscious beings, altruistic behavior, etc.). But in any case, the pursuit of well-being and the avoidance of suffering always appear to be at the core of any moral/ethical system if scrutinized deeply enough. Even a religious person who wants to go to Heaven and escape eternity in Hell could be said to be rationally justified in their preference based on the fact that Heaven will maximize their well-being and minimize their suffering, whereas Hell would be the polar opposite of that.

However, all of this relies on a fundamental axiom or premise, and that is that pursuing well-being and avoiding suffering are fundamentally good things to begin with. Are there any good reasons to assume that? Why not maximize suffering and minimize well-being instead (in which case "going to Hell" would be the optimum)? Are there objective reasons to consider the pursuit of well-being and the avoidance of suffering to be the right things to do?

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    In my opinion, the highest moral good is truth: we should act to maximize and promote knowledge of important, true ideas, and refute false ones. This is why sapient beings have a greater moral value than non-sapient beings. Suffering in pursuit of the truth is no loss. If we had a "mindless pleasure machine" that could provide lifelong pleasure to anyone using it, it would be harmful and immoral, because it would prevent people from using their lives to seek truth.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 21:07
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    All knowledge is built on certain basic intuitions/axioms that are unprovable. My personal take is that we have a basic intuition that there's badness associated with suffering and goodness with lack of suffering. I'd classify this as knowledge of morality. I can't prove this axiom. Though I might be inclined to argue that all "moral talk" is meaningless without this basic idea. Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 21:15
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    The answer depends on whether one believes in moral objectivism (the most common form is moral realism), i.e. whether moral claims can be objective at all. Many do not believe they can, but see Cuneo's Normative Web for an influential recent defense. Even if they can, "suffering" is an emotional category, and it is unclear that "sentient beings" must necessarily have emotions, so reducing it may not even be universally meaningful.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 7:28
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    "objectively good" is nonsense, "good" and "bad" are inherently subjective (like "ugly" but unlike "tall" or "straight" or "wet")
    – Haukinger
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 8:55
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    Whereas I mostly agree that "Everyone wants to be happy, enjoy a good health, etc.", I do not accept that "most people intuitively agree that increasing their own well-being and minimizing their own suffering are the right things to do." Self-sacrifice is very widely viewed as a virtue, and is very widely practiced to one degree or another. We tend to view people who seek only their own good as dangerous, and maybe mentally ill. Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 13:03

7 Answers 7


In the proposition IX, part III of Ethics, Spinoza operates the following reversal of concepts: it is not because we judge that something is good that we desire that thing, but it is because we desire it that we judge it to be good.

In Spinoza's philosophy, our judgement as well as our actions are entirely determined, based on what information and experience is available to us in the moment. The desire for a thing or state comes first, and it is by getting conscious of this desire that we form an opinion about their goodness or badness.

It also happens that living beings tend to desire what will keep them alive. It is self explanatory: all living creatures who didn't strive to stay alive just disappeared long time ago. Spinoza had no concept of evolution, but scientific findings long after his death corroborate his intuitions. The goal of this effort toward what keeps us alive is what you call "wellbeing".

The same reasoning can be applied to reducing suffering: our bodies tend to suffer under circumstances that threaten our health and life. Living beings who don't feel pain or feel it out of context tend to not avoid dangerous situations and die prematurely. This is where the prevalence of this instinct of pain avoidance comes from.

So, we desire well-being and dread suffering because this kept our species in the race for natural selection. And because we desire them, we assign them the label of "good", or conversely we assign the label "bad" to what we dread.

  • If you could choose between living forever in Heaven or living forever in Hell, which one would you choose? Both options are equal in terms of chances of survivability (you get eternal life in both cases), so you cannot differentiate them based on that aspect. Which one would you choose and why?
    – user48437
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 1:52
  • I happen to be a living being that just does not like to suffer, a bias inherited by my long ancestry of other living beings who survived thanks to it. So yeah, I would chose not to suffer even if I was immortal, because I simply don't like it. Now, nor heaven nor hell nor immortality exist as far as we know, so the question does not make a lot of sense.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 2:18
  • "So yeah, I would chose not to suffer even if I was immortal, because I simply don't like it" - great, but would your preference for eternal bliss over eternal suffering be objectively justified? If in both cases there is perfect survivability, how can you objectively determine that one option is better than the other?
    – user48437
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 2:48
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    It would probably be a mere preference of mine, though my pain would be real, so choose not to endure it would objectively make sense to anyone, I guess. Again, this question's premice is so removed from reality that it just does not make sense to ask it. If we were totally not the person we are, our perspective on things would be different. So what ?
    – armand
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 3:10
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Given that we evolved in a world where an environment similar to that of hell would being lethal, the answer is clearly that anyone would choose to live somewhere other than where the worm dieth not and the fire is never quenched. If we evolved in a world where the heat of fire had no impact on survival, then there'd be no reason to avoid a place like hell.
    – forest
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 3:35

Maximising wellbeing and avoiding suffering are just subjective heuristics required for evolution of replicating genes. A great deal of research shows things like having a job with autonomy is more important than higher pay, that a meaningful life connected to others is far more important than pleasure or suffering. We can relate moral progress to going beyond pleasure & pain as guides, and many philosophers do, like Aristotle's model of supervening layers of soul with uniquely human capacities supervening on our animal natures.

We might look to the value of living in a just society, as consistently being more important than personal wellbeing, to see how things like game-theory dynamics weigh heavier than momentary local or individual subjective measures of approval. Defining wellbeing requires a moral cosmology, to decide for instance whether access to abortions is a net positive or negative. That kind of fundamental dispute shows how wellbeing cannot be a guide, but is rather a value judgement in our wider picture of the world.

You might find this discussion relevant Is the foundation of morality subjectively survival and happiness, and why or why not?


In light of your pre-assumed objective/subjective philosophical view, there're possibly several schools of thought to account for what's "good" for a person or a species. There's evolutionary naturalism or physicalism which suggests what's good for the person or as a species will be preserved and prevailed naturally, what's "bad" will be filtered out gradually and eventually. There's also idealism which may claim there's an ultimate creator who designs and creates all "good" properties immanent within any beings, and all those "good" aspects will unfold and manifest itself as time passes. If somehow the manifestation gets mistaken and confused by other factors, then it may not be "good", but its intrinsic designs will monitor and get this gradually and eventually in all perceived beings, such as those formulated by Leibniz's Monadology. Anyway, in all these classic views, we're quite confident to some degrees about what's "good", and what's "not good", at least in principle.

Some schools of thought may not accept your objective/subjective dualist view, and "good" and "suffering" are not opposite. In many religions, "suffering" is inevitable and universal, what's "good" may also be a type of "suffering". If you mainly accept subjective consciousness like Yogacara or Phenomenology, then "good" and "suffering" are both self-intuitive and innate characters, because here what can be discussed are only subjective phenomena. Just like in a dream, you can feel "good" and "suffering" there without any difficulty, just much weaker with much less free will (volition) compared with when awakened.

As for the application of quantum physics related philosophy, it may be more useful for philosophy of science or the like, may not fit to apply to ethics or personal suffering realm...


Your question answers itself. Well-being implies the presence of goodness before anything else; asking if the pursuit of well-being is good is like asking if I will feel pain if I hurt myself.

But linguistics aside.

however, all of this relies on a fundamental axiom or premise, and that is, that pursuing well-being and avoiding suffering are fundamentally good things to begin with.

Your problems begin even earlier. You can not objectively define what 'good' is supposed to mean. What hell is going to be like for you is dependent on you and nothing else. Perhaps you are suffering from a raging fear of spiders and your hell consists of being forced to live among tarantulas galore. An arachnologist will see things differently.

But in any case, the pursuit of well-being and the avoidance of suffering always appear to be at the core of any moral/ethical system if scrutinized deeply enough

What is suffering? What is ethical? Should we permit euthanasia? The reason such questions are loaded with enormous tensions is that they are ultimately unsolvable. What is well-being for one person will be a state of horrendous confinement for another.

What to make of it? Depends on you no less. At such a basic level, an answer will not be a lot more intellectual than that. You have to decide for yourself what the pursuit of well-being and the reduction of suffering may look like in action. But perhaps the more interesting question will be how you arrived at such conviction.


It is impossible to know what is "objectively good", because that would imply having the absolute truths required for something.

If something is good because it increases our probabilities of survival, then, "objectively good" implies knowing the absolute truths required to survive, which is impossible: all living beings follow its own subjective truths in order to survive, not an objective truth that is absolute and written somewhere in the universe.

It is only possible to have some truth as "subjectively good". Something that is good for one living being could be bad for another. For example, if lions would try to eat grass for survival, they would probably die. Each living being follows its own subjective truths.

You might argument that good is not related to survival. No problem. In such case, you can consider that killing people is good for the well-being of killers, but not for the well-being of buddist monks.

"The right things" are usually rules that people learn at home; that is, moral rules. And those are cultural, not absolute. Some cultures consider good to sacrifice animals, others consider animals sacred. Again, there's only possibility for "subjectively good".


Oxford Languages (Philosophy) defines 'objective' as, "Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual".

If this definition is accurate, how can anything be objectively good or bad?

As far as we know, 'goodness' and 'badness' are mental constructs, entirely dependent on the mind.

One might be tempted to argue that whilst 'good' and 'bad' are human concepts, they manifest in the real world, in the absence of the language we give to them; but even if 'good' and 'bad' are equated with sensations like pleasure and pain, minds are required to experience them.


Intuitively well-being and happiness are good things. If we are going to say that something else is more important then we would need to identify what that is and justify why it’s more important.

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    Why should we trust our intuition? Quantum mechanics is arguably one of the least intuitive things we've discovered. Should we dismiss it because of that? But anyways, think of these two alternatives: 1) maximize well-being and 2) maximize suffering. Why would you say that 1 is objectively more important than 2?
    – user48437
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 19:23
  • At the risk of going off on a tangent, I suggest that quantum physics only seems non-intuitive because we are first taught about Newtonian physics. Back on track though, what is important could be considered to be either objective, in which case we can determine what’s best and put the matter to rest, or subjective, in which case we can assert that our intuition is correct and the best thing is the one that we like the most.
    – Frog
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 19:37
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator, QM builds on certain basic mathematical intuitions which are unproveable... we take them as axioms and move on. QM may be "counter-intuitive" but that is a different type of intuition. So there are two types of intuitions... the very basic one that is somehow impossible to deny... and higher level intuitions which may be denied. Although we may find QM counter-intuitive other people may not. Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 21:20
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator, maximize suffering and you will die. People who maximize suffering tend to be naturally selected out, and those who maximize well being stay alive. That's an objective fact. Then after millions of years of this selection process being applied to animal instincts, we tend to see it as a natural, instinctive truth without really knowing why.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 1:02
  • @armand - that would be an inductive argument based on correlation, but a robot without consciousness is incapable of experiencing well-being or suffering, so well-being doesn't even enter into the picture if the goal is to maximize a robot's survivability. Or conversely, you could imagine a situation where a person never dies (perfect survivability) but is constantly tortured (e.g. someone tortured eternally in hell). You get eternal survivability, yet maximum suffering.
    – user48437
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 1:33

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